ArticlePDF Available

Stranger danger: the importance and perils of companionship in rabbits


Abstract and Figures

A rabbit's need for companionship is an important element of their welfare and husbandry. Increasingly, this fact is being recognised in both the laboratory and commercial settings and legislation and guidelines have been developed to enhance a rabbits social contact with members of their own species. Sadly, the social needs of pet rabbits are often not being met by owners. This may be through lack of education on the importance of companionship to their pets or through a lack of knowledge on how to introduce members of this territorial species together. The following article discusses the importance of social housing for rabbits and ways in which introductions can be made to reduce the likelihood of fighting.
Content may be subject to copyright.
2 May 2016 Vol 7 No 4 The Veterinary Nurse
Think of a group of wild rabbits, nibbling on
grass, nervously looking around for preda-
tors, ready to run for a bolt hole at the slight-
est provocation. Those that have had the pleasure of
seeing wild rabbits in their natural habitat, may take
for granted that they are always in groups or pairs. It
seems so... natural. This being the case, why, when
it comes to pet rabbits, do an estimated 680 000 rab-
bits in the UK live alone (PDSA Animal Wellbeing
report, 2015)? This equates to over 57% of the pet
rabbit population. Is it ignorance on the part of the
owner? (the same report showed a staggering 93%
of owners concurrently considered themselves ‘well
informed’ about their pet rabbit’s companionship
needs). Is it a misinterpretation of a rabbit’s ter-
ritorial behaviour? Those who tried to bond their
rabbit with a companion incorrectly and perceived
the failed attempt to mean their rabbit liked to live
alone? Should the veterinary profession take more
responsibility for this failure? When was the last
time companionship needs were discussed with an
owner bringing in a lone rabbit for a health check
or vaccination? The following article is designed to
highlight why companionship is so important and
Stranger danger: the importance
and perils of companionship in
A rabbit’s need for companionship is an important element of their welfare and
husbandry. Increasingly, this fact is being recognised in both the laboratory and
commercial settings and legislation and guidelines have been developed to en-
hance a rabbits social contact with members of their own species. Sadly, the so-
cial needs of pet rabbits are often not being met by owners. This may be through
lack of education on the importance of campanionship to their pets or through a
lack of knowledge on how to introduce members of this territorial species together.
The following article discusses the importance of social housing for rabbits and
ways in which introductions can be made to reduce the likelyhood of ghting.
Key words: rabbits, companionship, bonding, welfare, behaviour, group
Dr Nadene Stapleton BVSc MRCVS, Exotics
Department, The Royal Veterinary College,
4 Royal College Street, Camden, London,
United Kingdom, NW1 0TU
what factors contribute to the success and failure of
rabbit bonding.
Why companionship is so
The importance of companion rabbits for comfort,
safety and to alleviate boredom cannot be underes-
timated. As prey species, an extra set of eyes on the
lookout for predators can literally mean the dier-
ence between life and death. In a study by Seamen
et al (2008) a rabbit’s desire to spend time with other
rabbits ranked as highly as its desire for food. Obser-
vations in one study showed that in a near natural
environment, 90% of a domesticated rabbits resting
period was spent in body contact with one or more
other rabbits (Stauacher, 1986).
A rabbit’s need for social contact is a fact that is well
recognised in commercial and laboratory settings.
This has led to recommendations for group housing
being made for laboratory rabbits in many countries
worldwide. An Australian panel into the housing of
rabbits for research, recommended that rabbits be
housed together in enriched environments (NSW
Department of Primary Industries, 2004). Similarly,
European guidelines recommend group housing for
rabbits wherever possible (Lindfors and Edström),
This need for social contact makes companion-
ship a necessary part of pet rabbit ownership as well
(RSPCA, 2014). Despite this fact, the recognition of
social housing as an integral part of pet rabbit keep-
ing is not the well-established habit that it should be.
There are additional benets to having companion
rabbits apart from the obvious comfort they provide
one another. Rabbits spend a large degree of their
time in mutual grooming behaviours — as anyone
who owns more than one rabbit can attest. While en-
gaged in foraging and grooming behaviours there is
less time spent engaging in destructive and abnormal
behaviours (Chu et al, 2004).
