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Common Illnesses of Ferrets

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Do you own or are thinking of owning a pet ferret? It’s always an excellent idea to familiarize yourself with the most common health issues associated with your pet ferret so that you are prepared and ready to know when they may require veterinary attention.

Adrenal Disease

Adrenocortical disease is arguably the most recognized disease in pet ferrets today. “Adrenal disease” is the umbrella term for when a condition causes the adrenal gland(s) in the ferret to overproduce estrogen and/or progesterone steroid hormones. The most common characteristic sign of this disease is loss of hair (alopecia). This hair loss is commonly first observed on the ferret’s tail, causing a rat-tail appearance, and moves upwards along the ferret’s body. The hair loss is typically most obvious in the early springtime. Other clinical signs can include enlargement of the female external genitalia, overall total body itchiness, and sometimes difficulty urinating/urinary issues in male ferrets.

Adrenal disease is most common in older ferrets over 3 years of age. Adrenal disease varies in severity and presence of concurrent medical conditions, so diagnosis and treatment is decided on an individual basis. If you notice your ferret appears to be losing hair or appears itchy, your veterinarian will need to examine your ferret to rule out other possible causes including normal seasonal hair loss or an ovarian remnant (when female ferret that has not been spayed, or was spayed improperly).

The cause of such high rates of adrenal disease in pet ferrets is currently under debate. Suggested causes under research at this time include early neutering, too much artificial light, a genetic predisposition, as well as inappropriate diet. Speak with your veterinarian for further information about risk factors for your ferret developing adrenal disease.

Gastrointestinal Disease and/or Foreign Bodies

Ferrets make excellent pets due to their goofy unique personalities, their playfulness, and their relatively straightforward husbandry. Unfortunately along with their unique personalities comes a tendency towards naughtiness, and sometimes ferrets will get into things and may consume things that they shouldn’t be eating. It is important to “ferret-proof” your home to help prevent your ferret from gaining access to small items that they may ingest, leading to gastrointestinal blockages that often will require surgery to resolve, and can sometimes be fatal.

Ferrets are also prone to developing stomach and intestinal issues due to infection, inflammation, ingestion of toxins, or even cancer. Clinical signs of gastrointestinal disease or obstruction typically include lethargy, weakness, reluctance to move, and ferrets will commonly refuse to eat or eat less than usual, may lose weight, and may develop diarrhea. If you detect any one or more of these signs bring your ferret to a veterinarian immediately.

Insulinoma

In North America, insulinoma has been recognized as the most common type of tumor in pet ferrets. Insulinoma is a tumor of the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, leading to an overproduction of insulin released into the blood. This overproduction of insulin into the bloodstream causes the ferret’s blood sugar to drop, a condition called hypoglycemia. Common clinical signs include lethargy and weakness, drooling, collapsing, walking abnormally, as well as seizures. Any one of the above clinical signs should prompt an immediate visit to your veterinarian, as hypoglycemia can become severe and fatal. A ferret with a diagnosis of insulinoma may require surgery, usually followed by long-term medical care.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph tissues, is the most common malignant form of cancer in pet ferrets. Lymphoma can occur at any age in ferrets and the clinical signs associated with it will vary depending on the organ(s) affected by the tumors. Surprisingly, lymphoma is sometimes an incidental finding in a ferret coming to the vet clinic for another seemingly unrelated health reason, such as adrenal disease or dental disease, or even at an annual wellness vet visit. Treatment is often not curative, but is more commonly aimed at reducing the amount of cancer in the ferret’s body and maintaining the ferret’s quality of life. Treatment can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and different medication to keep the ferret comfortable and feeling well.

Dental Disease

Domestic ferrets in North America appear to be prone to developing disease in their teeth and gums. It is speculated that this high occurrence of dental disease may be due to consuming dry kibble as the mainstay of their source of nutrition, causing abrasion and wear-related damage to the ferret’s teeth. Ferrets are also known for chewing on toys and the bars of their cage, which can lead to damage to their teeth as well. Ferrets will sometimes break the tip of their canine teeth off due to inappropriate chewing of hard objects. Dental disease is commonly overlooked in pet ferrets due to generally lacking obvious clinical signs. Your veterinarian will check your ferret’s teeth during their annual wellness physical examination.

