We seem to have a number of reoccurring welfare concerns when rabbits and rodents arrive with us. If we are seeing these issues on a regular basis, it makes us wonder how many rabbits and rodents are living with these welfare concerns all across the UK. So rather than ignore the overall problems we wanted to highlight them and plead with owners to make the changes their animals so desperately need to lead happy, healthy and enriched lives as our companion animals. So here are the top five welfare concerns we face on a regular basis at Nibbles....
Hamster Cages & Wheels
When you think about rescues, you generally assume that life will be sad for the animals being handed in. You think of dogs going into kennels from houses with gardens or cats into catteries from a spot on the sofa. What breaks our hearts the most, is that for the vast majority of rabbits and rodents, coming into rescue is actually the best thing to ever happen to them 😢 Surely life shouldn't be better in a rescue centre, but this is especially true for hamsters!
Meet Poppy, a 5 month old Syrian hamster who was handed in as an unwanted pet. She had been confined in what can only be described as a prison cell, with a wheel that was far far too small and little to no enrichment. Sadly, we see this all the time and despite this cage being labelled as large, it's anything but! Personally, I don't understand how anyone can look at this and think it is OK to confine any hamster to a space this small, it's cruel and personally I think it should be criminal. Poppy arrived overweight, it's not that surprising as she had no space to exercise and while she tried to fit in the wheel, it bent her back causing her pain. The sleeping house was far too small for such a large hamster and she simply didn't fit. This sweet little hamster was suffering and the vast majority of the blame lies at the feet of the retailers who sell these horrible cages.
Hamsters require a minimum cage size of 80cm (l) x 50cm (w) x 50cm (h), but where does this come from? Have we just conjured up these dimensions for fun? No, we haven’t! This comes from peer reviewed research carried out in Germany, which looked at the correlation between floor size and stereotypical behaviours in syrian hamsters. The research showed that all stereotypical behaviours were removed from the study group when the hamsters were provided with a floor space of 1m x1m, so really we should be asking for this as a minimum. Bar biting is the most common stereotypical behaviour in hamsters. They aren’t wearing their teeth down, they are bored, stressed and frustrated. This is exactly the same as seeing animals pace back and forth or rock side to side in cramped cages at terrible zoo’s. As a nation of animal lovers we are all appalled by some zoo conditions across the world, but we aren’t appalled, and in fact, utterly accept hamsters in small spaces biting on the bars. This is accepted as people genuinely don’t realise or understand that the vast majority of hamster cages on pet shop shelves are too small and cruel. It’s time that changed and the thousands of hamsters confined to these prisons get the upgrade they urgently need.
It’s important to understand that we are talking about unbroken floor space here, connecting lots of small cages together with tubes isn’t sufficient. Hamsters require a minimum of 80cm x 50cm and this is a bare minimum for welfare, ideally they should be bigger. The red base in the photo is of an alaska cage, and is a couple of centimetres shy of the 80cmx50cm internally. Next, we have, what is described as an extra large cage, followed by a large and the purple is a medium, all sold by a popular nationwide pet shop. Poor Poppy arrived in the 'large' version, I can only assume it was a man who labelled that as a large cage! Let's not forget the awful wheel size these cages come with. The 'large' cage isn't even big enough to accommodate wheel which won't cause spinal damage and allow a syrian hamster to exercise without pain. To run comfortably a syrian hamster requires a wheel with a minimum diameter of 28cm. She arrived with a wheel with a diameter of 14cm, literally half the size of what it should be.
On arrival to Nibbles Poppy was immediately placed into one of our 4 alaska cages which we use to house hamsters and mice while they are in our care. Here is a comparison of her new accommodation at a rescue with her old cage.
And what was one of the first things she did when we she moved in.....
For Poppy, becoming unwanted and being handed into a rescue was literally a life changing event for her. She now has sufficient space and a wheel which she can actually use. This really should not be the way the world works, but sadly, we see it time after time after time. Poppy will be looking for a home over the coming weeks, where she will be provided with a suitable sized cage, she will never face life in a prison ever again.
So please, I am literally begging you to do better than a rescue centre and give your hamster a cage upgrade if it's any smaller than 80cmx50cmx50cm. Go for a 100cm x 50cm x 50cm, they are out there and they do exist if you search online. Smaller cages aren't ok, no matter what you've been told by pet shop staff, they are cruel and there is no other way of looking at it.
How much space do rabbits really need?
Just like with hamsters, we aren't pulling numbers from thin air, the minimum space requirements come from peer reviewed research to provide rabbits with adequate space to display natural behaviours. Whether you keep rabbits inside or outside they require a minimum space of 60ft², at all times. This means not confining them to a smaller space overnight or when you aren't home. This isn't as big as it sounds, in fact it's generally smaller than the average sized parking space at your local supermarket! We've heard it all here, people claiming that their entire house isn't bigger than 60ft² , are they really trying to claim that their entire house is smaller than a parking space? Or that it would be enough space to house a pony, really?
