Reflecting on rabbit welfare

06 June 2019, at 9:30am

Could the addition of a mirror improve the well-being of hospitalised rabbits?

Evidence indicates that the presence of a mirror affects a solitary rabbit’s behaviour, but it is unclear whether it has a positive or negative effect on the animal’s welfare, says a new Knowledge Summary in Veterinary Evidence.

Rabbits are a social species and tend to benefit from companionship when in captivity. Theoretically, a mirror can provide this, as it is assumed that rabbits are not capable of self-recognition. Hence, understanding rabbit behaviour when a mirror is present could provide an option for improving their well-being in a veterinary setting.

The author of the Knowledge Summary entitled “In solitary rabbits, does the presence or absence of a mirror affect stress, fear and anxiety?” critically appraised four studies that observed isolated rabbits’ behaviour in response to the introduction of a mirror.

All studies were conducted in a laboratory setting, so the findings may not be identical in a veterinary practice, especially since the timelines of the studies were longer than a rabbit, on average, would spend hospitalised. Additionally, a hospitalised rabbit is likely to be injured or unwell and may benefit from being alone. However, the studies collectively provide important insights into the general behaviour of rabbits when faced by a mirror.

Behaviour changes

Immediately upon the introduction of a mirror, there was an increase in investigatory behaviour – sniffing, scratching and scrabbling at the mirror, as well as at the rabbit’s overall environment. This suggests a potential source of enrichment for an isolated rabbit, although only for relatively short periods of time as this behaviour decreased the longer the studies continued, indicating habituation to the mirror. This may be as a result of not receiving confirmatory cues that the reflection was indeed another rabbit.

One of the studies observed that 11-week-old rabbits were generally less attracted to the mirror than at five weeks of age, suggesting that younger rabbits are more likely to benefit from the inclusion of a mirror. However, this finding was complicated by the fact that the rabbits, naturally, got older during the course of the study duration. Hence, it is not clear whether the decreasing interest in the mirror was a result of age or of habituation over time.

There was a marked difference between males and females, with potentially strong sex-specific implications for welfare. Females spent less time on body maintenance when they were partnered with a mirror. Forms of body maintenance such as hair chewing can be suggestive of stress due to social deprivation, so a reduction in these behaviours is potentially positive.

In one study, body maintenance before commencement of the study was considered at an elevated level and potentially indicative of stress. This decreased significantly when a mirror was introduced, suggesting it may be beneficial to reducing stress-induced body maintenance in female rabbits. However, it was unclear what was regarded as a high level of body maintenance, while no distinction was made between a decrease in normal body maintenance (ie grooming) and maintenance that was stress-related. More research is needed before a mirror can be recommended as a means to reduce stress in female rabbits.

Males were dramatically more alert and vigilant than females when a mirror was introduced. The explanation for this behaviour needs further assessment, but it is possible that it is caused by competition with the mirrored image for resources and territory, which would likely be heightened in the confined space of veterinary hospitalisation. As a result, a mirror should not be recommended for male rabbits until there is evidence to the contrary.

One potential benefit afforded by the inclusion of a mirror is for treating inappetence. Two of the studies measured an increase in bodyweight, food consumption and feeding efficiency in response to a mirror. This could be as a result of resource rivalry and thus indicative of stress or anxiety, especially in males, but it may be beneficial in particular circumstances in which a rabbit is underweight and/or needs to increase its food consumption.

As more research is needed before mirrors can be recommended, veterinary surgeons and nurses should combine their clinical expertise with this evidence when deciding if the temporary inclusion of a mirror may be beneficial to an individual rabbit’s overall health and welfare.

The full knowledge summary can be viewed here.