New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2002


RAISING RABBITS

NOT EXACTLY CATS AND DOGS

By Barbara Bacon

Rabbits, it turns out, can be very much like cats and dogs —in some ways. But in other, crucial ways, rabbits are absolutely nothing like cats and dogs. Knowing and understanding the difference is the key to providing rabbits a loving and compassionate home. "Having a rabbit is very much like having a cat around," says Rick Haseman, a rabbit rescuer. "They have very definite personalities and they like to relate to people." But some rabbits have to learn to trust humans, he says. "We have a number of rabbits who were abandoned by people or who were abused. It may take a year before a rabbit can recover from that kind of extreme treatment." Sound like a cat or a dog? You bet.

"A rabbit is a prey animal," says Nancy Haseman, Rick's wife and fellow rabbit rescuer. "His natural response is to run away. If you want to pick up a rabbit and hold him, you need to work with him until the rabbit is comfortable being handled. In his natural state a rabbit is only picked up and carried when he’s being carried away to be eaten," she explains. Sound like a cat or dog? Not at all.

Rick says he never gets over being amazed when one of their rabbits comes over to be held. Such behavior not only demonstrates the enormous trust and bond that exist between a rabbit and his human companion, but it also goes against a rabbit's natural survival instincts, making it even more remarkable.

Eloisa posing on her rattan throne.

Rabbits entered the Hasemans' lives purely by chance. When they bought their home in Rio Rancho a few years back, the previous owners had rabbits and had installed a large rabbit run in the backyard of the 1/2-acre property. Their first rabbit was Eloisa, who had been abandoned by a neighbor. Today they share their home and back yard with 11 rabbits.

"About the time we moved in, one of the neighbors moved away and abandoned their rabbit. She would be spotted around the neighborhood and finally one of our neighbors said that if they found her they would bring her to us," Nancy recalls. After Eloisa was rescued, "she was so mad because she was stuck in this run. She had been hopping all over the neighborhood. She's one of those rough and tumble bunnies." She was the first of the now 11 rabbits with whom the Hasemans share their home and backyard. Eloisa is a true survivor, having recovered from ryeneck, an infection of the inner ear that is often fatal to rabbits.

Edward, the first bonded mate of Eloisa,
who died of pneumonia.

Having a rabbit requires being able to make the commitment to care for that animal for life. Rabbits can live six to 10 years or longer, depending on the breed. The Hasemans have a friend with a 15-year-old rabbit who is still going strong.

You must be able to provide a safe, secure, and comfortable environment for rabbits. This means providing a litter box and a place to call their own. When they need some time alone, a room or carrier will do the trick. You will also need nutritious rabbit food to provide a balanced diet.

Eloisa crashed out. Only when rabbits feel
VERY secure do they sleep this way.

"Most boxed rabbit foods in pet stores are about the worst thing that you can buy. Some even have harmful ingredients such as corn and too many treats," says Rick. "Rabbits have complex digestive systems and don't digest corn well," Nancy adds. A good, nutritious rabbit feed usually comes in pellet form and should have higher fiber content and low amounts of protein and treats. You should give rabbits their treats separately.

Because it is natural for rabbits to chew, you must also "bunny-proof" your home by moving electrical cords out of a rabbit's reach (at least 18 inches off the ground) or by encasing them in nonchewable materials. You should move or protect any wood furniture that you don't want to have chewed, and move curtains or drapes out of your rabbit's travel or "escape" route. Escape routes are invariably under or behind furniture—exactly where you put the electrical cords.

"You have to be more sensitive to changes in a rabbit’s health," says Rick. "These changes can occur dramatically in only a few hours. We've learned that even with what seems like a minor health change, it is important to take the rabbit to a veterinarian experienced in rabbit care as quickly as possible."

James (Jimmie) in bed with Rick.

Like dogs and cats, rabbits have a social structure and need to work out a pecking order. "Because they're territorial, it isn't unusual for rabbits to want to fight," Rick says. With their strong hind legs and sharp claws, rabbits can easily injure one another. This is when humans must step in to help the socializing along, but the method you use will depend on the rabbits' personalities.

When Rick and Nancy are working to get two rabbits to bond, they take them for a car ride. "The vibration is stressful, so the rabbits forget about fighting and begin to bond together," he says.

The car ride begins with the each rabbit in a separate carrier. Gradually, the Hasemans open one carrier and then the second and supervise the animals' interaction. The Hasemans stress that you must be willing to work with the rabbits and to put in the time necessary to help them bond.

Spaying female rabbits and neutering males is essential for many reasons. It reduces fighting between rabbits and helps reduce the tremendous rabbit overpopulation problem in the United States. This is another similarity to cats and dogs.

The Hasemans' Christmas card picture
from their second year as rabbit guardians
(holding Josephina, Edward and Eloisa in front).

Although there are a number of rabbit rescuers in New Mexico and throughout the United States, they cannot keep up with the number of abandoned and mistreated rabbits needing homes. If you can make a place in your life for a rabbit—or even better, a bonded pair of rabbits—and are prepared to make the necessary commitment, adopt them from a reputable rescuer.

Rick and Nancy turned to the Internet to learn about rabbits and rabbit resources in the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area. They are enthusiastic boosters of the House Rabbit Society's website at www.rabbit.org and "The House Rabbit Handbook" by Marinell Harriman, which Rick says is the best book he's ever found on rabbits and rabbit care. The House Rabbit Society does not have an active affiliate here in New Mexico, although there are dedicated rabbit rescuers around the state. Rick and Nancy suggest that anyone in New Mexico wanting information on rabbits or rabbit rescue should contact the society's Four Corners satellite, which is linked to the House Rabbit Society's website. There are also online national and international newsgroups that are great sources of information about rabbit care, Rick says. The usenet group he has found most valuable is alt.pets.rabbits.

Kimberly Lalley (Kimberlylalley@ hotmail.com) is very active in fostering rabbits and is trying to get a House Rabbit Society affiliate in Albuquerque. She is also working with the animal shelters in Albuquerque to develop a better rabbit fostering system.

Twila Parker (tjparker@sandia.gov) is a good source of information on house rabbits. She works quite a bit with local vets and finds foster and permanent homes for rabbits. The Hasemans adopted one of their rabbits through her.

Barbara Bacon, a former journalist, lives in Albuquerque with her three cats. She is a volunteer with the Alliance Against Animal Abuse and Prairie Dog Pals.


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