Creating better tomorrows for all pet rabbits

CAMPAIGN UPDATE – Autumn 2021

Welcome to another Campaign Update, keeping you informed of our constant fight to make things better for bunnies.

Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund – Animal Welfare Officer Update, January to June 2021

2020 was an unprecedented year for Animal Welfare Operations, not only did we see the whole country locked down for the majority of the year, but also witnessed an exponential rise on the amount of online sellers, with an operation concentrating on developing intelligence around the activities of breeders on one sales platform, revealing a disturbing trend in new accounts being opened through the duration of Lockdowns 1 and 2.

As you will know, this resulted in the creation of 368 cases in the year, which was then a record for the RWAF’s Animal Welfare Officer.

Far from the pace in 2021 slowing down, we have had a bumper crop of activity taking place so far, which has seen 173 cases raised in 2021 so far, an increase of 40 cases over the activity to date in June of 2020. If this pace continues we suspect that the 2021 case tally will be far in excess of 2020’s activities.

Operations

Despite the fact that we remain under Covid-19 controls, which has restricted some of the field-work we would normally have undertaken, the AWO has been able to carry out some field work covering locations ranging from Central London to Kent, Essex and Suffolk.

Planned intelligence visits in Wales and Scotland have had to be shelved for the time being, due to ongoing Covid issues, as have any plans to carry out operations in the North West, due to enhanced controls in place to deal with the Delta Variant of the C-19 virus.

Due to the restrictions we have been operating under, a large amount of the work in 2021 has involved open source research, and following up a marked increase in reports of concerns from members of the public and RWAF members.

Whilst we do not have the resources to operate a uniformed inspection service like the RSPCA, we do take all reports seriously and provide the best advice possible to ensure that areas of concern are addressed. This may take the form of signposting to appropriate agencies, which can include local authorities, the Police or the RSPCA but will also often involve longer term intelligence development work, in the hopes of building up a picture that will enable us to make a strong referral to the relevant agency for action to be taken.

This year has also seen us having some success with having “offending” sellers removed from various online sales platforms.

To date this year we have worked with/passed information to:
a) HMRC;
b) The RSPCA;
c) The League Against Cruel Sports;
d) Crimestoppers;
e) The National Wildlife Crime Unit;
f) Local Authorities in England, Standards, Licensing and Planning Authorities);
g) Police Forces in England, Wales and Scotland;
h) The Environment Agency.

Alongside our traditional Animal Welfare operations, you will be aware that we can often identify other criminality matters, and this year we have also provided intelligence to various agencies on matters relating to:

a) The trade in endangered species;
b) Vehicle Crime;
c) Fly tipping;
d) Cultural Crime and Theft;
e) Metal Theft;
f) Drug supply;
g) Fraud;
h) Product counterfeiting;
i) Trading Standards offences including unsafe consumer products;
j) Covid-19 offences;
K) Hunting crime;
L) Excise fraud;
M) Scrap Metal Licensing offences;
N) Non-rabbit Animal Welfare matters concerning Dog Breeding and other animal activity licensing matters.

As we have previously explained, offences rarely happen in isolation, and when matters are identified affecting Animal Welfare or Animal Health, then you will also be likely to find other allied matters that give cause for concern, when this happens we use appropriate gateways and routes to pass the intelligence identified to the correct agency for action to be taken.

Case Study 1

In May 2021, whilst carrying out a routine check on mini lop sales on a popular online sales platform, a new trader was identified who had opened their account in that same month; the trader was offering a new litter of rabbits for £80 per animal.

As part of our usual work on traders, this one was flagged for monitoring and placed in our database for UK traders identified via internet sales platforms. When the telephone number they were using was entered, it pre-populated indicating that there was another trader using the number. A quick search of the system revealed three markedly different names having used the same number since April 2020, on the same trading platform and in the same UK location.

This is an indication of an attempt to circumvent selling rules, but also to prevent agencies from accurately assessing throughput of litters on to sites, which could make assessments of earning very difficult particularly from HMRC/Benefits providers.

A case was raised and the intelligence we had gathered on each identity was provided to the trading platform’s standards team, as a result they immediately closed the account and have flagged the individual’s details in case they are used with that number again.

In the meantime the AWO is now working on a case file to refer the individual to their local authority for unlicensed pet trading.

It is rare to be able to tie one individual down to multiple identities decisively, so this success in disrupting the breeder’s activity has been particularly noteworthy for us.

Case Study 2

In May 2021, a member of the public approached head office to complain about the activities of an individual who was selling rabbits via Facebook and another trading platform; there were concerns about the welfare conditions for her animals, evident from the complainant’s previous dealings with the trader, and what could be seen online.

