No child's play: Rabbits are a surprisingly exotic pet

Rabbits may seem soft and cuddly but they can be territorial and aggressive. Photo:

Rabbits are adorable. They have soft fur, big ears, round bodies and super cute fluffy little tails. They’re the picture-perfect pet. However, just after the Year of the Rabbit started, shelters were swamped with unwanted bunnies. Surprisingly, bunnies are a constant surrender at shelters, even in other years.

Curious about the phenomenon, we talked to three Malaysian bunny experts about the challenge of keeping these cute furries.

Dental problems

Serene Yiwah, owner of HappyThreePets, a home-based rabbit boarding in Johor Baru, is a veteran shelter volunteer who has always adopted rescues. She lives with six cats and three dogs, and in the last two years, three rabbits have joined the crew.

“I found Udon on the roadside on Mother’s Day in 2021,” Serene says. “He was clearly a pet who’d been dumped.

“A few months later, on National Day, someone posted rabbit emergency alerts on Facebook. A poor little bunny had no fur and a genetic issue. That was Soba.

Soba has come a long way since Yiwah first adopted her. Back then, the rabbit had a genetic issue and no fur. Photo: Serene YiwahSoba has come a long way since Yiwah first adopted her. Back then, the rabbit had a genetic issue and no fur. Photo: Serene Yiwah

“A few months after that, a rescuer friend picked up what she thought was a tiny kitten in front of her house. But when she looked closer, she realised it was a baby rabbit. She had no experience so she brought it to me. That’s how we got Pasta.”

Yiwah had a pet rabbit 12 years ago, but with the three rescues, she got back up to speed on the species.

“Rabbits look small, cute and furry, the ideal easy pet for kids,” she says. “But rabbits are actually quite difficult to manage. They are typically inbred, so they have lots of genetically inherited health conditions, of which dental problems are the most challenging.”

Rabbit teeth grow continuously. In the wild, animals nibble all day long, which helps keep teeth healthy. But with inbreeding and soft pellets, pet rabbits can suffer from dental problems.

“You can manage ordinary growth with a lot of quality hay, but many rabbits also need dental trimming,” Yiwah points out. “That involves an operation with anaesthetic and that means lots of bills every few months.”

But surprisingly, that’s not the main reason rabbits don’t make good pets.

“Rabbits look sweet but 90% of them don’t like cuddles,” Yiwah laughs. “Very few rabbits enjoy being handled. Also, if you don’t spay or neuter them, they can be aggressive.”

Rabbits kick and bite, especially if they come from breeders who don’t bother to socialise them.

“A rabbit in a cage gets sick because the metal wires inflame their feet,” Yiwah points out. “They need playpens and space to run around.

“Also, rabbits poop all the time! Really. Around the clock. Constantly. It’s amazing how much can come out of a bunny. Expect to spend a lot of time cleaning.”

Sadly, this message isn’t clear to the public.

“People who don’t know animals didn’t know you have to neuter them,” Yiwah observes sadly. “They cage them and when the rabbit becomes sick and turns feral, kicking or biting the kids, people become angry. They don’t realise they caused this to happen.”

Although bunnies are a challenge, and many end up dead or killed, there are some happy stories.

Territorial creatures

Two years ago, Jennifer Kwan, a facility specialist in Kuala Lumpur, went out to look for a pet rabbit for her niece.

“I didn’t know anything about rabbits, I’m a dog person, so I went to a pet shop,” Kwan explains. But when she got there, she was taken aback.

“There were a bunch of bunnies sitting in an aquarium. I felt so sorry for them because they didn’t look happy or comfortable. Then I spotted one who was set aside by itself.”

When Kwan asked the staff why the rabbit was on its own, they told her it was dying.

“They didn’t care, they just said I should buy one of the others,” Kwan said darkly. “When I told them I’d take the sick one, they shrugged, gave me a discount and told me when it died, it would be my problem. I said fine.”

She called the little bunny Mia – and hit Google. This put her in touch with Beh and Yo, two highly respected ethical bunny specialists. They looked at Mia and explained to Kwan that the bunny had mites. Thankfully, it wasn’t a major issue.

“I gave her a little medicine,” Kwan remembers. “Then I sat with her and petted her.”

Two weeks later, Mia was fine.

“She never had a serious issue, she just needed care.” Kwan is still angry when she recalls this, adding, “The pet shop is only interested in profit. They sell to kids and don’t care about the animals. I rang them and told them off but they’re not making any changes. It was a bad experience and so I’m actually against pet shops now.”

Jennifer Kwan and one of her pet rabbits. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee HongJennifer Kwan and one of her pet rabbits. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Seeing Mia was happy with Kwan, her friends gave her Hana, a second bunny.

At first, everything was fine.

“Mia and Hana were both small so they got along well. But when they hit six months, their hormones kicked in and they became territorial. They fought, pulling each other’s hair out and battling everywhere.”

Kwan separated them, hit Google again and learned this is a common issue. Also, the only fix is to spay them. As the girls were small, Kwan had to wait until they were eight months old.

Thankfully, the vet did a great job. However, it took time to rebond the two girls.

“The Internet says to wait 15 days,” Kwan says. “But when I tried it, Mia batted Hana. Then, when I separated them, Mia bit me.”

Kwan had to wait a month before the two rabbits’ hormone levels dropped. Then, she put them in a clean and neutral space and supervised their playtime. It was a bit of a hit and miss, but after three months, they sweetened up.