It has been suggested that moistening down the dry ferret kibble may reduce weathering of the ferret’s teeth. For more information on diet and nutrition in ferrets, please see previous blog post on ferret husbandry and care.

Heart Disease

Similarly to humans, middle aged and older ferrets are at risk of developing heart disease. Ferrets with heart disease most commonly show lethargy, difficulty breathing, may lose weight, may stop eating, and may cough. For unknown reasons, ferrets with heart disease may show weakness in their hind-legs. If you see any of these signs in your ferret, your veterinarian needs to examine your ferret, listen to their heart with their stethoscope, and they may recommend taking an x-ray of your ferret’s chest to examine the size of your ferret’s heart and the condition of your ferret’s lungs. Your veterinarian may also recommend an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) for a more detailed look at the valves in your ferret’s heart. Depending on the diagnosis, your veterinarian will prescribe medications to help support your ferret’s heart.

Though uncommon in this location, ferrets can become infected with heartworm. It is prudent to discuss risk of heartworm in your area and the potential need for heartworm prevention in your pet ferret with your veterinarian.

Thank you for taking the time to read about these common ailments to keep in mind when caring for your pet ferret. Of course this list of ailments does not cover everything that can affect your ferret’s health, so it is important to have your ferret checked annually by a veterinarian!

Ferret Husbandry and Care

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The topic of this blog post is near and dear to Dr. Forbes’s heart: Ferrets! Although unconventional, ferrets are known to make wonderful pet companions. Ferrets have huge personalities, are capable of being litter-trained, and are intelligent enough to train to perform tricks! Pet ferrets tend to gain a bad reputation for looking like a combination of a rat and a snake, with the bad smell of a skunk. But despite this negative image, ferrets are known to be silly, fun-loving pets by those who own them.

If you or a family member is considering adding a new small companion into the household, a ferret may be the ideal pet–but only after careful consideration.

Did you know…

  • Ferrets were originally kept for rodent control purposes. It is very important to keep your ferret separated from prey species such as hamsters and rats!

  • Ferrets are escape artists! Any gap wide enough to accommodate their skull, typically the rest of their body will fit through as well.

  • Ferrets are mischievous, and are known to collect items around their living space and hide them. One ferret owner once found a stash of money their ferret had been hiding!

Temperament.

Each ferret is an individual and will have it’s own individual temperament. Overall, ferrets are known to be playful, curious, and energetic. They love to play and romp. When excited, a ferret will perform a “war dance” where they arch their back and leap and hop around, often bumping into the things in the process! Contrary to their playfulness, ferrets are similar to cats in that they sleep the majority of the day. Ferrets will sleep up to 18 hours a day and tend to be most active early in the morning and in the evenings. Some ferrets, particularly young ferrets, may be nippy, and therefore it is important to learn proper handling and be cautious when allowing children to handle them.

Finances & Vet Care.

The initial costs of purchasing/adopting your pet ferret will be considerable. This includes the cost of the ferret itself, a proper ferret enclosure with all associated dishes, toys, litter boxes, etc. Ongoing expenses will include proper nutritious food, litter, cleaning supplies, and replacement toys.

It is important to keep in mind that owning a pet ferret will be associated with veterinary bills. It is highly recommended that ferrets receive annual wellness examinations by a ferret-experienced veterinarian to ensure that your ferret is in good health. Just like us people, your pet ferret can get sick and may require veterinary care to ensure it lives a long, happy, and comfortable life! Ferrets are required in Ontario to have their rabies vaccination. Ferrets are also vaccinated for distemper. Both of these vaccinations must be boosted annually. Ferrets are prone to developing dental disease, and may require dental cleanings under anaesthesia by a veterinarian.

It is typical for ferrets in North America to be provided by large breeding facilities, which have their ferrets spayed or neutered as well as descented prior to sending them for sale at pet stores. Descenting a ferret is the practice of removing the anal glands as an attempt to decrease odour, however this practice is not performed in the UK due to the majority of the odour coming from the sebaceous or skin glands of the ferret.

Common ailments of ferrets will be discussed in the next blog post so keep an eye out!

Lifespan.