A quick consultation of the trading platform’s terms and conditions indicated that the sale of animals was prohibited, so using the same tactics as those in Case Study 1, a file of evidence was collated and passed to the Standards Department who immediately closed the trading account.

Whilst this will not stop the individual(s) concerned, it does disrupt and inconvenience them, which is a proven tactic for mitigating their potential impact in the market and their definite impact on animal welfare in the UK. A case file has been raised, and the AWO is hoping to refer this trader to the local authority for unlicensed pet trading this year.

Other work

Along with the normal duties of the AWO (proactive breeder and seller work), there has also been a considerable amount of work this year going into supporting Head Office with an increase in contacts regarding concerns for welfare.

There has also been a considerable shift in emphasis on open-source research and monitoring to cover issues relating to a number of planning applications across the UK, relating to business(es) hoping to farm rabbits. This sudden uptick in applications has generated a considerable amount or work, both from within the organization and from concerned members.

The AWO also now provides technical advice and guidance to the Rabbiting On publication, in the Ask the Experts section.

Half year’s Statistics

Total Cases in 2021 (Jan to June year to date)

MonthNumber Raised
January43
February33
March24
April32
May21
June (to 12/06/21)19
Total172

Geographical Spread

LocationNumber of Traders
England144
Wales9
Scotland3
Northern Ireland0
Rest of World16

As can be seen at the moment 84% of our trader work is located in England, 5.2% in Wales, 1.7% in Scotland and 9.3% outside the United Kingdom.

It is not believed that this is wholly representative of the picture in the UK at present, and we anticipate further intelligence research and analysis on this to identify what the true scale is more likely to be, particularly with regard to the breeder situation in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Source of work

Currently of the 172 cases we are running, there have been 13 reactive cases (generated from complaints etc.) and 159 proactive cases (generated from monitoring and observation work).

What next?

We anticipate a busy summer for Animal Welfare Operations, particularly as planned C-19 relaxations in late June, July and August, could well lead to an increase in welfare issues, as well as the fact that breeder numbers are showing no sign of reducing. At present workloads and planned activities look like this:

  1. We currently have 3 large cases being worked up for referral to Local Authorities and HMRC, and these are taking up a considerable amount of time
  2. Plans are being drawn up for Geographical projects, these will be about 3 months in duration per region, and will concentrate on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland/Isle of man
  3. Individual site monitoring is ongoing as is licensed trader monitoring (once Covid-19 restrictions permit full reopening)
  4. We will continue to work with data supplied to us by partner agencies and self-generate data to identify, track and appropriately refer rabbit breeders and sellers as they appear an continue to proliferate.

Update by Mark Dron, RWAF AWO

RWAF stance on lop-eared and brachycephalic rabbits

“Although there are a number of things we have, as a species, done to rabbits genetically, I don’t think any are as significant to their health and welfare as the development of brachycephalic (short faced), and lop (ears flopping down) breeds. And this isn’t just opinion, there is science behind it, although it’s also important to remember that rabbits are not small dogs, and their health problems are different from dogs with these features.

“Brachycephaly essentially means that the nose and mouth are less prominent, more flattened, changing the shape to a “cuter” one, but also affecting the anatomy of the head in several ways, none to the benefit of the rabbit. Whilst there is crowding of the back teeth, and a definite but not absolute link with incisor malocclusion (not all brachycephalic rabbits have the congenitally out of alignment incisors seen so dramatically in some cases), the main problem is the way the normal nasolacrimal duct, which carries tears from the eye to the nose, becomes tortuous and convoluted and more easily blocked. However, these rabbits aren’t thought to be significantly affected by the respiratory issues seen in dogs. They are already obligate nasal breathers, and so an overlong soft palate doesn’t really get in the way. The airway size does not seem decreased in such breeds, their nostrils remain normal, and so the effects are mainly regarding teeth and tear drainage, which can result in infections and blockages of the duct.

“Lop ears, likewise, cause slightly different issues than in dogs with long drooping ears. In the latter, ear infections, grass seeds and trauma are common. In rabbits, the lop nature of the ear creates a situation akin to taking a cardboard kitchen roll inner and folding it in half. The lumen, the hole down the centre, closes, and the sections of the tube separate. In rabbit ear terms, this narrows the ear canal, reducing air flow into the ear and making it more difficult for anything to drain from the ear. More significantly, the separation of the cartilage hoops that make up the ear allows any build-up of waxy material to push between them under the skin. This isn’t an abscess, or at least not initially, until it bursts and releases material into direct contact with the tissues. But the mass may grow and spread round the delicate structures of the head, and become impossible to remove, damaging soft tissue and bone alike, in the process

Going forwards, the RWAF will seek to use images of up-eared and longer faced rabbits
(Photo credit Oleksandr Lytvynenko – Shutterstock)

“Our survey a few years ago demonstrated that only 27% of such masses were found solely or mainly in “up-eared” rabbits.

