Taking Care of your Pet Rabbit

Rabbits are the third most popular pet, but how should you look after them?

A cute bunny rabbit against a pastel lilac background

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A study by Nicola Rooney (University of Bristol) et al asked 1254 rabbit owners about how they housed, fed, played with and otherwise cared for their rabbit. The good news is that “many pet rabbits were found to be in good health, had compatible companions and were provided with enriched living areas.” But there were also many areas where things could be improved. 

The most common type of rabbit was a Lop, followed by Lionheads, Netherland Dwarfs and mixed breeds. The rabbits were aged 2 to almost 13 years, and most came from a pet store or a garden centre.

Housing for Rabbits

59% of the rabbits lived in a cage or rabbit hutch, and 28% in the house with a cage. 8% lived in an outbuilding, while almost 6% lived in the house without a cage. A handful of rabbits had no roof, but on average the rest of the rabbits had a cage height of 0.9m. 

The good news is that most rabbits had a denning area, some kind of tunnel or box, a platform, and access to toys. The provision of a tunnel or box is important because rabbits – as animals that are preyed upon – are fearful of open spaces and need somewhere to hide (15% of rabbits did not have this). 

A sizeable proportion of rabbits (43%) had a run attached to their cage. Although most rabbits had some access to the outdoors, such as being allowed in the garden, the timing was not always the best from a rabbit’s perspective, since rabbits are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). Also fewer rabbits had outdoor access in the wintertime. 

The minimum legal cage size for laboratory rabbits in the UK is 0.54 m2, and 0.88m2 is needed to allow rabbits to engage in normal behaviours. Just over a quarter of pet rabbits in this survey did not have cages this size.  Rabbits also need enough vertical space to rear up, and platforms to encourage them to climb, but 34% of the rabbits did not have a platform. 

The scientists say, “Recommendations for pets include that cages be sufficiently long to allow the animal to carry out three unrestricted hops, and to lie outstretched.” The height of the pen should ideally be at least 75cm.

Bunny Companions

42% of rabbits lived with a fellow rabbit, and of these, 94% often rested in contact with each other, and 84% often groomed each other, both signs they get along. However 52% of these rabbits occasionally mounted each other, 36% occasionally circled, and 29% occasionally pulled each other’s fur out.  44% of the rabbits lived alone, and the others had another kind of companion (e.g. guinea pig). 

A beautiful rabbit next to some pink tulips

Rabbits are sociable and it is good for them to live with a conspecific. The scientists say, “Rabbits are strongly motivated to gain social contact. Solitary living precludes their ability to engage in normal social behaviour and negates one of the five basic needs, laid down in the Animal Welfare Act.” The fact that some rabbits were fighting suggests it it is important to choose compatible rabbits, and make sure they have space to avoid each other if they wish.

Feeding Rabbits

Almost all rabbits were given root vegetables and hay, although 11% did not get hay every day. Owners preferred to feed pelleted food rather than muesli-type food, and the authors say this is likely due to campaigns warning of links between muesli, dental problems and obesity. 67% of owners also gave their rabbits grass at least once a week. 

Forage is important for rabbit health, and the results suggest that rabbits are being overfed on sweet foods (such as carrots, apples and pears) and not given enough hay and grass. 

Husbandry for Rabbits

Cages were cleaned at least once a week by 72% of owners, but 2.6% never cleaned it properly. When cleaning, 45% left the bedding in the cage. Only half of owners removed soiled material every day.

Rabbit Health

Most owners said their rabbits were healthy, and 71% were vaccinated. The most frequent problems were dirty bottoms.  Positive behaviours (e.g. hopping, binkying, and playing with toys) were reported for most rabbits, but negative behaviours (e.g. thumping the hind limbs, gnawing at housing, and grunting) were also commonly reported. 

Many rabbits were afraid of loud noises, suggesting they would benefit from treatment for this and should be kept indoors on fireworks night.

Handling Pet Rabbits

Although 83% of rabbits approached in a friendly way when someone went to their cage, only 39% were comfortable being handled. Only 73% of owners said they were very confident in handling the rabbit, and most picked up and handled their rabbit at least once a week. 

The scientists say, “Combined with the fact that 27% of owners do not describe themselves as “very confident” when  handling their rabbit, yet the majority of rabbits are handled at least weekly; this could potentially represent a significant source of stress and suggests that appropriate handling protocols are essential to ensure this is not aversive.” (see: How to handle your rabbits)

And how long do pet rabbits live? The average age of people’s previous rabbit when it died was 5 and a half, ranging from 1 month to 12 years.

The Rabbit Welfare Research Study

Questionnaires were distributed in pet stores, vet clinics, rehoming centres, rabbit shows and even via schools; ten vet clinics contacted their clients; and the survey was also posted on the internet. If people had more than one rabbit, they were asked to complete it for the rabbit whose name was first alphabetically, to prevent bias (e.g. choosing the favourite rabbit). 

The results show considerable variation in the living conditions of pet rabbits. They also show that although general rabbit welfare is good, there are many ways rabbit care could be improved. Since most rabbits came from pet shops and garden centres, these would be good places to target educational materials for rabbit owners. 

The full paper is open access at the link below.

What are your tips for good rabbit welfare?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Rooney NJ, Blackwell EJ, Mullan SM, Saunders R, Baker PE, Hill JM, Sealey CE, Turner MJ, & Held SD (2014). The current state of welfare, housing and husbandry of the English pet rabbit population. BMC research notes, 7 PMID: 25532711
Photos: Soultkd (top) / Robynrg (Shutterstock)

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