What is the behaviour?
In the wild, rabbits live in burrows. A warren is a group of connected burrows that a rabbit colony lives in. When we see rabbits digging, we usually imagine that they are trying to construct a burrow. However, there are other reasons that rabbits dig – to uncover food, to expose cool earth to rest on, to try to escape, or to try to get attention.
Rabbits dig by loosening the earth with their forepaws, pushing it underneath and behind themselves, and then turning around and pushing it away in front of them. Females typically construct large burrows, whereas males are more likely to make scrapes for marking (often urinating and defecating in the dug earth) and in which they lie in hot weather.
Why is it important?
Digging is a normal instinctive behaviour that meets a number of the rabbit’s welfare needs and uses its muscles in ways that are important for health. We want rabbits to be able to dig but we also don’t want them to escape! This means that we need to give them appropriate ways to express this behaviour.
How can we enable rabbits to show this behaviour?
Most of us can’t provide large areas of soil and turf for our rabbits to dig in normal ways whenever they want. However, we need to find ways that allow rabbits to show this behaviour.
If your rabbits live outside without wire underfoot, try creating an area where the rabbits can dig. Recently turned, crumbly soil (adding some sand to a clay soil will lighten it) often stimulates this behaviour. Scattering or even part-burying small pieces of vegetable will also encourage the rabbits to dig in the designated area.
If your rabbits live outside in enclosures with wire floors, or if your rabbits live indoors, then you’ll need a different approach. You can make a digging box (at least twice the size of the rabbit to allow movement) with a high-sided large litter tray, a child’s sandpit or even concrete areas in a permanent enclosure. Rabbits like to dig in soil and sand – this is possible outside but probably too messy for indoors. Avoid litter tray substrates – some of these cause respiratory problems in rabbits, and large pellets may be uncomfortable for rabbit paws. Instead, try providing a deep box filled with hay – your rabbit will probably dig through it if you scatter some pellets into it.
If you can give rabbits some supervised time in an outside garden, this gives them the opportunity to dig in a normal way. You can sink wire into the ground around the edge of the garden or enclosure to stop the rabbits digging out, and fold a skirt of wire into the garden from the fence to act as a visual deterrent to digging (rabbits like to dig in corners or at edges).
Indoor rabbits that dig repeatedly at carpet, flooring, or curtains are demonstrating that they are stressed and frustrated. This is frequently caused by inadequate enrichment, lack of companionship, or ill-health. Rabbits can also learn that digging in ‘wrong’ places can get attention from their owners – if this is the case, try leaving the room when the rabbit digs and giving a food reward if it follows you. If it does not leave the room when you do, it’s probably not trying to get your attention.
Digging is an important, instinctive natural behaviour. Rabbits need to be able to express this to have good welfare, but we need to direct it appropriately so the rabbit does not escape.