A Rabbit Tale

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Wikipedia defines a pet as a household animal kept for companionship and a person's enjoyment. Most people would agree that by that definition quite a list of animals could qualify to be called pets. Over my years in companion animal practice, experience has proven that to be true.

In the early years of my work in the profession that list included a number of animals that would not make the list today. Margays, also called Long-tailed Spotted Cats, who look like a miniature ocelot, are one of those no longer considered a suitable housemate. Though beautiful creatures, they did not have a disposition to match. A number of different primate species were kept as pets. Squirrel monkeys, Wooly monkeys and even a chimpanzee were ones I had occasion to treat. Intelligent, fast and equipped with awesome powers of resistance, they made every examination and attempt to help them a considerable challenge for their veterinarian. It was not uncommon, in past years, for people to attempt to keep one of several different wildlife species of animals. It was usually a young raccoon, skunk or squirrel that had been found orphaned or injured. Sadly, despite human exposure from very early in life, wild instincts would firmly establish in adulthood. These traits usually made them quite unsuitable as pets. Local municipal by-laws and provincial laws now prevent some animals from being kept as pets.

The popularity of some animals as pets can be quite a fad-like phenomenon. This seems to be especially true for certain of the non-traditional pets. Chameleons appear in television ads and suddenly exposed to their delightful appearance and nature, everyone wants one. Other reptiles, sugar gliders, pygmy hedge-hogs, prairie dogs and even Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs have all experienced a time in the spotlight as desirable pets.

However, amidst all these animals who have experienced wild fluctuations in popularity as non-traditional pets, some have stood the test of time and over the years remain as pets favoured by some. I would place birds, iguanas, guinea pigs, rats, hamsters, ferrets and rabbits in this group. In my opinion, rabbits are pets that are a bit unique in this regard. They are an animal that has always had a place in the heart of some. Yet, at least in our practice, they seem now to have gained significantly in their popularity as pets and now rank closely with birds as the most common non-traditional pet.

Rabbit owners are quick to point out the characteristics and qualities that have helped their favourite pets achieve this popularity. Few animals have the 'curb appeal' of a bunny. With their wiggly nose, large expressive eyes, distinctive ears, inquisitive nature and soft fur coating, just looking at them wins many supporters. Their average life expectancy is 6-10 years. If size matters to a prospective pet owner, they usually are just right for a house pet. They can be house-trained, they do not need to be walked for exercise and their usually gentle disposition is easy to live with. A minimum of grooming care is required for most breeds of rabbits. Incorrect handling, though, can result in injuries to both the rabbit and the handler. For this reason, they are probably not the best pet for very young children.

A variety of cages can be purchased or constructed to meet rabbit housing requirements - either outside or inside the home. Their dietary needs are well established. They are herbivorous, by nature, eating only vegetable matter. Pelleted commercial foods can be used to ensure their diets are complete and balanced. However, hay should always be the staple in a rabbit's diet.

There are at least 45 breeds and over 150 varieties of rabbits. Today's domestic rabbits are descendants of wild rabbits from Europe and Africa. There is certainly no shortage of attractive appearances and styles to choose from, when selecting a house bunny.

Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past pet tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca