The RWAF strongly disagrees with rabbits being kept as school pets.
We hope that staff and parents of schools who might be thinking about having school rabbits will read this page and take note of the welfare concerns it raises.
School rabbits are not a casual undertaking. Any members of a school’s staff who are responsible for an animal or animals being on the school premises – whether on a permanent or temporary basis – are now subject, as a result of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, to the legal obligation to ensure that those animals’ needs are met.
In 2019, there were 37 prosecutions for the neglect of pet rabbits.
An old habit that’s dying hard
Keeping a pet rabbit (or rabbits) at school for the pupils to look after on the premises, and to take home at weekends and holidays is an old tradition in the UK. Thankfully, as more staff and parents realise that schools are not a good environment to meet rabbits’ complex welfare needs, school rabbits have become far less common. But they do still exist.
The idea of taking on school rabbits can sound good in theory, perhaps as a way of teaching the children responsibility and giving them the experience of caring for animals, but the reality is very different. Keeping rabbits in a school environment creates numerous welfare problems for rabbits because of the stressful, constantly changing environment and insufficient accommodation.
It also causes problems for the school when the reality of looking after rabbits properly becomes apparent. Rabbits can live for over ten years. There will be regular clean-outs, expensive and time-consuming vet trips, neutering, vaccinations and the need for out-of-hours care if and when they become unwell. Another set of problems for the school can arise if a child gets bitten or scratched, or when rabbit-savvy parents object, like the RWAF does, to the practice of keeping rabbits at school and make their feelings known.
This page covers these possible, and very likely, problem areas.
Problems for the rabbits
Rabbits, like their wild cousins, are prey animals. This means that:
- Rabbits find busy, noisy environments scary. The sound of happy children excitedly enjoying playtime is a wonderful thing to us, but it’s terrifying for rabbits!
- Rabbits hate being picked up because their instincts are telling them they have been caught by a predator. It’s a fact of life that schoolchildren will want to pick up and pet the school rabbits, and who can blame them? But there is a risk of injury on both sides when a child picks up a rabbit: the rabbit can bite or scratch out of fear, and the child can drop the rabbit. Or both.
- Rabbits need to feel safe and secure. School rabbits are commonly taken home by different pupils at weekends and holidays. Constantly being uprooted, travelling, and being placed in a different environment will be extremely stressful for the rabbits. Add to this the likelihood that the child who has taken the rabbits home will almost certainly want to pick up and play with them while they are in their care, and it’s a recipe for fear, misery, and possible danger.
Rabbits need a lot of space. The RWAF recommends a minimum secure permanent enclosure size of 3m x 2m by 1m high. Accommodation of this size is unlikely to be possible on school premises and it is even less likely when the rabbits are taken home by different pupils for weekends and holidays.
Keeping rabbits in accommodation below the RWAF’s recommendation is not only cruel, but it sets a bad example of pet-keeping to the pupils.
Rabbits are sociable animals and must always be kept in neutered, compatible pairs or groups. It is cruel to keep rabbits alone. However, school rabbits are often kept on their own. In fact, it’s more common to hear the phrase “the school rabbit” than it is to hear “the school rabbits”. If the school keeps a single rabbit then that rabbit will lead an even more miserable and lonely life, but just as importantly, the pupils will think it’s okay to keep a single rabbit, and as a result, more rabbits will suffer down the line.
Another side-effect of being a prey-animal is that rabbits will not show outward signs of illness, injury or disease because it makes them an easy target for predators. This means that by the time they are showing outwards signs, there can be very little time to do anything about it. A good rabbit owner knows this and will keep a close eye out for any changes in behaviour or signs of distress If a vet is needed then a good owner won’t hesitate, and this quick action can often save the rabbit’s life. When rabbits are unsupervised out of school hours then these tell-tale signs are very likely to be missed and lead to suffering, that could have been prevented, or even death.
From time to time, even the most friendly pair of rabbits may have a spat. Fortunately, this won’t usually cause any problems, but sometimes when fur flies, one or more of the rabbits can suffer an injury. If this happens outside of school hours and goes unnoticed and untreated then it can develop into something much more serious.
Being taken home by pupils is stressful for the rabbits, but it can also cause health problems. Rabbits need a constant diet that is made up of mostly grass or hay. If their diet changes suddenly or regularly, which is likely when they are taken on by different people, various stomach conditions can arise, including gut slowdown, which can be fatal.
