Friday, April 24, 2015

Do we look after rabbits well?

rabbit bunny husbandry welfare
Are we giving bunnies what they really need?
Do we care for pet rabbits appropriately? It was a question asked by UK researchers who set out to examine the way companion rabbits in England are looked after – and they found some major welfare issues.

Just to put this into context, rabbits are the third most popular mammalian pet in the UK, behind dogs and cats. There are an estimated 1.7 million pet rabbits, kept in 4 per cent of UK households.  I can’t locate any official figures on rabbit ownership in Australia, but the keeping of pet rabbits is illegal in some states (for example, Queensland). Unfortunately, large numbers of rabbits experience stress on a daily basis thanks to their housing, husbandry and handling.

rabbit bunny hay timothy
Boris the bunny loves his hay. Every single day.
In Australia at least there seems to be a widespread perception that rabbits are easy to look after, great kid’s pets, not as much trouble as a dog or cat, requiring less time and so on. In fact, this is not the case. Rabbits are complex creatures with similar needs to dogs and cats – companionship, enrichment, exercise, stimulation, and security. As prey animals they mask signs of stress or illness as their survival depends on it.

Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are usually (but not always) kept in hutches, which gives them little freedom to move, little control over their environment and not a lot of space to express normal behaviours.

There are plenty of guidelines for housing laboratory rabbits in scientific institutions, but when it comes to companion rabbits we tend to assume that as they’re being kept as pets they will be well looked after. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. For example, laboratory guidelines detail the minimum hutch-size for rabbits. But one study from the UK found that one fifth of rabbit hutches for companion rabbits were smaller than the minimum size recommended in laboratories.

A diverse population of 1254 rabbit owners from three different geographical regions in England were surveyed about the husbandry and care of their rabbits. Some people reported that they kept rabbits very well, which is great. But there were a number of issues identified in this study.

While most rabbits had access to exercise areas outside of their hutch, this access was often unpredictable or ill-timed for the rabbits.

Only 41.9% of people kept rabbits with together. Single-housing of rabbits does mean they can’t express social behaviour. One reason for single-housing in rabbits is, of course, aggression. Indeed, in those who kept rabbits with conspecifics, around one quarter fought occasionally, 22 per cent guarded resources like food and 27 per cent outright avoided one another. The authors argue that “it is essential that compatible pairings are selected and introduced appropriately, and adequately-sized and structured living space is provided to allow rabbits to avoid one another if they so choose,” (p11).

Concerningly, the majority of rabbits (61 per cent) did not behave calmly when picked up by owners or other adults (75 per cent). Moreover, 27 per cent of owners weren’t confident holding their own rabbit. This lack of confidence may be something rabbits are aware of, and may exacerbate the stress of handling.

The good news was that the majority of owners fed hay daily, but 10 per cent of rabbit owners did not.

This study proves that there is a need for evidence-based guidelines on basic rabbit husbandry to ensure minimal stress. In addition, some education around the proper care and particularly handling of rabbits could ease stress on the part of rabbits and owners alike.