Rabbits are one of the most eco-friendly pets. Here’s why. – The Washington Post

Bill Clinton had Socks the cat and Barack Obama had Bo the dog. Mayor Tessa Rudnick has Willow the rabbit. The “first bun” of El Cerrito, a small town near San Francisco, has learned how to “high five” with her nose and likes to flop down with the family to be petted.
Willow is an anomaly — and not just because of her personality. If you have a pet in the United States, chances are it meows or barks. Of the 129 million households with pets in the country, roughly 3 in 4 have a cat or dog, according to 2021 Census data.
This dominant pet duo furnishes love and affection for millions of people, but there is an entire animal kingdom out there, largely overlooked but no less lovable, whose members tread lighter on the planet.
Cats and dogs have an outsize carbon footprint, mostly because of their carnivorous diet. If the pet food industry, which mainly feeds dogs and cats, were a country, it would rank as the 60th-highest greenhouse gas emitter, equivalent to the Philippines.
Rabbits, by contrast, leave a minimal pawprint. They eat small amounts of hay and otherwise discarded vegetables. Their waste can be used as fertilizer in gardens.
“It’s like having a vegan cat,” says Anna Reynoso, the manager at a shelter run by the House Rabbit Society in Richmond, Calif.
I ventured to the bunny rescue to see what’s it like to adopt one of the most environmentally friendly pets out there. As Americans embrace pet ownership like never before — the number of households with pets has more than tripled since the 1970s — I discovered there may be more “rabbit people” than you might expect.
When I walk into the House Rabbit Society’s shelter, more than a dozen quivering noses rise to sniff the air. Then their placid owners return to the business of nibbling at hay or napping under tiny cardboard castles. It’s an ocean of calm.
I approach one rabbit, a one-eyed male named Times New Roman, with my hand outstretched. After submitting to a brief rub on his forehead, he amicably hops away toward his neighbor, a Holland Lop mix named Student Section with crazed fluffy fur and a wonky back leg. (Both were named during the shelter’s font- and sports-themed phase.)
On any given day, the House Rabbit Society shelter, one of 15 chapters around the world, is the temporary home for more than three dozen stray or abandoned rabbits, from ruby-eyed rescues to black-and-white bunnies resembling Dalmatians.
The idea of pet rabbits is relatively new. For millennia, humanity’s primary interaction with rabbits was as hunters and farmers. That hasn’t given rabbits a warm reputation. They are often portrayed as aloof, skittish and devoid of unique personalities. Because rabbits are prey to bigger animals in the wild, they’re nervous when lifted and held (although many do love touch on the ground).
They are the third most surrendered animal to shelters, PETA reports, but that’s not because of bunnies’ inability to be loving companions, argues Beth Woolbright, executive director of House Rabbit Society, who has lived with 30 rabbits (along with cohabitating cats) since co-founding the organization in 1988. People just need to be better prepared for their needs and personalities.
“Rabbits are a nature show that plays with you,” she says.
Rabbits are a group of curious, social animals called lagomorphs, not rodents as many assume. Domestic rabbits can live eight to 12 years, but rarely survive on their own outdoors where they lack the survival skills of their wild cousins. Like dogs or cats, rabbits can be easily trained to use litter boxes, answer by name and may affectionately “nose-bump” your ankles. Many also live cage-free indoors with a “home base” supplied with a litter box, hiding areas, blankets and toys.
And, they’re ideal for busy families, says Woolbright, since they’re crepuscular: They’re most active in the early morning and twilight, when families are home, and nap during the day and evening.
But it’s their diet that gives them an environmental edge over cats or dogs. They eat mostly hay, which makes up about 80 percent of their diet, alongside a few vegetables and leafy greens. And the parts of vegetables humans don’t eat from carrot tops to cilantro stems? Bunny favorites.
In contrast, most cat and dog kibble is roughly 50 percent animal protein, accounting for around 1.5 percent of global agricultural emissions, according to a 2020 study in Global Environmental Change.
That’s expected to rise. More middle-class families are bringing dogs and cats into their homes, as well as buying “premium” pet foods using human-grade meat instead of by-products, with two to three times the emissions of market-leading pet foods.
“All else equal, livestock drives a large part of the environmental impact of the food system,” says Stephanie Cap, a researcher from Leiden University in the Netherlands who analyzed pet emissions for the E.U.’s 1.5° Lifestyles project, “and minimizing livestock production will reduce environmental impact.”
Having a vegan pet may even improve your diet. Rudnick, the mayor, says her family is eating healthier since adopting Willow. “It forces us to always have fresh food in the house,” she laughs. “We’re definitely eating a lot more kale.”
Woolbright say rabbits can be an ideal pet — for the right family. Bunnies need a few basic things: safe housing (a corner of a room or apartment will do); social interaction (with you or other bunnies); healthy food and regular veterinary care, including spaying or neutering.
Patience and gentleness, as well as a casual attitude toward the state of your furniture, also help. If your rabbit chews on furniture or cables, “bunny-proofing” your house can avoid this. While children as young as 6 can make excellent caretakers, it’s important to have responsible adults. And bear in mind that a baby rabbit is an 8-to-12-year commitment.
Budgeting about $50 per month for a pet bunny is typical, although much of the rabbits’ greens can be free at grocery stores or farmers markets. Rabbits also tend to need less expensive regular care than dogs and cats, but some veterinarians consider them “exotic” pets and don’t see them. Check the availability and cost of local veterinarians since emergency care can be more expensive.
And know that rabbit dispositions span a broad range. Some are snuggly and may even doze on your chest. Others may hop away from you. Many people describe the average rabbit’s temperament as somewhere between that of a cat and a dog: affectionate, yet needing plenty of alone time. Each one is an individual, so it helps to foster a rabbit before adopting one.
For Rudnick, Willow’s entrance into her family’s life has gone smoothly. “Having this low-impact pet with which Shira can have that bond has been huge,” she says of Willow’s relationship with her 8-year-old daughter. The rabbit acrobatics called “binkies” — leaps, kicks and twists in midair — are a joyful diversion.
For anyone considering bringing a rabbit into their life, Shira has some advice. “Bunnies can come in different shapes and sizes, and they can have different needs,” Shira tells me. “But no matter what, they can always be a good part of the family.”


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