By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
They're sweet, they're soft ... and they eat electrical cords. Rabbits might seem like a good idea for a holiday surprise for your little tikes, but it's best to do your homework before deciding to bring one home with you.
"The only thing that I would say is that they really don't make a good first pet," says Cheryl Wakeman, animal caretaker at Shenandoah County Animal Shelter, who has owned three rabbits in the past. "But they do make wonderful pets."
With the right research, preparation and devotion, anyone can find companionship with a rabbit, Wakeman says.
Amy Shenk, manager of the Winchester Aquarium & Pet Center, agrees.
"Rabbits actually make amazing pets," she says. "They're very intelligent."
She recommends Holland lop rabbits for those who are new to raising the animals.
"The reason why Holland lops are the most common is because they're the most mellow," she says. Many customers choose the lops over another breed, such as the mini Rex, which Shenk says can be more aggressive or timid.
"Anything that has the word 'mini' on it can be a little ... more skittish. It's the dwarf in them," she says.
Holland lops grow to about 5 pounds, half the size of a typical house cat.
"The boys tend to get a little bit bigger than the girls," she says.
Another recommended breed is the Netherlands dwarf, Shenk says.
"Netherland[s] dwarfs only get to 21/2 to 3 pounds." They are one of the smallest breeds, she says.
French lops, on the other hand, are one of the largest breeds, and will grow to about 10 pounds.
"They're the kind of animal that will just sit on your lap and sleep while you're watching TV," she says.
"If someone has younger children, I'd recommend a Holland lop," she says. "They're very smart."
Rabbits require a clean environment, lots of attention and room to play, Wakeman says. Their cages need to be cleaned every day.
"They eat and drink, go to the bathroom in their cage," Shenk says.
"And they're very clean," she says. "You don't have to bathe them, they bathe themselves."
Rabbits can also be litter-box trained, but it takes time and patience. Even rabbits will have accidents and need to be monitored often, not left to run about the house unnoticed.
Rabbits will choose a corner of their cage to use as a litter box, Shenk says, so it's important to watch the rabbit in its first few days in a new home.
"They actually pick the corner. ... You figure out the corner they're going to the most," she says.
Place its litter box in that corner. Pet stores sell triangle shaped litter boxes to fit easily into the corner of a cage. Fill the litter box with paper-based bedding to use in place of litter.
"You might have to move it a couple times [until they choose]," she says.
"They go to the bathroom as far away from where they sleep [as possible,]" Shenk says. "Spot clean daily like you would a cat."
"Until recently, a lot of people used cedar," she says of the bedding. "It causes respiratory infections ... a lot of bunnies are allergic to it."
"It also decreases life span -- years," she adds. "I always recommend using paper-based bedding."
The average life span of a rabbit is eight to 10 years, she says, which is "good for a child as opposed to a hamster, which lives only one to two years."
Always use a flat-bottomed cage for a rabbit; never use bars, she says. The bars will not only hinder a rabbit in learning to use one corner for its litter box, it can also cause arthritis in rabbits.
Rabbits can be very sociable and will get along well with other pets in the house, if they are properly introduced as a fellow pet.
"They can be good with dogs, dogs can be good with them; they can be good with cats," Wakeman says.
It is perhaps easier to introduce a kitten or puppy to a rabbit, rather than an older house pet that has never dealt with a pet rabbit.
They can get along with guinea pigs, but should not share the same cage or food, Shenk says.
"Guinea pigs require a certain amount of vitamin C, the bunnies don't need that," she says. Rabbits eat pellets and hay.
"Bunnies are not supposed to have any fruit or vegetables for up to nine months," she says. As a treat, though, they can eat a flat tablespoon of regular Quaker oats every day, which aids in digestion.
"It's the fiber. The fiber actually prevents them from getting wet tail, and wet tail is actually fatal in small animals," Shenk says.
"It's a treat for them," she says. It's also good bonding. "They'll eat right out of your hand."
Bonding with humans is very important for a rabbit in a new home.
"They're going to be very scared, very intimidated," Wakeman says. It will take a while for a young rabbit to learn to trust his or her new family. The animal also will need to be petted and held often, she says.
"[You] have to be close to them, reassure them." They will adjust to a new home just fine if handled right, she says.
During the workday when people are not home, rabbits should remain in their cages. When you are home, it's bonding time, Shenk says.
"They'll get lonely," she says. They need attention.
Bunny-proofing the living space is also important. Rabbits will chew on anything they can find because their teeth are always growing, Shenk says.
"Make sure that you either spray the [power] cords or monitor," she says. "Follow the bunny ... 'cause they're curious."
Pet stores sell a bitter apple spray to deter rabbits from chewing on cords or other dangerous items. Cord covers will also do the trick.
Most important is doing the proper research before adopting. Many people will bring a rabbit home for their children around Easter, thinking their children will take care of the new little member of the family, but not really knowing how to handle a rabbit, Wakeman says.
"They're not ready for them, and the kids are not ready for them," she says.
These scenarios often end tragically, with the rabbit winding up at a shelter two or three months later when the family realizes how much work it is.
"It's very important that you get all the information that you need before you get a pet," Shenk says.
The bunnies at Winchester Aquarium & Pet Center come directly from a breeder who bonds with the rabbits, familiarizing them with humans before they are adopted at about 6 weeks of age.
"They're at the age where they're ready to bond, they're ready to go into a home," Shenk says.