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Good rabbit welfare means friends and forage

Rabbits are not a low maintenance pet; they have some key requirements that must be adhered to if they are to stay healthy for many years

01 October 2020, at 7:30am

The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus) is a popular pet in the UK and beyond, with an estimated 900,000 rabbits being kept as pets in the UK in 2019 (PDSA, 2019). Whilst familiar to many, rabbits are technically classed as an “exotic pet” and can have some exacting requirements when it comes to medicine and surgery. A well-kept rabbit can make an excellent companion animal; they can be trained to live inside as a house pet, as well as housed in spacious outdoor accommodation. When all their needs are provided for, rabbits can live up to 12 years. Rabbits are not a low maintenance pet; they have some key requirements that must be adhered to if they are to stay healthy for so many years. These requirements are not too difficult to cater for and they centre around providing the correct diet, housing and social group, and giving pet rabbits enrichment to keep them mentally and physically stimulated.

Pet rabbits should also have vaccinations kept up to date to ensure they remain healthy and can achieve these ripe old ages. Rabbits are susceptible to several specific pathogens associated with diseases which, without prophylaxis, can be fatal. These include myxomatosis (caused by the myxoma virus transmitted by mosquitoes and fleas) and the two strains of rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease, R(H)VD1 and R(H)VD2. Owners also need to keep a watch out for the parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi, which affects the rabbit’s nervous system and manifests as head tilting and loss of balance, and the non-specific respiratory infection “snuffles” which is generally caused by Pasteurella multocida, Bordetella spp. or Pseudomonas spp. A rabbit can become infected with E. cuniculi from grazing in an area that a carrier of the parasite has had prior access to, and as socialisation is so key to good rabbit welfare, owners should try to manage any rabbits being kept in stable social groups, get rabbits tested as good disease surveillance (Woolfe, 2016) and discuss treatment options as soon as E. cuniculi is suspected.

Access to grazing and social interactions are crucial to a rabbit’s long-term health and good well-being; hence mitigation of any disease risk is important as rabbits should not be restricted in their opportunities for foraging and being gregarious. Many non-infectious rabbit diseases are caused by stress and incorrect husbandry, such as an inappropriate social grouping, substandard housing and a lack of forage in the rabbit’s diet. Consequently, some authorities argue that hutch-housing, with a lack of companionship and a kibble-based diet, with no forage or access to grazing, is much more harmful to a rabbit’s health than diseases posed by E. cuniculi, for example.

Wild rabbits have a complex social structure with a defined hierarchy (Surridge et al., 1999); this social complexity is still found in domestic rabbits and aspects of a linear dominance hierarchy as well as differences in aggression between the sexes (males are generally more aggressive than females (Varga, 2014)) and key resource defence (eg a female rabbit’s protection of her nest) will still be present in companion, pet or farmed rabbits (Bill et al., 2020). Keeping a solitary rabbit deprives it of this behavioural outlet and hence reduces its chances of performing a range of activities that keep it physically and psychologically stimulated. Wild rabbit behaviour patterns differ during day- and night-time, reflecting differences in periods of grazing, basking in the sun, digging and socialising both above and below ground (Varga, 2014). Whilst domestication has reduced some of the rabbit’s wild tendencies (eg they have a reduced fear response and are less inclined to burrow), being outside to run, dig and play are still essential components of good rabbit welfare. Owners should be advised to provide a pair of rabbits with an enclosure of at least 3x2x1m, tall enough to allow the rabbits to stand up on their back legs comfortably.

Useful pointers on welfare-friendly behaviours that a rabbit enclosure should enable are documented on the Rabbit Welfare Association website (RWAF, 2020a), as well as advice on rabbit enrichment, to keep your pet stimulated in body and mind (RWAF, 2020c). Digging, hiding, running, exploring, grazing and chewing are all welfare-positive behaviours that keep a rabbit calm, making it less fearful of changes around it and more able to cope with any sudden or short-term stressors, improving both the animal’s quality of life and that of its owners too.

Collection and processing of food take up a large proportion of a wild rabbit’s day. Rabbits have evolved a complicated digestive system to extract as much energy and nutrients as possible out of a highly fibrous diet (Rees Davies and Rees Davies, 2003). Rabbits are hindgut fermenters, trickle feeding to keep the population of microbes in their caecum (hindgut) alive and thriving on large quantities of fibrous matter. This complicated digestive process produces two forms of pellet: hard, dry pellets that are waste products of indigestible food, and softer pellets, called caecotrophs, which are intermittently excreted throughout the day to be reingested by the rabbit to further increase digestion and absorption of nutrients. Caecotrophs are produced and ingested during a quiet, undisturbed period several hours after feeding (Varga, 2014). Consequently, rabbit housing should provide safe, secluded areas for the rabbit to retire to, so that this essential part of the digestive process can be performed unimpeded.

Without a high-fibre diet (lots of forage and structural carbohydrates), this highly specialised gut function will not work effectively and this is the cause of many health problems in pet rabbits, including gut stasis, malocclusion, overgrown teeth and jaw abscesses that can be particularly dangerous. To keep a rabbit healthy, muesli-style mixes should be avoided (Meredith et al., 2015) and rabbits need to be fed a diet of around 80 percent forage (good quality hay), a small amount of leafy greens and, depending on the size of the rabbit breed, a tablespoon of bespoke rabbit pellet twice a day. High-sugar treats (eg fruits and vegetables) that can disrupt the activities of the gut microbes should be avoided. Hay might not look that exciting from a human perspective, but for a rabbit, the act of foraging, chewing, reingesting of caecotrophs and a constant cycle of processing fibre keeps it occupied, satiated and relaxed.

Although as much forage as possible is excellent for rabbit health and welfare, certain plants are toxic to them. Rabbits are not native to the UK and hence some plants such as ivy (Hedera helix) and holly (Ilex aquifolium) are toxic to them (RSPCA, 2020; RWAF, 2020b). Whilst access to grazing and outdoor space can be very beneficial to pet rabbit welfare, check what plants are in nibbling distance. The symptoms of ivy poisoning, for example, can appear a few days after ingestion and therefore owners need to keep a close eye on what vegetation their animals have had access to.

Author Year Title
Bill, J., Rauterberg, S., Herbrandt, S., Ligges, U., Kemper, N. and Fels, M. 2020 Agonistic behavior and social hierarchy in female domestic rabbits kept in semi-groups. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 38, 21-31
Meredith, A., Prebble, J. and Shaw, D. 2015 Impact of diet on incisor growth and attrition and the development of dental disease in pet rabbits. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 56, 377-382
Rees Davies, R. and Rees Davies, J. A. E. 2003 Rabbit gastrointestinal physiology. Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice, 6, 139-153
PDSA 2019 PAW report
RSPCA 2020 What is poisonous to rabbits?
RWAF 2020a Outdoor rabbit housing
RWAF 2020b Poisonous plants
RWAF 2020c Rabbit housing enrichment
Surridge, A., Bell, D. and Hewitt, G. 1999 From population structure to individual behaviour: genetic analysis of social structure in the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 68, 57-71
Varga, M. 2014 Chapter 1 - Rabbit basic science. In: Varga, M. (ed.), Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2nd ed. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford
Woolfe, V. 2016 Blood testing for E. cuniculi in rabbits

Animal behaviour lecturer at University of Exeter

Paul Rose, PhD, completed his PhD on the use of social network analysis to assess behaviour and welfare in captive animal populations. Paul is Co-Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Flamingo Specialist Group and Vice-Chair of the BIAZA Research Committee.

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