Lops, longhairs and miniatures -- rabbits come in a gorgeous variety of body types, fur lengths and coat markings, all united by their potential to be wonderful pets. At this time of year, baby bunnies are everywhere, with many pet stores stocking up on what has been a traditional child's gift for Easter.
But before you pick up one of these baby beauties for your child, those in the business of caring for yesterday's impulsive pet purchases would like you to consider the varieties of rabbit that sadly seem most common of all: Homeless. Unwanted. Abandoned.
Which is why shelter and rescue groups implore you: If you're considering giving a child a pet for Easter, please think and think again.
To be sure, things have improved. Not long ago, it was easy to find baby chicks and ducks dyed in the pastel colors of the season, bought and sold without the slightest regard for their care or their suitability to a city environment. The babies grew up and died in short order, either from improper care or abandonment. Thank heavens people have more sense and compassion these days, so far fewer chicks and ducks are sold as pets.
But the problem of rabbits remains. The biggest concern? Contrary to popular belief, rabbits really aren't suitable as a pets for young children. Rabbits are delicate and can be fatally injured if improperly held. If not handled gently and with respect, they can become nippy in self-defense or fear.
For older children, though, and especially for adults, these quiet, gentle animals are excellent pets. But they do require more than a little cage outside, a water bottle and some food. You'll get a lot more out of a pet rabbit if you bring the animal into your house and your life.
As with any companion animal, the amount of proper care and time you give is paid back many times over. Here are some care tips.
-- Equipment. Your rabbit needs a cage that's at least big enough to stretch out and hop around, and tall enough so he can stand on his hind legs without his ears touching the top. Bigger is better yet! If the floor is wire, at least a portion of the cage should be solid, something that will give the rabbit relief from standing on the wire all the time.
For a food dish, choose a ceramic crock that cannot be chewed or tipped over. A hanging bottle is best for water; make sure the water stays fresh by changing it daily. Rabbits need and love to chew, so be sure there's a chew block available.
-- Health and nutrition. Commercial rabbit pellets are the basis of a proper rabbit diet, but they're not enough to keep a pet happy and healthy. Feed no more than one-quarter cup of pellets per 5 pounds of body weight daily. Fiber is the key to a healthy diet, which is why grass hays such as timothy and oat are important, along with fresh leafy green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, carrot tops and broccoli leaves. Rabbit-lovers learn to pick through the vegetable bins at the grocery store, or ask the produce manager for leafy pieces removed while trimming vegetables for human consumption.
Don't forget to see your veterinarian: Rabbits make better pets if spayed or neutered, and their teeth need regular veterinary attention.
-- Exercise and play. Rabbits were meant to run, which is why the life of a caged pet can be both sad and short. Indoor rabbits can roam around the house under your supervision. Outdoor pets need a half-hour of activity daily in a protected area. Supervision is a must, since rabbits can be scared literally to death by cats, dogs and even jays and crows.
Cat toys, dog toys and even the cardboard tubes inside toilet paper rolls are fun for rabbits, who like to play.
Are you ready for a rabbit? If the answer's yes, forget the Easter sales push and adopt one from a rescue group or humane society. You'll find lots of great pets to choose from, and you'll be saving a life.
PETS ON THE WEB
The House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org) is the best site on the Web for anyone looking for information on these sweet-natured pets. Before the HRS, much of the information that was out there was of the 4-H variety -- from people who were raising rabbits for meat.
Thanks are due to the House Rabbit Society's members for helping others to realize the pet potential in these long-overlooked animals. The society's Web site offers information on everything from housing to nutrition to finding a bun-friendly veterinarian. The organization last year marked a world's first: the opening of a shelter exclusively for rabbits in Richmond, Calif.
Rabbit rescue groups and shelters are so overwhelmed that the House Rabbit Society has called on industry giant Petco to stop selling rabbits in its stores. The chain is one of those good corporate citizens that doesn't sell kittens and puppies, and instead offers in-store space to nonprofit rescue groups looking to find families for homeless dogs and cats.
The arrangement could not be better for either side, with the charitable groups gaining access to the store's traffic, and the store basking in the goodwill generated by its good deed. Best of all, the policy truly helps to fight the overpopulation of dogs and cats.
What's good for dogs and cats is good for rabbits, too. Let's hope that Petco extends its commendable pro-adoption policies by encouraging rabbit adoptions and ending rabbit sales.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We gave our kids a puppy for Christmas. Cinders is 4 months old now -- destructive, nippy and still not housebroken. We realize now that the advice on not getting a puppy for Christmas is right on. We don't have much time now to work with the dog, and taking a puppy out when it's cold is no fun. Despite the problems, she is a sweet puppy. We've decided as a family to do what it takes to keep her.
We've started working with a trainer, and things are getting better. She has us crating the puppy, and that seems to be helping with the house-breaking. My question: The trainer says it's OK to leave the puppy in the crate all night. Can Cinders really "hold it" that long? -- S.R., via e-mail
A: Some puppies sleep through the night pretty soon after they come home, while others are considerably more fidgety. The younger the puppy, the more likely it is that you'll have to get up at least once to take your little darling outside. Your puppy's crate should be right next to your bed, helping with bonding and making it easier for you to hear your puppy rustling when he needs to go out.
Make sure you're helping your pup to make it through the night by conducting the nighttime ritual properly. Offer your pup her last water no soon than an hour before bedtime, and take her out for one last squat just before you settle her into the crate for the night. If you're letting your pup tank up before bed, she won't make it until morning.
In the daytime, use this rule of thumb: Puppies can "hold it" in a crate for about as long as their age in months: two hours for 2-month-olds, three hours for 3-month-olds, and so on. About five or six hours is the most any dog should be crated, no matter the age.
Kudos to you for recognizing that you need to work to make Cinders the pet you dreamed of when she came to your home. Your puppy's "problems" aren't problems at all -- they're just normal behavior. Keep working with your trainer, and you'll all get through this difficult period.
Q: I've moved with my cat from a house in a quiet neighborhood to one that's very close to a very busy six-lane boulevard. I never worried about Jake being outside before, but with this deadly street just two blocks away, I decided he needed to stay inside for good. He has other ideas, however, and his crying, rushing the door and other behaviors are driving me crazy. How long before he knocks it off and settles down? -- W.G., via e-mail
A: That's going to depend on Jake, but you have made it easier on you both by converting him to an indoor cat at the time of your move. That's because you haven't suddenly cut off your cat from established territory, but have offered him a whole new indoor area to claim as his own.
If you don't give in to his demands by letting him out, he should settle down within a matter of weeks. If you let him out, however, you're rewarding him for putting up a fuss, which means his insistent behavior will get worse. Don't give in!
Be patient but firm, and keep him occupied with games and attention. If he likes catnip, get a fresh supply to rub on his toys and scratching post. If possible, give him safe access to the outdoors with a screened-in porch, or a screened window with a cat perch on the inside.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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