Conservation Outdoors Pets, Animal Welfare

The Wild Truth: When Those Cute, Cuddly Bunnies Grow Up

By Paula Musto

Nothing says springtime like bunnies. And no one loves these furry, long-eared creatures more than Nancy Vergara. But this wildlife enthusiast has a message for anyone thinking of raising a rabbit as a pet: just be certain that a rabbit is right for you.

Spring is a bad time for rabbits. Thousands of bunnies are purchased at Eastertime as a family pet, but as summer nears so does rabbit dumping season. Bunnies quickly grow into feisty animals with significant caretaking needs, and too often that cute, cuddly critter is no longer a welcome pet.

“Rabbits are not easy,” says Vergara, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and volunteer coordinator for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, an Asheville area-based nonprofit that cares for orphaned and injured wildlife. This time of year, the organization’s animal care center is hopping with rabbits. Most are tiny babies born in the wild that the organization endeavors to rehab and release back into nature. But Vergara is only too familiar with how thousands of domestic rabbits, impulsively purchased each year as children’s pets, become too burdensome for the family to keep.

Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the US, behind cats and dogs, as well as the third most abandoned. It is estimated that 80 percent of those purchased will die or be abandoned within the first year.

As pets, rabbits do have admirable qualities. They don’t bark or claw your furniture. They don’t require walks (though they do need spacious areas for vigorous hopping) and they can be litter trained (though not always an easy task). But these often easily stressed creatures are prone to obsessive chewing—electrical plugs and cords are favorite targets—and their delicate gastro-intestinal systems necessitate a strict, high-maintenance diet.

“People think of Bugs Bunny, and that rabbits love carrots,” Vergara says. “But that is not a good food for them. Carrots are too high in sugar.” Healthy rabbit nutrition requires greens—fresh dandelions and other weeds are best. People also think that a rabbit can live happily in a small pen with occasional outings for cuddling—but, again, untrue. These animals require space for frequent exercise and do not always like to be handled by humans. While children might like to carry them around, rabbits prefer to be in control with their feet on the ground.

Vergara, who parents two rabbits, Cinnabon and Espresso—siblings rescued as babies—devotes an entire room in her house to the pair where they freely hop, explore and play. Adopting a rabbit is not only a sizeable job but can also be expensive—neutering a female can mean spending a couple hundred dollars, and other vet bills for what is considered an exotic animal can be more expensive than those for a cat or dog.

Once a bunny matures, the spirited adult version may not be so cuddly as the owner had imagined and some can become aggressive and disruptive. Unfortunately, people too often abandon their unwanted pets outdoors, unaware that this is an almost certain death sentence.

Domestically raised rabbits lack the survival instincts of their wild cousins and are unable to successfully forage for food, build safe shelters or adapt to changing heat and cold temperatures. In June and the summer months, animal rescue organizations report a surge in rabbit rescue calls.

While rabbits are relatively common in North Carolina, ongoing conservation efforts are important for preserving their habitats and maintaining healthy population levels. Vergara says the best way people can appreciate and support rabbits in the wild is to leave a portion of their yards natural by letting the weeds grow for rabbit food and nesting. And, if you are thinking of a domestic rabbit for a pet, do the research on caregiving first.

Also, be on the outlook for bunny nests in yards and along trails. It is not uncommon this time of year to stumble upon an untended nest—do not assume the babies have been abandoned. Mother rabbits spend their days foraging for food and spend only early morning and nighttime at the nest. It’s important not to disturb her kits until you know for sure that the mom is not returning. The best way to determine if the babies are truly abandoned is to mark the nest with a perimeter of twigs, then check back later. If the twigs are disturbed, you can safely assume mom has been by and caring for her offspring. Otherwise, call the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge hotline at 828.633.6364 to determine if the animals truly need human intervention.

Bunnies and their grown-up versions are loveable creatures. Let’s give them the consideration they deserve.

Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge that cares for injured or orphaned wildlife. To learn more about rabbit care, visit Appalachian Wild cares only for wildlife and cannot accept domestic rabbits. To learn more or to donate, visit

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