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Aims of the RWAF

The RWAF exists to promote the quality of life of domestic rabbits kept as pets in the UK. The activities of the association will be directed solely within this context.

Other organisations

Wherever possible the RWAF liaises with other organisations whose interests also include rabbit issues, to ensure our members receive the best possible and most up-to-date information and advice available.

We will work with other organisations (in some cases where their overall aims do not meet our own) if we think it will be beneficial to rabbit welfare to do so.

We need to help as many rabbits as possible, and to do that we need to reach owners who would otherwise not hear about us. It’s in the interests of pet rabbits that as many rabbit owners hear the RWAF’s messages, and even better, join the RWAF so through Rabbiting On magazine they will receive great advice about rabbit care and welfare. For this reason, the RWAF may advertise on platforms that are not necessarily aligned with our core beliefs.

Tonic immobility (trancing)

Tonic Immobility, often referred to as “Trancing” or “Hypnotising”, is a technique for handling rabbits that has been around for many years. It takes advantage of the rabbit’s tendency, as a prey species, to “play dead” and stay immobile when placed in a vulnerable position, on its back. In studies, behavioural observation (facial expression, ear position etc) and physiological monitoring (heart rate and stress hormone levels) suggest that the rabbits are both well aware of their surroundings, and are exhibiting a fear response rather than being calmed by the position. It is also very important to note that, even if they do not react, they are still perfectly capable of feeling pain. Although the resulting immobility makes procedures easier for the owner, and repeated use appears to make it easier to perform in the rabbit, it is not good welfare practice to use this technique in prey species.

There are some circumstances (for example, non painful procedures such as radiography in sick rabbits with possible gastrointestinal obstruction), where it can allow diagnostic x-rays to be taken, and it can then literally be a lifesaver to have the option. However, this should be as a last resort, and not as part of a routine groom or check up. For these reasons, the RWAF does not recommend its use for grooming purposes.

Scruffing

A study has shown that ‘scruffing’ rabbits – holding by loose skin on back of the neck to handle them – can be stressful. Therefore, the RWAF recommends that rabbits are handled in the following manner instead:

Lifted gently and securely, one hand should be across the shoulder blades, fingers gently supporting the chest of the rabbit whilst the other is under the rabbit’s bottom, taking the bulk of the weight.

Pet rabbit shows

Welfare of rabbits in rabbit shows is a concern to the RWAF. This statement covers both the presence of:

  • Companion rabbits at such shows, i.e. domestic, pet rabbits not kept specifically as show rabbits, and entered into any rabbit show ranging from school fetes to the pet classes of open (all breed) BRC shows.
  • Show rabbits that belong to hobby breeders, usually registered with the BRC and entered into BRC shows.

The main concerns in showing rabbits regard stress and biosecurity. Whilst some of these risks are minor, showing a pet rabbit has no benefit to the animal, and it’s hard to justify attendance at a show for these animals.

Stress at rabbit shows

There are many causes of stress to the rabbits who attend these types of shows:

  • Travel to shows can cause significant stress to rabbits.
  • The nature of these events means that extremes of heat or cold may occur.
  • Shows that are held on more than one day in a row may involve overnight accommodation away from the rabbits’ home environments.
  • Show cages are often limited in size, and may not permit hiding from potentially stress-inducing people or other animals. They may not include space for sufficient food, water, and litter trays, nor for social groups to be kept together.
  • Some mixed pet shows may include predator animals such as dogs or ferrets coming into close proximity with rabbits.
  • Pet rabbits are used to attending shows and the type of handling involved. This makes them much more likely to feel stress as a result.
  • Judging usually involves handling techniques that include ‘trancing’ the rabbit, which we know is very stressful and is unacceptable.
  • Stress can trigger gut stasis, a deadly condition for rabbits.