Many owners believe that if they pay a lot of atten-
tion to their rabbit and provide opportunity for envi-
ronmental enrichment, that a second companion rab-
bit is unnecessary. In some instances this may be the
case. However, unfortunately such intentions are not
The Veterinary Nurse Vol 7 No 4 May 2016 3
always met in reality. For most people it is impossible
to spend the equivalent amount of time with a lone
rabbit to compensate for them not having a compan-
ion. Despite their devotion to their pet, the provision
of an excellent, spacious environment and toys and
environmental enrichment — they cannot hope to ll
the niche that a companion rabbit could. Social hous-
ing is a better form of environmental enrichment than
the provision of bedding, hides, toys, chewable items
and foraging opportunities because companions pro-
vide constant novelty and interaction.
One of the possible contributing factors to a lack of
necessary companionship for pet rabbits is people’s
lack of understanding on how to introduce two rab-
bits together with the best chance of success. It would
be lovely to think that their need for companionship
meant that rabbits could be placed together and live
harmoniously without incident. Unfortunately, this
is not always the case. Although they need a compan-
ion, rabbits are also territorial. A second rabbit sud-
denly placed in an enclosure with a lone rabbit could
be seen as a threat and may be treated as such.
Simply buying a second rabbit and placing it in
the hutch with the rst will potentially lead to ght-
ing and can be a source of chronic stress and anxiety
(Noller, 2013). The chances of ghting are particu-
larly high because the environment many rabbits live
in is already too small and competition for space be-
tween rabbits is exacerbated by this (PDSA Animal
Wellbeing report, 2015).
Considerations when bonding
There are several elements to both the choice of com-
panions and the way in which bonding is undertaken
which are likely to improve the chances of success: the
gender and neuter status of the rabbits, the environ-
ment that introductions take place in, the way the intro-
ductions are conducted and the experience of the per-
son supervising the bonding are all important factors.
Gender and neuter status of the
There is no doubt that gender of the rabbits being
bonded contributes to the success (or failure) of the
pairing. While there are a lot of anecdotal generali-
sations made about which gender pairing works best
the general consensus is that the most likely harmo-
nious bondings will occur between a neutered male
and female pair (Magnus, 2005). Although there will
be exceptions to the rule, most would agree that the
rabbit’s gender has to be factored into the decision-
making process. Litter mates of the same sex can be
bonded together but are less likely to succeed long
term. This may be due to the fact that rabbits of the
same sex are in direct competition with one another.
In the wild, rabbits live in colonies with separate
hierarchies between males and females (Myers and
Poole, 1959). Both the males and females will ght
within these gender groups for mating rights and
nesting sites. This pattern of behaviour is inuenced
by several factors including availability of space, food
and age (Lehmann, 1991). One study showed that in
captivity, inghting between male rabbits coincided
with an increase in testosterone levels at approxi-
mately 70 days of age (Berger et al, 1982).
Sexual maturity occurs between 4 to 6 months of age
and is dependent on a rabbit’s weight. Smaller breeds
reach sexual maturity faster than larger breeds. Neu-
tering of both male and female rabbits dramatically
reduces the risk of interspecies aggression. Sex hor-
mone levels can take up to 4 weeks to dissipate after
neutering (Meredith and Lord, 2014) so in previously
unbonded rabbits it is important that bonding at-
tempts are delayed until they have ample time to re-
cover from surgery.
Rabbits can be neutered when older but the recom-
mended age of neutering both male and female rab-
bits is at approximately 4 to 5 months of age. Female
rabbits accumulate fat in the broad ligament as they
age, making the spey operation more challenging.
Additional benets to desexing rabbits are avoidance
of unwanted pregnancies and improved litter train-
ing. Speying female rabbits also prevents the develop-
ment of uterine cancer which is very common (Baba
et al, 1974).
How to introduce a companion
Communication amongst rabbits is very subtle, be-
ing prey species they do not rely on loud vocalisations
which would serve to draw the attention of predators.
Instead, their communication centres around body
postures and scent marking (Magnus, 2005). This
‘language’ must be observed closely during the bond-
ing process.