Rabbits must be neutered as well as being vaccinated annually.
Problems for the school
The problems that school rabbits suffer should be enough to make the point that rabbits shouldn’t be kept at schools. It’s worth, however, listing the problems that the schools themselves will face.
- Legal responsiblity – Any members of the school’s staff who are responsible for an animal or animals being on the school premises – whether on a permanent or temporary basis – are now subject, as a result of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, to the legal obligation to ensure that those animals’ needs are met.
- Personnel changes – It is likely that certain staff members will be more enthusiastic about caring for the school rabbits than others. It is very possible that the staff that were keen on looking after the rabbits move on, leaving the responsibility to their ex-colleagues who hadn’t signed up to the task.
- A child being bitten or scratched – Hopefully this would not happen, but it is possible and can be serious. This is a risk that schools and parents can well do without.
- Expenses – Rabbits, despite some misconceptions, are not cheap and easy pets. The cost of neutering, vaccinations, vet trips, food and bedding adds up very quickly, and remember that rabbits can live for over ten years.
- Time – Even if rabbits never have any health problems they will need to be vaccinated every year and checked out by a rabbit-savvy vet. A member of staff will need to do this. If they do get ill and medication has to be given over weekends, or a series of vet trips is necessary then this can become problematic. As mentioned above, sometimes a bond between a pair of rabbits can break down. When this happens they will need supervising for a period to ensure they do not need to be permanently separated. This is a big ask for a busy staff member.
- Space – we cannot stress enough that rabbits need a sizeable amount of space. It is likely to be difficult for schools to find a suitable area that is big enough to meet contemporary welfare standards.
- Cleaning out – rabbits make a lot of mess and have to be cleaned out every day. School staff are already busy, they don’t need this extra workload.
- Complaints from rabbit-savvy parents – People are more and more aware of rabbits’ complex welfare needs and are far more likely to notice when these needs are not met, and far more likely to make their concerns heard. Schools have enough to contend with these days without having to explain why they are keeping animals in conditions that do not meet the needs of the species.
- Bureaucracy of the risk assessment – taking on school rabbits must be risk-assessed, to include a number of the points outlined above, but others too.
Some questions to consider for risk assessment and beyond
These are some example questions that we have asked when concerned parents have asked us to contact their school about the rabbits in their care. They include some of the points already made on this page but serve as a useful indicator of the level of responsibility staff would be signing up to when taking on school rabbits.
- Are the rabbits vaccinated? They need to have two vaccinations every 12 months, against Myxi and VHD1, and also VHD2.
- Are the rabbits neutered? If not they are likely to fight when they hit sexual maturity. Are you going to be able to house them separately and get them each a new partner if this happens? Additionally, if the rabbits are being unsupervised at weekends, what will you do if the rabbits encounter an entire male rabbit and become pregnant?
- Do you have a rabbit savvy vet?
- If the rabbits become unwell and require medication several times a day who will do this?
- Who is responsible for taking the rabbits to the vet and does the school have a budget for vet care? If one of these rabbits requires regular dental work it can cost £100 every 6 weeks. In lop-eared rabbits so the likelihood of one if not both requiring dental work is very high as they are brachycephalic which is known to cause health problems in rabbits, cats and dogs.
- Rabbits are prey animals and do not enjoy being handled. They are likely to bite and scratch. Have you conducted a H&S assessment on this, both for the school and the parents who take these animals home at weekends (and are bound to want to handle them).
- Are the parents all trained to spot signs of ill health? Do they know which vet to take the rabbits to if they are ill over the weekend. Who would pay the bill? Who will authorise the rabbits being admitted and the necessary treatment? Can parents get hold of the relevant member of staff to approve this, or is an agreement in place with a vet practice? (Rabbits can not wait until Monday, they need immediate vet attention or they could die).
- Do you provide a care sheet to go home with the rabbits every weekend, which covers what to feed them and what to look out for?
- Are the staff suitably trained to care for the rabbits?
- What is in place for disease control? With diseases such as RVHD that can spread via footwear and clothing, what thought have you given to ensuring you do not spread this to any pet rabbits that pupils may have at home.
- Who will ensure that the rabbits do not run out of hay/pellets/fresh food? A sudden change of diet (ie. pellet) can be fatal. This is also a concern whilst the rabbits are taken home for the weekend or holidays.
It’s simply not worth the stress for everyone involved!