Rabbits and guinea pigs can be terrific friends for children, and the relationship can be rewarding for everyone involved. It takes some work, though, parents. The main themes aren’t that different than sharing your home with a dog, or cat, or really even other humans! Teaching kids how to live with and love tiny animals can set the stage for a lifetime of kindness and compassion.
Becca is 5, and was born into a family that already included rabbits. From the first day Becca came home, her mom has taught her basic rules of respect and safety. Mom says “I think explaining the abuse some of our buns have suffered really helped her understand that we have to be gentle with them and understanding, especially if they box or run away. Ginger, for example, spent her first five years of life on a meat farm. She lived in a tiny cage, unable to turn around, but she was a sweetheart from the moment we adopted her. Tinkerbelle was thrown out in the garbage. She’s a Netherland Dwarf and is in charge so she will get an attitude if she doesn’t want to be bothered. Becca’s learned each bunny behaves differently because they are different and have different pasts and personalities…she would lie next to them when she was a baby and they would groom her. She came with me to all of Thumper’s vet visits when he was sick. She’s also had to experience some very real life heartache very early on. Thumper fought his fibrosarcoma two years before we lost him. At 12, Midnight had a stroke then waited until Becca came downstairs to take his final breath. I think the bunnies have taught her to be more compassionate. That they love to chew anything she leaves on the floor in her room, however, still hasn’t taught her to put her things away.”
Becca can see the difference she’s made in her rabbit’s lives. “They are less afraid. I give them a nice pet. You have to be gentle with them and don’t scream around them. Pet them softly on the head. Don’t chase them and don’t put your face in theirs. Don’t do silly or odd or mean faces because it could scare them. I feel bad for what happened in their past so I don’t want to scare them.”
Other kids came over to play, and Becca plays a part in helping the other kids learn how to be around rabbits too. Mom reports “She tells the other kids to be gentle with them and shows them how to gently pet their heads, keeping their fingers away from the buns’ faces, just in case. If she notices the bun is getting stressed, she will distract her friend into doing something else. There are some friends she has who simply aren’t allowed near the bunnies because the kids are too rough with their own pets.” In Becca’s own words: “Sometimes they don’t want to listen and want to play with the bunnies even though the bunnies don’t want to play. I say, no, they don’t want to play so we have to go play somewhere else until you learn how to be gentle with them.”
Max and his little sister Sophie have been animal lovers since birth, but didn’t have their own furry friends until recently. Mommy says: “In lieu of an actual furry being, they substituted soft toys, bugs, worms, popsicle sticks, bundles of tape, objects made out of construction paper, really everything and anything would turn into some sort of imaginary being they would name and then dote over. Even though we hadn’t had any pets since Max was a baby, we always felt very strongly that children should be taught to love animals and respect our role as caretakers for many of them. We have built shelters for feral cats, made bird (and squirrel) feeders, and asked countless people on walks if we could say hello to their dogs. We would pet-sit the neighbor’s dog and feed the stray cat. Clearly, it was time for an actual pet.”
The kids have seen the effect of their calm, quiet behavior. “Our first piggy, Hippy, was still a baby and very skittish at first, so the kids were eager to do whatever they could to make her feel more comfortable. Kids understand how it feels to be small in a big world. They adopted the mantra, “Calm and Quiet”. We read a lot about guinea pigs to the kids so they would understand how to care for them. One fact that stuck out was that guinea pigs like company, so within two weeks, we had also adopted Dolly, another young female. Now, they are known as ‘the girls.’
“When we take the girls out of their cage for some floor time, they are curious instead of frozen in fear. And if they are frightened by something, they climb up onto one of the kids’ laps! Their cage is downstairs in our main living area and the kids have noticed things like when we sit down to eat dinner, the girls also come out to munch on some hay or vegetables. And if we arrive home after a day at school/work and no one acknowledges the girls right away, they start squeaking for some attention!”
As far as who does what, Mommy says: “Mama and Mommy are definitely in charge of most aspects of care, but we let the kids take the lead in feeding them fresh veggies. And the piggies have noticed! If it is feeding time and there is only a big person around, they keep quiet. But if it’s feeding time and they see Max or Sophie, they squeak like crazy. The novelty of anything new wears off. Max no longer bolts out of bed in the morning to be the first one downstairs to feed the girls. But now that the girls are more comfortable and interactive, the kids are more engaged. They beg to let the pigs out of the cage and they love to sit and watch when the piggies are active and playing. It’s worked out better than we even thought it would.”
“Max and Sophie love to introduce friends to the girls but they are also very protective. They teach their friends the “calm and quiet” mantra. Max took the girls to his classroom and was very serious about teaching everyone how to interact with guinea pigs.”
Need a starting point for teaching kids about rabbits and guinea pigs? We’ve got a great book recommendation for small children – up to about 7. It is called “Play With Me”, by Marie Hall Ets, and is utterly charming. It does a brilliant job of explaining how being calm and quiet helps little humans make friends with animals.