Rabbits use scent glands and urine and faeces to
mark their territory. Other rabbits entering this ter-
ritory are seen as a threat. Therefore, introductions
need to take place in an area that neither rabbit has
previously claimed as their own. This ‘neutral terri-
tory’ reduces the risk of ghting. The selected space
needs to be quite small (around 2 m2) so that they are
made to interact with one another. A large space may
cause the rabbits to claim their own separate territo-
4 May 2016 Vol 7 No 4 The Veterinary Nurse
Experienced supervision
Careful monitoring for signs of aggression during in-
troductions of new rabbits is important. Due to their
subtle body language and the speed at which things
happen, inexperienced people may not be able to
read the body language well enough to know what is
appropriate and when they should intervene. For ex-
ample, mounting behaviour — which is used as a way
to assert dominance — should not be disrupted. This
is a natural part of the process and provided no biting
is occurring it should be allowed. Rabbits grooming
one another or lying next to one another are positive
signs that a bonding is going well. A small amount of
chasing one another is acceptable and necessary for
establishing hierarchy. See Table 1 for body language
of rabbits to monitor for.
Negative training methods such as spraying rab-
bits with water or making loud noises in an attempt to
discourage conict are not recommended. All eorts
should be made to avoid the rabbits getting into con-
ict by separating them before things escalate. Having
a sturdy pair of gardening gloves to hand to allow you
to rapidly separate the rabbits if ghting does occur
will avoid injury to the rabbits and those supervising.
Various online sources advocate the placing of
both rabbits in an empty bath tub for introductions
ries within that area that they defend.
The rabbits should be housed completely apart and
then placed in this ‘neutral territory’ for short excur-
sions together. These excursions are typically 10 min-
utes or more in duration and supervised constantly.
This is repeated at least once daily and the length of
time they spend together increased gradually. An envi-
ronment designed to avoid competition is important.
For example, food can be scattered around but should
not be provided in one place that a rabbit may feel the
need to guard. Multiple hides are also recommended
to prevent nervous rabbits feeling too exposed.
During the time when they are separated swap
bedding and litter over between the separate enclo-
sures to get them accustomed to one another’s scent;
also it may be advisable to house them close together
to allow limited contact through wire (Crowell-Dav-
is, 2007). The negative side to such a cautious ap-
proach is that the constant separation (designed to
reduce conict) makes it dicult for a hierarchy to
be established between the two rabbits which may
be a source of frustration (Meredith and Lord, 2014).
Also housing them next to one another without them
being able to form a hierarchy could lead to aggres-
sion when they are placed in direct contact with one
Table 1. Behaviours that may be observed
Positive behaviour Acceptable behaviour Negative behaviour
Ignoring one another. This
normally happens initially and is a
good sign
Mild short skirmishes with missing
fur but no damage
Rapid, aggressive behaviour from
the outset
Self grooming indicates the rabbit
is relaxed enough to perform
normal behaviour
Intermittent mild chasing Inicting wounds (bites or
scratches) is to be avoided
Mutual grooming is an indication
that things are going very well (see
Figure 1)
Grunting and thumping is initially
acceptable but should dissipate
with time
Excessive chasing or constant
attention without respite
Lying down next to one another
is a sign that the bonding is
progressing well. (see Figure 2)
Lunging but not biting is
Ears forward, tail up is indicative
of an imminent attack (in non lop
eared rabbits)
Humping is a dominance behaviour
and expected during bonding
Hiding is acceptable behaviour for
more nervous rabbits
Screaming or squealing is a signal
of extreme stress
Eating is a sign of increased
relaxation in one another’s presence
Rapid movements are
acceptable but rabbits should
be encouraged to slow down by
patting or gentle restraint. Rapid
movements may make more
nervous rabbits aggressive
Circling one another rapidly
is often indicative of them
manoeuvring to bite and should
be stopped
Crouching, immobile with ears
back is submissive behaviour
often observed when the
dominant rabbit is trying to hump
and is a good sign
The Veterinary Nurse Vol 7 No 4 May 2016 5
because it is ‘neutral’ and the slippery surface makes
ghting more dicult, however, concern over poten-
tial injury if they slip means this is not recommend.
