Bunny Love – The pleasures, and perils, of rabbit ownership

In the Northern hemisphere it’s spring, the season of renewal, flowers, plastic eggs, and bunny rabbits. In the United States rabbits are the third most popular pet after cats and dogs. They are also one of the most frequently abandoned. Personally, I adore our bunny and think he’s the best pet we’ve ever had, but there are definitely some things you should consider before you decide that a rabbit is the right pet for your own family. (Pet ownership should never be an impulsive and uninformed decision.)

BunCuteFirst of all, rabbits can be incredibly affectionate and will often actively seek cuddling and attention. During the last period when we were sans pet, I requested no cats or dogs, because they require so much affection (yes, even the aloof cat will throw itself at you, purring) and I felt like the cuddling duties devolved mainly upon me. When the Spouse and Daughter decided on a bunny I had visions of it living in a hutch where we could periodically poke carrots at it. Not so much. Our bunny is litter trained, and was so obviously pathetic and lonely in a cage that we have gradually given him free run of much of the house. When he wants cuddling he’ll sit on our feet, nudge our legs, hop up on the couch next to us, and scratch or bang on doors if we have closed him out. Sometimes, he is forced to resort to nipping available toes if we don’t respond to his snuggling needs in a timely manner.

BunSketchWhich brings me to the next point. Bunnies can’t communicate with sounds. In the years that we’ve had our rabbit, I’ve heard him make a grunting or growling noise perhaps two or three times. This can be a blessing (no barking or caterwauling), but it means that they have to figure out other ways to let you know what they want. They also can’t use their paws the same way that dogs and cats can. It isn’t possible for them to reach out and bat you with a paw, although they can thump with their strong back feet when they sense danger (ours lets us know when the neighborhood raccoon is invading our yard.) For the most part, they are limited to placing themselves in your line of vision, digging noisily at things like your door or leg, throwing themselves at you bodily, and using their teeth. Although our bunny has developed finesse in his nipping technique, it did take time and if he is startled he will still occasionally deliver a hard, painful bite. For this reason I don’t recommend bunnies for very young children, or for those with a rough touch.

BunArtifactIt’s important to remember that bunnies are prey animals (including to humans. If you eat rabbit, please do not feel the need to tell me how delicious they are in comments. It will make me cry.) They don’t like to feel trapped, so although you can pick them up, it makes them uneasy and you can’t carry them around for long. We can, and do, hug and cuddle our bunny, and he will snuggle, nuzzle, lick, snooze and generally loll about shamelessly in our arms for hours as long as he is on a still surface like a couch. When he decides he’s had enough, however, he will suddenly dash off. He sets the terms. He loves being caressed, especially his forehead and ears, although we can smooch his nose, wiggle his tail, and play with his jowls and tummy when he is very relaxed. If we touch his back feet, however, he will snap to attention, fix us with an aggrieved glare, and then turn his back on us.BunCuddle

Bunnies, like most creatures, have their own individual characters and tastes. Ours loves carrots, parsley, dandelions, fennel, fig newtons, and rose petals. On the other hand, he considers beet and turnip greens the work of the devil and will gaze at us in horror if we try to give them to him. He has figured out that the main source of veggies is the fridge, and when he hears me get up in the morning he will come flying from wherever he has spent the night and park himself expectantly next to it. Woe betide me if I get out the milk for my coffee without supplying him with his morning veg.BunRose

He has also consumed many items that I do not, personally, consider to be food. These include mass quantities of cardboard and paper, wires, a balloon, yoga mats, and half a needle. He neatly bit all of the buttons off of the TV remote, but decided he didn’t actually want to eat them and left them in a little pile on the couch. This you absolutely need to know before you consider having a rabbit. They must chew. Their teeth do not stop growing, and if they don’t wear them down gnawing things that are tough and abrasive, your bunny will end up in pain and unable to eat. If you decide to have a house roaming bunny like ours, you will need to make sure that there are no books or wires exposed where the rabbit can get to them.

