and Christie Keith
Here's the first thing you need to know about rabbits: Given what they need to stay active, these fluffy, nose-twitching animals are affectionate and engaging pets. Kept in a barren cage or hutch and deprived of exercise and mental stimulation, however, they're not just boring, they're bored -- not to mention unhappy and unhealthy.
Despite warnings not to get a pet on impulse, we know it happens. If you ended up with a baby bunny as an Easter present, we want to help you realize what a gem of pet you really have.
The discoveries start by getting your bunny out of that boring backyard hutch or small cage and into your life as a "house rabbit."
The wild relatives of pet rabbits cover ranges of two or more acres every day in their hunt for mates and food. Their powerful hindquarters are built for speed, and they can run long distances at high speed to escape predators. While it's not safe to let pet rabbits roam -- they'll almost certainly fall victim to dogs, hawks, disease or cars -- pet owners can easily and inexpensively give rabbits all the exercise and playtime they need to turn domestication into bliss.
Playtime provides a big payoff to rabbit owners, too. It helps prevent health problems including obesity, decreased bone density, gastrointestinal disease and urinary tract infections. Bunnies who get lots of mental and physical activity are much more likely to confine their chewing and digging to their toys, instead of their owners' belongings.
Judith Pierce, manager of the San Diego chapter of the House Rabbit Society, suggests bunny owners start enriching their pets' lives by thinking inside the box -- the cardboard box.
"We can spend hundreds of dollars on wonderful toys for our rabbits," she says, "but their favorite toy is usually a plain old cardboard box. They love to climb and hide inside them, so it's important to find boxes that have multiple openings."
Rabbits also love to play with the empty rolls from paper towels or toilet paper. "They even like to play with towels," said Pierce "They like to push them around, dig in them, and snuggle up with them."
When it comes to rabbit toys, Pierce suggests forgetting about species. "One of the ways you know someone is a rabbit owner," Pierce says, "is they spend a lot of time at baby stores, even though they don't have babies."
Pierce recommends multicolored plastic linking toys made for babies. "I pull them apart and make them into little circles, and toss them to the rabbits. They love them."
Toddlers' plastic play structures are another rabbit favorite. "A friend has a kid's climbing and slide setup in her yard," Pierce says. "Rabbits love to climb, and hers got up on top of it and looked at the slide. She could just see him thinking, 'What's this?' And he slid down and loved it."
Like cats, rabbits like to perch up high, so play and exercise structures made for cats are suitable for rabbits too. Look for cat condos and climbing trees with ramps, tunnels and platforms, which also have the benefit of helping make the most of a small indoor space.
Don't be afraid of the great outdoors, though. While rabbits should live in the house most of the time, safely enclosed outside patios can be a bunny wonderland. "Just don't leave them outdoors unattended," cautioned Pierce. "Close them inside if you can't watch them."
Other great rabbit toys include:
-- Paper bags and boxes filled with newspaper for shredding and digging, along with balls.
-- Wicker baskets are also a fun. Just make sure the wicker hasn't been treated with anything
-- Hard plastic baby toys like rattles. Don't use toys meant for teething; they're not hard enough for rabbits.
-- Dried pine cones and fresh apple tree branches are favorite toys. Some trees are toxic to rabbits, including redwood, cherry, plum, peach and apricot, so be cautious.
If you don't already have a bunny, shelters and rescue groups always have plenty to choose from. Hop to it: Your next great pet is an adoption away.
What to do about egg-laying
Q: We have a little parakeet. Last night she laid her first egg. We threw it away, but we wonder if there will be more since she doesn't have a mate. -- M.C., via e-mail.
A: For help with this one, I turned to Dr. Brian L. Speer, one of the world's top avian veterinarians and my co-author on "Birds for Dummies" (Wiley, $22). Speer says that in such cases, removing the egg is the common recommendation. But there's more to know about egg-laying birds and how to handle them.
"Unlike many mammals, birds do not cycle regularly," says Speer. "Their reproductive cycle is dependent on environmental cues that tend to support and justify the expenditure of energy for reproductive purposes."
Such cues, he says, include thinking there's a mate available, believing there's an adequate nesting site in the cage, having adequate food and a healthy environment. To keep your bird from continuing to lay eggs, Speer says it's important to evaluate the bird's care, especially when it comes to handling and the environment.
Instead of offering your bird the materials that can be used for nesting, says Speer, provide food puzzles stuffed with lower-calorie foods to keep her busy "foraging" for meals in an imitation of how she'd behave in the wild. And just in case a member of your family is being perceived as the "mate," be sure pair-bonding between a single person and bird is discouraged by having all members of the family becoming involved in bird care.
Finally, mix things up. "A bird's environment should be continually changed, altered or moved," says Speer. "That's because constant changes in the environment tend not to encourage or support reproductive activity."
So ... throw the eggs away, and then take a good close look at the messages your bird is getting. If they're saying "lay," it's time to shake things up a bit. -- Gina Spadafori
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-- The pet market grew in 2009 despite a weak economy. A report by Packaged Facts estimates the pet industry generated $53 billion last year -- a figure the company says will hit $72 billion by 2014. The report credits the industry's strength to the growing importance of the human-animal bond. Even those pet owners who have cut back on some areas of pet-related spending are still buying small indulgences for their pets, increasing the spending in 2009 on dog and cat treats.
-- A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 5 percent of U.S. pets are microchipped, compared to nearly a quarter of European pets.
-- Ferret fanciers have specific terms for their pets, starting with "hob," for an unneutered male ferret, and "jill" for an unspayed female. Babies are called "kits," and the correct terms for altered adults are "gibs" (males) and "sprites" (females). Most charming of all, a group of these playful pets is called a "business" of ferrets (although some use "busyness" instead). -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Roll because the stink's so good
While veterinary behaviorists aren't sure why dogs like to roll in stinky stuff and eat rotten things, many believe these pets are marking themselves with their most prized possessions to show them off to all of their two-legged and four-legged friends. For a dog, wearing stinky stuff is like wearing the best of all designer-label scents.
Not only do dogs have millions more scent receptors than we have, they are also polar opposites when it comes to putting stuff on their skin. While people like smells that are fresh, floral and fragrant, dogs prefer dirty, dead and (to us) disgusting.
Forget trying to prevent your dog from rolling in the stinkiest things imaginable. For you it's disgusting; for them it's divine. With thousands of years of practice behind them, dogs will continue to go boldly where no man, or woman, would ever choose to go.
The only way to stop the stinky search-and-roll is to keep your dog on the leash -- or teach a foolproof come-hither when called. -- Dr. Marty Becker
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Getting help with the cat
Hiring a pet sitter is by far the most common service hired by cat lovers, and it's becoming even more popular -- and it's a better choice than leaving a cat alone with food and water. Popular cat services:
Pet-sitting at home 62 percent
Other services 16 percent
Boarding 15 percent
Pet transport 7 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
'Bad' pet? These vets can help
A veterinary behaviorist can be the answer to many a difficult pet-behavior challenge. These veterinarians have additional training and certification in animal behavior, so they can work with pet lovers to address any problem simultaneously from medical and behavioral angles. And, of course, they can prescribe medications that may help with retraining in the short run or fix a behavioral problem permanently in the long run.
Your veterinarian should be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist in your area, or you can contact your nearest school or college of veterinary medicine. -- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.