The other day a friend told me she thought her pre-schooler was ready for a pet. She asked me what my thoughts were on a rabbit.
“Well,” I said, “what appeals about a rabbit?”
The answer was entirely expected, one I’ve have heard many times before – and entirely misinformed.

Most people I speak to considering a rabbit as a ‘beginner pet’ have similar motivations. They’re less expensive to purchase than a purebred dog or cat. They require less maintenance. There’s less of a chance they’ll injure a child. But they’re still cuddly and cute, and will provide the interactive pet experience the owner is seeking. All of which… is pretty far from the truth.

Generally, bunnies don’t like being picked up and held off the ground. They like to be able to make a quick exit at the sniff of danger, and this is difficult from a height. The best way to encourage interaction is to sit on the floor and let them come to you. They also have powerful back legs and a delicate skeletal structure: their fright response is to kick out strongly with those legs, which can cause a nasty scratch to a human and even worse, result in severe spinal injury and paralysis to the rabbit. So if you’re looking for a placid, docile pet that will love being picked up, carried around and plonked at various locations by a small child, a rabbit may not be the best option.

Having said that, bunnies are quite social animals and when introduced to human interaction early, gently and in a positive manner, they can be affectionate little companions.

As prey animals, rabbits have an extraordinary capacity to make themselves inconspicuous. It’s the exceptional rabbit that’s going to demand a walk or harass you until he’s fed. They are also masters of hiding illness (a sick rabbit is easy prey). I think this is why their needs are often misunderstood and they can end up neglected.

A wild bunny’s day is predominately consumed by – well, consumption. Their diet is very high fibre and consists mostly of grass. This requirement for high fibre means that most pelleted diets are not suitable for long term nutrition. While their diet can be supplemented with pellets, meals should consists mostly of fresh grass or grass hay and leafy greens (spinach, kale etc). If you thought you could just keep a bin of pellets and pop them in the enclosure every day, think again. Time will need to be spent preparing the right type of food and ensuring access to fresh clean water. Dental care is vital too as a rabbit’s teeth grow throughout life, so they’ll need things to gnaw to avoid issues, like blocks of untreated wood.

Like cats and dogs, I would always recommend a pet rabbit is desexed. As well as making sure you don’t end up with more bunnies than planned, this can also reduce the risk of certain cancers and some less desirable behaviours. Plus, then you can keep more than one bunny – which is a great idea, as they do love company! They’ll also need vaccinations and medical attention if they show changes in appetite, toileting issues, listlessness or other signs.

Keeping bunnies safe means taking a few precautions.

Danger comes in many guises. Predators (including dogs and cats), mosquitoes (which can spread potentially fatal disease), power cords (so nice to chew!) and weather (extremes of hot and cold) all need to be considered. Make sure they can’t nibble anything dangerous and have places to hide if they feel threatened, just as they would in a burrow. You’ll also need to litter train them, but luckily, this isn’t too hard.

I’ve met some delightful bunnies in my time, including one who would seek out a toy pram for a ride, and another who apparently loved to see the world from the vantage point of a bicycle basket. But I’ve also met many who’ve had pretty ordinary lives just because people have misunderstood their needs.

Perfect pet? Yes, bunnies can be. Just make sure you do your research.

by Simone Maher, the Baxta Vet