IMG_0520Rabbits are famously obsessed with cords. If there are wires that a bunny knows about it will bite through them, not may, but will. I’ll give two anecdotes to illustrate. The Spouse was using headphones with cords in the rabbit’s sight. After considering him for some time from a distance, the rabbit dashed past. In the seconds it took to run by, Mr. Fluffykins (not his real name) completely severed the headphone cords. In another incident the criminal worked out how to negotiate a barricade of milk crates and boards to access the cords to the printer and Wii and destroy them. He has a brain the size of a walnut, but he remembered where the cords were and spent two weeks figuring out how to get to them. That said, once we understood his obsessions and methods, the judicious use of protective conduit has kept us all safe.

BunCastRabbits are fragile and should be handled with reasonable care, but they are also remarkably resilient. I, alas, was responsible for our bunny’s greatest injury. I mentioned that one way rabbits communicate that they want to be petted is to throw themselves at you. Some mornings our bunny will wait outside the bedroom door, and then hop in circles around our feet. It happened on just such a morning. I had already snuggled him several times and was in danger of running late for work. I stood up and started to walk away when the bunny launched himself under my feet. There was a sickening crunch as my foot landed on his. It was absolutely horrible, and X-rays revealed that I had, indeed, broken his foot. I was terrified that he wouldn’t recover, or that I had destroyed any dreams he might have of the Bunny Olympics. He was in a cast for a week (by which time he had chewed it off), back to attacking the vacuum cleaner in three weeks, and leaping onto the back of the couch looking for raisins in a month.

BunnyBookThe last thing that you should know about bunnies, is that basically everything about them is adorable. If you can’t tolerate rampant cuteness, a rabbit not the pet for you. For more complete information on choosing and caring for a bunny check out one of the many books or websites on rabbits. We’ve enjoyed Sue Fox’s Good Rabbitkeeping, pictured here with a corner of the cover nibbled away by Mr. Fluffykins (once again, the name has been changed to protect the guilty.)

All photos by the author’s family. The “face of evil” sketch is by the Daughter. The ceramic rabbit is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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  1. Another thing to keep in mind is that the hind legs of rabbits are controlled by their strongest muscles, and can shred human skin the same way, and with pretty much the same maneuver, that kitties do. That powerful, double barreled kick is a bunny’s primary form of self defense (in addition to biting) when they are trapped by a predator, so if you try to keep ahold of a rabbit who is ready to go now, be prepared for the possibility of shredded arm or belly skin.

      1. Heh. It’s only happened to me a couple times, and it sounds like you know your bunny pretty well, so maybe he’s saving his secret weapon rather than his loving family. Unlike with kitties, who have no such compunctions.

  2. Always had pet bunnies, but only as outdoor pets.
    Currently the kids have two bunnies at my parents’ (our flat is really pet-unfriendly. At least if you inhabt it with four people of whom one is allergic against cats).
    Please, unless you really keep them within the family, don’t get a single bunny. A doe and a castrated buck or two castrated bucks will work.
    Also, don’t keep a guinea pig as company. Those animals have very different behaviours and communications.

    Yep, bunnies are snuggly and they will try to snuggle you.
    In guinea pigs that is an expression of dominance, so while the bigger bunny is trying to be very freindly, the poor guinea piggy is being terrorized.
    My second bunny was a wonderful animal. He would loyally follow my grandpa around the garden.
    He would also only allow me to pick him up. Once my aunt’s stepmother, one of those people who calls every furry animal “baby!” in a very high-pitched voice decided she didn’t need to listen to a child. And yes, the strong hind legs made my point rather well.
    Before getting the kids the bunnies I read up a bit. I read a lot of useful things, but there was the one website that kept telling me that I had to do this and that because bunnies are descendents of wild rabbits. Until it came to food. Then it told me I had to wash, peel and dice the veggies.

    1. Good to know about the rabbit – guinea pig non-combination.
      We have a singleton bunny (obviously) but he’s given my daughter honorary bun-status, so it seems to work.
      I’ll be laughing about the peeled and diced veggies for a while.

      1. You can keep them both (rabbit and guinea pig that is, not rabbit and kid. Well, you can keep the latter ones, too, obviously, but I’m getting distracted here) if there are enough spaces where the guinea pig can go and the rabbit can’t, but in the end that’s just two lonely pets again.
        Hehe, talking about veggies, my daughter got robbed and assaulted by her bunny. She thought they would share a carrot, nibbleing it together. The rabbit thought differently, sunk his teeth into the carrot and took off. The look on her face was priceless.

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