“For these and other reasons, I firmly believe we need to breed back to an-up eared and longer faced, more wild type, rabbit.

“To this end, we will move to not using images of such breeds in Rabbiting On and the RWAF website other than to illustrate breed specific health and welfare issues. Although there are several issues in press which are too late to change, this policy will start as soon as possible.

“We may make the occasional, rare exception where an uncommon condition which is of significant concern to the membership can only be illustrated with such a rabbit, and we will still be featuring peoples pictures of such individuals where relevant”.
Richard Saunders, RWAF Veterinary Adviser.

Welfare and Ethics day

In conjunction with The Webinar Vet, our Welfare and Ethics day took place on the 5th June.

A huge thank you to our wonderful and passionate Patron, Dr Emma Milne, for being a fantastic Chair and speaker. Of course thanks also to everyone that delivered a lecture for us, all of our speakers were truly fabulous and really brought home some of the many problems that companion rabbits face. We do hope that it has provoked some thought and not just triggered people into a defensive response, but will make people wonder what they can do to help improve welfare. We can all do something.

Emma rounds up the day for us, “In the morning, the fabulous Dr Richard Saunders covered the dreadful issue that is brachycephalics, and the profound impact on rabbits. Key messages included: Breed for health not looks – I couldn’t agree more, as you know! Then Dr Nadene Stapleton gave a superb and comprehensive talk on diet. Key messages: NEVER feed muesli mixes, NEVER feed human treats, these should be viewed as badly as cigarettes! Then it was me: rabbit showing has clear negative impacts of health and welfare and is unethical.

“Great talks from RSPCA (England & Wales), PDSA and The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund in our second session. For those of you vets out there who want to make your practices more rabbit friendly, please check out the PDSA PetWise initiative and MOTs. They’re absolutely brilliant. “Shockingly we do not have (in England) codes of practice written for rabbits, something that RWAF and many other stakeholders are aiming to rectify.

“Rabbits are our ‘forgotten pets’, and shockingly only 20% of owners have heard of the 5 Welfare Needs, and more than half of owners don’t like one or more of their pet’s behaviour, all of which are completely normal for the animal! It seems we have a way to go.

“In the afternoon session, we heard from Dr Nicola Rooney at University of Bristol, Dan from Vet Compass at The Royal Veterinary College (RVC), Dr Naomi Harvey and me once more. Key messages from these talks and the day in general seem to be the we are still massively failing pet rabbits in lots of ways. Many don’t have suitable companions, the right diet or enough room, and when they do have room they don’t have anything to do in it.

“We need to think very carefully about whether rabbits are a species that should even be kept as a pet. They are certainly not suitable for children and possibly not even for many adults. Can we EVER give them what they would have in the wild?

“They live a long time, have many complex welfare needs and are NOT a cheap, disposable pet.

“Studies show that flystrike, which is a terrible disease and totally preventable, is sadly, the number one cause of rabbit deaths – utterly shocking.”

It Does Matter…

  • Around 1,000,000 rabbits in the UK (PDSA Paw Report 2020)
  • Difficult to keep and often misunderstood and neglected, add to this the worsening extremes of confirmation – 500,000+ Lops plus all other issues.
  • Conformation issues are lifelong regardless of husbandry
  • Born to suffer
  • Being normalised just as with cats and dogs

One of the messages from our Welfare and Ethics day-(E Milne)

“If you have a sole house rabbit that is very friendly and companionable it may be because it simply doesn’t have a choice about who its best friend is. People encouraged to get another rabbit often find that their rabbit deserts them, but is also much happier and displays behaviours that the owner has never seen before because they are finally happy.

“Just having a companion for your rabbit isn’t enough. They need to be a compatible pair or they just live in fear and they need SPACE and enrichment in that space.

“They need long fibre, like hay and grass (not clippings) more than any other food.

“People find brachycephalic rabbits cute, so the trend is going the same way as dogs. It is catastrophic for rabbits and their teeth and brings many other issues too. We should not be breeding ANY lop-eared rabbits, and at the moment they account for more than half the rabbits in the UK. Extreme conformation is unacceptable in all species, including rabbits and has to stop. You need to know their needs and think LONG and HARD before getting them. And then probably decide against it. Sorry!

“RWAF and I wanted to do the topic proud, let’s hope that welfare improves as a result”.

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