Live Easter Bunnies as Pets Come with Responsibility

The practice of buying Easter-colored live baby chicks and ducks is not as common as it once was, but bunnies are still popular gifts and pets that are purchased at Easter time.

Unfortunately, many people may purchase a bunny without thinking about the long-term health of the animal. Rabbits generally live about eight years, which means that buying one as a pet is a long-term commitment because baby rabbits grow into adult animals that need thoughtful care.

"The practice of giving a rabbit to a child as an Easter pet, for example, is okay as long as the owner understands that the rabbit will need proper care for many years – beyond the ‘cute’ stage," said Dr. Terry Campbell, service chief of zoological medicine at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. "But if the bunny will be just a cute accessory for the Easter season, it’s not fair to the animal or the child who receives the pet. Anyone considering buying a pet should do their homework before making the purchase."

Campbell said that many pets purchased on a whim often are abandoned or die because they do not get proper care. Unwanted domestic rabbits cannot survive in the wild and should be given to a humane society.

All domestic bunnies – Easter and otherwise – need specific care in order to lead healthy, happy lives. They need a specific diet, annual veterinary checkups, protection from larger pets and predators, and room to roam. Their cage should be cleaned several times a week.

– Commercial food designed for rabbits is inadequate as the sole source of food. Rabbits need a diet of primarily grass hay, or a mixture of grass hay and dark green leafy vegetables, not just rabbit pellets purchased at a pet store. Alfalfa should be avoided because it contains too much calcium and leads to urinary tract illnesses. An inadequate diet is the cause of most illnesses in domesticated rabbits, and Campbell estimates that 90 percent of the rabbits he treats for illnesses are ill because of an inadequate diet. Rabbits should not be fed sugary treats such as crackers, fruit and cookies. Occasional carrots, commercially prepared dried carrots, hay cubes or rabbit pellets as treats are okay. It is important that the rabbit be fed primarily grass and hay on a daily basis to prevent painful dental diseases and to keep their digestive system in proper balance.

– Although rabbits don’t need to be vaccinated for diseases, it is a good idea to have them checked by a veterinarian once a year so they can be monitored for illnesses. Rabbits are susceptible to dental problems, mites, bacterial infections, abbesses, foot infections and urinary tract infections, as well as bone fractures from improper handling. In general, annual checkups cost between $50 and $200, depending on the age and health of the rabbit.

– Rabbits should be kept in a pen where they are protected from dogs, predators and even young children who may not handle them properly. Rabbits can be kept indoors in large pens and let out to wander in a rabbit-proof room. Rabbits have a tendency to chew on electric cords, furniture, carpet and other household items, so thought should be given to the roaming rabbit’s environment. Rabbits can also be kept in a protective cage outside. The cage should provide protection from predators and other animals as well as give the rabbit areas of cool shade and sunshine – but remember they are susceptible to heat stress – and protection from wet weather. Rabbits should be brought indoors in cold temperatures. Rabbits need exercise, so they should be provided with roomy living conditions, and they need entertainment if kept inside in a cage, and should be provided with toys. Indoor rabbits that spend time outside should do so under close supervision.

– Rabbits should be handled carefully. Bone fractures, particularly in the spine, are not uncommon injuries in rabbits if they are not picked up, carried and move properly and gently. Rabbits should not be picked up by the scruff of their neck, their legs or their ears. Rabbits should be picked up with two hands; one supporting their upper body, and one supporting their bottom. Their legs should not dangle when being lifted or held because the weight of their body may break their back. Ask your veterinarian for information about how properly hold and pick up a rabbit to provide proper support.

"Our domestic rabbits are descendents of a breed of wild rabbits common in Europe," said Campbell. "These rabbits act differently than our wild rabbits, such as the cottontail. They dig and live in warrens and live in social systems of groups of extended families. Rabbit owners may want to consider applying that knowledge to their own pet. For example, domestic rabbits like to dig in the dirt and eat grasses. They also like the company of other rabbits."