Fiona Knight of Manchester gets her photo taken with a bunny during the SPCA Bunny Fest.
Fiona Knight of Manchester gets her photo taken with a bunny during the SPCA Bunny Fest. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS--JASON PLOTKIN)
If you are thinking of buying your child a rabbit for Easter, York County SPCA Executive Director Melissa Smith hopes you will think again.

"Rabbits have special needs, they require a special diet and special veterinary care, and they have to be handled in a special way," Smith said. "A rabbit does not like to be held, and if picked up can bite or scratch out of fear."

Cute, cuddly bunnies might seem like a great idea, but the reality is that children can quickly lose interest in their new pet. If parents don't have the time or interest to care for the rabbit, it ends up not getting the attention it needs and could end up at the SPCA.

The York County SPCA has a special room for small pets such as rabbits, gerbils and hamsters.

SPCA volunteeer Huey Wright-Campbell sports her bunny best as she gets her photo taken with Cola, who belongs to Eric Hoffman of Springettsbury township
SPCA volunteeer Huey Wright-Campbell sports her bunny best as she gets her photo taken with Cola, who belongs to Eric Hoffman of Springettsbury township during the SPCA Bunny Fest. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS--JASON PLOTKIN)

A dozen rabbits are there now, and Smith hopes the number won't grow after Easter.

"It is a huge problem, especially at this time of the year," she said.

Her advice to anyone looking to buy a rabbit would be to research rabbits to know and understand the potential pet's needs.

"A rabbit can live for 10 years; make sure you are prepared to make that kind of commitment," Smith said.

Michelle Smith, a volunteer at the SPCA, also is an advocate for rabbits, an interest that earned her the nickname "Bugs."

"I visit schools and 4-H clubs and other groups and do educational programs about rabbits," Michelle Smith said. "Rabbits live for seven to 10 years, and if you bring home a rabbit you are making a long-term commitment."

Their diet includes timothy hay, and they need exercise, should have a yearly checkup with a veterinarian, and should be spayed or neutered, she said.

They might be a lot of work, but rabbits that receive the proper care and attention make wonderful pets, Michelle Smith said.

"I have two of them, a male and a female, and they pretty much have the run of my house. They sit beside me on the couch, they sleep with me and the female lays on my chest when I read," she said.

Her two companion rabbits are so much a part of her life that her email messages all include the following comment: "My furs are not in storage, nor lying on the bed. They're dancing 'round my feet, waiting to be fed."

She said rabbits and small children are not a good match.

Children like a companion they can hold and cuddle. Rabbits are not passive and cuddly. They are fragile, ground-loving creatures, who break easily when dropped. They feel frightened and insecure when held and restrained, and are easily frightened by loud noises, she said.

Michelle Smith is pleased with the recent success of a several-year campaign to get the Tractor Supply Co. to stop selling live rabbits at Easter.

2-year-old Kyleigh Luckenbaugh gets her photo taken with Kermella the bunny during the SPCA Bunny Fest.
2-year-old Kyleigh Luckenbaugh gets her photo taken with Kermella the bunny during the SPCA Bunny Fest. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS--JASON PLOTKIN)

"It finally worked, and the last week of January this year they made a press release that they will no longer sell rabbits. It was a big victory for the rabbit community," she said.

Sadly, many rabbits bought as Easter gifts are abandoned after the novelty wears off. Setting your rabbit loose does not make it free, it makes it food, Michelle Smith said.

Domestic rabbits do not have the same instincts as their wild counterparts, and cannot fend for themselves. They quickly become part of the food chain, are run over by cars, or die from heat or disease, she said.

On the bright side, both Melissa Smith and Michelle Smith agree that domestic rabbits are inquisitive, intelligent and very social by nature.

Zoey the bunny at the SPCA.
Zoey the bunny at the SPCA. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS--JASON PLOTKIN)
They make delightful companions as long as you remember they are not toys, but a real commitment.

If you decide to make a rabbit a part of your family, they suggest you wait until after the holiday to adopt a new pet. It also is suggested that an adult agree to be the primary caretaker and always supervise children who are interacting with the rabbit.

For the family that feels it is ready to adopt, the SPCA has rabbits available for an adoption fee of $45 each, which includes the cost or spaying or neutering.

