Rabbits have been popular pets for many years, in fact they are the Nation's 3rd favourite pet, with an estimated 900,000 in the UK (figure from PAW 2021 report). Despite their popularity they remain the most neglected and misunderstood companion animal.
Many first time owners are given no advice at the time of sale and many more are given poor, incorrect and even dangerous advice. This leads to a long term failure in ensuring their care and welfare are being met. With the correct care, domestic rabbits easily reach 8 years and many go on to reach 10 or even 12 years of age. However, a study in 2019, into the morbidity and mortality of domestic rabbits under primary veterinary care in England, found that the median age of death for the 370 rabbits that died during the period of the study was 5.2 years for males and 3.7 years for females, with the most common cause being flystrike. These are incredibly sad figures, which highlight the failings in providing rabbits with the correct care during their very short lives.
Rabbits are complex creatures with specific care and welfare needs to ensure that they lead happy, healthy lives as our companion animals. Many owners remain uneducated on their needs, leading to high mortality rates, unintentional neglect and poor welfare. You shouldn't be surprised to hear that we are passionate about rabbits and their care and welfare. We strongly believe that all rabbits deserve the best lives possible as our pets and that we all have a duty of care to provide these delightful companion animals with high welfare standards.
Over the last 20 years we have learnt a lot about rabbits as domestic pets, and how we can improve their lives in a captive environment. It is no longer acceptable to keep rabbits in small hutches at the bottom of the garden, cleaned once a week, and fed on carrots. Rabbits need much much more to lead happy, healthy and long lives.
So if you are embarking into rabbit ownership for the first time or coming back into welcoming rabbits into your lives after a break, then this guide is perfect for you. It will help you to decide if rabbits are the right pets for you, and whether you are able to fully meet their care and welfare needs.
Whether you decide to keep your rabbits in the house or in the garden, they require space. The current minimum recommendation is an area of at least 60ft². That may sound huge, but actually it's smaller than the average size parking space at your local supermarket. Many new owners are shocked to discover that 99.9% of rabbit housing available in pet shops is too small. Yes, it's confusing - we are saying 60ft² but pet shops are able to sell small hutches and cages and inform new owners that this is absolutely fine. So what's the problem with small housing?
Rabbits need to be able to move around, they need to be able to hop, jump, stand on their hind legs and run. This helps to keep them fit, it helps to prevent muscular and skeletal issues arising, and it enables them to enjoy themselves. Remember how frustrating lockdown was? Sitting in the house all day, unable to go out, all the frustration and boredom you felt is a constant companion for a rabbit shut in a small space for life. We suffered for a couple of months, now imagine facing this for the rest of your life. Space is vitally important to keep rabbits happy and healthy. We have a great blog article on suitable rabbit housing and how you can create a suitable outdoor space for your bunnies.
Rabbits also need things to do. You probably survived lockdown with a games console, a Netflix subscription, access to WiFi and a stack of good books. Now imagine that everything was removed from your house except your bed, bathroom and basic kitchen facilities. That's all you've got, not even a sofa to sit on and added to this you're alone. How do you think you'd do? If you had a rough time with all of your stuff to entertain you, having nothing would have been torture. Even if your lockdown experience occurred in a mansion, you'd only have a different room to be bored in. Rabbits are no different, sitting in an empty space with nothing to do is mind numbingly boring. Add items rabbits can hop on, run under or jump over, some toys to throw around and some chewable toys such as willow balls. Help to keep their minds stimulated by hiding treats around their enclosure, use treat balls or stacking cups. Keep their environment interesting and switch items around.
Rabbits are a social prey species, they find safety in numbers and enjoy the companionship of another rabbit. Research has shown that rabbits with companions have lower stress levels compared to rabbits which live alone. To improve welfare, keeping rabbits in pairs is vitally important. The best combination is a neutered female with a neutered male. You can find out more about why a companion is important and the benefit it brings here.
We all know that a healthy diet promotes good health and this is no different for rabbits. A bad diet leads to all sorts of long term health issues, including stasis, flystrike, dental issues and long term diabetes. Hay is the most important part of a rabbit's diet, this helps to maintain good gut and dental health. It's important to select a good quality long-stranded hay, and these generally aren't found in pet shops. Please check out our blog article on the importance of hay and our article about providing a good diet.
In the veterinary industry rabbits are still classed as exotics. Despite their popularity, many vets only receive limited training when it comes to treating rabbits. It's very important to choose a specialist vet who has the required experience and knowledge to treat rabbits. You can find a nationwide list of specialist vets here.
Many owners are unaware of when a rabbit needs to see a vet, many ignore stasis, don't realise that rabbits require annual vaccinations or how important neutering is. As a prey species, rabbits hide illness and injury incredibly well, and many owners don't realise there is a problem until it's too late. Signs of illness are subtle, but they are there if you know what to look for and know your rabbits well. The way a rabbit is sitting, small changes in behaviour, such as not rushing over to the front of enclosure or less interest in their favourite things are all clear indications of a problem. A change in the number, size and consistency of droppings is also a great indicator of illness. For more information on spotting illness and when it's an emergency check out this great guide
Rabbits are amazing little creatures, they all have their own personalities and no two rabbits are the same. They make fantastic pets when we give them the ability to express themselves and take the time to get to know them. Sadly, many still view them as easy pets, requiring minimal care and inexpensive to keep. Rabbits are a big long-term commitment, they need cleaning at least every other day and veterinary care is costly. They don't enjoy being picked up and can take time to form a bond with their owners. However, if you are able to provide rabbits with what they need to lead happy healthy lives as our pets, you will have wonderful friends who look forward to seeing you each day and will definitely bring a smile.