Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Truth About Easter Pets: What to Consider First

When I was about 10 years old, my little sister and I were given baby rabbits as Easter gifts.  I remember, very vividly, going into the barn of a lady who bred rabbits in order to choose our pets.  I fell in love with a sandy-brown mixed breed rabbit and, lucky for me, she was for sale.  My sister chose a sweet, black-and-white Dutch. 

One of our Pekin ducklings at three weeks old.
Although the two female bunnies would be living together, we had three rabbit houses ready for them at home.  In the summer, they had both an outdoor hutch for the daytime and good weather and a larger hutch in the garage for night.  During the winter, they would stay indoors in our warm basement and had a large, safe, gated area to roam around in.  Inside their "corral", they also had wooden boxes with hay to sleep in and a litter box (yes, they were litter box trained!).  We brought Baby and Carrots (also affectionately known as Fat'n'Sassy) into the house often to play with them and give them exercise and attention. 

They were friendly and lovable pets... but also lucky that they got a good home.  We knew they would be with us permanently and would be part of the family.  We knew they would require care, cleaning, attention, proper housing, and would incur expenses.

However, the sad truth about Easter pets is that most are bought without taking into consideration the long-term commitments and plans.  They wind up shifted from home to home, in a shelter, put to sleep, or abandoned. 

I've had baby rabbits, chicks, and ducklings and, yes, they certainly are super-cute.  There is a lot more to consider though when deciding to get an Easter pet.  Here are some important questions to ask yourself first.

1.  Do you want some cute, little, fuzzy creatures to give as Easter gifts, or do you want long-term pets?  Baby animals grow quickly into adults.  Will you love the adults as much as you enjoy the babies?  Will your kids love the adult animals and spend time with them?  Or will they lose interest?  For example, will a five-year-old really want a full-grown rooster as a companion?  Probably not. Don't assume that the local farm will take in your animal either.  (When buying chicks, "straight run" means the chicks are a random mix of male and female. Roosters may or may not be OK around kids and more than one rooster can lead to fighting.)

One of our baby chicks from a year ago.  They are
now full-grown ladies!
2.  Who will take care of the animals?  Kids are notorious for promising to care for animals and then lose interest.  I think the best approach is to make caring for the animals something that the whole family does together, since kids learn about responsibility through example and helping, not by being forced to do it. 

3.  Do you know how much work is involved in caring for this animal?  Coops and hutches need to be cleaned regularly, plus there is the daily work of feeding and watering.  Will you mind going out in the snow and rain day after day?  Will shoveling out manure bother you?

4.  Is your property zoned for this animal?  Many towns do not allow chickens, ducks, or roosters, may have limits on the numbers, or have specifications for housing and containment (such as keeping coops a certain distance from neighbors or no free-ranging).  I would recommend emailing your town hall or animal control officer first; then, keep the email as written proof if a problem should ever arise.  Don't assume that they will let a broken rule get by, either, if you already have the animals.  The town can and will force you to remove animals that are not allowed.
You should also check with your landlord and get written permission if you rent your home.  At the Humane Society, many of the pets we took in were from renters who either did not get permission from landlords and had to get rid of the animal, or who were moving to a new home that did not allow pets.

5.  Can you afford this animal?  Can you afford vet expenses if the pet should need vet care?  When I worked at the Humane Society interviewing potential adopters, people often assumed "expenses" meant the cost of a bag of food.  For rabbits and birds, include housing (a coop or hutch with plenty of space for full-grown animals), feed, bedding, hay, vitamins and supplements. 

6.  Can you afford to bring the animal to the vet if they get injured or sick?  Baby, our Dutch rabbit, developed kidney stones later in life and needed surgery to survive.  I also had to seek veterinary advice and fecal testing when my flock of chickens developed diarrhea.  Problems do and will occur... make sure you can handle it before bringing the animal home.

7.  Are there rescue organizations or shelters where you can get a pet instead?  Most humane societies have rabbits for adoption and there are many rabbit rescue groups across the U.S.  A bonus is that they have been checked by a vet.  You can also see the personalities of adult animals better and can chose a pet that will fit your family.

8. Do you have enough space and the proper housing for this animal?  Chickens need a minimum of 4 sq/ft per bird of coop space if they have an additional outdoor run.  (If you only want two or three chickens, movable chicken tractors are a great option.)  Ducks are larger and will need more space, plus room for a kiddie pool as they get older.  Both types of birds will need secure, locked housing for night.  In addition, my personal opinion is that birds should have an outdoor run that is fully enclosed from predators (including the top); dogs, raccoons, coyotes, and even hawks will kill chickens and ducks given the chance, as well as the danger of passing cars. 
Rabbits, also, need plenty of space to run and play in order to stay healthy and happy.  An extra-extra-large dog crate is often OK as long as the rabbit gets out to play often.  Litter box training is the best option since you can then keep bedding on the cage floor instead of a wire floor.  Rabbits should also not be in an outdoor hutch that is exposed to the elements during very hot or cold weather.  Also, it's great to let a rabbit out in the house to play (especially if litter box trained), but they need to be watched closely because they can be killed by chewing on electrical cords.

Our new ducklings at three weeks old.  We have
four Pekins (yellow) and two Rouens.
9. Have you done your homework on the care and health of this type of animal before getting it?  Before getting new animals, I get a book on that type and read it cover-to-cover.  I make sure I have the proper housing and food, know how to care for them, and that I'm familiar with health problems.  Researching breeds is also important to know their personalities and size.  (Leghorn chickens are unsuitable for kids since they can be flighty and nervous, while my Ameraucanas are pretty calm and easy to handle.  The pros and cons of bird breeds can vary widely.)  When we moved to our farm, we had never owned sheep, chickens, or ducks before.  The books I found most helpful were Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, Keeping Chickens by Ashley English, and the blogs Fresh Eggs Daily (for both chicken and duck-keeping) and Tilly's Nest (chickens).
Baby animals require specialized care.  Learn the proper way to care for them and have everything set up before you bring them home.

10.  Do you have the time, space, and knowledge to care for baby animals in your home?  Chicks, ducklings, and baby rabbits need a lot of care, cleaning up after, and attention.  When we got our Pekin and Rouen ducklings three weeks ago, I knew they would love to play in their water and make a big, wet mess in their brooder... and did they ever!  I spend a half hour every evening and morning cleaning their wet brooder so they won't get chilled and sick.  Be ready for constant cleaning and care when they are little.




This was a featured post on Tuesdays With A Twist!  Thanks Mary @ Back to the Basics!


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