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Peter Cottontail Can Be A Family Pet, UF/IFAS Specialist Says

GAINESVILLE—A real Peter Cottontail can be a fun and educational addition to your family, not just an Easter guest, says a University of Florida specialist on raising rabbits.

But before they send their children hopping down the bunny trail, parents should be prepared; a rabbit is not the same kind of pet as a dog or cat, said Wayne Odegaard, director of the Hernando County Cooperative Extension, a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

In fact, parents who are not prepared to extend the “Easter” bunny’s welcome through Thanksgiving, Christmas and several New Years hence, might want to opt for a chocolate bunny instead.

“This is not an animal you just bring home for Easter and then forget about,” Odegaard said. “Rabbits require special care and attention.”

Odegaard said rabbits have many advantages over traditional pets. They are quiet, clean and relatively odorless compared to other animals. They are small, with miniature breeds weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds and larger breeds topping out at 13 or more pounds.

A rabbit, however, can’t be left to fend for itself, indoors or out. A house-rabbit needs a rabbit-proof environment, with telephone wires, electrical cords and house slippers out of chewing range. And those measures won’t keep a rabbit that wants to nosh from munching on baseboards.

Outdoors, rabbits need a cage inside a building or one that can be moved indoors during bad weather. They can tolerate temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 80 degrees. Higher temperatures can be a particular problem in Florida and can cause heat stress for rabbits unprotected from the sun and heat. A rabbit also needs to be protected from other animals and children who might be inclined to roughhouse.

“These are very defenseless creatures,” Odegaard said. “A dog can defend itself, a cat can run away, but a wild animal or dog can injure or kill a rabbit. Ideally, rabbits should be housed in a strong wire cage.

“Rabbits are small and you have to handle them gently,” Odegaard said. “When you carry a rabbit it needs to be supported by your hand and arm underneath.”

Odegaard said rabbit ownership can be educational for children and says his daughter has learned a lot about rabbits and responsibility as part of a 4-H rabbit project. Eight-year-old Kate Odegaard’s Himalayan rabbit, a miniature breed, won Best of Show at the Florida State Fair recently.

As a 4-H project, rabbits are somewhat easier to work with than horses or pigs, Odegaard said. And they respond well to kind treatment, even becoming affectionate as children work with them.

“It’s been a good experience for her and the other 4-H kids to raise these animals,” Odegaard said. “She’s learned how to feed the rabbits and take care of them healthwise. They require a lot of care.”

Rabbits become prolific breeders at 6 to 7 months old and gestation is only 31-32 days so Kate has been able to learn about the cycle of life from caring for her rabbits, Odegaard said.

And Kate has learned a lesson that prospective bunny owners might want to think about: Bunnies are a year-round commitment.

So before you invite Peter Cottontail to step out of the pages of your child’s storybook and into an Easter basket, be sure he’ll still be welcome this time next year.

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