Every year around this time it’s the same thing. Easter Eggs begin to line the shelves of the supermarkets along with cute plush and chocolate rabbits, and with those little and hoppy toys many children begin to get ideas. “Dad, can we have a bunny?”
I see social media light up with photos of adorable little baby bunnies, of children holding them gleefully with pride, people talking of their children’s wishes and inklings of giving in and – one which makes me want to fucking scream, – pet stores displaying their package offers. For some time now I’ve wanted to try and write something which covers their needs in detail as well as the realities of keeping rabbits and the challenges they present.
I know people getting rabbits around Easter might not seem too ridiculous to most people beyond ‘you shouldn’t get a pet on a whim’, and that it seems silly to get frustrated at children happy with pets, but with rabbits comes extra layers of concern. Bunnies are one of the most misrepresented animals, and a hell of a lot of people go to get one without having a single clue what the hell they’re getting themselves into.
Bunnies aren’t cheap pets that you just buy a hutch for and then just have basic little costs going along with bags of bedding and feed. They have very complex needs that most, after the initial cuteness of them being tiny little kits wears off and they grow, just aren’t willing to fulfil. It leads to a lot of animals living short, unhealthy, and miserable lives where they’re neglected. What’s most concerning is that many people don’t even realise they’re doing this to them, or what a rabbit’s needs and lives are supposed to be like. Hell, I’ve seen a lot who don’t even understand their diet and exercise needs.
Rabbits are Britain’s most neglected pet, with ones bought in the run up to Easter commonly not making it past a year old. Part of this is considered to be down to mistreatment and part down to poor breeding, where pet stores (looking at you here, Pets at Home) stock up before Easter ready for the influx of customers. 1 year… That’s just 10% of a rabbit’s life expectancy, though I’ve seen many who perpetuate the idea they only live until 2 or 3 since that’s what a lot do end up surviving for. My husband and I can both think of and name over 10 people each who’ve had rabbits who, without doubt in hindsight, have had rabbits die far too young due to poor care.
Many people will even just let them out into the wild once their children no longer pay attention to them, which consigns them to death due to the amount of wild traits being bred out of them leading to them being incapable of surviving.
In 2011, it was estimated that of the roughly two million rabbits kept as pets in Britain, 75% of them suffered neglected and/or mistreatment. That’s a whopping 1.5 MILLION rabbits being poorly kept, or to put it another way, every 3 out of 4 being consigned to misery. The article I have linked there is worth reading for an understanding of the sheer enormity of the problem beyond just those numbers alone. 60% were unaware that rabbits are social and intelligent creatures who need mental stimulation, which is the idea that leaves rabbits left alone in hutches with nothing to do , and around 75% of rabbits seen by vets were in poor health. Poor diet and exercise having led to overgrown and rotting teeth, overgrown claws impairing walking, and obesity. It’s a wonder some rabbits do make it to 2 years with the situations they’re kept in.
They also cost as much as a dog to keep beyond the initial costs, which are steep in themselves. Almost all of the hutches and cages that you’ll find in pet shops like Pets at Home and Jollyes are actually unsuitable to keep rabbits in, contrary to the ‘Ideal for rabbits!’ labels. The majority of rabbits in the UK are kept in housing that they really should not be in. A minimum size (6ft x 2ft x 2ft – RWAF) hutch will set you back a bare minimum of around £100 and, if you’re keeping it indoors (which is largely considered preferable), you’ll need to throw in a lot more to make it suitable for indoor living, as well as spending time and money rabbit proofing your home itself.
Inside or out, it needs to have an area that is closed off, allowing the little guy somewhere to hide from perceived threats and make things more comfortable. If you do end up keeping a rabbit outside, as many do, having a fully wire-sided hutch can lead to exposure in bad weather, to cold, or to predators. All of these, as with so many things with them, can be fatal.