Expert advice
Another option which many do not realise is possible
is to rescue a rabbit from one of the many rescue cen-
tres available and enlist the help of one of the ‘bunny
bonders’ who regularly pair up rabbits for rehoming.
This method has many advantages not least of which
being that you are rescuing a rabbit. The experience
of such people means they can identify troublesome
behaviour before it escalates and the neutral territory
makes the process much more likely to succeed. The
journey home together is also a source of mild stress
for the rabbits which means they may naturally seek
reassurance from one another and cement the bond.
Other considerations
Making sure owners have the resources to accommo-
date a second rabbit prior to obtaining a friend is im-
portant. Consideration needs to be given to the avail-
able space as well as the added expense of the food
and veterinary bills.
Care should also be taken to reduce the likelihood of
disease transmission between rabbits if intending to
introduce a new rabbit. Taking steps to make sure both
rabbits are healthy prior to introduction and to prevent
diseases such as Encephalitazoon cuniculi and respira-
tory disease is important. Having both rabbits checked
by a veterinarian is recommended before bonding be-
gins. An unwell rabbit will be less likely to respond
well to another rabbit being introduced.
The housing of guinea pigs and rabbits together is
not advised. Such a pairing is unsuitable for several
reasons including interspecies bullying, their dier-
ent dietary requirements and the potential for disease
transmission between the species.
Once a pair (or group) of rabbits is bonded, avoid
situations where rabbits will be separated again even
for short periods of time as this may cause a disin-
tegration of the bond. This is why housing rabbits
together in hospital if one of them is sick may be
advisable, however, care needs to be taken that the
healthy rabbit does not become stressed and develop
gut stasis as a result of hospitalisation.
There are many advantages to housing rabbits to-
gether. The alleviation of boredom, reduced destruc-
tive behaviour, the potential to provide a loving home
to a rescue rabbit in need, the improvement of a lone
rabbit’s welfare. The success of bonding is dependent
on several factors such as the rabbits gender, neuter-
Figure 1. Two bonded rabbits housed together in hospital to reduce
Figure 2. Bonded rabbits spend the majority of their time at rest in con-
tact with one another.
Key Points
The importance of companionship for rabbits should not be underestimated and is an
integral part of their husbandry from an animal welfare point of view.
Social housing of rabbits reduces the risk of predation, provides comfort and is a novel
source of enrichment which has the potential to reduce unwanted behaviours.
At rest, rabbits spend a large proportion of their time in contact with other rabbits and
participate in mutual grooming behaviours.
The best chance of success lies with a male and female neutered pair, although there
are exceptions to this.
The territorial nature of rabbits means care must be taken when introducing two rab-
bits for bonding. A neutral territory, short contact sessions and careful observation of
rabbit body language all help to reduce the risk of injury to owner and rabbits and
improve the chance of success.
Maintaining this bond by housing rabbits together during hospital stays where pos-
sible is important.
6 May 2016 Vol 7 No 4 The Veterinary Nurse
Baba N, Haam E von (1972) Animal
model: Spontaneous adenocarci-
noma in aged rabbits. Am J Pathol
68(3): 653–6
Berger M, Jean-Faucher C, de Turck-
heim M et al (1982) Testosterone,
luteinizing hormone (LH) and fol-
licle stimulating hormone (FSH)
in plasma of rabbit from birth to
adulthood. Correlation with sexual
and behavioural development. Acta
Endocrinologica 99(3): 459–65 doi:
Chu, L., Garner, J. P. and Mench, J. A.
(2004) A behavioural comparison of
New Zealand white rabbits (Oryc-
tolagus cuniculus) housed individu-
ally or in pairs in conventional labora-
tory cages. Applied Animal Behaviour
Science 85(1-2): 121–39 http://www.
(accessed 4 January, 2016)
Crowell-Davis SL. and DACVB (2007)
Behaviour problems in pet rab-
bits. Journal of exotic pet medi-
cine 16(1): 38–44 http://www.
S1557-5063(06)00180-7/abstract (ac-
cessed:4 January 2016).
