Gaby Flavin is an early childhood teacher and an animal advocate. With Easter around the corner she penned a set of articles around one of the most commonly considered ECE ‘pets’ – rabbits. Beware, it’s a cautionary tale based on Gaby’s 15 year love affair with fluffy bunnies, her even longer experience working in early learning services, and her knowledge as an animal rescue volunteer and foster carer.
In part one, Gaby covered the basics of rabbit welfare and begins outlining their needs in a children’s service setting by focusing on housing. In part two, she takes you through health and wellbeing and shares the promised story of Bumble the Bottom Biter!
Like any pet, you need to be prepared to pay for good health and wellbeing from time to time. If your service is on a strict budget, with little to no room for incidentals, I strongly urge you to forget owning rabbits! In part two, I look at their diet and medical needs, as well as their personalities and the impact of bonded and unfriendly pairings.
The first thing you need to know about rabbit food is that pellets from supermarkets and pet stores are designed for ‘meat’ rabbits, not long-lived pets. Despite animal welfare ticks of approval or other endorsements, those pellets are meant for short term use to bulk up a rabbit as fast as possible for human consumption.
The pellets are made from nutrient rich hay called alfalfa, and for young rabbits it’s perfect as it is also high in calcium. However as rabbits mature, the calcium often becomes too much for their systems to process. They secrete calcium through their bladders and this leads to the delightfully named condition of ‘bladder sludge’, an accumulation of calcium in their bladder. The calcium then forms crystals that cut the rabbit’s urethra as it urinates, leading to bleeding and infection and pain. Rabbits can also develop stones that can be fatal without surgery or even with surgery: bunnies don’t do well under anaesthesia.
So what should your bunny be eating? Ideally, a selection of the following:
- fresh meadow hay, oaten hay, or timothy hay
- fresh daily vegetables including dark leafy greens such as endives, chicory, mesclun salad mix, the dark outer leaves of cos lettuce, carrot tops with a few pieces of carrot (high in sugar), celery tops, and Asian greens.
- apple or banana slices as treats, but as with carrot pieces, not too many as the high sugar content won’t react well with their systems and you’ll need to clean up afterwards!
- specialist pellets recommended by a veterinarian who understands rabbit digestions: expensive but worth it for the convenience.
Rabbit health care
The phrase ‘breeding like rabbits’ exists for good reason: desex your rabbits! In part one [link] I recommended you adopt a bonded pair of rabbits because they are social animals who will be happier with company. Just like dogs and cats, you should try to source rabbits that have already been desexed and who know each other well (‘bonded’).
Don’t just accept that the two little rabbits you’ve been given or bought from the pet shop are ‘safe’ because they are both male or both female. Many accidental baby bunny litters are the result of mistaken sexes in pairs as it’s very difficult to tell male from female when they are young. It only takes 28 days for babies to appear and females can conceive again as soon as they have given birth…
Rabbits are an exotic breed and require specialist (read: expensive) vet treatment when they are unwell. One way to reduce the risk of high vet bills is to maintain your bunnies’ health with annual immunisations for calicivirus, which also affects cats. There is no immunisation for myxomatosis, a quick and fatal disease, but you can reduce the risk with suitable housing (see part one).
Teeth and nails
Bunnies have sharp teeth and very strong back legs with thick sharp nails designed to dig deep burrows in hard earth and to protect vulnerable bellies in a fight. Their teeth and nails grow incredibly fast – so if they are not grinding down enough, or digging enough, it means you’ll have to help them. You can learn to trim a rabbit’s nails, being careful of the long quick running through the claw, but teeth are a bigger problem. If your rabbit’s teeth are growing faster than their chewing can grind them back, you will need a vet’s help to surgically file, trim or remove them.
In general, rabbits are very good at hiding their illnesses and don’t always show symptoms until they are very unwell indeed. They do this as a survival tactic to conceal weakness. It’s important to know your rabbit, and know them well, and to consult a vet to be on the safe side if you think something is amiss.
Some rabbits are cool and cruisy, but many are not. This matters a lot in a children’s services context. One of my bunnies, Luna, used to come with me to work at the long day care centre. She loved it. She was a lop-eared rabbit with the biggest attitude. She didn’t mind the daily travel to and from work, and she loved running around the toddler room during rest time. The children adored her and would help me care for her.
Another of my rabbits, Bumble (see Bumble the Bottom Biter story below), didn’t respond the same way and I realised over time that he was stressed by the experience. His litter tray at work was always dry and I noticed the first thing he would do when we got home was run to his tray and do the biggest and longest wee ever. The look of relief upon his furry little face was adorable but I couldn’t ignore the fact that he was hiding stress so I stopped taking him with me to work. While he seemed fine during the visits, and the children certainly loved him, he was obviously experiencing a lot of anxiety.
This is a characteristic of prey animals like rabbits: they hide illness and stress as they don’t want to be perceived as weak and vulnerable. In the wild, weak animals are the ones targeted for meals, or ostracised by their communities for the safety and wellbeing of the whole group.