Typical lifespan of a ferret is 6-12 years, with majority of ferrets in North America living 6-8 years. The range is so broad as lifespan tends to vary heavily with the source of the ferret (where it was bred/it’s genetics), proper care of the ferret, and often just plain luck. Ferrets are susceptible to a small group of diseases, which occur very commonly, and will be discussed in our next blog post for your interest.

Care and Husbandry.

That brings us to our next point, read on to find out what is involved in the care for a pet ferret!

Housing:

You can purchase a ferret enclosure from most pet stores that sell pet ferrets. It is important that your enclosure is large (at least 24x24x18 inches) and offers ample enrichment. Ferrets should not always be confined to their enclosure and should be permitted ample playtime (min 2 hours/day) in a ferret-proofed area. Ferret-proofing requires ensuring that there are no gaps or holes in the room allowing escape into the walls, out of windows, into floor or wall vents, etc. Ferrets are capable of fitting into very small spaces and enjoy squeezing through gaps and tunnels. Enrichment ideas include playing with toys, playing with other ferrets, use of hammocks and tunnels, giving a variety of appropriate foods, hiding treats and foods, and providing unique materials such as boxes and bags for the ferret to enjoy. Provide multiple litter boxes for your ferret to do their business. Ferrets tend to prefer their litter boxes be placed in the corners of their living space. Use a pelleted litter material instead of clay or clumping.

Diet:

It is known that ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. This means that they require nutrients obtained from consuming meat only. This means that like your cat, your ferret cannot survive on a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are many commercial diets available at pet stores for your ferret. Feeding a commercial diet for a ferret is typically the preferred method of feeding a ferret, as they provide meat-based nutrition that has been formulated to meet a ferret’s specific nutritional needs, and these dry foods are convenient to purchase and feed. It is also possible to feed a good quality dry cat food to your ferret that uses meat sources and not grains. It is important to ensure that the food that is high in protein (30-35%) and fat (15-20%), and is low in carbohydrates and fibre. Some owners feed whole prey to their ferret. Do not give live prey to your ferret as there is the possibility of the prey biting or injuring your ferret, and though it is mimicking nature, it is not particularly humane. The suggested ideal diet in literature is currently to feed a high quality commercial ferret kibble, offer a freshly killed whole prey food item once weekly, and offer occasional canned cat food or alternate texture such as raw egg. It is vital to maintain proper hygiene when handling whole prey as raw meat can contain and grow harmful bacteria.

It is important to keep food available or offer food often, as ferrets have short digestive tracts and digest their food quickly. Ferrets, unlike cats, do not tend to over gorge themselves, though it is still important to ensure your ferret does not become overweight and has ample opportunity to be active and exercise. Keep clean, fresh water available at all times as well. Ferrets enjoy playing in water so it is important to ensure the water dish is not easy to tip over.

Socialization:

Ferrets are very social animals and typically prefer to be in pairs or small groups. It is possible to own a single ferret as long as you are capable of offering it plentiful playtime and enrichment. It is important to interact with your ferret often and offer positive interactions such as giving them treats (within reason), and playing with them using toys. Do not encourage your ferret to play fight with your hands as this can encourage nipping and biting. Never use punishment with your ferret, as punishment has been associated with the development of fear and aggression.

Ferrets are known to be a bit stinky, but they are actually very clean animals. Clean your ferret’s litter boxes daily and perform a full thorough clean of the entire space your ferret occupies at least weekly. You can bathe your ferret with a gentle ferret shampoo occasionally, but avoid bathing too frequently as this can actually stimulate production of oils and make your ferret more odourous!

Here at Scott Veterinary Clinic we would be more than happy to answer any questions or concerns you have about the husbandry of your pet ferret, or if you wish to discuss further if a ferret is the right pet for you!

If you are considering purchasing or adopting a pet ferret, please make sure that you check the by-laws associated with your municipality. Some cities and townships in Ontario have regulations that do not permit the ownership of ferrets at this time.

 

Some Ferret Facts!

  • Here in Canada our wild counterpart of the ferret is the black-footed ferret! They live across the prairies and grasslands of North America and are currently listed as an endangered species by the IUCN.

  • Female ferrets are called jills, males are called hobs, and babies are called kits.

  • A group of ferrets is called a “business”.