Lehmann M (1991) Social behaviour
in young domestic rabbits un-
der semi-natural conditions. Appl
Anim Behav Sci 32(2-3): 269–92
Available at: http://www.applied-
1591(05)80049-8/abstract (accessed:
11 January, 2016).
Lidfors L, Edström T (2010) The L abo-
ratory Rabbit. In: eds Hubrecht R,
Kirkwood J, eds. The UFAW Hand-
book on the Care and Management
of Laboratory and Other Research
Animals, Eighth Edition. Wiley-
Blackwell, Oxford, UK: 399–417 doi:
Magnus E (2005) Behaviour of the pet
rabbit: What is normal and why do
problems develop? In Practice 27(10):
531–5 doi: 10.1136/inpract.27.10.531.
Meredith A, Lord B, eds. (2014) BSAVA
manual of rabbit medicine. Glouces-
ter: British Small Animal Veterinary
Myers K, Poole W (1959) A study
of the biology of the wild rabbit,
Oryctolagus cuniculus (L.), in con-
ned populations. I. The eects
of density on home range and the
formation of breeding grounds.
CSIRO Wildlife Research 4(1):
14–26 http://www.publish.csiro.
au/?paper=CWR9590014 (accessed
30th January, 2016)
NSW Department of Primary Indus-
tries (2004) Animal research review
panel - new south wales - annual
report 2002-03. Available at: http://
2003.pdf (accessed 11th January,
Noller CM, Szeto A, Mendez AJ et al
(2013) The inuence of social envi-
ronment on endocrine, cardiovascu-
lar and tissue responses in the rabbit.
Int J Psychophysiol 88(3): 282–8 doi:
PDSA animal wellbeing report (2015)
Available at: https://www.pdsa. /get-invo lve d/ our-cur rent-
report (accessed 11th January, 2016).
RSPCA: Rabbits - pets (2014) Available
andwelfare/pets/rabbits (accessed:
30th January, 2016)
Seaman SC, Waran NK, Mason G,
D’Eath RB (2008) Animal econom-
ics: Assessing the motivation of fe-
male laboratory rabbits to reach a
platform, social contact and food.
Animal Behaviour 75(1): 31–42 doi:
Smith M (2013) THE BASICS. Available
(accessed 11 January, 2016)
Stauacher M (1986) Social contacts
and relationships in domestic rab-
bits kept in a restrictive articial
environment. Ethology of Domestic
Animals (ed. M. Nichelmann). Proc.
XIXth Int. Ethol. Congr., IX, Tou-
louse, Privat: 100–6 (accessed 31th
January, 2016)
ing status, availability of space, techniques used and
experience of those responsible for the bonding. The
importance of planning and seeking advice cannot be
underestimated. Thankfully there are many excellent
resources owners can turn to for advice including wel-
fare organisations, veterinary clinic sta, books and
online resources. Recommending companionship for
every rabbit that comes into the clinic, and ensuring
owners have the information they need to succeed in
the bonding process has the potential to improve the
lives of many of those 680 000 lonely rabbits. VN
Conict of interest: none.
Useful resources
... Rabbits are considered a social species that require intraspecific companionship although challenges with matching rabbits are commonly reported (Mullan and Main, 2006;Bourne, 2011;Stapleton, 2016). Assessing the personalities of rabbits housed successfully together could help to identify successful pairings. ...
