Parents need to be responsible with pet gifts

A few days after Christmas I was leaving a pet-supply store when a young girl approached me in the dark parking lot.

"Would you like a bunny?" she asked. "Free."

In her arms was an adorable half-grown rabbit. I asked her why she was giving him up. She said her mom decided they didn't have time for a pet after all. The young girl hadn't even had him long enough to give him a name.

His "cage" was a cardboard box lined with a plastic garbage bag, and his "food" was yellowed lettuce leaves. I sighed and took him home. I christened him as Velocity, he joined my other two rabbits, Turbo and Annie. It turns out that rabbits multiply, even if they're neutered.

The Christmas bunny incident got on my nerves because it exemplifies everything that's wrong about children's pets. In a word: parents. If parents aren't going to behave like grown-ups and make sensible, responsible decisions, the wonderful promise that is a children's pet too often ends miserably, both for the child and for the animal.

Velocity got lucky, which sets him apart from the majority of cast-off children's pets. With Easter just around the corner, it's time to remind people that although pets can be wonderful for children, it's up to adults to see that any animal is a proper fit for the family and that they don't neglect it. Don't just give in to a child's demands!

Easter pets traditionally include baby chicks, ducks and, of course, rabbits. Chicks and ducklings are not suitable pets for most families, but rabbits can be good companions for children who are old enough to handle the animals safely.

Rabbits are not low-maintenance pets, however, and they require more than a small outside hutch, a water bottle and some food. In fact, you'll get a lot more out of a pet rabbit if you bring the animal into your house and your life. As with any companion animal, rabbits pay back any amount of proper care and time you give many times over.

Here are some care tips, a basic bunny primer:

• Equipment. Your rabbit needs a cage that's at least big enough to stretch out and hop around, and tall enough so he can stand on his hind legs without his ears touching the top.

For a food dish, choose a ceramic crock that the rabbit cannot chew or tip over. A hanging bottle is best for water; make sure the water stays fresh by changing it daily. Rabbits need and love to chew, so be sure there are toys and other items for safe chewing. My three bunnies love hay-filled cardboard tubes and sisal mats, toys that are great for chewing and cheap to find or make.

Don't forget a litter box. Put a shallow layer of absorbent, pressed-paper litter in the bottom and hay on the top. You'll get most of the mess in the box, which will need to be changed regularly, not scooped like a cat box.

• Nutrition. In recent years, rabbit experts have moved away from recommending commercial pellets as a base diet for pet rabbits. Instead, rabbits should have constant access to fresh grass hays and daily offerings of fresh vegetables such as greens (all kinds), carrot tops and broccoli. You can grow your own greens or harvest them from areas you know to be herbicide-free. Fruit, such as apple slices, makes wonderful treats.

• Health. Rabbits are better pets if neutered. Annual checkups with the veterinarian are a good idea, and some rabbits have teeth that need regular medical attention.

• Exercise. Rabbits were meant to run. Indoor rabbits can roam around the house under supervision, and chill in their cages when not being watched. Outdoor activity in a small fenced area is also fun, if carefully supervised to protect these bunnies from predators.

A great resource for rabbit information is the House Rabbit Society, online at www.rabbit.org. HRS founder Marinell Harriman's "House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live With an Urban Rabbit" (Drollery Press, $11) is a good basic reference.

Is your family ready for a rabbit? If the answer is yes, forget the Easter sales push and adopt a bunny from a rescue group or humane society. You'll find lots of great pets to choose from, and you'll be saving a life. (Rabbits have very low adoption rates.)

Have the staff show you and your child how to hold a rabbit safely and firmly, so neither human nor rabbit is hurt when a frightened bunny kicks.

Too much shedding

Q: I have an akita. I brush him daily and bathe him twice a week. He still sheds nonstop. It doesn't seem like anything helps: special food, vitamins, bathing, constant combing. What can I do? Please help! -- L.S., via e-mail

A: Assuming your dog is healthy and has no skin conditions, there's not much you can do.

People who get upset about shedding should do research before getting a dog. Some breeds are prolific shedders by nature. Some, like the German shepherd, are year-round fur machines, while other breeds such as collies drop much of their coat in spring and fall. Daily brushing and combing will help control the mess because the fur you catch on a brush isn't going to end up on clothing or furniture. But in the end, you simply cannot change the genetic imperative of a dog. A breed with a thick, lush coat is going to shed, and that's all there is to it.

Invest in lint rollers and other devices to help cope with shed fur from this dog. For your next pet, consider a dog from one of the lower-shedding varieties. Breeds such as poodles, bichons and many terriers might be a good choice in terms of less fur around the house, but many of these require regular grooming by a professional.

Final note: You shouldn't be bathing a healthy dog twice a week. Once or twice a month is fine, weekly if you must, and use a high-quality pet shampoo and conditioner.