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Bunnies for Easter

Easter is approaching and, typically, many people purchase live rabbits as gifts. What could be cuter than a child cuddling a fluffy little bunny?

A rabbit should be easy to care for because they don’t make noise, food is inexpensive and the animal can be put away in its cage. Right?

Wrong, according to a network of dedicated volunteers from House Rabbit Network – – a nonprofit Woburn-based organization dedicated to humane treatment of rabbits. Think about it first, they advise. Ownership is a long-term commitment with demands.

Often, the novelty wears off and the rabbits are dumped at a shelter, or worse, set free in the woods. The organization receives many phone calls from people who purchased a bunny that died within a few days or weeks. Many pet stores sell rabbits as young as four weeks old. They shouldn’t leave their mothers for at least eight weeks.

Most people don’t realize that rabbits are not good starter pets for children. They are unaware that rabbits hate to be held, live eight to 10 years and are about as much work as a dog or cat. Sadly, many end up in shelters, said Ray Fratus, a volunteer from Shirley.

Rabbits can be adopted just like dogs or cats, Fratus said, and they require an equal amount of care. The experienced volunteers at House Rabbit Network can talk to prospective owners about life with a rabbit, and discuss the different personalities, sizes and habits of the foster rabbits available for adoption.

Rabbits require fresh vegetables and pellets at least twice a day, cleaning of litter boxes, daily changes of water bottles, supervision when playing, fresh hay and visits to the veterinarian. They should also be spayed or neutered.

Just like other pets, they can be destructive. They chew on furniture, baseboards and wires. While rabbits use a litter box fairly reliably, they will occasionally have accidents and, if not spayed or neutered, may spray or mark their territory with urine or droppings.

That’s not to say rabbits don’t make good pets. According to information on the network’s Web site and Sweet Blinks Rabbit Rescue, of Foster, R.I. – – the rewards of having a well-adjusted, healthy house rabbit are worth the challenge of owning one, said Ellen Freidman, another local volunteer.

Sweet Blinks was founded and is managed by Rhode Island resident Pamela Hood. Her 1,800-square-foot shelter is the only licensed rabbit shelter in New England. It took in 250 rabbits in 2005 and found more than 200 permanent homes for them.

The cruelty page on the Web site graphically indicates what often happens to rabbits in the hands of people who have not educated themselves about proper care, Freidman said. She advises visitors to scroll through the page and look particularly at two adoptive bunnies, Possum and Cameron.

Rabbits are domesticated prey animals that are highly sensitive to their environment. The natural curiosity and energy level of young children can create too much stress for most bunnies. Children often prefer a pet they can hold, cuddle and play with. Rabbits rarely tolerate being carried around and do not play interactively.

This often leads to the rabbit being labeled as boring and left alone in its cage day after day. As sociable, inquisitive animals, rabbits require several hours of play time every day for their well being where they can interact with their human friends without high noise or stress levels.

Young children can be dangerous for rabbits because the animals have fragile spines that can break if they are dropped. Even very gentle children don’t have sufficient hand-eye coordination to handle a rabbit. A frightened rabbit can also kick and scratch, injuring a child or adult.

Both Web sites offer guidance in owning rabbits:

o Timothy or other grass hays, leafy greens and daily fresh water are dietary staples, not pellets, which are a leading cause of obesity and should be fed in moderation. Avoid human treats such as Cheerios, bread, chocolate or crackers. Good treats are a half-inch of banana, a thin slice of apple or a couple of raisins. Also, avoid processed treats from pet stores.

o The smallest recommended size cage is 24-by-36-by-24-inches. The rabbit should be able to stand up on his hind legs with his ears erect and easily stretch out on the floor.

o Rabbits train themselves to use a litter box, but clay cat litters are too dusty and clumping litters cause fatalities. Cedar and pine shavings can cause liver and kidney damage, and should be avoided. Use recycled newspaper litter.

o Do not use wire-floored cages because the wire wears down the fur and leads to skin breakdown and infection. Wire floor cages are also very hard to keep clean.

o Rabbits need at least three to four hours of exercise outside the cage every day. Keep the area free of harmful objects and plants you don’t want eaten. They need toys such as cardboard boxes, paper bags and telephone books as well.

o House rabbits indoors to protect them from temperature, predators and the instinctive fear they endure when they sense that predators may be nearby.

o Regularly brush rabbits to keep them from ingesting fur. Also, clip their nails when they get too long.

Since rabbits are considered exotic pets, it is important that you find a knowledgeable veterinarian. As prey animals, their instincts tell them to hide symptoms of illness or injury so they do not appear vulnerable to predators. Owners must be vigilant about even small behavioral changes.

Rabbits can be easily stressed by sudden motion or loud noises. Many house rabbits get along well with children, dogs and cats, but careful supervision by adults is essential.

Rabbits seldom vocalize, but may occasionally snort or grunt if annoyed. A very frightened rabbit screams like a tea kettle. Unaltered rabbits hum little love songs, and happy rabbits purr by lightly grinding their teeth together. Happy rabbits may dance, race around or leap in the air, flop over on their side or back or stretch flat out.

A rabbit who places his or her chin on the ground is usually asking to be groomed, by you or another rabbit. This is called presenting.

If approached too abruptly, a rabbit may box, rear up and even bite. They have a blind spot in front of them because their eyes are placed to detect predators from above and behind, so a cautious approach from above where the rabbit can see the hand is recommended.

Neither organization accepts animals who are being discarded because of space limitations. Finding a new home is the best option, but it takes time. Both organizations recommend spaying or neutering the rabbit, making descriptive flyers that can be posted on bulletin boards and charging a nominal amount of money to prevent snake owners from taking the rabbit as food.

Rabbits can be taken to a local MSPCA or Animal Rescue League shelter, even if euthanasia is threatened. That is far more preferable, the experts say, to the suffering a domesticated rabbit set free in the wild encounters before death.