  • Ferret-legging was a competitive game said to have been popular in England, where people would put a ferret down their trousers and the winner would be the person to keep the ferret in their trousers the longest!

Let’sTalk Rabbits! Part 2 – Diseases

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Under the proper care and attention, pet rabbits can make excellent fuzzy companions. But even under the best care possible, there is always the risk of your furry friend becoming ill. If you suspect your rabbit might not be feeling well, it is recommended that you contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.

There are a few common ailments that can affect rabbits that all rabbit owners should keep in the back of their mind. Rabbits are prey animals, which means they are easily stressed and very good at hiding their pain. It is responsible pet ownership to become familiarized with the common diseases that can affect pet rabbits.

Dental Disease

Rabbits have different teeth than we do! Rabbits have evolved to consume large quantities of roughage, including grass and hay. As a result, rabbit’s have continuously growing teeth that are worn down by chewing their rough diet. If rabbits are not consuming enough roughage in their diet, this can lead to overgrowth and misalignment of their teeth. This overgrowth and misalignment can lead to sharp points to develop, which can traumatize the rabbit’s lips and cheeks. These wounds inside the rabbit’s mouth can become infected and become abscesses, which require medical attention from your veterinarian.

Some rabbits may be predisposed to developing dental disease, just like some people are more prone to developing cavities and needing to see their dentist more often! It is important to feed your rabbit a proper diet, and to monitor your rabbit for any signs of dental disease including inappetence, drooling, weight loss, facial swelling, and discharge from eyes and/or nose.

Gastrointestinal Tract Issues

Typically the most commonly encountered ailments of pet rabbits are conditions related to their gastrointestinal system (stomach and intestinal tract). There are various gastrointestinal (GI) problems that can occur in rabbits, including obstruction, bloat, and stasis. Rabbits have very sensitive GI tracts and are not capable of vomiting. Rabbits can develop GI disease due to stress, improper diet, consuming hair or a foreign object, or even due to concurrent disease in another body system.

GI issues in rabbits are very serious and can be fatal. Time is of the essence. If you notice your rabbit is not eating as much, not eating at all, is behaving abnormally, has reduced or no defecations, is sitting in a hunched position, or seems reluctant to move, bring them into your veterinarian immediately.

Snuffles

The name “snuffles” might sound adorable, but the medical terminology “sinusitis” and “rhinitis” are not so cute! Rabbits are susceptible to bacterial infection of their respiratory tracts, frequently causing nasal discharge, congestion, and sneezing. It can sometimes be challenging to identify respiratory infection due to the subtlety of clinical signs. Rabbits are typically very cleanly creatures; grooming themselves often enough that discharge may be overlooked by even the most vigilant owners. Sometimes there may be matting of fur on the rabbit’s front limbs and paws due to grooming of the nasal and/or ocular discharge.

Antibiotics are sometimes sufficient to treat mild respiratory infection in rabbits, however care must be taken to select an appropriate antibiotic and treatment timeline so not to disturb the rabbit’s sensitive and vital gastrointestinal system. It is very important to properly follow your veterinarian’s guidelines for treatment. Severe or chronic respiratory infections in rabbits may require more aggressive treatment, and further diagnostics to identify a possible underlying cause for the infection. Important rule-outs for respiratory-like clinical signs in rabbits are nasal foreign object, dental disease, heart disease, and even cancer.

Spinal Injury

Although perhaps not nearly as common as dental, gastrointestinal, or respiratory illness, spinal injury deserved a place on this post due to the unique nature of this injury. Rabbit’s hind limbs are extremely powerful, allowing them a quick getaway from their many potential predators. Unfortunately, those powerful limbs can sometimes be to their own detriment. Rabbits are capable of kicking their hind limbs hard enough to cause fractures to their spinal vertebrae and even severe injury to their spinal cord. Improperly handing, startling, or dropping a rabbit are the most common causes of the spinal trauma. Other pets such as dogs can sometimes lead to starting a rabbit enough for them to cause injury to themselves. It is very important to learn how to properly handle your rabbit and keep them in a calm, safe environment.

