17/04/2014 13:03 BST | Updated 17/06/2014 06:59 BST

How the Humble Rabbit Became the Easter Bunny

photography via Getty Images

Ever wondered why rabbits are so often associated with Easter?

This Easter weekend, most of us will be excitedly looking forward to receiving some chocolate, usually in the shape of an egg or perhaps even a bunny. But how did the rabbit become so inextricably linked with Easter traditions?

It's thought that the hunt for Easter eggs pre-dates any association with the rabbit. But as a result of excited children searching for their precious eggs in long grass and inadvertently flushing out scared rabbits, these stories of rabbits leaving eggs behind began.

Historically, rabbits, hares and eggs were pagan fertility symbols signifying spring and new life, with Eostre the pagan goddess usually depicted with a symbolic animal, the hare; able to lay colourful eggs to entertain eager children. So when the Christians moved into pagan territories, they decided that these coloured eggs weren't harmful, adopting the custom into their own festivities.

Furthermore, German settlers arriving in the USA in the 18th Century brought with them the legend of 'Oschter Haws', the white Easter Hare. Children would behave themselves, believing that if they were good, Oschter Haws would lay colourful eggs for them in nests made with their favourite hat or bonnet and placed out in the barn.

By the 19th century, the Easter Hare had become the Easter Rabbit, and American families would later also include the nest tradition - adding baskets, chocolates, and occasionally money. Like most stateside traditions, they soon made their way over to our shores.

The number of pet rabbits in the UK has been increasing for years, with fully litter-trained house rabbits now hugely popular nationwide. Sadly, like all cute, fluffy pets, many rabbits are impulse buys or gifts - so if you're considering buying a real-life Easter bunny, be prepared for years of looking after it responsibly.

Rabbits often make excellent companions but should never be treated as the 'classic children's pet'. They're extremely sensitive creatures, super-intelligent animals requiring specific care including correct diet, toys, bedding, and housing. Rabbits also need regular visits to the vet for vaccinations against killer viral diseases such as myxomatosis, as well as regular teeth and weight checks.

In summer months rabbits (especially elderly, obese, or suffering dental disease) are extremely susceptible to the horrific disease 'fly strike' in which flies lay their eggs on rabbits' dirty bottoms. These hatch quickly giving rise to thousands of hungry flesh eating maggots that will, if left untreated, burrow their way inside your rabbit and kill it within just a few hours.

In order to prevent this disease from occurring please check under your rabbit's bottom at least twice daily in warmer months and use fly prevention/repellent techniques like sticky strips, net curtains placed over hutch, or spot-on treatments. Ask your vet for details.

The months following Easter often sadly see neglected and unwanted bunnies being returned to pet shops, or even sent to rescue centres with little hope of adoption. So if you're considering getting a rabbit, please think carefully - why not seek out a homeless rescue rabbit first and both enjoy an even happier Easter together!