Full-text available
The purpose of the study was to attempt to identify personality traits in domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and to evaluate a range of tools, suitable for use in a shelter setting, that can be used to measure personality traits. A literature review highlighted limited evaluation of reliability and validity in rabbit personality research published to date. Additionally, there is a lack of clarity on what is being measured by some behaviour tests that are currently employed in animal personality research and there are limited tools available to measure domestic rabbit responses to humans. Chapter three highlights several uses of rabbit behaviour and personality data in United Kingdom (UK) shelters. Shelter staff reported uses for understanding the behaviour of an individual rabbit to support the management of the individual while at the shelter and to match the rabbit to the most suitable future home. Challenges facing shelter staff to collect behavioural data for their rabbits centred around a lack of resources, specifically time available for collecting behavioural data. An additional challenge reported by shelter staff was inaccurate information being reported by the person handing the rabbit into the shelter. To ensure any personality assessment tool could be integrated into shelter routines, the tools would need to be relatively quick to complete and should ideally include a range of data collection methods so that a full picture can be available. In Chapter four, the results of a behaviour rating survey that was distributed to a selfselected pool of rabbit owners or those that worked with rabbits, using social media are reported. The survey was also completed by animal care technicians for rabbits taking part in direct behavioural observations, including a suite of behaviour tests and observations within the home cage. The use of an online survey enabled a large number of participants to take part. Following examination of the reliability of the data (interrater) and dimension reduction statistics, three components were retained that included 15 of the initial 47 items and accounted for 60.6% of the variance in the data (n=1,234). However, sufficient thresholds for inter-rater reliability were not achieved. As intended in the selection of survey items, the retained components accounted for intraspecific social behaviour, human-rabbit interactions (avoidance of humans) and boldness in relation to the environment. However, only the human-rabbit interaction component had sufficient distribution of scores across the sample population to consider this a personality trait. Behavioural tests are commonly used as measures of an individual animal’s personality; however, several tests have conflicting interpretations of the underlying traits that may drive behaviour in these tests. In Chapter 5, a suite of tests were used, reflecting three commonly used test paradigms for domestic rabbits; the open field test, novel object test and a new human interaction test. Five human-interaction items measured were reliable between raters and between tests and two items, location during subtest 3 where the handler was sat inside the door of the enclosure and a combined outcome score for subtest 3, 4 (stroke rabbit) and 5 (pick up rabbit) were retained to create component 2 on the final solution of the principal component analysis. From two variations of both the open field and novel object tests, two components were also derived, reflecting exploration and curiosity in rabbits. These three components were reliable between raters and between tests and accounted for 75.2% of the cumulative variance in the data. The component labelled ‘exploration’ comprising variables of activity in the open field tests were found to negatively correlate with component 2 from the behaviour rating scale, reflecting avoidance of humans. This is similar to past research in young rabbits where resistance to handling was correlated with activity in the open field. The use of behavioural observations in the home cage environment is rarely performed for personality assessment in domestic animals due to how time consuming such observations can be. As a requirement for the tools was to be able to be utilised by shelter staff, where time constraints are an important factor, home cage behavioural observations were designed to be quick to complete. Following a pilot test including three hours of observations over the day, it was possible to determine the behaviours that could be observed using video cameras positioned adjacent to or above rabbit enclosures. Additionally, this pilot test revealed that within the times of day available for testing, none were preferable over any other in terms of the range of behaviours observed in 12 rabbits. The main study therefore utilised three five-minute sampling points across the day with the refined ethogram and 30 second focal sampling. It was not possible to complete dimension reductive statistics on the sample of 16 rabbits used for this part of the study, although the behaviours observed in the relatively short time frame did represent activity patterns observed in past research. Two tools, the behaviour rating survey and suite of behaviour tests, are proposed to be retained for future examination of the utility of these tests in a shelter setting to measure rabbit behaviour and personality. These retained tests would provide information on an individual rabbit’s social behaviour (intraspecific), response to humans, boldness in relation to the environment, exploration and curiosity. Future research is recommended to determine the suitability of these tests for use in shelters, and to understand the predictive validity of these tools. That is to understand the usefulness of rabbit personality assessments to identify aspects of behaviour that are stable between different environmental contexts, such as between a shelter setting and within a home following being rehomed.
Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are common household pets, and make endearing companions for both the young and old. Rabbit medicine has advanced greatly in recent years, and we are now able to recognise, diagnose and treat many conditions and presentations that may have previously been poorly understood. One of the conditions that is increasingly recognised is liver lobe torsion, which can prove difficult to recognise in clinical practice, especially if the team has not encountered the condition before. The purpose of this article is to highlight liver lobe torsions in rabbits, their presentation and treatment options and nursing care, and describe a successful case seen at the clinic.
Background: For many veterinarians, focusing on rabbit behavioural issues may not seem like a top priority in their practice. However, a willingness to engage owners on this topic will significantly improve the welfare and health of the UK's third most popular mammalian pet. Aim of the article: This article details a simple approach that can be used for the most common behavioural problems encountered in rabbits, and also suggests some tips for what to do if you are out of your depth.