Biosecurity at rabbit shows

There is no obligation to vaccinate rabbits at shows, and so it is possible for rabbits in attendance to acquire potentially fatal diseases such as Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease and Myxomatosis, as well as others, which cannot be vaccinated against, such as airborne respiratory tract diseases and E. cuniculi. If people do decide to show their rabbits, we strongly advise ensuring their vaccinations are up to date, and that good hygiene and biosecurity measures are employed (washing hands between handling animals, washing surfaces between rabbits, and flea control).

Home life of show rabbits

As well as the concerns about rabbits attending shows, there are wider concerns for the rabbits owned by hobby breeders as they are often kept in conditions that do not meet the good practice codes for the welfare of rabbits.

  • Housing does not meet minimum standards because there are too many rabbits to house in this way.
  • Rabbits are used for breeding so are not neutered and are unable to live permanently with other rabbits.

Because there is no benefit to the rabbits taking part in shows and numerous concerns, the RWAF would like to see all rabbit shows abolished.

Rabbit show jumping

Rabbit show jumping has attracted a considerable amount of media interest in recent years and has brought to the public’s attention the fact that rabbits are intelligent and active, and that they are capable of being trained and having a bond with their owners. These are positive messages that we hope would help to improve the status of the often neglected rabbit, to that of cats and dogs.

However, the RWAF does have concerns about rabbit show jumping. These include the points raised about stress, travel and biosecurity that are covered in the Showing section above. Also, having seen rabbits perform like this we fear that owners might be tempted to try this for themselves, without allowing the rabbits to become physically accustomed to it first, therefore risking injury.

Sadly, a huge number of pet rabbits live in hutches with no space to exercise, and therefore develop muscular and skeletal problems. There is an obvious danger to strapping a harness on a rabbit in this condition and trying to make it jump over hurdles.

We would urge all owners instead to encourage natural exercise by providing a large secure enclosure with toys and digging places in which the rabbits can display their natural behaviours in a stress-free environment.

There is also a danger that the media interest in show jumping could encourage rabbit sales, and baby rabbits could spend the summer show jumping, and then the next summer be forgotten. There is already a huge problem of rabbits being bought by people who have not considered the long term responsibilities and then, when the novelty has worn off, being abandoned or doomed to a miserable life alone in a hutch. Additionally, rabbits are prey animals and could become extremely stressed in a noisy and busy environment found at a show jumping event, and are not always suited to the travel to and from the event. Owners should ask themselves whether show jumping is for the rabbit, or for the owner. We believe that the welfare of each individual rabbit must be prioritised above the owner’s desire to compete in this manner.

However, any owner who is thinking about trying out show jumping with their rabbits should ensure they themselves are properly trained in how to teach their pet using reward-based training techniques – never just by pulling the harness and dragging the rabbit over the jump, and ensure that if they attend any competitions that there is a quiet resting area where the rabbits can be away from external stress inducing factors.

Rabbit fancy dress

With the rise of social media, there has been a noticeable increase in photos of pet rabbits dressed by their owners to look cute or funny. The RWAF advises that rabbit owners should never do this. It is very likely to be stressful for the rabbit involved, and even if your own rabbit is particularly placid and shows no signs of stress (although it still could be stressed without appearing so), there is the danger that it will encourage other owners to do the same.

Exercising using a harness and lead

The RWAF does not recommend the use of harnesses for exercising rabbits. Using one to take a rabbit for a walk would mean they would be in danger from disease and predators, and there’s the added danger that they could escape or be injured.

Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk and those are the times when they will feel most like exercising. They run in short, rapid bursts so taking them for a walk on a harness is not a good way to exercise them and most often it will not be at a good time of day for them. It’s far more appropriate for them to have permanent access to a large enclosure with plenty of enrichment so they can exercise as they please and when the mood takes them.

There are additional dangers in taking rabbits, a prey animal species, into public areas where they may meet dogs and cats, and in exposing them to deadly diseases such as myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Diseases 1 and 2.

Breeding

The RWAF does not support the breeding of rabbits. There is a welfare crisis in the UK and there are large numbers of rabbits in rescue or rehoming centres.

