You may have seen the news this week stating that Pets at Home is set to suspend sales and adoptions of rabbits at all of its 400-plus stores this Easter. We feel that this measure will highlight the number of rabbits that are left homeless each year, and the commitment required to own them, a topic that is important to me as a vet, animal lover and employee of Pets at Home.
Each year, customer interest in rabbits increases at Easter, which may lead people to want rabbits without fully considering the long-term ownership implications. Instead of selling rabbits over the Easter holidays however, Pets at Home will educate children and adults on the importance of the welfare needs of rabbits, through a series of free workshops available in store. We are hoping this will help families to make an informed decision about the long term commitment and responsibilities that come with pet ownership.
Recent research from the 2015 Pets at Home Pet Report revealed that rabbits are the third most popular choice of pet for British children* and owning rabbits has proven benefits for them. In the study 72% of parents agreed that owning a pet has helped with their child's anxiety. In fact, rabbit owners in particular (60%) said that their child had become more responsible and 57% of parents also said they had seen an improvement in their children's learning difficulties since getting rabbits.
So what do you need to know about caring for rabbits? Well, here are my top ten tips on how to care for these wonderfully intelligent and inquisitive pets:
1. Rabbits, whether kept indoors or outdoors need a lot of space, a big shelter and a spacious living area. The shelter is somewhere for your rabbits to rest, hide and feel safe. The living area should be large enough for your rabbits to run, jump, hop around, explore, dig, graze and forage.
2. Rabbits need a balanced diet which is high in fibre. Sudden changes to their diet should be avoided, as this can cause fatal digestive system upsets.
3. Hay in addition to grass must always be available for your rabbits to eat - it helps maintain healthy digestion and wears your rabbits' teeth down naturally.
4. Rabbits should be neutered to avoid breeding and reduce the risks of fighting, urine spraying and some cancers. It is known that many female rabbits will develop fatal uterine cancer if they are not neutered, so even rabbits kept on their own or with another female companion should be neutered. Ask a vet for advice.
5. Rabbits must be vaccinated against two killer diseases - Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), usually yearly. Ask your vet about when to get these vaccinations.
6. Check your rabbit for signs of illness or injury daily. Healthy rabbits are alert with bright eyes, dry nostrils and clean, shiny coats. Their readily visible droppings should be dry, small, firm pellets, they do produce more moist and sticky droppings, but these are ingested by the rabbits as part of normal behavior.
7. Check your rabbits' bottoms daily (or twice daily during warm weather), and clean them if necessary. Otherwise urine staining or droppings can attract flies which lay eggs on the rabbit and cause fatal 'flystrike'. Rabbits are naturally very clean animals, so it is important understand why your rabbit may not be keeping itself clean.
8. If rabbits' teeth grow too long, they become very painful and make eating difficult. Check your rabbits' front and back teeth regularly and go to your vet if you are concerned. Feeding the correct high-fibre diet is essential to help prevent teeth from overgrowing.
9. Long-haired rabbits need grooming daily. Short-haired rabbits can be groomed weekly. Regular grooming helps you bond with your rabbits and spot health problems.
10. One of the most stressful times for small animals is when they move house. Small animals can carry diseases that can be triggered when moving. Always make sure that new animals are allowed a quiet period with little disturbance to settle in for a few days so that they are rested and feel secure in their new home.
As you can see, there's a lot more to owning a rabbit than most people may realise. If you want to learn more and experience handling a rabbit first hand then visit one of the rabbit workshops taking place as part of Pets at Home's My Pet Pals club. To find your nearest workshop, visit petsathome.com/workshops
And remember, a rabbit is for life, not just for Easter.
*The Pet Report, 2015