With thanks to Jenn Eckert
When most people think of therapy pets, dogs and cats come to mind. But there are other species that can be certified including horses, miniature pigs, rats, and guinea pigs and rabbits.
I had an encounter with two such rabbits four years ago when I attended Midwest Bunfest. Bunfest is a yearly convention put on by the Ohio Rabbit Society. (Think Comic- Con for rabbits!)
I had published my book, Snowball: Chronicles of a Wererabbit and was there to talk about it and autograph copies. It was wonderful to meet many of the friends that I had made online in the “Bunny Community”.
It was halfway through the day when a small crowd gathered around a woman pushing a stroller in front of my table. Inside were two of the biggest rabbits I’ve ever seen. They were Flemish Giants named Walter and Betsy. Like the people collected around, I was familiar with the famous pair through their Facebook page. As certified therapy rabbits, the twenty-pound dynamic duo routinely spread love and comfort to people in hospitals, schools, hospices, and other local events.
Rabbits hold a special place among therapy animals. Their owner, Jenn Eckert explains: “Therapy rabbits, specifically, due to their unique niche in the therapy community, can truly be a memorable experience. Rabbits are not common in pet therapy, but children tend to see them as less intimidating. Many children also associate dogs with playing, while they do not have that same association with rabbits. This can have a much more calming effect.”
“One of my favorite moments was when we were visiting the Ronald McDonald House. There was a little boy, about 4, who had a feeding tube and had lost all his hair. When Walter and Betsy came in, his eyes lit up and he started jumping up and down, clapping. He had a huge smile on his face. For that moment, he had forgotten he was ill and was only thinking about the joy the rabbits had brought him.”
Research has demonstrated that a therapy pet provides both physical and emotional benefits. They can reduce blood pressure and anxiety and depression. Patients who have also been reluctant to participate in activities or socialize find increased self-confidence and happiness as they look forward to visits.
There are several programs that certify rabbits including Bunnies in Baskets, Love on a Leash, and Pet Partners where Walter and Betsy received their certification.
Both pet and handler go through a series of training sessions and evaluations before they become certified. Each program is slightly different but they usually include short supervised visits to see how the rabbit reacts to different situations. In the evaluation, the handler is asked how they would react to other real-life scenarios such as rough petting or loud people. A good therapy rabbit should be well socialized, have a calm demeanor, like being petted, and love being around people.
The well-being of the rabbit is put ahead of anything else. Like their dog and cat counterparts, rabbits must enjoy people and not be stressed. (Editor’s note: “Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are a prey species and therefore extra care must be taken to ensure the rabbits’ safety and minimize their stress level.”)
The number of therapy rabbits is very small compared to other pets but will grow as more people and institutions become familiar with how incredibly special they are. Although Walter and Betsy have since crossed over the rainbow bridge, their legacy continues with Alfie and Amelia.