However, we are often asked how many litters we think is ‘ethical’ to breed from a single doe each year. The obvious answer to this is zero until the welfare crisis is resolved, however in the interest of participating in this debate our thoughts are as follows:

Ethical breeding involves a lot more than purely the number of litters that each doe has per year. Consideration should be given to other factors, most notably the 5 welfare needs stipulated under the Animal Welfare Act.

These include providing adequate space and enrichment for the rabbits to fulfil their natural behaviours. Traditional breeding cages do not normally satisfy these requirements.

Another of the welfare needs is for rabbits to have companionship. Entire (unneutred) breeding rabbits are kept alone.

As well as the provision of veterinary care, diet is also crucial to ensure the breeding rabbits and their young are healthy. Muesli diets should be avoided both for breeding stock and for the offspring that will be offered for sale. Muesli diets are proven to cause a number of health problems and weaning kits on to this diet could cause problems that will never be rectified.

A strict cleaning protocol should be in place, to ensure that disease (E. cuniculi etc) cannot be spread. Breeding rabbits should be selected for health and temperament, avoiding genetic diseases and exaggerated features and care should be given to ensure that they are handled and socialised properly so that they are confident and sociable pets.

The BSAVA Manual of Rabbit Medicine advises the following:

  • A breeding doe should have a MAXIMUM of 2-3 litters each year.
  • She should not start breeding until sexually mature.
  • A breeding doe should stop breeding at approximately 2.5 to 3 years.
  • If a breeding doe shows reproductive difficulties then breeding should be stopped and the doe, after consultation with a vet, should be neutered to prevent any further problems (the RWAF would suggest that rehoming might best meet their welfare needs at this time).

The housing of breeding rabbits should be part of the ethical considerations: keeping males and females together outside of actual mating may lead to trauma, and separation by visual barriers only may lead to stress due to their ability to detect the opposite sex by smell.

It is important that any ethical breeding policy considers the whole lifetime of the breeding animals. It is also important that the supply of young animals from breeder to point of sale is considered, and all aspects of their welfare (e.g. transport) are taken into account. Unnecessary transport should avoided.

To be truly ethical, rabbits should only be bred if there is a proven demand, and if they are going to be sold or re-homed in accordance with current welfare guidelines:

  • Kept in neutered and vaccinated compatible pairs or groups
  • Housed in a secure accommodation of a minimum size of 3m x 2m x 1m high
  • Fed on a predominantly forage based diet

Responsibility must be taken for the whole life of the rabbits. This means that if there is any reason that the rabbits become unwanted, they can be returned to the store or seller to re-home responsibly in accordance with welfare guidelines, rather than placing a burden on rehoming centres.

Ideally all rabbits would be micro chipped so that they can be traced back to the breeder or store. Strategies should be implemented to avoid impulse purchases, and the store or seller should ensure that the correct environment, diet and health care will be provided before any rabbits leave the store.

Pet shops

The RWAF does not condone the sale of rabbits from Pet Shops and would prefer to see them obtained from rescue centres, or their place of birth. However, as an organisation we feel that it is necessary to work with pet shops in order to change opinion and to work towards the correct information being accessible to existing and potential rabbit owners, as well as members of staff, to promote rabbit welfare.

Rescue

The RWAF strongly supports rabbit rescue. The RWAF aims to provide support and educational material for rescue centres.

Feeding

The RWAF issues feeding recommendations based upon veterinary advice, which may of course change from time to time.

Our current recommendation is that rabbits should eat a grass or hay based diet. For most rabbits, we recommend feeding limited quantities of a top quality branded rabbit food ( pellets or nuggets not muesli type food as this is known to cause dental disease) plus unlimited hay. This basic diet can be supplemented with green foods. the recommended ratios are 85% hay / grass, 10% greens and 5% pellets.

Muesli style rabbit food

Research conducted by Edinburgh University proved that muesli foods are bad for rabbits.

