Rabbits and Children

Seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, friends and families had all sorts .of ideas .about the viability of keeping rabbits while starting a human family. My sister, a cat lover, told me that I’d get toxoplasmosis if I changed the litterbox while I was pregnant. My mother-in-law claimed my first born would develop asthma from the animal dander. My next door neighbor told me I would have neither the time nor the energy to care for my bunnies; a close friend predicted that once my baby was born, I simply wouldn’t love my rabbits anymore. Several friends from the rabbit world also looked worried as my belly grew: rabbits and children, we HRS educators constantly preach, just aren’t a great combination.

I double-checked the medical issues with my veterinarian (rabbit feces don’t carry toxoplasmosis the way cat feces do) and pediatrician (animal dander might trigger but not cause asthma). I disregarded the rest. I have loved animals all my life, I figured; adding a baby to the mix wouldn’t change that. And I’m strongly against giving away animals that I’ve taken into my home: I can’t abide the idea of betraying the animals to whom I’ve promised safety, comfort, and love.

Seven years later, I’m enjoying life with two happy children and two happy rabbits. None of the prophecies of doom that I heard in my first pregnancy have come true: I love my rabbits just as much as I did before the children were born; I do have time to care for both species; and the children have not terrorized or injured the rabbits. Even newly arrived (and sometimes skittish) rabbits quickly get used to the loud sounds and sudden movements of small children-my rabbits can now doze through pillow fights. In fact, my rabbits have provided me with a lot of comfort during my years as a mother-they have cuddled next to me when I have breastfed my babies in the night, they have provided consistent love during the chaos that can accompany parenthood, and they’ve given my children the opportunity to learn how to handle, love, and delight in an amazing creature.

Today, I’m a strong advocate of keeping rabbits and children together, as long as parents know a lot about rabbits, take responsibility for the rabbits’ care, and are aware of just a few potential trouble spots:

  • Babies and Rabbits. I never left babies under 6 months on the floor with loose rabbits – I was worried that the rabbits might paw at their clothes or feel aggressive around the erratically flailing limbs. Older babies also have to be watched: once, they’re old enough to grasp objects, they may try to grab a rabbit’s tantalizing ear or fluffy tail. And once that happens, there’s a good chance a self-respecting rabbit will scratch or bite the baby. Babies may also try to eat rabbit poop; the danger here isn’t toxicity, but choking. Bottom line: supervise babies and bunnies closely.
  • Free Roaming Versus Caged. I’ve found that free-range rabbits aren’t much bothered by children because they can vote with their feet (or paws) when things get too loud. In fact, the only time my 2-year-old son has bothered a rabbit is when we brought home a young shelter rabbit last spring; my son hit the cage several times with a block because he liked the sound. When I showed him how frightened the rabbit was, he stopped immediately.
  • Clear Rules, Consistently Enforced. I believe in giving children a lot of room to exercise choice. I also believe in having strong household rules and sticking to them. This is especially the case with our rabbits. Both of my kids know that chasing, picking up, or striking bunnies is not allowed and will be swiftly disciplined.
  • Time. It is hard to juggle the needs of animals and children, which is one reason I can’t foster shelter rabbits right now. True, there have been days when a rabbit has bloat, I have a work deadline, there’s a party at my child’s school, and I feel my life has spun out of control. In general, however, I’ve found that having daily and weekly routines for both kid stuff and rabbit stuff brings sanity to what could be chaos.

While some rabbit people believe that rabbits are miserable with children, I have to say my own rabbits are very content. They have eight hands to pat them, not just the four of my husband and me. They have a house full of children’s toys to toss, chew, and re-arrange. My six-year-old daughter makes all sorts of fancy beds and forts for the rabbits; my two-year-old son spends a lot of time asking the rabbits about their names, their food preferences, and, frankly, what sort of genitals they have. My rabbits have loving company; in other words, and they know they’re safe.

My children, too, have benefited. My son is already incredibly gentle with all animals. And by going to the local shelter to adopt a rabbit, my daughter has become sensitive to issues of “unwanted” rabbits (“Mommy why would anyone throw these nice rabbits away?”) and what makes a good home (“Spotty’s lucky, Mommy, isn’t he? Because we’re nice to rabbits.”) Those are the kind of lessons that can’t be learned from a book or video; they come from living with real, live animals who are cherished even though they have four legs, not two, and who know they’re safe, even though they live with small children.

Susan E. Davis

House Rabbit Journal Fall 2003: Volume IV, Number 9