The following document is a detailed review of the relevant literature on inadequate rabbit housing which provides scientific backing to our message that A Hutch Is Not Enough. The document was commissioned by The RWF and written by Dr. Laura Dixon in February 2020.
Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK, with around 1.7 million rabbits kept as pets(1). However there are currently no legally binding guidelines for the minimum housing and management standards needed to ensure good pet rabbit welfare and available guidelines tend to give recommendations on behaviours that should be able to be performed, e.g. hop three times(2) instead of enclosure size guidance. Surveys of pet rabbit owners found that 20-22% of rabbits are housed in hutches smaller than what is legally allowed for laboratory and meat rabbits(3)(4) and 84% of rabbits are housed in hutches smaller than that recommended by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF)(5).
There is a body of scientific evidence that demonstrates inadequate housing for rabbits, both in terms of the floor area and the height of the enclosure, can have a negative effect on welfare. Rabbits have a behavioural repertoire similar to that of their wild ancestors(6); however when they are housed in smaller enclosures, they are less active and interact less with environmental resources(7-9). For example, rabbits housed in 0.88m2 enclosures spent more time sitting and laying down and less time interacting with items in their environment (forages and a wooden box) compared to rabbits housed in 1.68m2 and 3.35m2 enclosures(7).
Rabbits also use more vertical space when it is available. They will rear and rear with their ears erect more often and will stretch higher up than is possible with low ceilings(10-14). For example, when kept in a pen with a height of 45cm, this was the highest the rabbits could rear but when housed in a pen with a height of 75cm, even the smallest breeds of rabbits increased their rearing height, with giant rabbits rearing up to 71cm in height. This effect continued for larger and giant breeds when they were housed in an enclosure without a ceiling and their rearing height rose to 80cm on average(14). However surveys of pet rabbit populations in the UK have found the average hutch ceiling height to be 59cm5, meaning aside from very small breeds, rabbits wouldn’t be able to rear to their full height.
Behavioural restrictions from being kept in inadequate housing is thought to cause stress and frustration15-16 and rabbits reared with low space allowances have higher serum cortisol levels and lower brain serotonin and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels than rabbits with higher space allowances(17). The importance of a behaviour to an animal can be measured by asking the animal to ‘work’ for access to an area where the behaviour can be performed. The harder the animals work for access, the more important the behaviour is to them(18). Pet rabbits have demonstrated the importance of space and worked by pushing a weighted door to leave an area 0.90m2 in size and access areas that were 1.68m2 and 3.35m2(19). Rabbits pushed weights up to 27% of their body weights to access the 1.68m2 area and up to 45% of their own body weights to access the 3.35m2 area. Therefore access to increased space is important for rabbits and the inability to access increased space can cause stress, and can lead to an increase in performance of abnormal behaviour patterns, such as repetitive fur chewing and head swaying10. Additionally, the reduction in behaviour patterns and activity in smaller enclosures can lead to obesity, skeletal abnormalities and weaker bones11, (20-21). Therefore housing for pet rabbits that is too small has an effect on their mental and physical well-being.
A recent examination of 8 popular online rabbit housing suppliers found that of the one-story hutches available to purchase, 60.5% of the one-story hutches available did not even meet the legal requirements for meat rabbits (0.75m2/rabbit) and only 8.5% of hutches met the RWAF’s recommendation of 1.12m2/rabbit(22) (Table 1). New rabbit owners may assume that because these hutches are legally available to be purchased then they must be suited to a rabbit’s needs but being housed in these small hutches will clearly have an impact on pet rabbit health and welfare. Therefore the aim of this document is to raise awareness of the spatial needs of rabbits and to support the campaign to have inadequately sized rabbit enclosures removed from sale.
