Purchasing a live bunny for Easter may sound like an adorable idea. It's not. Rabbits, it seems, are not easy-to-care-for balls of fur -- and many get discarded at shelters in the weeks following the holiday.
Bunnies are the third most abandoned pet in the U.S., as well as being the third most euthanized, according to the House Rabbit Society, which cited a 2010 study of animal shelters.
The problem of pets getting abandoned or left at shelters exists year-round, but it's especially acute for rabbits after Easter. In the U.K., for instance, Pets at Home bans the sale of rabbits ahead of Easter. The 370-store chain instead gives would-be bunny buyers a voucher for after the holiday in an effort to stem impulse purchases.
"This is very much a real problem, it's something we hear from animal shelters on a regular basis," John Goodwin, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States, told CBS MoneyWatch.
Thousands of unwanted rabbits end up at animal shelters in northern California each year, with a seasonal spike in late spring or early summer, explained Anne Martin, executive director of the House Rabbit Society in Richmond, California. "Usually what we see is an increase of rabbits coming into the shelter system in the one-to-three months after Easter," Martin said.
Looking to curb a post-Easter onslaught of maturing rabbits getting abandoned or euthanized, California this year became the first state to pass a law that prohibits retail stores from selling commercially bred rabbits, along with dogs and cats.
The law should make "a big difference this Easter season," said Martin, as it will curb impulse buying at a time of year where images and marketing involving bunnies abound. "Tiny baby rabbits are certainly adorable," but those that don't do their homework can find themselves quickly in over their head, she cautioned.
Opposed by industry groups including the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which argued it would hurt pet shops across California, the legislation took effect in January. Still, live animal sales will represent only a fraction -- or about $2 billion -- of the pet industry's $75 billion in annual sales this year, estimates the American Pet Products Association. The association says 5.4 million U.S. households have a small animal, a category that includes rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and rats.
Ordinances banning retail sales of animals including dogs, cats and rabbits are also in place in cities including New York, Boston and Chicago, while legislatures in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are considering statewide measures.
Animal rights advocates contend retail sales of animals fuel so-called mills that breed cats, dogs and rabbits in factory-like conditions. They argue that animal companions are better found in shelters are from individual breeders.
Varieties of rabbits bred in the U.S. include French Lop rabbits, lop-eared bunnies that are sometimes mistaken for dogs as they are bigger than most, weighing 12 pounds and more.
Petco and Petsmart in recent years stopped selling bunnies, while other chains such as Petland continue to sell them. Petland earlier this month terminated a franchise agreement with a store in Fairfax, Virginia, saying it was "shocked and horrified" by news reports alleging the mistreatment of rabbits.
"Pet stores are not the best place for a baby animal," the Humane Society's Goodwin said. "Petland could become the next Blockbuster," he added, referencing the now-defunct provider of video games and movies.
"We're not against people having rabbits, but they have to understand like a dog or cat they have needs," said Goodwin. "I don't think it's appropriate to buy one of these animals, lock them in a cage and ignore them."
Unlike dogs and cats, the reality of owning a domestic rabbit may not be well understood. Rabbits, for instance, can live as long as 12 years, and generally don't like being picked up by people. They need exercise and have to be trained to use a litter box. Once mature, which happens at three to six months, the formerly cute and cuddly bunny can become aggressive and destructive, tendencies that can be curbed with the right care, but that can be time-consuming and costly.