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A hare-raising tale

Rabbits can be great pets, but rescuers caution they
take the same care and commitment as dogs or cats
Eileen Mitchell, Special to The Chronicle
April 5, 2006


Annie and Buddy keep each other company.
Pet rabbits lead healthier and safer lives indoors.
 Photo by K.C. Frogge
 

Hershey gets comfy in the rocking chair in this Oakland living room.
Photo by K.C. Frogge

Pity the bunny. Easter is the only time of year when these gentle creatures get any worthwhile attention and even then, it's not to their advantage. That's because the holiday drives well-meaning people to impulsively seek bunnies as pets. Often, without first doing critical homework.

And according to Marcy Schaaf, that sets the stage for failure. In 1999, Schaaf founded Marin's Save a Bunny, a licensed rescue group run through the House Rabbit Society, a publicly supported nonprofit organization based in Richmond.

"Rabbits are smart, funny and mischievous," Schaaf says with affection. "But people have misconceptions about them. They think rabbits are low-maintenance and that's simply not true."

Rabbits are also considered multi-use animals and classified as poultry, rather than livestock. This means they don't enjoy protection under the federal Humane Slaughter Act and may be fully conscious while being slaughtered, often skinned alive.

"If people really knew rabbits, they wouldn't want to eat them." Schaaf is referring to the popular Sonoma rabbit entree found on many Wine Country menus. "It's being touted as the 'new white meat' but really, Sonoma rabbit is just branding. This disconnects people from the reality of what they're eating. It's no different than kitten-kabobs or puppy pot pie."

A hard dish to swallow. Particularly since rabbits make wonderful companion animals, just like their feline and canine counterparts. They bond for life with their guardians, have distinct personalities, know their names, play with toys and can learn to use an indoor litter box. They are quiet, sweet, intelligent animals, which can make it easy to forget that a rabbit will act like a rabbit. It will run, dig, chew and must have proper outlets.

"They aren't a 'starter animal,' " Schaaf warns. "But for the right family, rabbits are wonderful. People just need to first be educated."

Starting with what to call them.

"We never use the expression 'pocket pet,' " she emphasizes. "This implies that a child can stick the rabbit in their pocket. Most rabbits don't like to be picked up and especially by their ears or scruff. They have a very fragile skeletal frame and can easily break a bone if held or squeezed the wrong way. We prefer the word 'companion' to make the rabbit an integral member of the family rather than a product."

Another misconception is that rabbits are outdoor pets. "Today, rabbits are where cats were 20 years ago," Schaaf says. "Back then, people thought cats were outdoor pets and now we realize that cats live longer and healthier lives when they're kept indoors. The same applies to rabbits. They need that human interaction and protection. Sticking them outside is like tying a puppy to a tree, then ignoring it."

While an indoor rabbit can live up to 10 years or more, the average outdoor rabbit will last just one to three years, often succumbing to heatstroke, disease or predators. And no hutch is safe. Schaaf has seen rabbit limbs yanked through chicken wire and chewed off by determined predators.

An outdoor rabbit will also be less clean than its indoor brethren, attracting flies and increasing its exposure to a condition called fly-strike. Flies lay eggs that hatch into maggots, which then eat away at the living flesh, sometimes down to the bone or into the abdomen. In warm weather, the entire process can take just a couple of hours, literally eating the rabbit alive.

These are a few reasons Save a Bunny's adoption contract specifies that adopted companions must be kept indoors. Schaaf recommends a solid-bottom dog cage that is at least six times the rabbit's size. She steers people away from rabbit cages sold in pet stores. "They're usually too small, overpriced and designed for human convenience and not rabbit safety or comfort."

Pet rabbits should be checked by a rabbit-savvy vet annually, have nails trimmed monthly, hair brushed weekly (long-haired rabbits, daily) and litter box changed daily. A healthy rabbit will also enjoy at least three to four hours of exercise each day, outside the cage, in a rabbit-proof room. This means removing poisonous plants and covering outlets and tasty electrical wires.

Interested guardians looking for some bunny to love should first check their local shelters. Schaaf strongly discourages pet store purchases, citing hard-to-resist babies that are often under-age and not always properly identified as male or female. They also aren't spayed or neutered.

"Babies are cute, but soon turn into a raging pile of hormones," Schaaf cautions. "At around 5 months, docile babies morph into squirming teenagers who don't want to be held or cuddled. They also become sexually mature and may start to spray urine to mark their territory. Rabbits that aren't spayed or neutered may hump anything from the family cat to a guest's leg, and can become aggressive about their cage and supplies."

Not surprisingly, this is when people will surrender their rabbits to shelters. "Most pet stores aren't well informed about the proper care of bunnies and won't take the animal back if there's a problem," she adds. "Frustrated guardians complain that their new rabbit is destroying their home. That's because no one told them how to prepare or what to expect. The best choice for most families is a spayed or neutered adult rabbit, at least 1 year old."

Funded entirely by donations, Save a Bunny has approximately 40 volunteers. They work directly with local animal shelters and rescue up to 300 surrendered rabbits each year. This leaves little room or resources for private rescues.

"San Francisco Animal Control is especially good about giving rabbits a chance to be adopted," Schaaf notes with admiration, then sighs. "Nobody wants to euthanize a healthy animal. But shelters and rescues simply don't have enough room."

Adoption fees at Save a Bunny range from $80 to $100, considerably less than pet store expenses, which can triple in costs after factoring in supplies and vet bills. Shelter rabbits are spayed or neutered, which helps eliminate musky odors and reduces the risk of cancer. They also come equipped with coupons for a free vet exam and discounts for supplies. Save a Bunny does not adopt bunnies as gifts, nor will they do same-day adoptions.

"People must first complete our online form and read about rabbit care and supplies," Schaaf advises. "They have to know what to expect and be willing to make a 10-year commitment to the proper care and love of the rabbit. Our staff knows each rabbit's personality and will assist in matching the right person to the right rabbit."

Resources

A Bunny Basics class will be taught at Marin Humane Society from 10 a.m.-noon Saturday. (415) 388-2790.

Save a Bunny will be at the San Francisco SPCA April 15. Adoption outposts are also held several times a month at the PetSmart in Dublin and PetFood Express in Novato. (415) 506-6288.

Learn More: Visit Save a Bunny at www.saveabunny.com or the House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org.

-- E.M.

Eileen Mitchell writes the monthly Dog's Life column. E-mail her at home@sfchronicle.com.
 

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