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Is A Rabbit The Best Pet For Children?

Rabbits can be a child’s pet, as long as the rabbit’s needs are met and some care rules are followed.

Laura Doering
Posted: January 15, 2015, 3:30 p.m. EST

We’ve come along way from the days when rabbits were thought of as "practice pets,” as in, "Let’s see how Junior does with a rabbit first and then we can consider getting a cat or dog.” Rabbits, in their own right, can make for wonderful pet companions if they are respected, gently guided and their unique needs are met. Here are some considerations to take into account when deciding if a pet rabbit is a right fit for a family with children.

Similarities And Differences To Cats And Dogs
First off, there are both similarities and differences between having a pet rabbit and a pet dog or cat. A well-socialized rabbit can be a happy lap pet, might play fetch like a dog or nudge you like a cat to get you to pet him/her. Rabbits can also be trained to use a litter box, which makes them good house pets. Like cats and dogs, rabbits come in a variety of colors, sizes, temperaments and fur types. 

Unlike cats and dogs, however, rabbits are prey animals and have different instincts, which may require a little more gentleness and patience on the owner/child’s part when it comes to interaction. Rabbits can be more fragile, both physically and emotionally. By nature, a rabbit is inclined to react to uncertainty with a flight — not a fight — response. A quick motion to scoop up a rabbit is likely to be met with the rabbit kicking his hind legs in an attempt to escape. Rabbits can become injured, even paralyzed, if they are dropped or if they jump to the ground to flee. And they can scratch up arms in their attempt to free themselves from a grasp, especially that of a child determined to hold on. 

"Rabbits are prey animals biologically, therefore, they have a ‘freeze or flight’ response to loud noises or startling behavior,” said Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) and editor of Domestic Rabbits magazine. He stressed that responsible care and handling is learned under direct supervision by knowledgeable adults. Stewart suggested taking an honest look at the family’s schedule and commitment to having a rabbit as a pet. "What available time can be invested by adults to supervising care and engagement periods with the rabbit?” Stewart said. 

A rabbit who is chased around, cornered and otherwise subjected to forced interaction by a child might become timid. Therefore, it is vital that children be taught respectful interaction. This includes having the child sit on the ground and allowing the rabbit to come over to investigate him or her (which a rabbit will likely do, especially if the child has a healthy treat to offer) and showing the child how to properly hold and pet a rabbit, preferably while seated. 

Rabbit In The House Rules
Stewart offered these house rules for children and rabbit households:

   • Children should ask an adult if it is OK before feeding the rabbit treats. 
   • Children should not place objects in the rabbit’s cage without first getting an adult’s permission. 
   • Children should ask an adult before picking up the rabbit. 
   • Smaller children should not be expected to hold the rabbit — playtime on the floor is more comfortable for everyone, especially the rabbit.
   • An adult or older child with rabbit experience must be present whenever the rabbit is permitted to run freely in a room.

rabbit sitting on lap
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio 
Children should be taught that rabbits prefer to play on the floor and approach you on their own terms.

Life With A Pet Rabbit
"Thankfully, we did our homework ahead of time as far as rabbit behavior goes,” said Jennifer Mendoza of California, whose 12-year-old son Eric was ecstatic to welcome a pet rabbit into their home last year. "We spent the first few days sitting down and simply allowing Mr. Nibbles to explore the room — and us, and I think that paid off in terms of trust building.” 

Tips to safely handling a rabbit include:
   1. Calmly lift the rabbit up, with one hand under his belly and the other holding the back of his rump, not under it. 
   2. Support the back half of the rabbit’s body with one hand, and support the front half, under the belly, with your other hand. Hold the rabbit close to your body. 
   3. Teach young children to sit on the floor and gently place the rabbit on his or her lap so that the child can gently pet the rabbit. 

Rabbit Chores
There is also the responsibility of maintaining the rabbit’s habitat — will that responsibility be shared among family members, or will that be part of the child’s daily chores, under adult supervision? A sad scenario is a rabbit sitting in a filthy cage, with soiled water and spoiled food because the child forgot or isn’t in the mood to service the cage. Adults in the household need to ensure that proper care happens each day. Another consideration is ensuring that the rabbit receives positive interactions on a consistent basis. A rabbit who is mostly ignored is much more likely to become anti-social with people — adults and children alike. A rabbit who receives positive interactions, on the other hand, often seeks out human companionship. 

An Age-Old Question
At what age is a child ready to have a rabbit companion? That depends on many factors, including the amount of supervision the adults in the household are able to offer and the child’s maturity level. 

"This matter is better left to adults to determine, as each child may be different depending upon experience and development factors,” Stewart said. "It is never advisable to permit younger children unsupervised time with a companion rabbit running about.”

Stewart pointed out that children will emulate the behaviors and interactions they witness adults perform with their pet rabbit. "Feeding and cleaning are valuable family bonding experiences that further reinforce care and concern for others,” he added. 

Mendoza admits her son wanted a pet rabbit more than she did. Her previous pet experience was centered on dogs. 

"My son is very responsible for his age, so I felt better about taking on a rabbit,” Mendoza said. "It’s fun to see how bonded they’ve become. I do have to insist, however, that Mr. Nibbles no longer ‘helps’ with his homework — Mr. Nibbles lived up to his name and ate the corner of a page.”

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
Best Small Animal Pets For Children
Rabbit Handling FAQ
12 Common Rabbit Behaviors That May Puzzle You
Safely Pick Up A Rabbit
Is Your Rabbit Sick?
See all questions and answers about rabbit health
See all questions and answers about rabbit behavior

Posted: January 15, 2015, 3:30 p.m. EST

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