Whether you have brought a baby home to your rabbit’s house or have brought a rabbit home to your child’s house, it is well to remember to:
- Choose a time of day when your child is on “low ebb” for teaching your child about the rabbit and for play with the rabbit.
- Set your child and the rabbit up for success. Try to anticipate and prevent inappropriate interaction by often showing your child how to interact.
- Try not to get into a pattern of always saying “Don’t…” and “Stop…” to your child about the rabbit. If your child does something inappropriate, show and talk about what the child can do with the rabbit. Offer choices for behavior and ask “What could you do…?”. Otherwise, your child may see the rabbit as something he is always getting in trouble for.
- Keep the child away from the rabbit for a short time if the child refuses to stop a behavior that may hurt the rabbit.
- Set up the cage so rabbit can get away from the children-“a safe zone”. Use child gates in doorways and or turn the cage so the door faces the wall with enough room for rabbit but not the child.
- Put the rabbit in a closed-off room when there are lots of playmates or parties. It is often better if the guests “don’t know the rabbit exists”. –Refrain from having children’s friends in to “see the new rabbit” for the first week or so.
What You Can Do with Different Ages
BUNNY RULE # l: Gentle petting. Sit on the floor with child in your lap while you pet and talk to the rabbit. Guide her hand over the rabbit’s head, ears, and upper back. To prevent fur-grabbing, hold her hand flat or use the back of her hand. Do this frequently but no longer than 5 mins. at a time.
BUNNY RULE #2: Leave the rabbit alone when he hops away or goes in his cage. Interpret rabbit’s body language for the child (“Oops, he didn’t want anymore petting. He wants to eat or take a nap.) Prevent the tendencies to chase a rabbit who has had enough and to bang/poke on the cage by explaining: “Chasing him will make him scared of you.” or “Banging on his house scares him.” Watch your child carefully and make such explanations at the moment before it looks like the child may engage in such behaviors. Explaining, then redirecting the child’s attention works best for this age when inappropriate behavior seems imminent or occurs.
BUNNY RULE #3: Don’t touch droppings and litter. Teach the child that the litterbox and droppings that may be found on floor are “dirt”. You may have no problem with picking up the dry droppings with your hand, but you don’t stick your fingers in your mouth! You may have to change your habits for awhile to teach this concept. A box with a cage floor wire grate works well.
Toddlers (1-2 yrs) Continue reinforcing or teach BUNNY RULES 1-3 and add #4. Although unintentional, toddlers are capable of doing real harm to a rabbit. They will need constant supervision and frequent gentle reminders of appropriate behavior. See below for additional notes on rules. Due to still-developing muscle coordination, toddlers have a hard time keeping fingers out of rabbits’ eyes so you may have to insist on two-finger petting or back-of-hand petting. Closely supervise children’s interactions with the rabbit. This is the stage of the child’s development when some are prone to bash things with sticks. Children this age also have a hard time not chasing a rabbit who hops away. If she chases the rabbit, the rabbit will learn to be scared of her. Teach respect for the rabbit ending the petting or playing session (‘Well, that’s all he wanted to do.”) and interest the child in another activity. Children who are interested in toilet-training can understand “that is where the bunny poops and pees”.
BUNNY RULE #4: We pet, but don’t pick up the rabbit. Explain that it scares the rabbit to be picked up and both of you could get hurt. Explain that Mom or Dad may pick up the rabbit if she needs care. Explain rabbit language & actions: “Hear her teeth clicking? She likes the petting. See her toss the ball? She’s playing.” If child gets scratched, explain what the child did to scare or hurt the rabbit and show a better way to act. Redirect loud play to another area (“Look at bunny. She doesn’t like the noise.”)Toddlers love to share their snacks with the rabbit so make sure rabbit gets only small amounts proper foods and is not overloaded with cereals and crackers. They also love to help with feeding – scooping & pouring food, taking vegetables and hay to rabbit.
One to Seven Year-Olds
If a 2-yr old has grown up with a rabbit, she can have quite a bit of empathy for and knowledge about a rabbit. Continue or teach BUNNY RULES #1 through 4. Teach by example instead of by a lot of “No’s”; Your child will learn most by watching you. If interested, the child may help with feeding and play with the rabbit with your supervision.
Continue or teach BUNNY RULES #1 through 4. Teach by example and setting up situations for success. Your child may build a friendship with the rabbit by sitting on the floor with the rabbit while doing homework, art work, reading, or watching TV. The rabbit will eventually come to investigate and to be petted. Older children have lots of other interests and interest in rabbit may come and go. The rabbit’s care should continue to be your responsibility, but your child may help with feeding and grooming.
Choosing a Rabbit
Rabbits have different personalities so it is difficult to make generalizations about breeds. In general though, a medium to large breed adult rabbit is usually better for a child. They will command the most respect from a child and are easier to pet because they have larger heads. Dwarf breeds tend to be more excitable, energetic, and aggressive. Baby rabbits are very active, often nippy, and chew everything in sight. Adult rabbits are more easily litter-and house-trained, especially after spaying or neutering. You will also have a better idea of a rabbits personality if you choose an adult who is spayed or neutered. Adopt a rabbit from a rescue group or local shelter. There are many advantages and you will be helping to combat rabbit overpopulation by adopting a rabbit that is already spayed or neutered. Animal shelters euthanize hundreds of unwanted rabbits each year, many less than a year old. Many more die agonizing deaths from neglect and abandonment without ever reaching a shelter. You will be giving one of the many unwanted rabbits a second chance for a loving home while discouraging those who breed rabbits for profit.
Teaching Responsibility: Something to Think About Many parents say they want to get a rabbit for their child to teach the child some responsibility. What usually happens is that the child loses interest (not to mention being incapable of sticking to a routine and providing proper care), and the rabbit suffers. The child, at best, learns to feel bad that she has failed and caused suffering. At worst, she learns to resent the animal for the nagging that she is hearing from the adult. Often, the rabbit is given away because “you didn’t take care of it”. The child learns that life is disposable and that if she waits long enough, someone else will relieve her of her “responsibility”. So, let your child help with the rabbit, but don’t insist. If the child appears interested, encourage her; if she becomes bored, let her move on to the next thing, and you carry on with the rabbit. She learns most of all from watching you-your actions, your tone of voice when you speak to the rabbit, and your attitude. From this she learns the nurturing (responsible) point of view- the patient waiting, the faithful caring, the joyful appreciation and acceptance of a living creature for who it is, not who you wish it to be. “It is not easy to manage young humans and animals, but when parents find solutions, rather than dispose of an animal for convenience sake, an important concept is communicated to the child. This is alive. This is valuable. You don’t throw it away.” – Marinell Harriman, Importance of Permanence
Note: This information is based on material from the House Rabbit Society and on the experiences of the author. In addition to working with over 1200 elementary school-aged children during a 12-yr. teaching career, the author has lived with house rabbits since 1988 and in 1992 brought baby Emily home to then-2 yr. old Gracie Rabbit. Three-year-old Emily now lives with Gracie & Jessie Rabbit (& Benny Cat). She has become a responsible child who has empathy for and knowledge about her animals far beyond her years.