But there are some steps to take before a bunny can be adopted.

The home needs to be rabbit-proofed, because the animals will chew electrical cords and furniture if the items are not out of reach. Companion rabbits also should live indoors as a member of the family, so the pet and its owners can enjoy time spent together.

More information

IF YOU ARE THINKING OF BUYING your child a rabbit for Easter, the House Rabbit Society suggests a toy rabbit instead, one that won't mind being snuggled and that won't squirm or scratch when held.

But if you decide a rabbit is the pet for you, and are willing to make a long-term commitment, the society gives the following advice:

"Have lots of time, a household that can withstand some chewing, and a stable residence."

Bunnies need a roomy indoor cage that is about four times the size of the adult rabbit, with room for a litter box, toys and food and water bowls.

They need plenty of exercise, at least 30 hours per week outside the cage in a rabbit-proofed area of the home. Rabbits should never be left outdoors unsupervised. They can literally be frightened to death when approached by predators, and might dig under fences to escape.

Visit www.rabbit.org for more information on adopting a rabbit as a pet.

WATCH A VIDEO of the York County SPCA Bunny Fest online at ydr.com.

FOR MORE PET NEWS, as well as lost and found listings, photos of adoptable pets, events, and more, visit www.yorkblog.com/pets.

Rabbit myths

YORK COUNTY SPCA volunteer

Michelle Smith said there are several myths prospective pet owners need to realize before purchasing a bunny.

Myth: Rabbits are low-maintenance starter pets.

Reality: Although they don't need to be walked like dogs, rabbits are not low-maintenance. Their quarters need daily cleaning, and fresh food and water, including a salad of well-washed, dark-green leafy vegetables must be provided each day. Some rabbit health problems can become chronic and can require regular - sometimes expensive - veterinary treatment. Also, veterinarians skilled in rabbit medicine are sometimes hard to find.

Myth: Rabbits live only a year or two, so a long commitment is not necessary.

Reality: Well-cared-for indoor rabbits can live 7 to 10 years. Some even live into their teens, about the same amount of time as most breeds of dogs.

Myth: Rabbits do not need veterinary care the way dogs and cats do.

Reality: Although rabbits in the United States do not require annual vaccinations, regular veterinary checkups help to detect small issues before they become big problems. Companion rabbits should be spayed or neutered by veterinarians experienced in rabbit surgery. This reduces hormone-driven behaviors such as lunging, mounting, spraying and boxing, and protects females from uterine cancer, which can affect 50 percent of female rabbits as they grow older.

Myth: Rabbits are happiest outside in a backyard hutch.

Reality: Rabbits kept outdoors in hutches are often forgotten and neglected after the novelty wears off. They are subject to weather extremes, as well as diseases spread by fleas, ticks, flies and mosquitoes. They also can die of heart attacks if they are scared by a predator, even if the rabbit is not attacked. Rabbits enjoy social contact with their human caretakers and the easiest way to provide contact is to house the rabbit indoors, as a member of the family.

Myth: Rabbits are dirty and have a strong odor.

Reality: Rabbits are very clean, and after they are mature and spayed or neutered, they try not to soil their living quarters. Rabbits can be trained to use a litterbox, and if the box is cleaned daily there will be no offensive odor.

Myth: Rabbits love to be picked up and cuddled and do not scratch or bite.

Reality: Although some rabbits tolerate handling quite well, many do not like to be picked up and carried. If rabbits are mishandled, they will learn to nip to protect themselves. If they feel insecure when carried they might scratch to get down.

Myth: Rabbits, especially dwarf breeds, do not require much living space.

Reality: Rabbits have powerful hind legs designed for running and jumping. They need living space that will allow them to move freely. Dwarf rabbits tend to be more active and energetic than some larger breeds, and require more space.

Myth: Rabbits can be left alone for a day or two when owners travel.

Reality: Rabbits need daily monitoring. Problems that are minor to some animals, such as a day or two without food, could be life-threatening to rabbits. The rabbit could require immediate veterinary attention.

Myth: Rabbits do fine with a bowl of rabbit food and carrots.

Reality: The most important component of a rabbit's diet is grass hay, which should be provided daily. Rabbit pellets should be given only in limited quantities.