By Sarah McMahon, Final Year Veterinary Medicine and Surgery Student, MSc in Animal Welfare and Behaviour

The welfare of pet rabbits has been of increasing interest to vets and scientists, raising concern that this very popular pet is often kept alone, poorly housed and fed, and not provided medical care. The RWAF has been providing the public with information to improve their rabbit’s welfare, which were confirmed in our study as key factors in positive welfare for rabbits:  a majority hay diet, varied enrichment and free roam housing (rather than in a hutch)1.

So, if this is accurate information that will improve the lives of pet rabbits – why do people not provide it?

How are rabbits often seen?

As a rabbit owner, I’ve frequently encountered the following views:

But it’s just a rabbit…

They don’t do much

They’re stupid

They’re for children

I found these statements quite different to how I see my rabbits – which I see as emotional, mischievous characters full of incredible behaviours and personality. This made me wonder how peoples’ perception of an animal influenced their treatment of them.

Perceptions

A small survey-based study of 52 owners, at the point of purchase of pet rabbits, found that knowledge and attitudes surrounding the species were indeed significant factors in husbandry and resource provision such as providing a companion, an appropriate diet and an intention to neuter/spay their new pet2.

A link between an animal’s perceived ability to think, and the subsequent treatment of that animal species by humans has been found3. Indeed, Smuts states that the stage before establishing a beneficial interspecies bond is the acknowledgment of a fellow social being with which communication is possible4. The idea that another animal has cognitive processes such as our own, carries a moral responsibility to consider the feelings of a species and the subsequent need to re-evaluate our treatment of that animal5.

Further research concluded that attributing emotionality to sheep is significantly associated with more positive treatment from their farmers6,7 ; dairy farmers with positive attitudes towards animals had better human-animal relationships, less fearful animals and higher milk yields8,9; and an attribution of higher emotionality of pet dogs and cats led to an improved human-animal bond with their owners10.

A small survey-based study of 52 owners, at the point of purchase of pet rabbits, found that knowledge and attitudes surrounding the species were indeed significant factors in husbandry and resource provision such as providing a companion, an appropriate diet and an intention to neuter/spay their new pet2.

A link between an animal’s perceived ability to think, and the subsequent treatment of that animal species by humans has been found3. Indeed, Smuts states that the stage before establishing a beneficial interspecies bond is the acknowledgment of a fellow social being with which communication is possible4. The idea that another animal has cognitive processes such as our own, carries a moral responsibility to consider the feelings of a species and the subsequent need to re-evaluate our treatment of that animal5.

Further research concluded that attributing emotionality to sheep is significantly associated with more positive treatment from their farmers6,7 ; dairy farmers with positive attitudes towards animals had better human-animal relationships, less fearful animals and higher milk yields8,9; and an attribution of higher emotionality of pet dogs and cats led to an improved human-animal bond with their owners10.

Our Study

There had not yet been a large-scale study regarding the public’s perception of rabbits and their mental abilities. By using an online survey for current rabbit owners, our study aimed to provide a novel understanding of the public’s perceptions of rabbits; how owner perceptions of rabbits’ ability to experience pain, emotions and intelligence affect the resources and husbandry that they are provided with (including the important resource of a partner), and how these various resources affect the rabbits’ welfare.

A positive relationship was found between higher perception scores with positive welfare score, and a negative correlation was found between high perception scores and negative welfare score. This indicates that a higher perception of rabbits increases positive welfare, and decreases negative welfare.

Specifically:

PerceptionWelfare improvement provided
IntelligenceBetter diet
EmotionsA rabbit partner
PainFree Roam housing and more Enrichment

The human behaviour cycle

Edgar Schein’s ORJI cycle (Observation-Reaction-Judgement-Intervention) simplifies human actions11. It begins with Observation, which surrounds your perceptions, and what you notice about something, followed by Reacting to this with an emotional response. A person then evaluates what they’ve witnessed or perceived, and how you felt about it- and a thoughtful response arises (Judgement). Finally, an Intervention: an action, a choice or a decision is made.

Interrupting the cycle

The results of this study highlight the great importance of owner perception of rabbit mentality to improve welfare – agreeing with the aforementioned conclusions of previous literature that a higher perception of animal intelligence, emotions and pain leads to better treatment, and better subsequent welfare. Thus, changing perceptions of new owners about the mental capabilities of rabbits is likely to be of benefit for domestic rabbit welfare.

It is therefore suggested that public education be tailored to improve the perception of rabbits’ ability to experience, and to promote empathy towards the species.

Notable behaviours were mentioned by participants in this study that greatly impacted them, and were spoken of very emotively. Perhaps these behaviours could be used to cause an emotional impact on new owners and alter their perceptions of rabbits. For example:

  • “Binkies” and “zoomies” were seen to be an unequivocal sign of joy in pet rabbits by owners, and it was repeatedly reported to also be a great joy for owners themselves to witness
  • The bond between rabbits, that had been successfully group housed, was spoken of as indescribably strong, and frequently described as ‘love’
  • The perceived grief experienced by rabbits was frequently mentioned when attributing emotional pain, emotionality and emotional intelligence, and had a great impact on owners that witnessed it, highlighting the strength of the interspecies bond
  • The ability of rabbits to learn tricks, their perceived ability to understand timing and routine, and their spatial memory had clear impact on owner perception of rabbit intelligence.