“You should see them now,” Kwan laughs. “They’re a lovely couple, best friends!”

The two rabbits live happily together, playing all over the house. “Cages aren’t good because rabbits are used to living in wide open spaces,” Kwan points out. “They need space to live and be happy. Thankfully, you can litter train them, just like cats.”

Kwan loves her two bunnies but the experience has solidified a principle for her. “People think that a small animal is easy to take care of compared to a cat or dog, but that’s not true,” she observes.

“Rabbits require a lot of time, knowledge and patience, as much as a cat or dog. So if you’re an animal lover, and you have time, it’s OK, but if you want an easy pet, rabbits are not for you.”

Not up for cuddles

Wong Pui Yen, a software developer from Kajang, Selangor, was out shopping when she spotted a rabbit sitting in a tank.

“He looked miserable, sitting there with a giant lightbulb over him,” she remembers. “The sign on the glass said he was 50% off. The salesman said he was too small, already seven months old, and unsellable. He told me he would be turned to burger patty if I didn’t buy him.”

Wong hesitated because she knew rabbits aren’t easy pets. When she was a student, she tried to rescue two tiny rabbits. It didn’t go well and so she was cautious. But the bunny’s sad plight worried her, so she took a chance and bought SunnyBoy.

“Diet is googlable, and I found I could buy proper food easily enough,” she remembers. “But rabbit behaviour is an entirely different issue. I learned very quickly that while I wanted to cuddle SunnyBoy, he found that stressful.”

Wong hit the books and studied up on rabbits. “It’s wrong to inflict your needs on others,” she observes, “and from my studies, there are rabbits who are cuddle bugs and those who are not. SunnyBoy was definitely not!”

Not giving up, Wong gave him all the food he liked, the best hay and let him run about her apartment. When he was more relaxed, SunnyBoy began to engage.

“I soon learned that if I sat still, he would come to me” Wong smiles. “He would sit next to me and let me stroke him. Slowly, he learned to trust me.

Rabbit rescuer Wong Pui Yen lavishes affection on SunnyBoy. Photo: Wong Pui YenRabbit rescuer Wong Pui Yen lavishes affection on SunnyBoy. Photo: Wong Pui Yen

“It’s rewarding when a rabbit starts to love you. SunnyBoy began sitting with me, and then licking me. We got to be really close. In fact, once when I was ill, he came over to check on me and didn’t wake me for his meal, but just kept quiet and waited. He knew I was unwell, and he was especially sweet to me.”

However, SunnyBoy’s neglect in the pet shop soon caught up with him. A few months after moving in, he came down with skin issues. Then there were problems with his teeth.

“We found a great vet who was able to sedate him and trim his teeth,” Wong shares. “But it took quite a few visits and quite a lot of treatment.”

After his teeth were finally fixed, SunnyBoy became quite ill. Small animals don’t do well with operations, and part of his treatment had impacted on his liver.

“At one point, the vet told me SunnyBoy might not make it,” Wong shares. “We had him on painkillers and consulted experts, including some dog vets.”

Luckily, SunnyBoy pulled through. “We travelled together,” Wong giggles. “He’s been all over Malaysia, from Ipoh and Penang to Johor. His favourite place is Genting as it’s cool.”

With it being the Year of the Rabbit, many bunnies were dumped after Chinese New Year. One little one ended up at PAWS animal shelter.

The bunny was small and had a giant gash over his eye. At first, they thought he was a puppy. Then they took a second look and realised what he was. They took him straight to the vet and luckily they managed to fix him up.

When Wong heard about him, she decided she was ready for a second bunny. So she adopted him as a friend for SunnyBoy.

“I named him Galileo Galilei so he’d be smart, and it worked!” Wong laughs. “Bonding with rabbits takes a long time, but it took us just a month so I felt very gifted.”

All joking aside, she points out that SunnyBoy and Galileo Galilei were neutered, which helped too.

“Again, not all rabbits are the same,” she observes. “Thankfully, these two didn’t fight at all. Introductions were smooth, and after a few weeks they were eating together. Today, they are totally bonded.”

SunnyBoy and Galileo Galilei spend their days running around her flat, having a good time. They play, eat and sleep together. Although it makes her very happy, Wong believes that rabbits are misrepresented.

“Rabbits aren’t good pets for kids. It requires a lot of knowledge and financial support to sustain a healthy bunny,” she points out. “Plus, bunnies are social. They need each other. A rabbit will love you, but he needs a bunny to bond with. It’s their nature.”

What bunnies cost

Rabbits are not beginner pets. They require a lot of time, are difficult to manage, and are expensive to maintain. But if you want a bunny, or come across a bunny that needs a rescue, here are some tips.

Rabbit teeth grow continuously and require trimming. Photo: 123rf.comRabbit teeth grow continuously and require trimming. Photo:

Rabbits live around 10 years. Some can live as long as 12 or 13 years.

Rabbits need to be neutered at about 10 months or they turn aggressive. Cost of neutering or spaying runs between RM200 to RM400

Rabbits are vegetarian but there are a surprising number of things they can’t eat. They need a diet that is 70% hay plus specially produced pellets. Budget about RM200 a month for hay and pellets.

A rabbit playpen is around RM100 to RM200.

If your bunny has inherited issues with teeth, dental trimming is around RM200 per session. Budget a further RM600 per year.

Note: Not all vets take bunnies. You may need to ask your vet for a referral.

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