by Emma Chow
When we moved up to our first proper house in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria, we decided it was time our 4 year old son have his first pet. We decided on a pair of lop-eared rabbits and named them Alfie and Boris. We purchased them at 6 weeks old from a local animal farm, and the furry things have grown into part of the family.
It used to be common to keep a lone pet bunny in a small outdoor cage with occasional free run time in the garden. Both my partner and I had bunnies as children and both our pets met untimely ends in outdoor homes; mine contracted one of those deadly rabbit diseases and my partner’s was eaten. Today animal welfare groups recommend rabbits be kept in large indoor enclosures or have free run of your home. Large outdoor enclosures with tunnels and hidey holes are an option, however not everyone has a large yard and rabbits are still susceptible to diseases carried by fleas and mosquitos, and are easy prey for larger animals. Yet rabbits like large spaces to roam and run. They bond with their owners and crave companionship and affection. They are also very sensitive to the extremes of hot and cold weather. Domestic rabbits are very different from their wild counterparts; they no longer have the natural instincts to survive outdoors, and have no ability behave defensively when stuck in a small cage.
As ‘house rabbits’ are not yet so popular Australia as in the US and UK, you might be surprised at the idea of a free ranging indoor rabbit. They chew, dig, scratch, shed and poop everywhere, right? Well that isn’t much different from the behaviour of a kitten or puppy. It takes time to train all pets not to behave badly. Rabbits, despite being on the bottom of the food chain, are surprisingly intelligent. They can be litter trained faster than cats or dogs. People have been known to keep happy bunnies in apartments and bedrooms.
There are a lot of benefits to having indoor rabbits. They happily subsist on a cheap diet of oaten hay, pellets and fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. Rabbit poop is possibly the most inoffensive of all animal poops: dry little balls of mild smelling stuff. Our bunnies have a ‘toilet’ built out of an old set of IKEA shelves with wooden door hiding a large plastic tray full of hay. Bunnies jump over the door, into the tray, munch on the hay and do their business. Rabbit poop is perfect fertiliser for your garden; unlike other types of animal waste, it does not need to be composted before being added to the garden and does not burn plants. We empty litter into veggie patches to prepare for planting, scatter poop around existing plants, and put the rest in the compost.
Rabbits are very quiet pets. The only time you’ll ever hear their voice is if they’re in pain, and this is only when they’re being attacked or have contracted a serious illness. Otherwise the only noise you’ll hear is furry footfalls, and chewing. Admittedly the chewing is the most difficult part about owning a rabbit. Rabbit proofing a house is relatively easy; many people choose a room or a corner of their home for the rabbit(s) to free-range and enclose the area with a simple pet fence. For us, our rabbits live in our open plan lounge/dining/kitchen area and have expressed interest in wooden furniture legs, corners of upholstered couches, baseboards and windowsills. A loud couple of claps when you catch them will eventually train them to stop the behaviour. Again, this is not much different from a kitten or puppy that has the need to scratch or dig. One way or another, when you opt for this sort of furry companion pet, you can expect a little house and possession damage. Cats love to claw, dogs love to chew and dig, and bunnies nibble everything. Generally de-sexing a pet rabbit will reduce digging and chewing, and this usually needs to happen between 4-6 months. All electrical cables in our house are blocked with covers, tubing and creative furniture arrangement. Bunnies will go for a cable every time; they don’t know any better. We lost a few iPhone chargers before we learnt our lesson. We provide cardboard boxes to hide in and chew, apple branches, willow toys, old wooden baby toys and toys made of toilet rolls stuffed with hay and treats. The other issue is shed rabbit hair. If you’ve an indoor cat or dog, you probably vacuum and clean their hair from your home frequently. No different with bunnies; I vacuum every morning and suck up what looks like an entire rabbit’s worth of hair every day.
Many house-rabbit websites do not recommend them as pets for children under the age of 8. This is largely because rabbits are easily frightened, and an over enthusiastic squeeze or being chased by an over-enthusiastic child can injure or shorten the life of a rabbit. But this really depends on the temperament of the child. Our four year old son is a quiet, bookish type of boy. He doesn’t like the way dogs jump and lick. He does like cats but is wary of their changeable moods and claws. The gentleness of the rabbits matches his temperament. He likes to sit on the floor and stroke them while talking to them. Both rabbits happily come to him when he approaches, or investigate when he’s playing on the rug. They have a beautiful companionship. But our rabbits are also undemanding. Because they are a bonded pair, they enjoy our attention, but don’t need it constantly. Having our indoor rabbits has been a great way to teach our eldest to be responsible and nurturing. It’s his job to put their pellets in their bowl morning and evening, and he and I will often collect flowers, carrot tops and clover from our garden to give as a treat.
If you have a little room and would love a furry companion for your family, then a house rabbit could be for you. Vegetarian or vegan families will appreciate that bunnies do not have any meat in their diet. Having a single bunny results in a pet strongly bonded to your family and it requires more love and affection from you to be happy. However rabbits are generally better-off in pairs and taking care of two is actually not much more difficult. I recommend indoor rabbits as a quiet, gentle, easy to manage pet. If you have very small children that are likely to unknowingly terrorise rabbits then I would suggest waiting until they are older and ready to embrace the tenderness and responsibility.