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David with one of his first Giant Continentals, Pepper.
David with one of his first Giant Continentals, Pepper.

Standing in the rabbit pen at an event, its often how people introduce themselves to us:

“I had a rabbit once.  It died”.

At first, it struck me as such an unusual, and perhaps uncaring, thing to say about their once loved pet.  But as it became more and more common to hear it, I started to realise what the problem was.

Running a rescue, I come face-to-face with rabbit ignorance every day.  Yes, rabbits continue to be our third most popular pet, but the lack of knowledge and research in their care until recent years means that the vast majority of us still just don’t understand them!  And I think it is this lack of understanding that causes so many people to introduce themselves to the volunteers in this way.

Their matter-of-fact way of telling us about their dead rabbit isn’t lack of care or disinterest in what happened to their pet, but in many ways is actually still them trying to come to terms with it.  They had a rabbit until one day, it just died.  No explanation.  No obvious cause.  It wasn’t expected.  It just….happened.  Perhaps worsened for those who seek vet advice and are told “we don’t know why your rabbit died”.

I’ve often had the discussion myself, where I find myself explaining about rabbits’ vulnerabilities, the numerous conditions they can fall foul to, the parasites that can silently work away on them and their ability to hide pain, injury and illness.  The list is endless, but in hindsight unhelpful.

Many rabbit owners still view their pets as a “cheap option”, and simply wouldn’t consider getting a post-mortem done on their rabbit.  Post mortems can often indicate the cause, but again due to lack of research in rabbit medicine it is still regularly the case that a post mortem is inconclusive.  Having forked out a fortune for the post-mortem, you still may be none-the-wiser!

More experienced owners will often see the subtle signs that indicate a rabbit is unwell, and are often in a better position to rush their rabbit to the vet for preventative treatment.  Sadly, even in these circumstances, it can often be too late, and despite the best efforts of an experienced owner and a rabbit-savvy vet our beloved pets have waited too long before letting us know they needed help.

My advice to all rabbit owners is:

  • Prepare yourself with as much knowledge about rabbit behaviour and welfare as possible, so you can tell when your rabbit is unwell at the earliest opportunity.
  • Spend time with your rabbit and get to know them well.  If you know them well, you will recognise if their behaviour changes.  If their behaviour changes, it often means there is something not right, and they should be checked over!
  • Make sure you have access to a good, rabbit-savvy vet you are comfortable with, and ensure that your vet’s out of hours service will also provide you with access to a rabbit-savvy vet at all times.
  • Ultimately, prepare yourself for the vulnerability of your rabbits.  It’s harsh but its reality: your rabbit may die without warning, despite all your best efforts!

I was speaking to a colleague recently about our rabbits, and we were discussing the loss of one of mine.  She noted, “You don’t seem very upset.  Were you not bothered about them dying?”.  Her assumption that I didn’t care hit a nerve.  Why was I not more bothered?  Had I become immune to the loss of my rabbits after all these years?  Could it be I had just ‘got used’ to it all?

My rabbits are incredibly important to me, but for me they are not “part of the family”.  Perhaps it’s the influence of my farming background.  I have twelve rabbits all kept outdoors, in a very large shed and run environment.  They are given more than they need, ample hay and fresh food and water daily.  I can walk in to their walk-in run and sit with them and they are happy to come over and clamber all over me for attention.  I share their daily care with the volunteer team at The Warren, which allows me to keep my rabbits whilst maintaining all my other work and charity commitments.  It’s not the kind of relationship I know some of our other volunteers have with their rabbits.  Their bunnies are smothered with daily affection and care and are very much part of their everyday family life, perhaps living in the home.  The relationship and setups are different, but both valid.  The rabbits’ needs are met, in both scenarios.  And the rabbits are very much loved, in both scenarios.

So no, my response to the loss of a rabbit is certainly not one of not caring, or not being bothered.  In fact, their passing probably affects me more than I would let on.  But I do think there is one big difference: I always expect my rabbit to die.

I don’t mean that in a negative way.  In fact, quite the opposite.  As a result of my experience with rabbits, I have learned how vulnerable their little lives are.  I know that just about every predator and disease out there is likely to affect these delicate little guys.  And in knowing just how vulnerable they are, I realise that every day my rabbit is with me is a bonus.  I know it could all end in an instant, so I don’t assume anything.  I don’t expect them to be with me forever, because I know they can’t be.  And when they pass, sad as it is, I don’t focus on their death and why they have gone, but focus on their life.  A life I was lucky to be part of.

I had a rabbit once.  Let me tell you how it lived….