The bunny business isn't hopping this Easter.

Many area pet store owners say that's because many rabbits didn't do this winter what rabbits are famous for: making more rabbits. That, combined with a shortage of local breeders and high demand, has put Easter bunnies -- the live ones -- in short supply.

"I started calling around Monday because I was getting worried," Prince George's County pet store owner Nick Kalivretenos said yesterday. Earlier this week the front display in his Docktor Pet Store at Iverson Mall had been filled only with shavings because he didn't have any rabbits.

He said he was able to find 50 bunnies, and by yesterday had sold 34 of them.

Not all dealers in the area were having that trouble. Karen Bohlayer at Creatures 'N Critters in Springfield said her store had rabbits "coming out of my ears." But she acknowledged she had to hunt for the animals and got many by responding to a "Bunnies For Sale" sign she saw while driving.

Prices vary widely, pet store owners said. Domestic rabbits can cost from $8 to $15. The pure-bred dwarfs and lops can cost from $25 to $40. Bunny supplies, a cage, feed, shavings and water bottle, can cost $50.

Breeders in the area said the cold weather had kept the number of litters down. "Last year I had three times as many as I have this year," said Arlena Berless, who has been breeding bunnies in her Crystal City back yard for seven years.

"The breeding has been drastically affected this year," agreed Beth Bachschmid of Lucky Foot Rabbitry in Rockville.

"Rabbits are not ready to breed at Christmas," explained Glen Carr of the American Rabbit Breeders Association. But, because of a rabbit's 31-day gestation period and the age of bunnies that most dealers like to sell, December is the time when rabbits would have had to breed if their offspring are to be sold for an early Easter.

While rabbits are known for their fertility, specialists say the furry creatures typically are least productive at the start of winter. A four-month cycle that includes 31 days' gestation, six- to eight-week weaning period and two- to four-week marketing period require the rabbits to mate at a time when they usually do not breed well.

"They were finding it was so cold right at the time we needed to breed for Easter," said Bachschmid. "They didn't want anything to do with the males."

Moreover, a high demand nationwide has kept down the number of bunnies available here. "Our suppliers couldn't get them because they were outbid at an auction," Kalivretenos said.

Many pet stores depend on local breeders to fill out their supplies and many would-be rabbit owners opt to buy directly from breeders such as Bachschmid, who have back-yard operations. But because of high operating costs, some breeders have limited their operations to mating pure-bred animals only for other breeders and show competitions.

Despite their popularity, officials of the Washington Humane Society warn against the impulsive purchase of young animals.

"It's very tempting for people to go out at Easter and get these cute little bunnies," said society spokesman Jan Marks. "What they don't realize is that it requires a lot of care . . . . In about two months the Humane Society starts getting all these rabbits."