How many times have I spoken with well-meaning bunny parents who stare at me a confused manner when I offer up rabbit care advice, and utter the words, “But the pet store said…” Well, I’m just going to lay it all out right here!
We all have to start somewhere. I cringe when I think back on the bunny-care mistakes I made when I bought (yes, bought) my first bunny at a pet store 10 years ago. I bought the pet-store suggested cage and the pet store suggested food. Thankfully, I found a bunny-savvy vet as well as information from the House Rabbit Society, and thus began my constantly evolving knowledge of rabbit parenthood.
So, what does the pet store tell you about rabbit care that’s wrong? Well, depends on the employees and the store, but in a lot of cases – everything.
Let’s start with housing. This is your rabbit’s environment – the place where she will spend a good portion of her time. Rather important, I should say. Unsuspecting new rabbit parents will look at the brightly-colored cages with selling points such as “Starter kit – everything you need for your new friend!” to “Deluxe rabbit home!” Trust me, these kits are neither deluxe nor everything you need – not by a long shot. Those “My First Home” sets that are so popular? Utter rubbish. They are selling points, however. I’ve seen pet stores advertise specials in which one can purchase a “starter kit” and receive the animal for free…as if the pet is an afterthought.
“Well, what exactly is wrong with these sets? They have everything you need, right? That’s what the pet store said!”
For one thing, they are much, MUCH too small. That tiny, cuddly baby bunny that seems to fit so well in it now? He’s going to grow up. Oh, the pet store said the bunny is a dwarf? Be careful with that statement. I’ve seen people with 7+ pound bunnies who bought them at a pet store that advertised them as dwarf rabbits. In addition, dwarf bunnies are often more active than bigger bunnies, and need LOTS of room to run! Of course, any bunny needs a nice, roomy home base. You probably don’t need most of the other things that come with the “starter kit” either. Those pine or cedar shavings? Those can eventually cause cancer in your bunny. The salt lick? Worthless. And we’ll talk about food in a minute.
“What kind of cage DO I put my bunny in?”
Well, if you can’t let your bunny have free run of the house 24/7 (and yes, rabbits are easily litter trained – bet the pet store didn’t tell you that!), then puppy exercise pens or pens made from storage cube panels are good options – and typically cost less than a “deluxe” rabbit cage! Don’t forget the litter box! Oh, and don’t leave your bunny in the cage all the time. She needs at least a couple hours of “floor time” each day.
So what’s the best thing for bunny to eat?
“Those bags of pellets with seeds and colorful bits have words like ‘nutritious’ and 'fortified' written all over them. That’s got to be good, right? That’s what the pet store recommended!”
No, no, and no! These “nutritious” pellets will eventually kill your bunny – whether it is by choking on a seed or obesity from a diet that is too rich.
“But…the pet store said that if I give my bunny lettuce he will get diarrhea!”
Feeding your bunny a healthy selection of greens is part of a balanced bunny diet. Dark leafy greens are wonderful for bunnies to eat – just stay away from iceberg lettuce. It has no nutritional value. New greens should be introduced slowly, but bunnies can safely eat healthy greens!
“Well, I can still give the bunny some of those treats the pet store sells, right? The box says that they’re a healthy snack!”
Do those treats contain yogurt, honey, seeds, or corn? Yes? Keep them away from bunny!! Once again, these treats will eventually kill your rabbit. Don’t love your bunny to death.
“Well, what DO I give my bunny for a treat?”
Small amounts of fruit every once in a while will make any bunny happy! Try giving your bunny a fresh blueberry, or a little bit of plain canned pumpkin. Fresh herbs are also a healthy bunny treat! Oh, did the pet store mention hay?
I thought not. I’ve actually come across a well-meaning new bunny parent who was told by a pet store that hay would give her bunny diarrhea. Hay is absolutely ESSENTIAL for maintaining proper gastrointestinal health in a rabbit. Eating hay also wears down a rabbit’s constantly growing teeth. Rabbits MUST have good quality grass hay (not alfalfa, unless the bunny is very young). This is the most important element of your rabbit’s diet.
“The pet store said that rabbits don’t really need to see a vet. They only live a couple of years anyway.”
That’s another one I’ve heard…and it’s absolutely wrong. For one thing, rabbits need to be spayed/neutered.
“You can spay/neuter rabbits??!”
Yes, and it is essential to their health and well-being. Intact rabbits have a very high incidence of reproductive cancer, and are constantly driven crazy by hormones. I’ll be the first person to tell you that in general, intact rabbits make terrible pets. Altering a bunny helps with behavioral issues including aggression and spraying – oh, and that litter training I mentioned? Probably not going to happen with an intact rabbit. Make sure your bunny’s surgery is performed by an experienced exotics veterinarian – not just any dog and cat vet will do. Or better yet – adopt a bunny! Rabbit rescue groups spay and neuter their bunnies before sending them to a forever home! Oh, and as for living a couple of years? Spayed/neutered bunnies living in a healthy indoor environment can live 10 years or more!
“Okay, but after the bunny is fixed, they don’t really need to see a vet, right?”
Wrong again. Bunnies should have maintenance check-ups to keep tabs on general health. There is always the possibility of an emergency visit too – bunnies are delicate creatures, although they have a strong will to go along with it. Did you know that a loss of appetite in a bunny should be considered an emergency? You do now!
“Wow, the pet store didn’t tell me any of this!”
And most of them won’t. This isn’t to say that all pet store employees have no clue about rabbits – I personally know a couple of pet store employees (who have even adopted rabbits from our rescue!) who try to combat bunny care ignorance. I must give kudos to pet stores who are moving away from selling animals and encouraging adoption. That being said, your best bet to obtain good rabbit care knowledge is from groups like the House Rabbit Society and rabbit rescues around the country. Rescues are certainly not in it for profit (far from it, in fact!), and have the best interests of their bunnies at heart.