Rabbits fed muesli almost always selectively feed, which results in dental problems. This is avoidable if rabbits are fed pellets or nuggets and unlimited hay or grass.

Read more about selective feeding and the research.

Environment for keeping rabbits

Rabbits should be kept in conditions that cater for their physical and behavioural needs. Provided these needs are met it is equally acceptable for pet rabbits to be kept outdoors in suitable accommodation, or indoors as house rabbits. Keeping a rabbit in solitary confinement in a hutch is unacceptable.

Rabbits and children

Rabbits are ground-loving prey animals, who become friendly and responsive when properly treated. But rabbits are vulnerable to injury if handled badly and rarely appreciate being cuddled. Therefore, rabbits do not make good children’s pets, but can make successful family pets if parents respect the needs of the rabbit and the limitations of the children. Adults must accept all the responsibility of caring for the rabbit.

Rabbits and guinea pigs

The RWAF does not recommend keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together. Although we are aware of anectdotal evidence of cases where this arrangement works very well, we know of many more when keeping these very dissimilar species together is detrimental to one or both of the animals.

Rabbits and Birds

The RWAF does not recommend keeping rabbits with birds.  Full details can be found in our Blog post here but briefly there are issues around diet, possible disease transfer, environmental damage and potentially the possibility of injury.

Health care

The RWAF believes that preventative health care is very important. The RWAF strongly recommends that all rabbits are vaccinated against both VHD and myxomatosis. We suggest that members insure their rabbits for vet bills, and recommend that all pet rabbits (both bucks and does) should be neutered. This is for the triple benefits of behavioural improvement, health benefits, and population control by preventing accidental litters. However, we also appreciate that no surgery is risk-free. We aim to ensure our members use an experienced vet and are fully counselled regarding the risks & benefits of neutering beforehand.

Chemical neutering

We get a number of queries each year about non-surgical neutering options in male and female rabbits. The main option to discuss is a contraceptive implant, which is licensed for reproductive control in other species, but not the rabbit. There is a very limited amount of work on its use in rabbits, demonstrating reasonably good effects in females, and, in the largest study, no effect in males. There is, however, one case report showing that it suppressed reproductive behaviour in ONE male rabbit, for 7 months, using the smaller of the 2 implant sizes available.

We would, at this point, therefore, not advise its use in rabbits. In females, whilst some effect was noted, the duration of effect is uncertain, and female rabbits are so prone to uterine cancer, that it is possible that this could develop once the implant had worn off, without signs of that wearing off being visible.

We would not recommend its use in male rabbits, given the evidence base, but acknowledge that its effects may be quite individual, and that some males may respond positively to it, although for limited periods of time, necessitating regular additional implants. Thus it MIGHT be of use in certain selected individuals with contraindications to general anaesthesia, where the alternative is constant risk of trauma by fighting, or a solitary existence for their whole life. In such cases, it’s important to note that in the majority of cases, the implant will not be effective, and, if it is, this effect will take 2-3 weeks to occur, and up to that point, the rabbit’s sexual behaviour will actually be MORE strongly expressed.

When they work, these implants typically last from about 6-8 months, and, for the effect to continue, the rabbit must be given additional implants at intervals. If the effect wears off before a new implant is in place, sexual behaviour can re-commence unpredictably, leading to fighting or mating (although we would always advise that the companion rabbit, if female, is surgically neutered). The presence of a number of implants could, over time, form the basis for localised tissue reactions, as they are very difficult to remove after having been present for months.

Vaccinations at the time of neutering

You should always discuss the circumstances of your individual pet with your own vet, who will be able to give you individual advice.

The RWAF policy statement on this is as follows:

Vaccinations are recommended as soon as possible after 5 weeks old. Vaccinations should not be given at the same time as neutering as that leaves a window of risk when the rabbits aren’t protected. Carrying out vaccinations at the same time as neutering also carries risks, both to the rabbit’s health and to the efficacy of the vaccine.

