Pet rabbits require the freedom to exercise

Pet rabbits should have freedom to exercise outside their home enclosure.

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The majority of experimental studies on the housing demands of domestic rabbits have concentrated on rabbits farmed for meat. A new study demonstrated the importance of social companionship to domestic rabbits by conducting a series of preference tests in which individuals were allowed to live alone or in groups.

According to new research led by the University of Bristol Vet School, Pet rabbits tied in small hutches with limited exercise have higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone and show activity rebound. A new study highlights the importance of allowing pairs of pet rabbits to exercise outside their home enclosure, even if they are kept in hutches larger than the typical size.

Approximately 900,000 rabbits are maintained as pets in the UK, making them a popular choice for many households. Few research has examined the housing needs of pet rabbits, and those that have only looked at individual rabbits. Many studies have looked at the housing needs of rabbits raised in laboratories and for meat. Organizations dedicated to animal welfare advise keeping pet rabbits in pairs.

This study aims to investigate how common hutch sizes and access to an exercise area affected the welfare of pet rabbits housed in pairs. It was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Twenty established pairs of adult, neutered rabbits (one male and one female) were housed in stable housing for eight weeks.

The rabbits had either full access to the exercise area, which was a run attached to the hutches or access was limited to three hours at midday.

At the end of each access period, feces samples were taken for corticosterone analysis, and behavior was recorded at dawn, dusk, and midday. Ten rabbit pairs were given access to the run for 24 hours during a future study, and their conduct was observed.

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(RSPCA )rabbit welfare expert Dr. Jane Tyson said, “The findings of this research are highly welcomed, confirming what many of us have known for so long, that keeping rabbits in small hutches with limited opportunities to exercise compromises their welfare.”

According to the study, rabbit pairs were more physically active when run access was limited to three hours, and play jumps significantly increased when the pairs with restricted access were left free in the run.

The University of Bristol Veterinary School’s research team discovered a significant interaction between run access and hutch size on activity and stress hormone levels. These levels were highest in the couples housed in small hutches with limited run access.

The run was open to the rabbits at all times, and midday was when the animals were least active. According to the study, rabbit pairs should not be housed in hutches with floor areas less than 0.75 square meters, even if they have access to a play area for three hours each day in the middle of the day.

Drs Nicola Rooney and Suzanne Held, senior authors of the paper from the University of Bristol Veterinary School, said, “Rabbits are active and need to be able to hop, run, jump, dig and stretch out fully when lying down. Restricting rabbits’ opportunity to get away from each other and to move to times of day when they would not naturally be as active is likely to contribute to the activity peaks and high-stress hormone levels in pairs in the smaller hutches with limited access to a run.”

He also said, “Housing guidelines for rabbits need to highlight the importance of allowing pet rabbits the freedom to exercise in the morning and afternoon, even if they are kept in hutches larger than the traditional hutch size.”

Rabbits have often misunderstood animals, but the study shows that housing rabbits in an enclosure consisting of a sheltered area with constant access to a larger space is critical.

The researcher added, “Not only does this allow rabbits to have more room for exercise, but it also provides them with choice and control over their environment so they can perform the behaviors they want to when they want to.”

The study’s findings have also affected the UK Rabbits Strategy for rabbit welfare, which will be released later this year.

The conclusions from the study have been integrated into rabbit care guidelines from the RSPCA and other animal organizations.

The research was funded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Journal Reference:

  1. Rooney, N. J., Baker, Blackwell, et al. Run access, hutch size, and time of day affect welfare-relevant behavior and faecal corticosterone in pair-housed pet rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2023.105919

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