In terms of the ORJI cycle, this would be breaking a cycle of human behaviour by altering perception- the “Observation (O)” in the cycle.

For example: “I Observe that the rabbits I’ve seen simply sat in the corner of a hutch. My Reaction may be boredom, or disappointment. I have a Judgement that rabbits are boring, don’t do anything, or are stupid. I therefore have an Action of inaction – as rabbits don’t do anything and are stupid, why would I care that they should be provided a partner, enrichment, an appropriate diet, etc.”

This could perhaps be altered to, for example: “I Observe that rabbits can complete puzzles, can hurdle, grieve, binkie and zoomie. I Judge that rabbits are more intelligent than I thought, must experience emotions like joy and have such strong bonds with others that they grieve. I may therefore choose to Intervene with my current behaviour, acting with more empathy towards the species, perhaps providing them with things they need and enjoy. As I spend more time and provide more appropriate resources, this cycle of positive change may continue.”

Existing Owners

Our study showed that existing owners who spent more time with rabbits, and provided them with more enrichment (like hides, tunnels, toys, puzzles etc.) had higher perceptions of rabbits. We think that watching their rabbits interact with the world around them ‘unlocked’ for these people the often-subtle emotions and intelligence of rabbits. 

Vets and pet care professionals

As the public’s face of animal welfare, veterinarians have a part to play in changing perceptions of the third most popular pet species. The role of pet care professionals and vets in face-to-face education at the point of purchase/adoption and onward throughout the life of rabbits, has an impact on health care level and resources provided to these animals.  Perhaps vets and pet care professionals should also be reflecting on their  own perceptions of rabbits,  thus perhaps influencing more individuals to push more strongly for better standards from owners.

What do you think about your rabbits? It matters!

So, what can you do to help improve perceptions of rabbits, or perhaps even improve your own?

  • Spend more time with the species, not directly handling but observing their interactions with each other and the world around them.
  • Branch out with your enrichment- you might be surprised by the items and activities rabbits will engage with.
  • Share your experiences! People often have no idea what rabbits are capable of until they’re shown. Binkies, zoomies, hurdling, puzzle solving and the intense bond and love that rabbits have with each other are some great behaviours to share.
  • Teach children- I’m not recommending rabbits as a children’s pet, but if children are interacting with rabbits, make a point of teaching them about rabbit emotions and feelings. Compassion and empathy are an essential for being kind to other living beings. Understanding from an early age that bunnies aren’t a glorified cuddly toy is a fantastic and important lesson in compassion.
  • Check out and share our campaign pages on the website, Instagram, twitter and pinterest!

Hopefully by improving empathy and compassion towards this species, deemed widely as an inexpensive and replaceable ‘child’s pet’; we can move towards rabbits being seen as a sentient, sociable mammal with a wide range of complex and dynamic behaviours that deserve respect and a high welfare standard.

References

  1. McMahon, S. and Wigham, E., 2020. ‘All Ears’: A Questionnaire of 1516 Owner Perceptions of the Mental Abilities of Pet Rabbits, Subsequent Resource Provision, and the Effect on Welfare. Animals, 10(10), p.1730.
  2. Edgar, J. and Mullan, S., 2011. Knowledge and attitudes of 52 UK pet rabbit owners at the point of sale. Veterinary Record, 168(13), pp.353-353.
  3. Bekoff, M., 1994. cognitive ethology and the treatment of non-human animals: how matters of mind inform matters of welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE, (3), pp.75-96.
  4. Smuts, B., 2001. Encounters With Animal Minds. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5-7), pp.293–309.
  5. Kirkwood, J., 2007. Quality of life: the heart of the matter. Animal Welfare, 16(3-7).
  6. Tamioso, P., Rucinque, D., Miele, M., Boissy, A. and Molento, C., 2018. Perception of animal sentience by Brazilian and French citizens: The case of sheep welfare and sentience. PLOS ONE, 13(7), p.e0200425.
  7. Kılıç, İ. and Bozkurt, Z., 2013. The Relationship between Farmers’ Perceptions and Animal Welfare Standards in Sheep Farms. Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences, 26(9), pp.1329-1338.
  8. Bertenshaw and Rowlinson (2009) Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human—Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production, Anthrozoös, 22:1, 59-69, DOI: 10.2752/175303708X390473
  9. Hemsworth, P., Coleman, G., Barnett, J., Borg, S. and Dowling, S., 2002. The effects of cognitive behavioral intervention on the attitude and behavior of stockpersons and the behavior and productivity of commercial dairy cows. Journal of Animal Science, 80(1),pp.68-78.
  10. Martens, P., Enders-Slegers, M. and Walker, J., 2016. The Emotional Lives of Companion Animals: Attachment and Subjective Claims by Owners of Cats and Dogs. Anthrozoös, 29(1), pp.73-88.
  11. Schein, E., 1987. Process Consultation. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.