Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Question from the Audience: Rabbits and Kids?

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.

: 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.


Bill Havice said...

The Rabbit Advocate makes some excellent points about the challenges of getting a rabbit for a child. For further information on the topic, the House Rabbit Society (which is a tremendous resource for pet rabbit information) has a good article discussing children and rabbits at http://www.rabbit.org/faq/sections/children.html.

As to what type of rabbit to get once you feel you and your daughter are ready, my recommendation is to get a mature and perhaps larger sized rabbit. Mature rabbits (essentially being what I would say are age two and up) are usually much calmer, less destructive, and much easier to get along with than young rabbits, making it VASTLY easier for someone who is just learning about rabbits.

The same is generally true for larger sized rabbits, but it is less dramatic than the difference between older and younger rabbits. I have handled hundreds of rabbits and haven’t found many personality traits that I would ascribe to any particular breed except that larger sized rabbits (and thus larger sized breeds like Flemish Giants) tend to be calmer and laid back whereas smaller sized rabbits (and thus smaller sized breeds like Dwarf Hotots) have a tendency to be more energetic and wound up. A larger rabbit might be a little harder to pick up only because of their size, but I have found they are more inclined to flop down next to you hoping that you will give them a nice petting.

You might also give some strong consideration as to how long you would like to care for a rabbit and then pick a rabbit whose age corresponds with that timeframe. Most parents become the rabbit’s primary caregiver within short measure, so you will have to decide for how long YOU would like to care for a rabbit. Children’s lives change so quickly that they tend to change interests in a similar fashion. It is not uncommon for children to start asking for another pet (such as a dog) within a couple of years of getting a rabbit and they will want to shift their focus elsewhere. Adopting an older rabbit provides a shorter commitment that often works well with a child’s changing interests and a mature rabbit is easier to care for and usually makes a better pet than a young one - which usually makes it a win-win for everyone.

The Rabbit Advocate said...

Thanks for those great additions, Bill!

Anonymous said...

Really, no animal should ever be considered a "starter" pet. An animal should be purchased/adopted because it is the animal that would best suit the individual buyers expectations, skill level, willing amount of time to commit and lifestyle. Considering an animal a starter pet is to consider them disposable right off the bat, and that's a despicable point of view, if you ask me.
Also, when an animal is brought into a family, it is no one in particular's pet, it is the family pet and should be treated as such, be it fish, hamster, rabbit, snake, dog or cat. Everyone needs to love and take responsability for the animals well being and care, you will have a much better pet experience all around. At the very least the care of any animal should not be left in the sole charge of a five year old, and I have never known a five year old to be at a level of maturity required to take care of any pet. Many adults struggle with the proper care needs of many animals, especially fish such as bettas and goldfish, both of which are advertised as easy "starter" pets but in reality I would say are harder to care for than many of the reptiles and amphibians I keep.