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Keeping them hoppy

Taking rabbits for a walk

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

Washington Humane Society volunteer Carlin Abbitt has started using a harness to take the shelter bunnies outside for exercise.

Carlin Abbitt grew up with a menagerie of animals in and around her home, and when she began volunteering at the Washington Humane Society in the District of Columbia, she found a new group of critters to care for.

She noticed that while the cats had their proponents and the dogs had theirs, the small animals didn’t get as much action. “I think that a lot of people just aren’t used to small animals like I am,” she says. So as she stayed, she began gravitating toward the little guys more and more often, trying to provide them with more fun and enrichment.

At a pet supply store, she recently picked up a harness designed specifically for small animals, and began taking some of the shelter’s rabbits out to the puppy play area to exercise. Some of the bunnies took to the new playtime immediately; others were more hesitant—but the very first bunny Abbitt took out, a white rabbit named Topsy, was over the moon about the situation. “She literally kicked up her heels,” Abbitt says.

But regardless of their behavior in the playpen, most of the rabbits seem to be benefiting from their workouts: Back in their cages, many of them stretch out as though they’ve just come from a great exercise session and are ready to kick back and chill. And shelter staff have noticed a decrease in some of their occasional cage-stress behaviors.

It’s a great reminder that small animals need enrichment, too. If you want to try this out with some of your own bunnies, make sure you’ve got a harness that fits them comfortably, and let them hop to it in a safe, confined space.

For those more accustomed to walking the shelter’s canine residents, it’s time to adjust expectations: You’re not going to be getting a workout like you do when you walk an energetic pooch. “It’s not like walking a dog,” says Abbitt, laughing. “When you ‘walk’ a rabbit, it’s more like, you stand there, and very slowly, the rabbit hops around you.”

Got a tip for enrichment or adoption of your squeakers, squawkers, or slitherers? Tell us about it at asm@humanesociety.org.

About the Author

Animal Sheltering is for everyone who cares about the animals in their community—from shelter directors and animal care and control officers to kennel staff, volunteers, and private individuals working as activists, breed rescuers, wildlife rehabbers, veterinarians and more.