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Archive for Sunday, February 28, 2010

Critter Care: Don’t forget about pet rabbit responsibilities after Easter ends

February 28, 2010

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Even though I try to be good and bypass the candy aisle in the grocery store, I’ve noticed that the Easter goodies have been available for some time now. That also means a surplus of images of fuzzy baby animals.

Of course we’ve all heeded the warnings that tell us not to purchase chicks and ducklings at this time of year unless we live on farms and truly know how to care for these animals.

But what about bunnies? Most of us only know them as wild creatures, darting around our yards, leaving tracks in the snow or helping themselves to our vegetable and flower gardens during the summer.

As any rabbit owner will tell you, bunnies do indeed make wonderful house pets, and I’ve known several people who say they are every bit as much the devoted companions as dogs or cats. They’re clean, affectionate and entertaining, and they even answer to their names and come when called.

So should we rule them out as Easter pets? The answer lies in the statistics: Each year, the Lawrence Humane Society sees a jump in the number of rabbit turn-ins right after the Easter season. People who adopted them for the holidays quickly realize they’re in for more work than they’d planned.

As with any pet adoption decision, the shelter advises that the adults in the family think things through carefully before filling out the adoption form, particularly if children will be dealing with the animal. The Web has many great sites that outline rules of basic care for rabbits.

Rabbits are more delicate creatures than dogs or cats. They scare more easily, which can result in heart attacks. Small children may try to pick them up by their ears — an absolute no-no — or may drop them, which can result in a broken spine or legs. In addition, scared rabbits will kick, and their powerful leg muscles and toenails can do some damage, especially to smaller children.

Consider, too, that rabbits are fastidious animals. They like being personally clean, so plan to set aside time to brush them regularly, to remove loose itchy hair.

You’ll need to keep their cages clean as well. Rabbits can be trained to use a litter box, which they prefer to messing up their living areas, but those big back feet can kick up a certain amount of litter that needs to be swept.

Use caution, however, when selecting litter box filler and bedding materials. Although some controversy surrounds the question, many sources suggest avoiding pine or cedar shavings.

Keep an eye on your rabbit’s mouth health. Improper diets and breeding problems can cause these animals’ teeth to grow too long or to wear unevenly. Watch for drooling or bad breath, which can be signs of mouth problems that need veterinary care.

Diets for rabbits need to be monitored closely, because their digestive systems have specific needs. Grass hay is a must — brome or timothy grass works well — and should be kept available at all times. Those tasty little greenish pellets can be supplied in unlimited quantities until your bunny is full grown (about 6 months old). After that, says the ASPCA, limit the quantity to 1/8 to 1/4 cup per 5 pounds of body weight. Owners should supply dark, leafy greens — the salad component of the basic rabbit meal — each day as well. The trick is to imitate a wild rabbit’s diet as much as possible. And don’t forget a continual supply of fresh, clean water.

How do you know whether you’re getting the food right? Dr. Nickol Finch, writing on Washington State University’s veterinary site, suggests that, “The bunny should usually be slightly pear-shaped. If your bunny looks more like an apple with a head, it is probably too fat and needs to go on a diet.”

Whether your bunny needs to cut back or not, he or she will need regular exercise. No animal deserves to be caged all the time, and rabbits like to stretch those strong legs. Give these pets enough room in their cages to roam around, but let them loose sometimes just to explore and move a little faster and farther. Exercise also helps their digestive tracts and keeps the bad bacteria in the colon from taking over the good.

If these instructions sound like a reasonable amount of work for the love and affection a bunny can provide, you, too, may decide you’re ready to join the many devoted owners who have hopped to adopt from the Lawrence Humane Society.

— Sue Novak is vice president of the board of the Lawrence Humane Society.

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