This is a tiny Shetland and you expect him to live inside the pink rectangle? His stable is bigger than this! We've also been told we are penalising people with small gardens. The average sized garden in the UK according to Google is 1506.947square feet, you could fit 25 rabbit pens and 50 rabbits! You'd have to have a really tiny garden not to be able to accommodate a 60ft² rabbit pen. If this indeed the case, then rabbits simply aren't the right pet for you! Rabbits need space and it's as simple as that.
Sadly, at the rescue we've had to compromise between the size of our housing and the number of rabbits we can house at any one time. A lot of our work, funding and time is given to the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of rabbits, this is a simple result of the high number of rabbits we are asked to help. Our singles kennels are 8ft x 4ft, providing rabbits with just over half the minimum size. As with hamsters, in the vast majority of cases this is an upgrade when they arrive with us. This, again, is heart-breaking, to be better off in a rescue and not even be provided with the minimum size. We have a number of units which do provide the minimum 60ft² and these are used for pairs and trios, and a number of units somewhere between 8x4 and 6x10. We'd love to be able to provide every rabbit with 60ft² accommodation, but it would significantly reduce the number we could house at any one time. As a rescue, our role is to provide temporary accommodation until a new home can be found, and part of our adoption terms and conditions is for rabbits to be provided with a minimum of 60ft².
Here's a clear visual representation of the amount of space provided by commonly available cages, hutches and runs, compared to the minimum size required for optimal welfare.
The largest pink rectangle is 6ft x 10ft and the easiest way to visualise 60ft². The 8ft x 4ft white rectangle is the largest run available at a popular national pet shop chain and provides 32ft², this is also the size of our housing for single rabbits at the rescue. We also also added added a standard 6ft by 2ft hutch, typical indoor cage and a popular web option. We drew this out to size, and while both myself and Abi are fully versed in both good and bad rabbit housing, we were both shocked and depressed after we drew this out. Our first comment was that 60ft² wasn't actually as big as it looks when drawn like this. We both felt that it actually looks like quite a small space. Once we had added the smaller common housing options, we just wanted to cry. I was very surprised that the outdoor hutch actually offers less square footage than a traditional indoor cage. All we could think about was all the rabbits stuck in these tiny prisons all across the UK.
We have loads of information on our website about creating a suitable home for rabbits, it's really not hard to get it right. But sadly the vast majority of pet rabbits in the UK remain confined to tiny spaces, negatively affecting their physical and mental well-being. Once again I can only plead with you to give your rabbits an upgrade if they have less than 60ft². Check out our rabbit housing blog, our pre-adoption guide and download our rabbit housing guide, to give you ideas to create a home which will promote the welfare of your pets.
Chinchilla and Degu Diets - killing them with kindness
Chinchillas and degus have very specific dietary needs, but this is rarely, if ever mentioned at the time of sale. Neither species is able to digest large amounts of fat and sugar in their diet, with their wild cousins having evolved to eat fibrous plants and grasses. Chinchillas and degus come from the dry and cold mountains in South America, where lush vegetation simply can't survive. These animals are unable to cope with large amounts of sugar or fat as their systems aren't designed to cope with it. Excess fat ends up sitting in the liver and will lead to eventual liver failure and death. Excess sugar will lead to eventual diabetes and death. Yet once again the pet industry produces commercial diets and treats marketed at chinchillas and degus which are packed with sugar and fat essentially killing your pet. Nope, we can't understand why this is the case either, but sadly it's true. We've had chinchillas arrive into our care, having been fed hamster food and being told that their favourite treat is peanuts. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are literally just fat, they have very little nutritional value. Most small animals will tuck into fatty and sugary foods as this is an instant energy boost. Just because they will eat it and seem to relish these foods does not mean that they can digest them, and for degus and chinchillas, they would never naturally come across these foods without human intervention.
As humans, when we think about sugary foods we tend to think of chocolate bars, fizzy drinks and junk food. What we forget is that sugar is naturally occurring in many foods we view as healthy. For example, you are likely to view grapes, bananas, apples, mango, and all other varieties of fruit as a healthy option. But, fruits are actually packed with naturally occurring sugars as a way to entice animals to eat them and inadvertently spread seeds via their feces. In their natural environment chinchillas and degus don't encounter fruit so they haven't evolved to digest it. They also aren't designed to digest wet foods and this can lead to intense diarrhoea which can also be fatal. The moisture is removed when drying fruit, but this doesn't do anything for the sugar content and therefore isn't a safe option. When we talk about harmful levels of sugar in a chinchilla’s or degu’s diet we are talking about more than one raisin a week, preferably every 2 weeks, better yet no raisins at all. They simply don't need the sugar and it's better not to feed it to them at all. They'd never encounter a raisin in the wild, so they definitely don't need them as our pets.
