Question from Paige J. in San Jose, CA:
Q: I am seeking information regarding a bunny/rabbit for my 5 year old daughter. I don't know what types are the best for a younger child. We are looking for a rabbit that is social and likes to be cuddled/ held. Any information or resources would be greatly appreciated.
A: One of the great misconceptions about rabbits involves the belief that they are starter pets— animals used to teach young children about responsibility or as a transitional step before a dog or cat. In reality, these perceptions are just not true and ultimately the root cause for a large part of the shelter rabbit population. Rabbits require a great deal of responsibility, an even greater amount than cats (though probably less than dogs). A pet rabbit needs several hours of daily exercise outside of its cage, fresh vegetables every morning, thorough cage cleaning a few times a week, possibly substantial medical expenses, and a serious time commitment, as they live an average of 8-10 years. Perhaps most importantly, rabbits require a large amount of love and personal attention.
The combination of rabbits and children tends to make for unhappy relationships, as the two have exceedingly opposite wants and needs. As prey animals that terrify easily, rabbits require a special kind of gentle understanding and interaction. Children are loud and their sudden movements combine uncomfortably with the rabbit's lifestyle. And rabbits, active at dawn and dusk, sleep during the day when children are interested in playing; like with humans, repeated sleep disturbances can elicit cranky and even aggressive responses from a rabbit.
On the other hand, children want soft, cuddly animals that they can pick up, hold, squeeze, etc. While the world might perceive them as stuffed animal toys, rabbits are in fact not suitable for child's play. Young children often restrain their pet rabbit, thereby encouraging the rabbit's "child-as-predator" perspective, which can incite aggressive behavior such as biting, kicking and scratching. Conversely, rabbits often suffer spinal fractures or even stress-induced heart attacks when they are improperly handled or picked up. Since many adult rabbit owners struggle with correctly and safely picking up and holding rabbits, the process is even harder for young children.
In addition to physical injuries, neglected or mistreated rabbits live their lives in fear and will often revert to a wild state. Unfortunately, this resulting common scenario—unhappy child, unhappy parent, unhappy rabbit— usually ends with the rabbit being dropped off at the shelter or worse, released into the wild. Rabbits are also abandoned when the child becomes bored with their pet, can't handle the responsibilities, or the daily or medical care gets too expensive. This is especially unfortunate as shelter life and abandonment takes a serious toll on these ultra-sensitive animals.
While it is somewhat dangerous to use specific animals as "starter pets," I can see the value in getting a hamster before a dog, etc. Instead of a rabbit, though, a younger child would be better off with a guinea pig, rat, fish, or even a calm, outgoing cat.
All that being said, there may be children who are calm, responsible, attentive, and compassionate enough to own a rabbit, though I wouldn't recommend it to a child under eleven or twelve. Even then, a parent will have to be the primary caretaker, meaning they must themselves be willing to dedicate a few hours to the rabbit's daily care. It is the adult's responsibility to understand and then convey to their children the theories behind approaching and interacting with rabbits, especially making it clear that picking up the rabbit is only for adults. One last thing to consider is that countless rabbits are returned to shelters when it is realized that a family member is allergic to the animal; please make sure to test for this before adopting.
To sum up, I would advise waiting a few years, until your daughter is a little older, at which point a trip to your local animal shelter will allow you to meet a variety of rabbits. There, you will be able to decide which individual (or individuals) seems best suited to your specific character needs. I wouldn't categorize any particular breed of rabbit as friendlier than others; there is a behavioral range in all types, though there are certain other factors to consider, such as the fact that some breeds (for example Angoras) require extensive grooming. Other than that, I don't advise choosing a rabbit based on it's breed or look, but rather by its individual character and personality.