A hutch alone is never, ever enough, either. Too many rabbits bought in the run up to Easter essentially live their entire lives beyond the first month in a hutch, alone. Exercise plays an enormously large part in keeping rabbits healthy. This is true of almost any animal, but with rabbits often being kept in unsuitable conditions it’s a massive black mark on our collective keeping of them. Obesity, gas, and slowing gut can come with poor diet but poor exercise too. They need the space and time to run around. If you keep them in a little box, or let them into a small run for a few hours a day they’re not going to be able to do the things they normally would to keep happy and healthy. To give it the space it needs to run about, leaving a rabbit in an open garden might sound quite idyllic, but you’d have to watch it the whole time to prevent predators from getting to your newly beloved pet. It would need to be a garden free of all plants that can kill them – which is a hefty list, make sure it’s completely secured to prevent escape and, if they have a penchant for burrowing, some way to stop them getting out like that too.
It’s all well and good thinking that a run with a wire base may help solve the issue but wire bases should be avoided where possible. In the young it can cause splayed feet and in all buns it puts them at risk of sore hocks which can lead to infection.
Runs that are large enough and have enclosed shelter are around the same price as a hutch, but you’ll also need to take into consideration that again, shelter to hide away and keep from the elements, and digging their way out may be an issue. The cheapest of runs tend not to be the most secure against predators either, with flimsy wire and easily broken frames.
I mention the need for shelter again because it’s really very important. If your rabbit encounters something like a fox and is stressed out enough by the experience, it can kill them. The animal doesn’t even have to do anything, terror felt by a rabbit is enough to trigger an extreme physical response. Not only is there a risk of shock in circumstances they take as being extreme, but there can be after effects like GI stasis or other gastric problems. Even if a rabbit seems okay after an encounter, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are. They have very sensitive digestive tracts and them slowing down or stopping can very easily and quickly turn deadly.
Exposure to water can be equally dangerous. Pet rabbits and wild rabbits are very different in some ways and coat is one. We like fancy rabbits to be soft, pleasing to touch and groom. In order to get their coats to that point of delicateness we love so much, we bred out what protects wild rabbits from the rain. They have oils coating their fur which stop water from sinking in, and making it easier to shake off. That in turn protects from the shock which can come from the cold of wet fur in open air, protects from the infection risk it can raise. Pet rabbits should not be got wet, and if it comes a point you have to bathe them it should only be under vets advice, and in most cases they will suggest dry options or damp rubbing before submersion.
It’s common for them to get smelly bums which will need some attention to prevent ill health and, in summer, fly strike. Fly strike being yet another thing that can kill you little bundle of floofy glee.
They need to be vaccinated annually. In their true, ‘bullshit. I’m not a prey animal, fuck that and fuck you, I’ll do what I want, thanks’ style, rabbits kind of fucked up Australia a bit after we introduced them. Our solution was to try and fuck them up right back by introducing viruses to kill them off. Rabbit haemorrhagic fever and myxomatosis, to be precise. Much like how we introduced rabbits and lost control of them, we fucked up the same way with the viruses. They’re still around today and still a major risk to rabbits in a variety of nations across the world. They are horrible viruses that lead to painful deaths, and myxie in particular is still very, very common in the UK. To risk not vaccinating is irresponsible.
They also need their teeth checked regularly (usually done when vaccines are as a kind of package deal) and if you’re unable to do it, their claws kept clipped down to a reasonable length to stop issues and discomfort arising.
They need a good bedding that is not cedar or pine. The majority of the bedding bought in pet shops gives off that tell-tale woody scent which is a big indicator that it’s not okay. That smell means phenols, which like in some other small animals can affect how their bodies process certain medications. Rabbits can get sick very quickly and if that happens it’s important their medications work. To buy hemp or other suitable bedding in bulk can keep costs down, buying smaller bales of suitable bedding can get pricey fast, but you then need somewhere to store it.
The same is true of hay. They need lots of it. Every day they eat their own size in the stuff, it’s the main staple of their diet and they should never be without it. Dust extracted oxbow or meadow hay is the most common, and your options are to buy by the bale to save or buy small packages of 1-2kg at a time and pay 5 times as much in the long run.
