Aside from dogs and cats as the most popular household pets, small furries such as rabbits are also popular family pets, especially with children, with an estimated 2% of the population owning one which equates to approximately 1 million pet rabbits in the UK. Despite their popularity rabbits are some of the most misunderstood domestic animals and as a result are at risk of their welfare needs not being met properly.
Let’s start with housing, rabbit hutches are notoriously too small and do not offer sufficient space for rabbits to have a run around, stretch out and be able to stand on their back legs without their ears touching the roof. A minimum hutch size suggested by the PDSA is 6ft x 3ft and ideally an adjoining run which should be as large as possible. A safe living area is extremely important, by making their hutch and run, animal proof you will prevent escape attempts as well as prevent predators getting in! By raising their hutch off the ground, you will prevent it getting waterlogged as well as prevent predator access- further preventing stressful episodes for your rabbits. Your rabbit’s living area should be weatherproof, plenty of shade in the summer sun, with perhaps a parasol to provide shade and also protection from the winter elements, placing the hutch in a sheltered corner of the garden, in a shed or adding an insulated cover.
Psychological health for rabbits is an important aspect of their wellbeing, this includes preventing both acute stress (referring to predators or being frightened by external noise) and chronic or long-term stressors such as their environment or living conditions not being adequate- over time this can build up and cause illness. Providing mental stimulation in the form of toys and an interesting living area you can emulate their natural habitat and prevent stress behaviour such as gnawing on cage bars. Gnawing on metal bars can cause damage to their teeth, providing a cardboard or a wooden chew toy can aid boredom as well as compressed hay blocks which take longer to eat than loose hay. Small branches of trees such as apple, maple, willow and birch are safe for you rabbit to gnaw on. Tubes and tunnels can provide a comfortable hiding place for them to feel secure and are similar to the underground warren they would use in the wild.
Last but certainly not least is food! Rabbits love to graze away, they spend at least 6-8 hours a day eating so it is important for them to have ad-lib hay available to them at all times. Their digestive systems are monogastric, similar to humans, except they have an enlarged small intestine and cecum to allow for digestion of large amounts of plant material. Like guinea pigs and chinchillas, a rabbit’s teeth grow down continuously which means it is imperative they have access to long-fibre such as hay which increases chewing time and toys to chew on to achieve this. Domesticated rabbits rarely achieve the same exercise levels as wild rabbits and it has been found over 33% are overweight, with over 25% of the UK domestic rabbit population found to have inadequate to no outdoor run space for exercise. Your veterinarian will be able to advise if your rabbit is overweight by condition scoring them- you can try yourself by using the PFMA size-o-meter ystem here [insert link]. You may need to get creative when it comes to exercising your rabbit as it is not as simple as popping a collar and lead on and taking them round the block for a walk! Spreading their food around their run to encourage movement and foraging behaviour will help their food last for longer, you can also use feeders that swing or are raised up. Some rabbits will like to play with balls or rope toys but do go cautiously to begin with as they may be frightened initially.
Here at Chudleys we have three different rabbit diets which aim to cater for all feeding preferences; Rabbit Royale is a nutritionally complete muesli which is a palatable mix of pellets, cereals and forage- ideal if your rabbit likes to forage and like some variety in their food bowl. Alternatively, we have Rabbit Nuggets or Rabbit Pellets which have everything the rabbit needs packed in to a pellet or nugget, both designed to prevent selective or fussy feeding to ensure your rabbits get the full nutritional benefits of our diets. All three diets are designed to be fed alongside long fibre such as hay, it is also important to always have fresh drinking water on offer.
We hope this article has helped any current or future rabbit owners understand a little a bit more about what environment is needed to ensure your rabbits live healthy, happy lives!