At first glance, children and baby bunnies seem to make an endearing couple. Rabbits are frequently given as soft cuddly gifts during the springtime, especially around Easter. However, though it may sound like a perfect combination, rabbits and children often do not do well together. Until your children are old enough to understand the responsibilities involved in caring for a live creature, you may want to consider a stuffed bunny instead of the real thing.
Injuries and Behavior
Rabbits are often injured by children dropping them, or stepping or falling on them. Despite being popular springtime gifts, shelter workers find they are the most returned pet after Easter, the holiday that promotes the adorable cuddly bunny. What parents don't realize is this cute cuddly baby begins to sexually mature at four months of age, and he begins the destructive behaviors of adolescence: biting, spraying, not wanting to be held, squirming out of the child's hand. Shelters and rabbit rescue organizations see a remarkable increase in rabbits brought in from August through January following Easter, every year, many injured by youngsters.
Young children do not understand the change in a maturing rabbit's behavior. All young kids know is they want a pet they can cuddle and hold. With bunnies, the cuddly image that is promoted is not reality. Rabbits are independent creatures, and once adults, need to be spayed or neutered and respected as the ground-loving, independent animals they are. As they get older, they want to be held and carried less. Rabbits are "crepuscular," meaning they are like deer – most active at dawn and dusk, preferring to sleep during the sunny part of the day and play in the early morning or evening. Children, just home from school, or in a classroom, try to wake the rabbit in his "burrow" and often get bitten because that time is his sleep time. This misunderstanding results in the parent or teacher not taking the rabbit out daily for his much-needed exercise. The rabbit, now caged too long, develops even more resentment and acts even more aggressively.
Rabbits do not like their "home" to be a classroom Monday to Friday, and another child's home for the weekend. They need a stable, secure environment. Rabbits can get stressed and sick in transport from the classroom to various homes. Classroom rabbits are often the ones to have the shortest lives. Children get busy and neglect the bunny, or do not feed the proper diet (i.e., plenty of hay, fresh greens, etc.), and do not let the bunny out for enough exercise. Also, one rabbit may have 25 children handling him incorrectly, and this is very risky and stressful for the bunny. Additionally, what happens when the bunny gets sick? Who pays for the vet visits, or who is willing to? Children soon lose interest in the bunny, and rarely does the teacher have the time to clean, feed, and provide the necessary care and exercise, as well as any medical attention. Many teachers think it is safe to leave their classroom bunnies over the weekend, only to find some do not survive on the food left, or succumbed to illnesses not noticed. Rabbits cannot be left for more than a day without a caregiver.
Bunnies are susceptible to various illnesses, and unless keenly watched by an adult, by the time the bunny has stopped eating, it may be too late. Bunnies need to be observed for signs of hair blocks (eating much less, wanting only treats, droppings getting very small), or signs of bacterial infections (runny eyes, nose, increased sneezing, wheezing), and even more serious immediate problems such as bladder stones (straining, bloody urine, crying while in litter box). The last is the most serious and usually requires immediate surgery. This is often out of the question for parents of small children or teachers who tell us they cannot afford the hundreds of dollars to opt for surgery. Sadly, too many bunnies are dumped into the wild, put there by owners who thought the wild would be better than surrendering the unwanted bunny to a shelter or a humane society. However, 90 percent are doomed to certain death (i.e., cars, predators, rapid temperature changes, bacterial infections picked up from the ground). A shelter is so much more humane than ever just letting animals go free.
Many parents and teachers buy a hutch and place the bunny outside, or buy a cage way too small. A rabbit needs to be kept indoors if at all possible, with temperatures around 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit being ideal. Indoors is much safer, as outdoor hazards kill so many bunnies each year, hazards such as raccoons and other predators, wet, cold weather, unnoticed illnesses, and hot summer sun. The cage bottom needs to be covered with thick newspaper or sea grass mats, or cushy straw to get the rabbit's feet off the cage wire to prevent hock sores. Many folks do not take the time to read up on the requirements for a bunny, nor do they realize the expense involved in keeping a rabbit.
Can a Rabbit as a Pet Ever Work?
The times a rabbit and child relationship will work is if the adult is the primary caregiver, the person feeding, cleaning, and supervising the rabbit every single day. The parent at home must want the rabbit as his/her own, and not allow the bunny to be the child's responsibility. Children who work well with rabbits are those who have been brought up with smaller pets prior to the lagomorph, like hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs, and who have proven to be responsible with them. Children who are willing to approach a rabbit on his terms, that is allowing the rabbit his sleep time during the day, letting him approach on his terms, and not forcing the bunny to be picked up, have the best chance of developing a positive relationship with their rabbit.
Parents and teachers please note: Make sure your child is not allergic to a bunny before ever considering one. Too many times folks find out too late, and the bunny is then returned. Secondly, make sure to read up on rabbit care and feeding; talk to folks who have house rabbits, rescue folks like the House Rabbit Society. Most shelters and rescue groups encourage parents to wait until the child is at least 10 years old. Classroom rabbits are usually always discouraged due to the inconsistent care they get, holidays when the school is closed, and the medical expenses/costs of bunnies in general.
It is best to be prepared for any animal first to save you, your child, and your pet unnecessary heartache.