They should have a mix of greens every day. 3 or more types, amount varying depending on size but being careful not to include too much of certain cabbages, avoiding certain lettuces, making sure it’s not too much of this too many days in a row, avoiding giving more than 1 thing a day containing this, only giving a tablespoons’ worth of that… I printed the list out and pinned it to the hutch to form the shopping lists for what to give them, and right it down every day so I don’t end up doing things like giving too many days of parsley or spinach, too much of the cabbages they’re allowed over a week and so on. I can’t bloody remember it and I’m not sure many can.
I recommend checking out the House Rabbit Society’s thorough list of what greens can be given and in what amounts per 0.5kg of weight. It’ll give you a good idea of why it can be confusing for some folks!
Vegetables, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, aren’t things you give much of, or at least you shouldn’t. Throwing a whole carrot into a rabbit hutch is bloody stupid and should be avoided, it’s a myth they eat a lot of them that sprang from Bugs Bunny. A few mannerisms of Bugs came from a character in ‘It Happened One Night’.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng mention that this was one of his favorite films. It Happened One Night has a few interesting parallels with the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, who made his first appearance six years later, and who Freleng helped develop. In the film, a minor character, Oscar Shapely, continually calls the Gable character “Doc”, an imaginary character named “Bugs Dooley” is mentioned once in order to frighten Shapely, and there is also a scene in which Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.
Their diet should be supplemented by a well balanced nugget mix, too. They shouldn’t be free fed but rather have a set amount daily to correspond with their size/weight. This shouldn’t be museli, which leaves them picking out their favourite parts and leaving others, meaning their nutrition suffers. Given a lot of museli isn’t exactly of the greatest quality already, that can lead to a lot of problems like obesity, gas, and the gut slowing down, much like with a lack of exercise.
Misrepresentation of character is another issue that comes up a lot.
You don’t really see them on TV mid-high kick, or stamping in the middle of the night so loudly that your neighbours complain about you doing DIY at 3am. You see these adorable cuddly little things either being held happily or munching on grass peacefully in a garden, as though their main state is docile and calm. Little angels that are easy to care for and absolutely would never sink their teeth into your hand or use your face as a launch pad in play time. They’re shown with children and are often assumed to be the kind of pet that’s ideal for them. A start along the road of responsibility that won’t be too much for them to handle and won’t cost a bomb.
I think I’ve already made it pretty fucking clear they’re complicated animals already, but the bit that amazes a lot of people the most is finding out the reality of living with them. The docile, calm, and child friendly myth that floats around couldn’t be further than the truth, and this next bit has already got a few reactions of ‘holy shit’, ‘what the fuck?’ and ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ in draft stage when I shared it. While appropriately, a lot of bunny enthusiasts and owners I know have been very ‘lmao yep’.
Bunnies are not child friendly. Rough handling doesn’t go over well with most animals, and some are far less tolerant of it than others. I would put bunnies well within the ‘least tolerant’ list of potential pets. If you handle them wrong, catch them in the wrong mood, or they just feel being a dick all of a sudden, you can find out they can do an incredible amount of damage.
I learned this the hard way. I’ve kept rabbits for around three years now, and within my first year I was bitten clean through a part of my hand. The pain of a rabbit bite is unbelievable and they tend to be deep. In breaking an altercation when introducing my two, moving one away from the other, I was kicked square in the chest and left with some surprisingly prominent scarring as a result. I narrowly avoided similar on my face from similar circumstances twice.
In my first year of bunny ownership I was injured far more, and more severely, than in over 10 years of living with a house full of fostered cats, pet ferrets, rats, and dogs. These aren’t all injuries from mistakes on my part. You will sometimes have to pick up a rabbit for whatever reason and they’re quick little fuckers with strong back legs. They can, and they will, catch you with a claw at some point.
If you catch them in the right mood, they’re still not a pet you can really pick up and cuddle. They’re unlikely to sit on your lap and affection will always be on their terms. All the bribery in the world will not necessarily work to ingratiate you with a bunny that really just doesn’t feel like being anywhere near you.
