Domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus) may seem easy to look after as a companion animal, but they actually have very specific care needs and features of their anatomy and physiology that need to be considered when husbandry and housing is provided: for example, their complex digestive system and unusual strategy of eating specialised droppings (caecotrophs) that provide extra nutrition.
Many of the veterinary issues associated with pet rabbits can stem from poor housing, incorrect diet, a lack of exercise and stimulation and/or inappropriate housing and social environment. Rabbit owners can be guided through basic rabbit biology and behaviour so that fixes to husbandry and housing can be implemented to help reduce the chances of future health problems.
This article aims to provide tips for vets to give rabbit owners who may be finding some aspects of pet rabbit care a challenge.
Examples of rabbit behaviour and biology that can be explained to owners to help them provide a healthy home for their pet include:
- Social grouping and territoriality
- Digestive strategy and trickle feeding
- Daily activity patterns, movement and exercise
- Companionship and who to mix with
- Skull shape and tooth growth
- Domestication and how this can affect rabbit health (eg lop ears)
The “3Fs” of the equine world can also be applied to pet rabbits and their fundamental needs under human care to keep them safe and well
Rabbits have similarities to horses when it comes to welfare needs (Figure 1). Horses are a grazing species; they are a social prey species that live in groups and roam over expansive grasslands. Many welfare organisations assess the basic needs for good horse well-being around “the three Fs of equine welfare” – friends, forage, freedom (Fraser, 2012). Rabbits are grazers, social and live in open grasslands. Therefore, the “3Fs” of the equine world can also be applied to pet rabbits and their fundamental needs under human care to keep them safe and well.
Rabbits have evolved to live in social groups and display a range of behaviours that directly help organise their social lives (Figure 2; Crowell-Davis, 2007). Aggression or fear responses in pet rabbits may have their basis in redirected social activities and a lack of social contact with their own kind. Rabbits should not be housed individually unless directed by a vet due to health grounds. Selection of friendly individuals for pair or group housing needs to be carefully considered but a useful rule of thumb is to house a neutered male and female pair. Rabbit owners should be provided with advice on neutering and how to introduce new rabbits together as some individuals can be more dominant than others, and it is helpful to try to reduce aggression or harassment.
Rabbits should not be housed individually unless directed by a vet due to health grounds
It should also be explained to rabbit owners that guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are no longer considered appropriate companions for pet rabbits due to several reasons: the nutritional requirements of each species differs; rabbit communication and guinea pig communication is different, and this inability to “talk to each other” can cause aggression and bullying; and rabbits can carry Bordetella bronchiseptica, a bacterium that does not result in their ill health but is a very common cause of respiratory infection in guinea pigs (Langlois et al., 2021).
Rabbits can carry Bordetella bronchiseptica, a bacterium that does not result in their ill health but is a very common cause of respiratory infection in guinea pigs
The link between good health and providing a pet rabbit with ad lib forage (hay) that makes up the bulk of its daily diet is covered in detail in a previous Veterinary Practice article (Rose, 2020). Nevertheless, it is important to always remember that muesli-style rabbit mixes are not good for rabbit health. Rabbits fed a large amount of such mixes can become obese, may develop tooth problems and have unhealthy digestive systems.
A rabbit needs to eat a lot of poor-quality, highly fibrous material daily that wears its teeth down evenly, promotes regular gut motility and keeps the populations of microorganisms in its large intestine healthy and able to digest cellulose, producing energy for the rabbit.
Explanation of the links between diet and health, and what to feed and why, should be key information provided to owners
Rabbits presented with poor coat quality, weight loss, bad teeth and oral abscesses or eye issues (due to dental abscesses) are likely presenting with issues caused by an inappropriate diet that contains too little forage. Explanation of the links between diet and health, and what to feed and why, should be key information provided to owners.
Rabbits can get bored when the range of behaviours that they are able to perform becomes restricted due to housing (Speight, 2016). Rabbits are intelligent, able to be trained and capable of performing a diverse range of behaviours. To keep a rabbit psychologically healthy, owners should ensure that rabbits have space to move (bounce, hop, run, dig and walk), stretch (vertically and horizontally) and socialise, but be able to spend time apart when they choose to do so. A bored rabbit can resort to performing abnormal repetitive behaviours to fill its time if there is little else for it to do.
A bored rabbit can resort to performing abnormal repetitive behaviours to fill its time if there is little else for it to do
Design of housing needs to be spacious and allow all animals the opportunities to be together and apart, and ideally include a mixture of indoor, covered (weather-proof) shelter and an outdoor run that allows for grazing and digging. Finding out the details of how a rabbit is housed and how much exercise it gets can help a veterinary surgeon provide useful advice on improvements that can promote normal behaviour and good health.
Finding out the details of how a rabbit is housed and how much exercise it gets can help a veterinary surgeon provide useful advice
While a common domestic pet (the PDSA estimates there are 900,000 pet rabbits housed in the UK alone (PDSA, 2019)), rabbits can be challenging to look after properly with many of their assumed needs being incorrect.
Conversation and gentle questioning of rabbit owners about how they look after their animal can often illuminate the causation of poor health and well-being. For example, if a rabbit is wary or scared or aggressive, then owners should be asked about handling and housing. Is the rabbit housed alone? If so, it should be provided with company (if it will accept company – this can be tricky for older or non-neutered animals).
Research has identified behavioural differences between social and solitary-housed animals; increased standing on hind legs – indicative of alarm and vigilance – suggests that solitary-housed rabbits are more fearful (Schepers et al., 2009). Explanation of behaviours such as this can help owners develop housing and husbandry, improving the welfare of their pet and the relationship between the owner and the rabbit in the long term.