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Irvin: Steer clear of live Easter pets

Cute bunnies, chicks and ducks are a lifetime commitment

POSTED: April 2, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Dwarf rabbits await purchase Thursday afternoon at Village Pets in Gainesville. Store owner Kenneth Neidenbach says if rabbits are cared for properly, they can make good family pets.

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If you want to give your child a gift this Easter, the Georgia Department of Agriculture recommends that you stick with marshmallow Peeps and chocolate bunnies rather than their living counterparts.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin is trying to discourage parents from giving baby ducks, chicks and rabbits.

"They’re not play things," he said. "If something is alive, it’s got to be taken care of. It’s a long-term commitment. In many cases, that’s not taken into consideration."

Irvin noted that birds such as chickens may become aggressive as they get older, and often are not appropriate in a suburban setting.

Also of concern is the fact that many chicks and ducks carry salmonella bacteria, a source of gastrointestinal illness. Salmonellosis can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramping that lasts up to a week and is sometimes severe enough to require hospitalization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 600 people die of salmonellosis each year, and young children are especially susceptible to salmonella infection.

Still, some folks can’t resist purchasing a fuzzy chick or duckling at Eastertime.

"People like them as pets," said George Fortner, co-owner of Southwind Tack and Feed in Clermont.

Southwind began selling baby chicks at its Hall County store this Easter for the first time, but has sold chicks and ducks at its Dahlonega store for several years.

Fortner said most of his customers are accustomed to handling animals. If an Easter chick or duck reaches maturity, the owners just keep it on their property or, in some cases, they may slaughter it for food.

Rick Aiken, president of the Humane Society of Hall County, said few Easter pets live long enough to grow up. "Most of the chicks and ducks usually die pretty quick," he said.

Ken Neidenbach, owner of Village Pets on John Morrow Parkway, said he doesn’t sell chicks and ducks as Easter gifts.

"We sell those birds only by special order, such as if someone wants ducks for their pond," he said.

In contrast to barnyard fowl, Aiken said a rabbit can be a good pet as long as buyers know what they’re getting into.

"You can litter-box train a rabbit. They’re clean animals and fairly intelligent," he said. "But they have special needs. People need to do research before they buy. Too often, it’s an impulse-type thing, and people don’t think of the consequences."

Rabbits are by nature skittish and easily frightened, and preschool children tend to handle them too roughly, Aiken said. People also forget that rabbits don’t remain cute little bunnies for long. Some of the giant breeds can weigh 16 pounds when full-grown.

"Most people don’t want a big rabbit in the house," he said. "They stick it in a cage out in the yard. It never gets any socialization and it doesn’t take long for a child to lose interest."

Too often, the rabbit becomes an unwanted burden, and gets dumped at the humane society.

But Neidenbach said it doesn’t have to turn out that way, if people choose the right pet to begin with.

"We carry rabbits year-round, and don’t really have an increase in sales at Easter," he said. "Rabbits have passed gerbils and hamsters as the fourth-biggest-selling pet. It’s not an impulse purchase anymore. Most people research them on the Internet."

The secret for success? Keep ‘em small. "We sell only the dwarf varieties, the ones that don’t grow bigger than about five pounds," Neidenbach said.

His rabbits are about the size of guinea pigs and are ideal for keeping indoors, he said. "They’re low-maintenance and not noisy," he said. "We make sure each customer gets a brochure on how to care for them. It’s a good first pet for a child."



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