Rabbits need species-specific care, in order to meet their health, welfare and behavioural needs. Preventative health care is imperative to help keep rabbits healthy. Advice needs to be given to owners on their rabbit's dietary requirements, and why hay and grass is imperative as the bulk of their diet. Vaccinations to help prevent myxomatosis and rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease (RVHD1 and RVHD2) should be advised for all rabbits, including house rabbits. Rabbits require adequate space and the companionship of another rabbit to live a good quality life. They should have access to an exercise area, and have the choice of where to spend their time, without the need to be picked up and moved from a hutch to a run. Many owners will look to veterinary nurses for current advice, and it is important that nurses feel confident in offering the most up-to-date information. At times, it may be that owners need to make changes to the way they care for their rabbits, and being confident in explaining why these need to be implemented, and the positive effects these will have on the rabbit's life, is vital.
According to a survey conducted by the RSPCA, rabbits are one of the most neglected and misunderstood pets in the UK. As they suffer in silence, welfare issues can go unnoticed unless they become a problem for the owner.
This article focuses on pain management in rabbits, how staff and owners can better recognise it, and to what extent it can be prevented. Rabbits are a prey species and therefore hide any signs of weakness, it can also be difficult to determine between anxiety and pain. A review of literary evidence will discuss in what areas practices can ensure species specific care and recommended analgesia protocols, concluding with how veterinary nurses can be at the forefront of improving both practice and client education.
Because most research on rabbit husbandry, welfare, and nutrition was performed on production animals, evidence for best practices in pet rabbits is scarce, and guidelines must be based on transfer of results, deduction, and common sense. Rabbits benefit from being kept with at least one conspecific; from large enclosures and multistory hutches; from drinking water offered ad libitum in open dish drinker systems; and from receiving hay ad libitum, with restricted amounts of fresh grass, herbs, or green leafy vegetables, and a high-fiber complete diet. Offering hay ad libitum bears several advantages and should be considered a matter of course.
Biological overviewSources/supply/transport conservation statusUses in the laboratoryLaboratory management and breedingLaboratory proceduresCommon welfare problemsAcknowledgementsReferences
Adult rabbits in confined populations inhabit a well-defined home range within which they rest, feed, and breed. The average area of home range becomes smaller as rabbit numbers increase, and the home ranges of adult females are smaller than those of adult males. Rabbits form small groups during the breeding season, usually consisting of two or three males and several females. A strict dominance-hierarchy is established among the males. The more dominant males roam over larger areas than their subordinates and eject foreign males, thus exhibiting territorial behaviour.
THE behavioural problems that owners commonly experience with their pet rabbits can be understood better, and hopefully resolved, if viewed in the context of the natural behavioural patterns of these animals. The simple but fundamental differences of carnivore versus herbivore, predator versus prey, are not always considered, and owners may approach problems as they would those in a dog or cat. While meant with the best of intentions, such a lack of knowledge of species‐specific behaviours can lead to physical and psychological welfare issues. This article discusses what motivates some of the more common problem behaviours of rabbits and what steps may be taken to address them.
The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is descended from the European rabbit, which lives in large social groups and digs extensive warrens. Behavior problems include urine spraying, failure to use the litter box, fear of humans and human-directed aggression, intraspecies aggression, destructive digging and chewing, and infanticide. These problems are best prevented and treated by understanding their origin in both species-specific behavior and learning. Urine spraying is primarily a problem of intact males. Litter box use results from both rabbits’ species-specific tendency to use particular sites for elimination and from training. Rabbits may become fearful of humans because of painful or frightening experiences with them. Rabbits will become comfortable with humans if they have numerous positive interactions with them. Fearful or aggressive rabbits may be treated by repeatedly exposing them to pleasant associations with humans. Rabbits are territorial and may aggressively reject new rabbits that are not members of the group. Introduction of a new rabbit must be gradual, allowing rabbits to become familiar with each other and preventing them from fighting. Digging and chewing are natural, species-specific behaviors. Giving rabbits acceptable objects to chew prevents them from destroying household items. Infanticide originates, in part, from intense competition between wild females for safe nesting sites. Housing birthing does separately may prevent infanticide.
