Domestic rabbits require commitment, compassion and creativity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


Not many would deny rabbits are cute little furry creatures, and being undeniably adorable has made the domestic or European rabbit a popular pet worldwide. But bringing home a bunny isn't as simple as going thump-thump-thump.

'People see that rabbits are easy pets to have, especially for children,' says animal behaviourist and veterinarian Cynthia Smillie at Animal Behaviour Veterinary Practice.

'It's also a good way of introducing pets into the family, but not an easy option at all. A rabbit isn't a little furry thing that you stick in a cage.'

The veterinarian adds Thumpers are friendly, curious and intelligent animals that usually live from seven to 10 years, with some breeds living up to 15 years. 'It's a commitment - a long-lived animal not like a gerbil or guinea pig. It's something you really do have to think about before you get one,' asserts Smillie.

According to Smillie, many owners don't realise the commitment involved in caring for a rabbit. 'Rabbits become quickly abandoned for much of the same reasons as other animals - the cost of time and children lose interest pretty quickly,' she says. 'Rabbits can also have a number of behavioural problems that people don't realise.'

As rabbits are a prey species, hunted and eaten by a slew of predators in the wild, these long-eared animals possess acute senses in their eyes, ears and nose, and they are 'hard-wired to respond in a fearful way.'

Rabbits have only been domesticated for the past 100 years, says Smillie, unlike cats and dog that have been pets for thousands of years.

'They are not domestic pets, and their behaviour hasn't changed much.' Therefore, rabbits require gentle handling to avoid unwanted stress, she says, adding that stress can manifest itself in a number of ways - obesity, aggression, shyness, hiding away and compulsive behaviour such as over grooming, destructive behaviour, lack of vitality, poor appetite and body tension.

When opening the cage door, says Smillie, experiments have shown a human hand resembles the outline of a bird of prey, causing rabbits to feel extremely threatened. 'Make sure you don't dive in and yank your rabbit out [of its cage],' she says. 'They have such high senses in danger, a lot of noise can be very disturbing, so children have to be taught to handle them very gently and with respect.'

Some common complaints by rabbit owners, adds the animal behaviourist, are digging and chewing in the home.

She says rabbits dig burrows in the wild and they need to replicate that behaviour in their regular routine; chewing the cage or electrical wires comes from the natural behaviour of chewing through tree roots when they are digging holes, and spraying urine is a way of communicating to other rabbits through scent.

'We have to look at this behaviour and allow them to do so in an appropriate way,' advises Smillie. 'We tend to stick rabbits in a small cage and take them out periodically. And if they do get let out in the apartment, they walk around on a tile floor where [owners] can clean up easily. But rabbits may not be able to cope with the slippery tiles, people need to give them environmental enrichment.'

An easy way of providing an exercise area is to use the exercise fencing panels that are sold for dogs. This also allows the owner to keep the rabbit away from furniture, electrical cables or toxic items.

To share some top tips for having a happy hopper, Smillie recommends feeding it mainly hay, grasses, leaves and herbs that will take longer to consume than pellets. 'Most people rely on pellets, but rabbits eat them too quickly. Then what are they supposed to do with the rest of their day?'. Sticks that can be bought at pet shops are also suitable for chewing.

Second, give your bunny room to move around and jump in and outside of the cage.

Smillie says confining a rabbit to a cage can lead to obesity, inflammation of the feet caused by sitting in a damp or dirty environment, poor bone density or muscle tone, disorders of the urinary and gastrointestinal tract and behavioural problems which can include lethargy, aggression, compulsive chewing of cage bars or destructive behaviour.

Third, mental and physical stimulation is a must. Rabbits are clever and can learn a variety of tricks. 'They can be taught with a clicker, like fetch, going through tunnels, climbing up ramps and navigating agility courses. They can be a lot of fun,' says Smillie. Another time-filler is providing different toys throughout the week, some as simple as a paper bag filled with hay and herbs.

Finally, any opportunity to forage and dig makes for a contented pet. Without a proper outlet, rabbits can start to have behavioural problems, aggression issues and stress.

'Aggression sometimes is the only way [to indicate something is wrong],' explains Smillie. 'If the animal is feeling threatened, they can bite, scratch, struggle or withdraw. Some people think a shyness makes their rabbit easier to handle, but withdrawal can be a symptom of stress.'