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Purchasing Your First Rabbit

This article is intended as an informative “guide” for the person looking to purchase her first rabbit, whether it be for pet, show, meat, or fur purposes, in the hopes of avoiding the all too common mistakes one inevitably makes from a lack of knowledge of rabbits.

The “domestic rabbit” that people raise and/or keep for the above reasons are not native to the North American Continent; these rabbits mostly hail originally from European species. The domestic rabbit, unlike the American Jack Rabbit and Cottontail, is born naked, blind, and deaf and is also a “burrowing” animal. It was once believed that rabbits were “rodents,” but rabbits have since been classified as “lagomorphs.” Rabbits are not rodents!

In the United States, rabbits are not considered to be livestock or a “commodity,” resulting in very few, if any, government regulations and price controls for the rabbit meat market other than USDA meat inspections in certain cases. Each state has its own requirements regarding the processing of rabbit meat intended for resale for human consumption. Due to the popular “Easter Bunny Syndrome” (i.e., “too cute to eat”) that is wide-spread in the USA, the rabbit meat market is not as a large industry as it is in European countries. However, the rabbit meat industry is currently on the rise.

Rabbits are gaining popularity as “house pets,” and can be trained to use a litter box. They are often referred to as the “Pet of the 90s,” or the “Condominium Pet” because they are quiet, clean, and reasonably easy to care for, particularly in small apartments. Rabbits come in all sizes and colors, ranging from adult weights of 2 pounds up to 18 pounds or more. In the United States, there are currently 45 “recognized” specific breeds of rabbits, with more being developed all the time. Each breed, with only a few exceptions, come in a wide range of colors or “varieties.”

Rabbit shows have gained considerable popularity in America, sanctioned by the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). This organization is responsible for the licensing of Rabbit Registrars and Rabbit Judges and the evaluation and introduction of new breeds and varieties. ARBA also sponsors ongoing research and boasts a membership of over 35,000 members world-wide. ARBA-chartered local rabbit clubs can be found throughout the nation and Canada. The annual ARBA National Rabbit Convention and Show will often have as many as 21,000 or more rabbits entered in competition. Show rabbits (or “Fancy” rabbits as they are termed) are bred specifically for quality in accordance with the “Standard of Perfection” for that breed as determined by the ARBA, and prices for these rabbits can be quite high.

Not all breeds of rabbits are “meat-type” rabbits, although any rabbit can be used for food. There are 18 “commercial-type” breeds that are bred or judged for their meat qualities: French, Giant and Satin Angoras; Champagne d’Argent; Californian; Cinnamon; American Chinchilla; Creme d’Argent; French Lop; Harlequin; Hotot; New Zealand; Palomino; Rex; American Sable; Satin; Silver Fox, and Silver Marten. Of these, the New Zealand White and the Californians are the most commonly raised for the commercial meat market due to fast growth rates, good feed conversion, high dress-out weights, and meat-to-bone ratios. The majority of processors and live-fryer brokers prefer white-furred rabbits. Lower prices are generally paid for colored rabbits.

There is very little market for rabbit furs and pelts in the United States today, due to the influx of inexpensive imports. American breeders cannot compete with the low prices of the imported pelts, with the exception of the velvety Rex fur, a fairly new and upcoming industry.

Small breed “pet-quality” rabbits are often found in pet stores. A “pet-quality” rabbit does not conform to the “Standard of Perfection” for show purposes, and is quite often a “mixed breed.” These rabbits cannot be shown in a rabbit show. Purposely breeding mixed-bred rabbits (i.e., two different breeds bred together) is highly discouraged as they are often difficult to find homes for them, even as pets. Organizations, such as the House Rabbit Society, actively “rescue” such rabbits, as they often wind up in Humane Societies where they risk euthanization, or are “set free” to be at the mercy of predators. More and more “responsible” rabbit breeders are trying to do their share to help by instituting their own “Adopt-A-Bunny” programs to place these unwanted rabbits. A “responsible” and/or “reputable” rabbit breeder that sells a rabbit that is later unwanted will most often take the rabbit back.

Rabbits make ideal 4-H and FFA projects and is one of very few animals recommended or approved for the younger child. However, small breed rabbits do not make good pets for very young children due to the frailty of the smaller breeds. Rabbits also have sharp nails and may “nip” in an effort to communicate. A rabbit is not recommended as a pet for a toddler. The larger, or medium to giant breeds are actually easier for a young child, enabling him or her to “wrap their arms around” the rabbit without the danger of crushing delicate bones.

Proper information on rabbits is often difficult to find in stores, and many available books in pet stores carry either out-dated or incorrect information. Rabbits are unique from all other animals, and there is much the new owner will need to learn. For this reason, I encourage new rabbit owners to join rabbit organizations that provide guide books with a membership and to subscribe to the varied rabbit publications.

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