Adopt, don’t shop
A known personality is one excellent reason to consider adopting an adult rabbit (pair) rather than buying baby bunnies. You might adopt a bonded adult pair if you’re starting out, or adopt a second rabbit to keep your single bunny company (social animals, remember!). Bonding isn’t always easy, see my stories below.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of rescue rabbits awaiting adoption, with many owners finding they cannot maintain their bunny’s health or relinquishing them when they move house or change jobs. Consult with a local self-funded animal rescue (links below) about your plans to adopt rabbits who will be relaxed around children. Any of the volunteer organisations caring for rescue animals will appreciate your support by adopting one or two of the rabbits they have in care. This means they will have space to rescue another pair of rabbits that need saving. With so many homeless animals across Australia adopting a rescue animal is the ethical and sustainable decision. You can also use this as a wonderful teaching and learning moment with children.
A local rescue group may even be able to visit your service, but keep in mind they are typically volunteers who also have full time jobs so you might need to fit in with their schedule outside your own hours. People often run rescues on the side and fund the fostered animals with their own income. They would certainly love any donations you could make to them. Rescue is expensive, but someone has to do it. I encourage you to connect with your local rescue teams and see what sort of relationships you could form with them. If you have the space, you might be able to foster rabbits for them rather than committing to owning your rabbits full time. Or perhaps engage in a sponsorship program with your families? Just a thought!
My 15 year love affair with rabbits
Rabbits are amazing creatures and were part of my life for 15 years. I’ll share my experiences as it might also help you form a view about whether rabbits are right for your service.
Chino, Russia Kissy-Face, Bumble the Bottom Biter, Vanilla and Bean, Luna, and Spare Rabbit.
Chino was my first house rabbit, a spontaneous adoption from an after-school care program. He had fathered some accidental litters of bunnies, and while I had visited because of a shout-out to adopt one of their babies, I fell in love with him. Then there was Russia Kissy-Face who I bought to keep Chino company, but he passed away from a heart attack after the neighbour’s dog got into my yard – he wasn’t physically hurt, but rabbits will quite literally die of fright.
I then adopted Bumble into our lives to keep Chino company, but that went pear-shaped when it turned out Bumble hated Chino with a passion – hence his full name, Bumble the Bottom Biter. That’s something to keep in mind when you pair adult rabbits and a good reason to work with a rescue group as they will usually take back a rabbit who cannot settle in their new home.
Vanilla and Bean were New Zealand White rabbits who came to live with me temporarily – I found a home for Vanilla but Bean stayed for nearly a decade. They were born as the result of a pet store attendant incorrectly identifying the sex of two rabbits that someone had purchased (see Desexing above).
I found Luna dumped at Rookwood Cemetery and it took me a good couple of hours crawling amongst the hundred year old headstones, through pine needles, and among the old carrots someone else had obviously use to attempt to catch her. She was such a tease and clearly enjoyed the thrill of the slow-speed chase! She lived with me for about seven years.
Spare Rabbit was just that … A rabbit that turned up in my neighbourhood shortly after I moved into my house. It took a few hours to catch her and I never found out her story although she lived with me for several years.
Other than Chino and Russia Kissy-Face, none of my rabbits were bonded and none of them got along with the other. They would often tease and taunt each other. I tried all the tricks to support their bonding, but with big personalities at play it just didn’t happen. Even the siblings Vanilla and Bean, who started out bonded, rejected each other when they hit puberty and I was never able to re-bond them even after desexing. I have had one to three rabbits at a time, and they all required separate housing. I had to juggle letting them out of their large condo-style hutches so they had social time and were able to stretch their legs in my sun room.
As you’re already aware if you own or are considering pets in your service, they live shorter lives than we do and you need to be prepared to explain their lives and deaths to young children as part of your rabbit care program.
Chino lived to be about seven years old and passed away in my arms from a stroke following anaesthesia, a heart-breaking day.
Bumble the Bottom Biter was part of my life for nine years. He passed away in his sleep in old age (about nine years). In his final year he had arthritis, grew cataracts and became completely blind. He had to sleep in a special litter tray with towels because any long hay or shredded paper would become wrapped around his ankles, cutting off circulation. I had to cut up his meadow hay for food, change his tray twice a day, and do a great deal of washing. He still loved his treats and his kisses and he was still active and loving and happy to the end.
So yes, rabbits can be amazing creatures who find a way into your heart and never leave, but they are also a big commitment. So please, before you bring a rabbit into your world, make sure you can love and support them in the way they need for up to a decade.
More information on rabbit care
Meet the author
Gabrielle (Gaby) Flavin is an Early Childhood Teacher, director, entrepreneur and kitten fosterer. In her current work incarnation, she is the director of a long day care service by day and by night, the owner and operator of Sticks & Stones Education. This business was born of a love of learning spaces and beautiful quality toys and resources for educators, services and families. As if working full time as a director and running a side business wasn’t enough, Gaby decided she needed another project in her life and the Educator’s Symposium & Resource Emporium (aka ESRE) was born. Gaby loves coordinating the resource emporium and connecting like-minded small businesses with each other and the broader community. In her not so past life, Gaby was an Educational Leader to other Educational Leaders, supporting 26 children’s services for a local government. This role instilled in her a love of supporting and mentoring educators and exploring curriculum and reflective practices. Gaby fosters orphan kittens for rescue organisations, because kittens and saving lives are good for her wellbeing.