Rabbit welfare

2 August 2021 – News

Rabbit welfare

Despite being one of the most popular mammalian pets worldwide, relatively little research has been conducted into the management, feeding and welfare of pet rabbits.

Lack of knowledge about dietary, housing, and social needs, is commonly reported among pet owners. In fact, according to the Rabbits Welfare Association, only 5% of pet rabbit diet should consist of pelleted feed, 10% should be a variety of leafy greens, vegetables, and herbs and 85% should be from unlimited grass or hay (long fiber) but this is not current practice among rabbit owners. Furthermore, most pet rabbits did not respond calmly when handled by their owner or other adult – early exposure to both human scent and to lifting could prevent this. For veterinarians, the most reported difficulties are related with pain recognition, anesthesia, and analgesia but there is also insufficient knowledge about rabbit welfare.

This study aimed to gather various opinions of animal welfare experts on the issues regarding pet rabbits in the UK and achieve a consensus on prioritizing wellbeing issues. To accomplish this objective, the Delphi method was used – two rounds of surveys were conducted online using the Online Survey tool and then 21 welfare experts participated in a workshop, aiming to determine overall priority placing of issues.

The greatest welfare matters of pet rabbits in the UK were inadequacy of diets and environments, lack of handling and socialization, and various issues related with inadequate knowledge by owners of the housing, nutritional and behavioral needs of rabbits in their care. Concerns were raised about possible owner attitude towards rabbits as pets, as they interfere with these animals’ lifespan. Pet rabbits can potentially live for 12 years, however surveys in England and the Netherlands suggest an average age of death between 4.2 to 5.6 years.

Considering the assessed data, general preventive healthcare is not seen as standard for rabbits and there is indeed a lot of owners that do not vaccinate their pets, due to the lack of awareness (or even recommendation). Improving owner knowledge will be beneficial for rabbit welfare thus education actions, potentially via veterinarians and pet shop employees, would be valuable. Furthermore, rabbit research priorities could focus on an improved understanding of the behavior of pet rabbits, particularly human–rabbit interactions and on the environmental needs of rabbits in a domestic pet setting.

Rioja-Lang, F., Bacon, H., Connor, M. and Dwyer, C.M. (2019), Rabbit welfare: determining priority welfare issues for pet rabbits using a modified Delphi method. Vet Rec Open, 6: e000363. https://doi.org/10.1136/vetreco-2019-000363