Rabbits should be seen more as a family pet, with the parents being the rabbit's primary carer. However, rabbits and children can get along very well...
Many rabbit welfare experts now believe that rabbits are in no way suitable as a children's pet given the level of care required. Furthermore, rabbits are prey animals who scare easily and therefore logically do not fit well with a young child's naturally boisterous nature.
Rabbits should be seen more as a family pet, with the parent(s) being the rabbit's primary carer. However, rabbits and children can get along very well if the rabbit feels secure and unthreatened in its environment and this can be easily achieved by teaching the child how to respect and understand rabbits.
Deciding to buy a rabbit
Although rabbits are commonly bought as "starter pets" to teach a child the responsibility of taking care of a pet, this seldom works out well either for the child or the rabbit. It is simply too much for a young child to cope with in terms of the time and level of care required to fulfil a rabbit's basic needs.
The decision to buy a rabbit should be as serious as the decision to buy a cat or dog. Rabbits can live for up to 12 years and are a considerable financial committment. Their key needs are companionship and exercise so ideally two rabbits should be bought and a large hutch and exercise run.
Rabbits should never be an "impulse buy". Apart from the obvious risk of the novelty wearing off and the rabbit being neglected, there is a very real risk of ending up with a rabbit with dental disease, the most common rabbit ailment, which can be very costly to treat.
The importance of temperament
Rabbits differ widely in temperament, mostly depending on breed. Larger breeds tend to be more laid back, while dwarf rabbits can be lively and highly strung. A rabbit with a placid, easy going temperament will get on much better with children. For this reason it is worthwhile researching different breeds and either going direct to a reputable breeder or adopting a rabbit from a rescue centre who will be able to tell you what the rabbit's temperament is like. Neutering / spaying also has a considerable effect on a rabbit's temperament, calming them down and greatly reducing territorial, courtship and other troublesome behaviour.
Introducing rabbits and children
It is very important to impress upon the child the need to treat the rabbit gently and with respect. Rabbits are rarely aggressive but, like any animal, may defend themselves if they feel threatened.
Encourage your child to make friends with your rabbit at ground level by sitting or lying on the ground and letting the rabbit approach them. Don't let them pick the rabbit up or chase it and they should avoid sudden movements and loud noises which will startle the rabbit. Teach them how to stroke and cuddle the rabbit without touching its sensitive areas like ears, feet, whiskers and tummy. In time your rabbit will start to trust the child and you can move on to picking up and handling, although this should always be supervised.
The good news
Given the right mix of easygoing rabbit and respectful child a deep bond can be formed with the child providing exercise, stimulation and companionship for the rabbit and the rabbit responding with affection and appreciation. Once this bond of trust is formed the rabbit will be relaxed and happy and become an entertaining and playful pet for the child - a win-win situation all round.