I’ll use my girl, First Sea Lord Tasty Soup, as an example on this one. She’s very anti-contact when anywhere near what she considers her domain. She’s the dominant of the two that I have, and
when in the living room (they have a hutch and pen up one end, and get to use the rest as a run for a lot of the day/evening), all other beings are considered below her on the pecking order (the dogs, my husband, and myself included). She won’t just run away if upset about something, but rather she’ll get confrontational. If she wants to kick up shit about something, there’s nothing you’ll ever do to stop her.
Being part meat-breed, she has strong back legs which are great for making a lot of noise with stamps; something they do when annoyed, happy, know it upsets the dog and just spotted it go passed, or frankly just feel like it. She kicks, uses people as spring boards, nips at ankles, and no attempts at house training will stop her eating the furniture. She has a particular appetite for skirting board and carpeting.
I’ve been asked on more than one occasion why I keep her given her behaviour, which ranges from stamping all night to bullying our Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but the fact is it’s perfectly normal for a rabbit to be a volatile little wanker.
Don’t get me wrong, I love her to bits and it’s not all bad behaviours. She’s a grump but she can also be such a happy little thing, and taken away from that perceived area she’s got labelled as hers and hers alone, she’ll spend some periods of time cuddling up and being stroked. It doesn’t usually last long until she wants to go back to her home area, but it’s still time I can enjoy. Watching her binkying about the place is a great source of entertainment in itself and there’s a lot of games she’ll play with sticks, tubes, and other things.
She’s also got a vulnerable side in that she’s really scared of grass, which is perhaps the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in either of them, next to her regularly getting hay fever.
My other rabbit, Archduke Casserole, is the opposite. While he’ll also throw the occasional tantrum (I have not witnessed anything quite like The Great Tantrum of 2013. 6 hours of grumbling and stamping because I took a fucking strawberry plant away from him that he’d already eaten the majority of), he loves attention. Nothing is better to him than a good head or ear rub and he’ll follow you around until you give him the focus he’s desperate for. Take him away from their usual area and he’ll start looking for what he can destroy. Usually it ends up being your hands as you try to protect the soft furnishings and your clothes.
He has a mean streak too, though very different than Soup’s volatility.
I left him in the garden for a moment a few years ago while I let the dog in, and he unfortunately met a neighbour’s cat. The cat, incredibly, was the one that fared badly from the situation. The screams I heard that left me scared for his life turned out to be coming from this ginger lump of fur with rabbit teeth sunken into it and getting kicked in the head repeatedly. The force of a rabbit’s kick is so strong it can lead to them breaking their own spines, and having felt what that kind of force can be like with claws to boot, I can only imagine it must have smarted a bit to get that not just full on in the face, but repeatedly while he clung on and stopped it getting away. I broke them up and he chased it off up the garden. Once I was sure he was okay (even if the cat didn’t injure him, I’ve never seen first hand what stress and shock are like in rabbits and was understandably concerned given the risk they pose) I actually felt really bad for the cat.
He’s been very anti-cats since then. We had a problem with the cat belonging to a neighbour directly next to us not long after he’d got it: It kept getting the wrong house. During the summer it kept coming in through our window and we’d have to chase it off before he spotted it or we’d be the audience to a rather grunty war dance. We get to witness the same when there’s thunder, too.
Rabbits are incredible animals with amazing characters that can make you laugh until you cry, but they can definitely test you to the end of your patience. While I find them to be worth the strife, I do often find myself overwhelmed and, to keep them in a way that is fair and healthy for them, I doubt I would be able to manage if not for the help of my husband.
Please, if you’re considering getting a bunny, whether for Easter or any other time, do a lot of thinking and research before hand and be sure you’re prepared to take the cost, the volatility, the education, the space, and the time. No pet should be taken on lightly without knowing all that’s involved, but when it’s one where so many are taken on with such enormous misconceptions being rife, with their welfare suffering in such large numbers and to such a degree, it’s better to be absolutely certain what you’re getting yourself into. For them, and you.
If you’re not, then please, get a chocolate one instead.