Conscious dental treatment

We are often asked whether it is possible, or advantageous, to perform dental procedures on rabbits without anaesthesia or sedation. This is a complex question, as it depends entirely on the character of the rabbit, the nature of the dental problem, the equipment available and the expertise of the Veterinary Surgeon and Veterinary Nurses involved. Trimming of overlong incisors may be performed with powered dental equipment with gentle but firm physical restraint. Towel wrapping, the “bunny burrito” technique, may be very useful here. Sedation may be required in some rabbits.

Cheek (back) teeth treatment is more complicated, requiring visualisation of the teeth. Difficulty arises because they are hidden at the back of the mouth, in contrast to the easily visible incisors, as well as greatly limiting the safe use of effective dental equipment in this area.

Gags are occasionally recommended to keep the mouth open. These are widely used in anaesthetised rabbits to hold the mouth open and the head in position, but are not safe to use in a rabbit which is not adequately anaesthetised due to the risk of tooth or jaw fracture if the rabbit tries to close its mouth. Without this, visibility is limited, which makes it easy to miss significant dental problems, especially at the very back of the mouth, and increases the risk of damaging the soft tissues of the mouth when carrying out conscious dentistry.

Powered dental equipment rotates rapidly and may cause significant injuries to the tongue, cheek or gums if it comes into contact with them. It is therefore wise not to use where visibility is not sufficient to avoid the risk of damage. Furthermore there is the danger of conscious animals moving, causing power tools to slip and inflict injury on the mouth.

The choice of equipment for use in conscious dentistry is therefore limited to hand held i.e. non powered equipment. Whilst this is appropriate for small spurs on the inside edge of the lower teeth, it is much more difficult to use these elsewhere, should other teeth require attention. If the entire back tooth is leaning it, rather than just spurring, it is inappropriate to use hand equipment to clip the tooth, as this can fracture and loosen the tooth.

Files can be used in the mouth to avoid clipping. However, large blood vessels at the back of the mouth are vulnerable to being caught with the tip of a file, and potentially fatal haemorrhage may result.

The experience of the veterinary surgeon performing such a procedure, and the expertise of the veterinary nurse handling the rabbit strongly influence the safety and end result of any dental procedure. The decision on whether to carry out dental work and how to do so is the clinical responsibility of the veterinary surgeon, after a discussion of the relative risks and benefits with the owner of all techniques available. It is impossible here to categorically state what should and should not be done in each circumstance, but conscious dentistry should not simply be considered as a short cut alternative to dentistry under GA. Whatever method is employed, a full clinical examination of the rabbit, with particular reference to the mouth and associated structures, should be performed first (eg intra and extra-oral examination, and assessment of eyes and ears to look for associated pathology).

Our opinion at the RWAF is that incisor dental shortening can be carried out conscious in the majority of rabbits, (but that this should be done using appropriate tools, and not by clipping which can shatter or split teeth) but that cheek tooth dentistry is best carried out under a short, well maintained anaesthetic to allow full visualisation and assessment of dental disease. However, there may be circumstances where a limited amount of cheek tooth dentistry may be more safely performed conscious. A typical situation is the presence of a single or small number of dental spurs in an easily visualised position, in a calm rabbit, particularly when the animal is not considered a suitable candidate for an anaesthetic (eg through severe dehydration or malnutrition for the dental lesion present, or other underlying disease). This may perhaps be carried out to relieve pain in a seriously unwell rabbit in order to improve his or her fluid and nutritional status prior to a full dental under general anaesthetic. However, if conscious dentistry is considered the default option due to the risks of anaesthesia generally, it is worth reviewing practice anaesthetic protocols for rabbits.

The risks of the procedure must be balanced against the potential advantages in every case, and fully discussed with the veterinary surgeon.

Please note that this advice is not aimed at the equivalent situation in guinea pigs, whose dental pathology is different, usually involving whole teeth and a significantly increased risk of severely and permanently damaging the teeth involved.