I could create a never ending list of things not to feed chinchillas and degus, but it's much easier to list what they can have. To start, hay should always be available, just like with rabbits it's an essential part of their diet. A good quality and very boring looking pellet should also be provided. We use science selective at the rescue, and have converted even the most fussy of eaters over without difficulty. Hay cookies and bark nibbles make excellent treats, along with a fenugreek crunchie, an occasional dried rose hip is also enjoyed.
Rabbit diets - What happens when it's wrong
Sadly, we've seen first hand the negative effects of a bad diet: dental issues, gut mobility issues and even diabetes, all caused by an unsuitable and unhealthy diet. Rabbits arrive in our care along with dreaded muesli mixes, and if they're lucky, an unappetising bag of pet shop bought hay. It's a 90% probability that the rabbit is in urgent need of dental treatment to remove molar spurs. Their poos are terrible and they won't even look at a strand of hay, let alone attempt to eat one. We usually find numerous piles of uneaten caecotrophs the next morning and the challenge begins to get these rabbits eating a healthy diet.
First step is to ditch the muesli mix, we don't even attempt a slow switch over. They'll be offered science selective and we hope they will eat it, most do. Over the first week we'll add a gut fibre and flora pellet, at present we are using Regutum, to increase overall gut health and most importantly get them booked in for a dental. In the vast majority of cases once they are more comfortable they will eat hay and usually start with timothy hay which we order from Haybox. We have tried other brands, but the stalky variety from Haybox is the only brand to get a paws up from all the rabbits and we can pretty much guarantee that their hay racks will be empty by the end of the day. We also purchase baled meadow hay from a local farm and provide constant access to this in two different hay racks.
Slowly, over time digestion improves, caecotrophs vanish, poo quality increases and the rabbit in question doesn't require another dental. While all of the above was true for our lovely Zizi, his previous sugary muesli diet has left him with diabetes. He now requires a very limited diet, and can't even enjoy a small slice of carrot.
Nathan is another example, handed in as he kept getting poo stuck to his bottom. He arrived a little overweight with a bag of muesli mix. We immediately switched him on to Science Selective and Regutum and within 48 hours of arrival the overproduction of caecotrophs stopped. Unsurprisingly he also required dental treatment to remove molar spurs.
Once again, pet shop shelves are filled with unsuitable diets and treats labelled as suitable for rabbits. There are also some wonderful treats available, Fenugreek Crunchies are a popular favourite here, so popular we've named them bunny crack. They'll hear the packet crackle and everbun is at the front of their pens waiting. Science Selective make a wonderful range of healthy and highly enjoyed treats and there are some great dried forage treats available. Please stay away from anything with whole grains and seeds, including those awful dried corn sticks.
Please please offer constant access to a high quality and long-stranded hay. We've got a great list of recommended online retailers. Hay is so important, it helps with gut mobility and helps to keep molar teeth in good shape. Rabbits should consume roughly their own body size in hay each day and as a result will produce lovely healthy pile of poos everyday. Here you can see the difference between a healthy poo, a poo where hay isn't eaten, and a muesli only poo. It really does highlight just how important a healthy high fibre diet is for rabbits.
Enrichment - fun for everyone
We are constantly depressed by receiving photos of empty housing as part of an adoption application. It doesn't matter how big the space is, if it's empty, it's depressing. If you live in an empty mansion or an empty bedsit, it's boring. The only difference is a mansion offers you the opportunity to be bored in a different room. Rabbits and rodents need enrichment to help keep their minds and bodies active, but many people totally forget about providing their small pets with something to do. Which space looks most appealing to you? An empty run or a run with plenty of enrichment?
So what is enrichment? Simply put it's anything which breaks up their environment and allows an animal to behave differently. A tunnel in a rabbit enclosure can be hopped over or they can dash through it, or move it around. A little log bridge in a hamster cage can be climbed over, they could run under, or even nibble at the wood. Many of our rabbits love willow toys and will throw them around before chewing them up. We also hide treats in childrens stacking cups. Or hiding treats inside a toilet roll tube for our smaller guests is a popular favourite. Enrichment doesn't have to be expensive or flashy, our mice are thrilled to receive a new cardboard box which would have otherwise ended up in the recycling bin after the weekly shop. Many chinchillas and degus love chewing on wooden toys, they also love to jump between little ledges, and enjoy stripping the bark from safe sticks such as apple sticks, which can easily be purchased online. Swapping enrichment items on a regular basis, helps to keep their environment stimulating, and helps to prevent boredom.
Enrichment isn't just fun for our pets, it's fun for us too. I love to watch the rabbits finding their favourite treats in stacking cups, or watching the mice investigate a new cardboard box or toy they can climb on. So please don't forget to provide your small pets with something to do!
So please if you've learnt something new from this blog, if you've inadvertently been getting something wrong, please make the changes needed to improve the lives of your small pets. They may not be able to say thanks you, but I can promise you they will be very grateful. We witness their gratitude at Nibbles all the time, and watch them find new enjoyment in life.