Creating better tomorrows for all pet rabbits

Perceptions of the Rabbit

Although initiatives to improve companion rabbit welfare have been made in recent times, through e.g. the availability of evidence-based husbandry guidelines, the traditional view of these animals as children’s ‘starter pets’ is still prevailing.

A recent study by Cecilie Ravn Skovlund, Peter Sandøe and their colleagues highlights how such views can be detrimental to rabbit welfare. In light of the findings of the study, the authors emphasize the need to change owners’ perceptions of rabbits and highlight the need to strengthen the protection of rabbits through official recommendations and minimum requirements for their husbandry.

General concern over companion rabbit welfare

Reports of numerous health problems as well as suboptimal housing conditions for companion rabbits have given rise to concern about the general state of rabbit welfare. Today, rabbits are by many people still regarded as an animal that requires little investment in terms of time, money and care, and they are consequently often regarded suitable as a child’s ‘starter pet’. These misconceptions put rabbits at risk of not receiving the care they need. This is partly because owners are unaware of the species-specific needs that rabbits have, and partly because of unrealistic expectations of rabbits as short-lived and good “cuddly pets” for children, that do not necessarily require a lot of attention. As a consequence, several rabbits are “forgotten” and left alone in a small hutch in the backyard, or are relinquished to a shelter.

A recent study uncovers the state of companion rabbits in Denmark and highlights how the view of rabbits as children’s ‘starter pets’ compromises rabbit welfare

A recent Danish study sought to shed light on the conditions for companion rabbits in Denmark and exactly how the owner perceptions of rabbits affect the way the rabbits are cared for. The husbandry conditions and perceptions of rabbits, as reported by their owners, were investigated through two surveys: one representative survey of the Danish companion animal owners, and a larger survey of Danish rabbit owners via social media (convenience sampling). To the authors’ knowledge, the combination of the two surveys and the large sample size with response from 4,335 rabbit owners, makes it the most comprehensive survey-based study on companion rabbit welfare published to date.

Many rabbits are housed in suboptimal conditions

The authors made a comprehensive investigation into the conditions that rabbits were housed under, including available space, how the rabbits were fed, whether they received veterinary treatment, whether they were housed with partner rabbits, what resources and enrichment they were offered, among other husbandry conditions. Unfortunately, the study found that many rabbits are housed in conditions that can compromise their welfare. For example, many rabbits were housed in hutches or cages of dimensions below that allowed for laboratory rabbits. Despite the fact that the rabbit is a social species (therefore e.g. Danish laboratory rabbits must be housed in groups whenever possible), the authors also found that a majority of rabbits were housed alone and did not have visual contact of other rabbits. Interestingly, the most common reasons for housing rabbits alone, as reported by owners, was that the owners could not or did not want to engage in the bonding process of rabbits, that they did not have resources for housing more than one rabbit, or because the owner believed that rabbits are happy alone, indicating some misconceptions about social housing of rabbits. Moreover, many rabbits were not offered hay or grass ad libitum or digging opportunities, and many were never seen by a vet. Unfortunately, a relatively large part of owners reported to not even check on their rabbit on a daily basis.

Owners’ views of rabbits are low investment ‘starter pets’ have negative impacts on rabbit welfare through inappropriate housing and care

The authors also looked into how the owner perceptions of rabbits affect rabbit welfare. Welfare was assessed through the provision of selected resources that are deemed vital for rabbits, which were chosen to reflect each topic within the Five Welfare Needs for rabbits. These resources included rabbit housing type and space availability (1. Environment), social housing (2. Companionship), routine health care (3. Health). gnawing opportunities (4. Behaviour), and ad libitum hay/grass (5. Diet). The owners’ views of rabbits were investigated by asking them questions related to how well rabbits are suited as children’s ‘starter pets’, the owners’ willingness to invest in life-saving veterinary treatment for their rabbit, and whether the rabbit was acquired for a child or an adult. It was found that most rabbits were acquired for children and that surprisingly many owners thought that rabbits are suitable as a child’s ‘starter pet’. Furthermore, many owners reported a low willingness to invest money in their rabbits.

The analyses used in the study revealed that the owners’ perceptions of rabbits do in fact have an effect on how they care for their rabbits: Owners who perceive rabbits as low-investment ‘starter pets’ were significantly more likely not to provide the resources that are important for rabbit welfare.

Action needed for elevating the status of rabbits, raising awareness of their needs and strengthening of official protection and minimum requirements of rabbit housing

A rabbit is not a low-investment “pet” nor a short-term commitment. Rabbits can live for many years (some up to 14 years), and they require a safe environment that also offers complexity and variation, room to sprint and possibilities to make motivated choices, companionship with other rabbits, an appropriate diet, and regular veterinary check-ups. However, if properly cared for, rabbits will enrich their owners with good companionship as well as expression of interesting and varied rabbit behaviour, together improving the human-animal bond. In turn, by observing rabbits engaging in its environment, instead of sitting still in a hutch, the owners’ perception of these animals may be improved.

The authors of the study hope that the results of the study may raise awareness of the importance of educating current and potential future rabbit owners about the need of rabbits, as well as the necessary level of investment that housing rabbits require. Today, more and more owners devote time and money on rabbit care, and increasingly more rabbits are allowed to roam partly or fully free, and are acquired for adults. Unfortunately, the majority of rabbits are still kept in ways that can compromise their welfare, why it is necessary to strengthen legal protection and minimum requirements for rabbit husbandry.

The full article “Perceptions of the rabbit as a low investment ‘starter pet’ lead to negative impacts on its welfare: Results of two Danish surveys” can be found (open access) in the peer-reviewed journal Animal Welfare here

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