Written by: Dr. Irene Choi
Every March, after observing endless signs of clover and green in stores we are bombarded by advertising that features cute little bunnies and chicks toting the values and joys of Easter & Spring. Often people are tempted to purchase a small bunny, chick, or duckling for a small child for the Easter Holiday and we would like to provide you with information that will help you decide if a bunny, chick, or duckling is the right pet for your family.
Shelters often have unwanted bunnies waiting to be adopted and many of them have been waiting since last May (http://www.kitsap-humane.org/available-pets) when they were relinquished by people who were unable to deal with a growing rabbit. Although rabbits start off small, they grow rapidly and often are mature by 3-4 months of age. A hormonally driven rabbit may be prone to amorous interactions with blankets & towels, along with guarding their home territory (i.e. cage) by lunging, biting, and urine marking; both in their cage and on furnishings in the home. Neutering and spaying your pet rabbit at an early age can help deter and decrease these unwanted behaviors.
Rabbits also have special dietary requirements: Timothy Hay or Orchard grass needs to be provided at all times, along with fresh produce such as romaine, green leaf, and red leaf lettuces. In the early stages of development, typically less than 3 months, rabbits need veggies high in calcium and Vitamin D (parsley, kale, and alfalfa hay). High quality rabbit pellets, such as Oxbow’s Basic – T provide trace minerals and vitamins on a daily basis in all life stages.
Another special quality in rabbits is their anatomy; rabbits have very strong back muscles and fragile bones; as a result they require patience and special handling skills. This may be difficult to teach small children as rabbits can easily break their backs if picked up by a young child who forgets to support their hind end.
Rabbits can be great pets with big personalities and play on their own terms; running zigzags and speed racing around the room, hopping up on couches, and burrowing under furniture. All of these can be quite entertaining. They also have their own language that can include short nips to get your attention; either on a piece of your clothing or on bare skin (ouch!). Rabbits like to groom their loved ones, which is cute, but can be a little disturbing when they end up chewing off bits of your hair. Another interesting fact about rabbits is that they have open rooted teeth that are constantly growing; this means that young rabbits like to explore their world with their mouth, this can lead to chewing on furniture and electrical cords.
There are many house-rabbits out there who make great companions since they tend to be most active at dawn and dusk which translates in to play time before you run off to work, and again, when you come home from work. If handled frequently when young, they can often be very affectionate and even want to cuddle up with you on the couch. Rabbits love to explore their environment and an appropriate sized cardboard box can often become their fortress or play-house.
So take a moment to think about your lifestyle and whether a rabbit would fit into it for the next 5-8 years, before buying a rabbit. You can discover more information about rabbit behaviors and husbandry needs by going to the House Rabbit Society website at www.rabbit.org or by contacting your veterinarian here at All Creatures Animal Hospital.
Ducklings and chicks also have special needs. When very young they are very sensitive to temperatures and may need to be kept indoors for their first few weeks of life for heat support; this is usually provided by overhanging heat lamps. Many families keep their chicks and ducklings in their bathtubs to keep them safe and also because they can be very messy. Their feces and dropping often produce a strong odor so daily cleaning is an absolute necessity. Normally they can grow rapidly and reach full adult size within a month of hatching from their eggs.
Once able to be outside chickens and ducks need a well-ventilated enclosure that is securely fenced to protect them from potential predators like coyotes, raccoons, hawks/owls, and pet dogs.
For adult chickens a hen-house will help provide shelter from wind and rain. The houses also have perches and nest boxes. Nest boxes should be in the lowest darkest corner if you have laying hens. Bedding is either straw or wood shavings. The bedding needs to be cleaned out weekly to prevent build-up of toxic ammonia fumes, mold, and spreading of diseases. If chickens or ducks are kept in an unhygienic enclosure, they can easily acquire diseases such as salmonella and campylobacter. These diseases can be fatal to the chickens and the ducks, if not treated by your veterinarian. They can also be contagious to you and your family1. Symptoms are similar to stomach flu’s or food poisoning. Make sure to always wash your hands after handling poultry and waterfowl and supervise young children to prevent dirty hands being placed in the mouth.
Young chickens and ducklings should be on a good quality starter diet, but need to be switched to a developer formula and eventually maintenance diet as they get older. Layer diets should never be fed to chicks or ducklings as the extra calcium can cause kidney disease.
Ducks are very loud social creatures. This can often be a surprise to the novice duck owner. If you live in a neighborhood and wish to have a pet duck we recommend the quiet breeds such as Muscovy. This will help avoid complaints from neighbors!
Ducks are born to swim, but ducklings still need time to learn how; the best way to help them along is to start off by providing shallow pools of water; slowly increasing the depth as your duckling learns to swim (many families start off with a shallow kiddy pool). Young ducks don’t catch on to grooming and preening skills quickly and their feathers are not fully capable of insulation. This means that young ducks are not as “waterproof” as their parents so heat lamps should still be used during the learning process. When you begin to introduce your duckling to water they will often defecate while swimming so you will need to change the water frequently.
Determining the gender of your young duck or chicken can be a difficult task when they are only a few days old; unless you happen to buy a breed that is sexually dimorphic (where females and males differ in feather patterns). It’s not uncommon for new owners of little chicks or ducklings to find themselves with a rooster that crows early in the morning and at odd hours in the evening; this can be frustrating for you and your neighbors. Rooster’s can also become very aggressive and cause damage with their spurs.
Young chicks and ducklings look cute and innocent; however they may still harbor diseases such as mycoplasmosis, fowl cholera, fowl pox and coccidiosis; all of which can harm a healthy well established flock1. To prevent the introduction of these diseases, it is best to keep new chicks and ducklings in separate enclosures for 2-4 weeks until they have either been tested or vaccinated by your veterinarian. Be sure to ensure that they do not share a fence line or yard with your healthy and well established flocks
If you are tempted to buy a chicken or duckling for Easter, take the time to do some research and find a breed that will fit into your household. One of the most important things to consider is whether or not you can provide the appropriate amount of space and shelter for them.
With a little bit of forethought and effort, you can become a successful owner of chickens, ducks, or rabbits. For more information about raising ducks and chickens you can try the following websites: www.poultryhub.org, http://smallfarms.wsu.edu, www.attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/poultry, or contact your veterinarian at All Creatures Animal Hospital.
1. Linares, Jose, DVM/DACPV and J. Bruce Nixon, DVM “Urban Chickens” AVMA Welfare Focus. April 2011.