If you notice your rabbit has hind-end paralysis where they seem unable to move or use their hind limbs, bring them into your veterinarian immediately. They require immediate veterinary attention because the inability to use their hind end is extremely distressing for rabbits, and they will be unable to properly eat and care for themselves. There are other less likely possible causes of hind limb paralysis in rabbits aside from trauma that can occur, so your veterinarian will need to assess your rabbit directly to determine the likely cause of the paralysis, the severity of the paralysis, and therefore appropriate action going forward.

Uterine Cancer

If your female rabbit has not been spayed (had her reproductive tract removed), then she is highly susceptible to developing uterine cancer, most commonly uterine adenocarcinoma. As discussed in the previous blog post on rabbit care, 60% of rabbits over three years of age develop uterine cancer, with some breeds reaching as high as 80% of female rabbits developing uterine cancer. Uterine cancer in rabbits is very malignant, meaning it has a high tendency to spread around the body, particularly to the abdomen and lungs.

The most classical clinical signs seen with uterine cancer in rabbits is blood coming from your rabbit’s uterus, often appearing in the litterbox or in the urine in general, as well as vaginal discharge. Many rabbits with uterine cancer also develop cysts or tumours in their mammary glands.

You may wonder why female rabbits are so prone to developing uterine cancer. Female rabbits have developed to become extremely reproductively fertile, with rapidly fluctuating hormone levels resulting in a constant variation in the cells lining her uterine wall. This continuous flux of the uterine wall increases the chances of the development of abnormal or cancerous cells. Choosing to either breed or to not breed your rabbit does not alter the chances of her developing uterine cancer. The best method to preventing uterine cancer in rabbits is to have your female rabbit spayed when she reaches 6 months of age.

Thank you for reading this post and taking an important step in learning about rabbit health and wellness! Please don’t hesitate to call the clinic if you have any concerns or questions about your rabbit’s health.

rabbit on grass

Let’s Talk Rabbits!

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In this blog post, we will touch briefly on some important rabbits facts and important details of rabbit ownership.

Aside from dogs and cats, rabbits rank alongside hamsters as being the most popular small fuzzy pet in Canadian households! From their adorable little noses down to their soft fluffy tails, it isn’t hard to see why they make such a popular pet. Relatively inexpensive to buy, easy to find at essentially any pet store outlet, and seemingly simple to care for… rabbits are a common choice for many families looking to add a furry addition to their home. However, many people underestimate the physical and financial responsibilities associated with rabbit ownership.

Did you know…

  • Pet rabbits require regular vet check-ups, and they are very good at hiding their symptoms when they are sick!

  • Pet rabbits, just like dogs and cats, can vary greatly in personality! Ranging from very cuddly and friendly, to more skittish and aloof.

  • Pet rabbits require very specific husbandry and care.

The big question: Is a rabbit the right pet for me/my family?       

There is no question that rabbits make great pets, as they most certainly do! Here are some of the most important facts to keep in mind when considering adding a cute little bun to your family:

Temperament.

The personalities of pet rabbits are highly variable, even within each breed of rabbit. Some rabbits may be very calm, while others may seem to have endless energy! Some rabbits may be very cuddly, while others may be squirmy, prefer not to be held, and may seem more independent. Pet rabbits can often have the tendency to be curious, social, and playful. This can sometimes lead to them having a knack for getting into things they shouldn’t, such as chewing and eating things that they shouldn’t!

Finances.

It is never correct to say you have to be rich to own a rabbit, let alone any pet! However, it is VERY incorrect to say to own a rabbit (or any pet) is free or cheap. Initial costs of purchasing/adopting your pet rabbit will be considerable. This includes the cost of the rabbit itself, a proper rabbit enclosure with all associated dishes, toys, litter box, etc. Ongoing expenses will include proper nutritious food, litter, cleaning supplies, and replacement toys. As mentioned earlier, rabbits have a reputation for being a little naughty! If you aren’t careful, you may need to replace furniture or items around your house that get destroyed by your silly little critter.

