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Experts: Don't fall prey to impulse when buying rabbits

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Alyssa O'Toole holds (from left,) Aoife, Pyper, and Hopalong Cassidy, Sunday, March 10th, 2013. She is a co-founder of Rabbit Wranglers, a group that rescues and fosters rabbits. The group has about 50 volunteers and works with a number of animal shelters in the area. Over the last six years, Alyssa estimates she has fostered about 60 rabbits-all with medical or behavioral issues. Her latest is Aoife-a cancer survivor, and Hopalong- a rabbit who lost one hind leg. Pyper, a pet, is recovering from back injuries.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Nick Wagner nestles up to Otto, a 1 1/2 year-old half-Holland Lop Ear, half-Angora rabbit in their Dormont home, Sunday, March 10th, 2013. Nick and his wife, Megan, belong to Rabbit Wranglers, a group that rescues and fosters rabbits.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Megan Wagner holds Mochi, a 1 1/2 year-old Holland Lop Ear rabbit in their Dormont home, Sunday, March 10th, 2013. Megan and her husband, Nick, belong to Rabbit Wranglers, a group that rescues and fosters rabbits.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Megan Wagner holds Mochi, a 1 1/2 year-old Holland Lop Ear rabbit in their Dormont home, Sunday, March 10th, 2013. Megan and her husband, Nick, belong to Rabbit Wranglers, a group that rescues and fosters rabbits.

Alyssa O'Toole of Dormont has four beloved, affectionate furry pets who have full run of the house.

Dogs and cats? No, bunny rabbits — both her own, plus the many special-needs rabbits she fosters through her rescue organization, Rabbit Wranglers, which is now caring for nearly five dozen bunnies in foster homes.

“I couldn't imagine not having a rabbit in my life,” O'Toole, 46, says. “They're just amazing, amazing. Intelligent and entertaining.”

At Easter time, many people acquire a pet rabbit as a holiday-theme impulse buy, and they don't understand what caring for one entails. Then, when the novelty wears off, the rabbit ends up in shelters, rescue groups and even the outdoors, where they often don't fare well.

“The rabbit looks cute and cuddly ... but it's definitely a different experience living with a rabbit than with a dog or a cat,” O'Toole says.

The North Side-based Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, which has about two dozen rabbits available for adoption, took in more than 300 surrendered rabbits in 2012, spokeswoman Gretchen Fieser says. Most of them come in the summer and fall months, when the Easter novelty has worn off.

“So many bunnies find themselves at the Humane Society or other shelters because people don't do the research and don't think things through,” Fieser says.

Rabbits seem simple but are actually high-maintenance animals, says Suaz Forsythe, co-founder and co-leader of Rabbit Wranglers along with O'Toole. For one thing, rabbits aren't a short-term commitment like a goldfish. The average lifespan is 10 years.

Not all veterinarians treat them, Forsythe says, and medicines used for cats and dogs can kill rabbits. Bunnies, rather than eat a commercially prepared and bagged diet, eat mostly hay and vegetables, which take more effort to prepare.

Dr. Betsy Kennon, a veterinarian who treats rabbits and other pets at VCA Northview Animal Hospital in Ross, says that rabbits require about the same amount of medical maintenance as a dog or cat, although they don't need vaccinations. They do need regular veterinary checkups, and should be spayed or neutered, she says.

Perhaps the biggest and most unpleasant surprise rabbit owners find is their pets' hyperactive digestive system: Rabbits pass some 260 pellets a day, Forsythe says. That's a lot of cleanup.

Many people erroneously believe that rabbits should spend their lives in cages like hamsters, which is not true. Maybe this is why some people think a rabbit doesn't bond with people, says Forsythe, who is also the resident rabbit expert and communications coordinator at Kilbuck-based Animal Friends shelter.

“They think (rabbits are) boring,” says Forsythe, of Lawrenceville. “If you lived in a cage your whole life, you'd be pretty boring, as well.”

Some people think rabbits are detached, and not affectionate and engaging like cats and dogs. But don't tell that to Megan Wagner, who has two of her own loving rabbits — Mochi and Otti — and a foster rabbit named Maxwell, whom Wagner is caring for through Rabbit Wranglers.

“I don't think that people necessarily know how affectionate they can be,” says Wagner, 28, of Dormont. “When we're sitting down watching a movie, you never know when one is going to jump up on the couch and start licking your face. ... They're really amazing.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com.

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