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Classroom Rabbits: What are you really teaching?

A constantly caged rabbit becomes withdrawn and aggressive, resulting in symptoms such as lethargy, unresponsiveness, obesity, or neurotic behaviors. If no one makes a significant investment of time, attention, and care of a classroom rabbit, the result is a withdrawn animal who does not have much to give back to the students. Regardless of what teachers or parents believe about the care of a classroom animal, what do such practices show students about the value of living beings?

Some issues to consider:

Rabbits are often seen as a low-maintenance pet or teaching tool. Sadly, many people’s perception of what rabbits are like is based on erroneous assumptions and experience with neglected classroom or backyard pets. It’s common to see rabbits sitting all day (and night) in small classroom cages. True, unlike many species, rabbits can endure such a life quietly for a surprisingly long time. But rabbits need exercise and stimulation to maintain health, good spirits, and normal behavior. A constantly caged rabbit becomes withdrawn and aggressive, resulting in symptoms such as lethargy, unresponsiveness, obesity, or neurotic behaviors. Within a few years, most rabbits confined in such a setting become ill and die. That’s not a normal life span. With proper care, domestic rabbits can live 8-12 years or longer.

We believe that interest in animal life and humane behavior toward animals can be better reinforced by quality interaction with a healthy, happy rabbit or other pet. If no one makes a significant investment of time, attention, and care of a classroom rabbit, the result is a withdrawn animal who does not have much to give back to the students. What do such practices show students about the value of living beings?

Are you prepared to properly care for a rabbit?

If you are considering a classroom rabbit, we hope we can convince you that it might not be a good idea. If you already have a classroom rabbit, we would like to help you improve the life of your classroom rabbit or one you know. All it takes are commitment to the rabbit’s well-being and accurate information about his or her needs.

Are you fully committed to giving the rabbit consistent, on-schedule, care?

Because of the way rabbit digestion works, food, hay, and water must be available at all times. Cages and litter boxes should be cleaned daily of soiled matter and must be thoroughly scrubbed weekly.

How will you ensure that the rabbit receives proper care when you are not around?

Rabbits need consistent care, including on weekends and during vacations. Sending a classroom rabbit home with a student or a succession of students can result in severe stress to the animal. Improper care is likely, even in the most well intentioned families. Being left at school has its risks. Many teachers have returned to school on Monday only to find a dead animal in the cage that housed an apparently healthy one on Friday.

Are you willing to monitor your rabbit closely for illness?

Rabbits need the care of someone who can quickly recognize small changes in behavior, eating, and droppings. These are the first symptoms of illness, which can progress quickly in these small creatures.

If your rabbit is sick, can you afford to have him treated?

It can be difficult to find veterinarians who are knowledgeable about treating rabbits. If you make a vet visit and medication or other care is prescribed, are you prepared to give it?

Do you have space for a humanely sized cage, both at school and at home? Who will foot the bill for it?

What would happen if the air conditioning or heat at your school is turned off outside of school hours, or if pesticides are sprayed? Rabbits, because of their thick coats, begin to show distress at temperatures above 85° F. Rabbits are so sensitive to pesticides that even common flea preparations are likely to cause serious illness.

Are your students mature enough to understand the lessons you want them to learn from the rabbit and are they capable of treating the rabbit appropriately?

Children under 7 are usually not mature enough to safely interact with a rabbit except under close, constant, supervision.

Do you have the time to teach students proper behavior and to monitor their interaction with the rabbit?

Adults must be committed to teaching and enforcing rules that protect both the child and the rabbit from physical and emotional trauma.

What will you do if a child is injured by the rabbit or vice versa?

Young children love to pick up and cuddle animals. However, most rabbits feel safe only with four feet on the floor or other stable surface. Spinal injuries and dislocated or broken legs are common when rabbits struggle or fall when small children try to hold them. Children can also be badly scratched or painfully bitten by a frightened rabbit as she tries to escape.

Are you willing to "bunny-proof" your classroom so you can allow the rabbit the out-of-cage time necessary for his well-being? Rabbits like to chew and dig, but their destructiveness can be managed by managing their environment, training, and other methods. Rabbits should get at least three hours of exercise daily.

Is your classroom comfortable for a naturally timid animal?

Stresses present in classrooms include noise, over-handling, improper foods and diet variations, disruption of routine, temperature changes, and loneliness.

Does your principal approve of uncaged pets? If not, are you willing to take the rabbit home?

Rabbits are often seen as a low-maintenance pet or teaching tool. Sadly, many people’s perception of what rabbits are like is based on erroneous assumptions and experience with neglected classroom or backyard pets.

Will you be prepared to take the rabbit home and keep her there if a student is allergic to her?

If you decide to bring a rabbit to your classroom you may ultimately be responsible for any health problems that may arise. Are you prepared to bring the rabbit home should a student develop an allergic reaction? Or if your rabbit develops health problems from conditions in your classroom?

This information was originally prepared by Carolyn Mixon
and Gina Scherffius of the House Rabbit Resource Network.

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House Rabbit Society