One of the most significant expenses that should not be overlooked is veterinary bills. It is generally recommended to have your pet rabbit spayed (female) or neutered (male) when they reach 6 months of age. Having your pet rabbit sterilized comes with many benefits, which tend to outweigh the risks associated with the surgical procedure. In females, these benefits include prevention of unwanted litters, as well as the prevention of reproductive cancer. Uterine cancer is seen to affect 60% of female rabbits over the age of three years old, and is an aggressive and malignant form of cancer in rabbits. In both male and female rabbits, sterilization tends to improve overall behaviour of the rabbit, reducing the occurrence of unwanted behaviours such as biting, spraying, chewing and digging.

It is highly recommended that rabbits receive annual wellness examinations by a rabbit-experienced veterinarian to ensure that your pet rabbit is in good health. Just like us people, your pet rabbit can get sick and may require veterinary care to ensure it lives a long, happy, and comfortable life! Common ailments of rabbits will be discussed in the next blog post so keep an eye out!

Lifespan.

Rabbits are like a rat or a hamster where they live only a couple of years right? WRONG! Many people are surprised that rabbits can live up to 12 years of age, with some of the oldest rabbits reaching a shocking 14-18 years old! The lifespan of rabbits certainly can vary, and can depend on size, breed, proper care and husbandry, access to medical care, and various other factors. People should be aware that they are committing to at least 8 years of caring for their rabbit, and potentially longer. This needs to be kept in mind particularly for situations where you may have changes coming up in your life that may affect your ability to properly care for your rabbit. It is also very important when considering giving a rabbit as a gift, either to a child (as is often done at Easter Holidays) or otherwise.    Care and Husbandry.

That brings us to our next point, read on to find out what is involved in the care for a pet rabbit!

Housing:

Many people choose to allow their rabbit to free-roam at least part, if not all, of their house. It is encouraged that your rabbit be provided a space to call their own, and this involves a proper enclosure, such as a rabbit cage, a large dog crate, a rabbit/dog exercise pen, or a certain room in the house. The enclosure needs to be at least 36 inches high, at least 4x as long as your rabbit, and allow ample space for them to move around. A wire flooring of your rabbit’s home is not appropriate, and may lead to foot-sores. You will also need to “rabbit-proof” your home. This involves concealing cords, covering any open vents, and providing ample toys and safe chewables to distract your rabbit from chewing furniture. Provide a litter box in each corner of the spaces your rabbit is allowed to access and keep the box clean.

Diet:

Nutrition is very important for pet rabbits! Their diet must consist of unlimited grass hay, dark leafy greens and root vegetables, and less so other vegetables and a rabbit pellet. Timothy pellets high in fibre are recommended, with a standard feeding guide of 1/4 cup per 6lb body weight of the rabbit. Fresh timothy or oat hay should be provided at all times. A rabbit provided too many treats will be less inclined to eat the most important part of their diet, hay! A general breakdown for a healthy rabbit diet is 80% hay, 10% vegetables, and 10% pellet and occasional healthy treats. Provide clean, fresh water at all times.

Socialization:

Rabbits are social animals, which require regular affection. It is very important to socialize your rabbit by exposing it to many positive experiences. Never punish your rabbit.

There are many finer aspects to owning a pet rabbit as well. This includes regular nail trimmings, occasionally some rabbits may require aid with grooming, rabbit socialization and litter training, as well as the provision of proper enrichment such as treats and toys. At Scott Veterinary Clinic we would be more than happy to answer any questions or concerns you have about the husbandry of your pet rabbit, or if you wish to discuss further if a rabbit is the right pet for you!

Do you own a rabbit or are considering owning a pet rabbit and are concerned about what you should be watching out for with regards to common illnesses? Check out our next blog post for a discussion on the most commonly seen health issues that affect pet rabbits!

Some Rabbit Facts!

  • Rabbits have been domesticated by people for over 2,000 years. They were originally bred for their meat and fur. They began to gain popularity as a pet in the early 1800s.

  • A male rabbit is called a buck. A female is a doe. Young rabbits are referred to as a kit (kitten). The young can also be referred to as leverets, however this term tends to be used more commonly for their wild sometimes longer-eared counterpart, the hare.

  • When a rabbit launches itself into the air and does spins and twists, this is referred to as a BINKY!

  • Rabbits are one of the most commonly acquired pets for children, and often end up in shelters due to the misconception that they are a simple and cheap pet to own. If you are thinking about bringing a rabbit into your home, consider adopting a rabbit from a shelter or rabbit rescue group.