Table 1: Survey of the one-story rabbit hutches available for purchase from online retailers.
|Company||# Hutches sold||# Hutches that meet the legal minimum of 0.75m2/rabbit(2ft x 4ft)||# Hutches that meet the RWAF minimum recommendation of 1.12m2/rabbit(2ft x 6ft)|
|Pets at Home||2||2||1|
|Rabbit Hutch World||2||5||2|
|Amazon (first 7 pages)||28||0||0|
|Percentage of total||31%||8.5%|
1 PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals). 2018. PDSA animal wellbeing report.
2 Welsh Assembly Government 2009. Code of practice for the welfare of rabbits.
3 Schepers, F., Koene, P., Beerda, B. 2009. Welfare assessment in pet rabbits. Anim. Welf. 18: 477-485.
4 Rooney, N.J., Blackwell, E.J., Mullan, S.M., Saunders, R., Baker, P.E., Hill, J.M., Sealy, C.E., Turner, M.J., Held, S.D.E. 2014. The current state of welfare, housing and husbandry of the English pet rabbit
5 Mullan, S.M., Main, D.C.J. 2006. Survey of the husbandry, health and welfare of 102 pet rabbits. Vet. Rec. 159: 103-109.population. BMC Res. Notes 7: 942-955.
6 Martrenchar, A., Boilletot, E., Cotte, J.P., Morisse, J.P. 2001. Wire-floor pens as an alternative to metallic cages in fattening rabbits: influence on some welfare traits. Anim. Welf. 10: 153-161.
7 Dixon, L.M., Hardiman, J.R., Cooper, J.J. 2010 The effects of spatial restriction on the behaviour of rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). J. Vet. Behav. 5: 302-308.
8 Buijs, S., Keeling, L.J., Tuyttens, F.A.M. 2011. Behaviour and use of space in fattening rabbits as influenced by cage size and enrichment. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 134: 229-238.
9 Sommerville, R., Ruiz, R., Averos, X. 2017. A meta-analysis on the effects of the housing environment on the behaviour, mortality, and performance of growing rabbits. Anim. Welf. 26: 223-238.
10 Gunn, D., Morton, D.B. 1995. Inventory of the behaviour of New Zealand White rabbits in laboratory cages. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 45: 277-292.
11 Hansen LT and Berthelsen H 2000 The effect of environmental enrichment on the behaviour of caged rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 68: 163-178.
12 Trocino, A., Filiou, E., Tazzoli, M., Bertotto, D., Negrato, E., Xiccato, G., 2014. Behaviour and welfare of growing rabbits housed in cages and pens. Livestock Sci. 167: 305-314.
13 Buijs, S., Maertens, L., Hermans, K., Vangeyte, J. 2015. Behaviour, wounds, weight loss and adrenal weight of rabbit does as affected by semi-group housing. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 172: 44-51.
14 Dixon, L.M., Cooper, J.C. 2010b. How low can they go? The effects of height restriction on the behaviour of pet rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). ISAE UK/Eire Regional Meeting, Harper Adams University, p.2.
15 Morgan, K.N., Tromborg, C.T. 2007. Sources of stress in captivity. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 102: 262-302.
16 Petherick, J.C. 2007. Spatial requirements of animals: allometry and beyond. J. Vet. Behav.: Clin. Appl. Res. 2: 197-204.
17 El-Tarabany, M.S., Ahmed-Farid, O.A., El-Tarabany, A.A. 2019. Impact of space allowance on the performance traits, brain neurotransmitters and blood antioxidant activity of New Zealand White rabbits. Prev. Vet. Med. 163: 44-50.
18 Dawkins, M.S. 1983. Battery hens name their price: Consumer demand theory and the measurement of ethological ‘needs’. Anim. Behav. 31: 1195-1205.
19 Dixon, L.M., Cooper, J.C. 2010a. Assessing the motivation of pet rabbits using consumer demand techniques: are commercially available hutches too small? Recent advances in animal welfare science. UFAW Animal Welfare Conference, York Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.
20 Drescher, B. 1992. Housing of rabbits with respect to animal welfare. J. Appl. Rabbit Res. 15: 678-683.
21 Ichinoseki-Sekine, N., Naito, H., Tsuchihara, K., Kobayashi, I., Ogura, Y., Kakigi, R., Kurosaka, M., Fujioka, R., Esumi, H. 2009. Provision of a voluntary exercise environment enhances running activity and prevents obesity in Snark-deficient mice. Am. J. Physiol. Endocrinol. Metab. 296: 1013-1021.
22 Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) Outdoor housing.