Despite their gregarious nature, rabbits used for research are often housed individually due to concerns about aggression and disease transmission. However, conventional laboratory cages restrict movement, and rabbits housed singly in these cages often perform abnormal behaviors, an indication of compromised welfare. Pairing rabbits in double-sized cages could potentially improve welfare by providing both increased space and social stimulation. We compared the behavior of female New Zealand White rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) housed either individually (N=4) in cages measuring 61cm×76cm×41cm or in non-littermate pairs (four pairs) in double-wide cages measuring 122cm×76cm×41cm. The rabbits were kept under a reversed photoperiod (lights on 22:00–12:00h). Each rabbit was observed five times per week for 5 months, using 15-min focal animal samples taken between 08:00–09:00, 12:00–13:00, and 16:00–17:00h. Data were analyzed using a repeated measures General Linear Model (GLM). Over the 5 months, individually housed rabbits showed an increase in the proportion of the total behavioral time budget spent engaged in abnormal behaviors (digging, floor chewing, bar biting), from 0.25 to 1.77%, while pairs remained unchanged at 0.95% (treatment×time interaction, F1,24=4.60; P≤0.0422). Paired rabbits engaged in more locomotor behavior (F1,6=16.49; P≤0.0066) than individual rabbits (average proportions of time budget: 2.71 and 0.70% for paired and individual rabbits, respectively), which may be important because caged rabbits are susceptible to osteoporosis and other bone abnormalities due to the restricted ability to move. Time spent feeding and body weights of dominant and subordinate rabbits in a pair did not differ, indicating that food competition was not a problem, and paired rabbits were often observed in physical contact (26.7% of data records) although the size of the cages allowed physical separation. Aggression between pairmates did not increase significantly during the study. However, one pair did have to be separated at the end of the study due to bite wounds from persistent aggression. Thus, although methods for decreasing injurious aggression require further investigation, the beneficial effects of pair housing in decreasing abnormal behaviors and increasing locomotion suggest that pair housing should be considered as an alternative to individual housing for caged laboratory rabbits.
Little is known about the social behaviour of young domestic rabbits, although in rabbit meat production young animals represent a large category and problems with aggressive behaviour are known to occur. Whether this behaviour is part of the normal social development of young rabbits, leading to injuries only because of lack of space or of places to hide from attacks, or whether it is a consequence of too high densities or of the food supply being concentrated in one place, is unclear. To help in answering such questions we investigated the social behaviour of young domestic rabbits during the fattening period (Days 30–125 of life) in two successive breeding groups in an enclosure (600 m2) covered with grass and bushes and with additional feeding huts provided. During 117h of observation quantitative data on 13 individuals were collected.
Previous work from our lab demonstrated that social environment influences the progression of atherosclerosis in genetically hyperlipidemic rabbits. The purpose of the current study was to examine behavioral and physiological responses associated with these distinct chronic social conditions. Normolipidemic rabbits were exposed to one of three social environments for 4hours/day over 20weeks: 1) an Unstable Group in which animals were paired weekly with a different unfamiliar rabbit, 2) a Stable Group in which rabbits were paired with the same littermate for the entire study, and 3) an Individually Caged Group in which animals were socially isolated. It was found that the Unstable Group, characterized by increased agonistic behavior and relatively less affiliative behavior, exhibited physiological responses indicative of chronic stress (increased urinary norepinephrine, plasma cortisol, splenic weight, and decreased visceral fat and body weight compared to the other groups). These animals also had increased acute plasma oxytocin responses relative to the other groups 10minutes into the social pairing. In contrast, the Stable Group exhibited more affiliative behavior and less stressful physiological and tissue responses. The Individually Caged Group had elevated urinary norepinephrine relative to the Stable Group, and they exhibited higher heart rates at the end of the study compared to the other groups, suggesting that this social environment is also associated with chronic sympathetic arousal. It was concluded that distinct social contexts lead to different patterns of behavioral and physiological responses, and these responses are relevant to the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
We used novel techniques for assessing resource value to investigate what additions to a barren cage female laboratory rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, value. We tested motivation to reach two resources that are potentially practical enrichments: a platform (providing a partly enclosed space and a raised area) and limited social contact with another rabbit through wire mesh and compared these to food and an empty space. To reach these resources, rabbits had to pay entry costs (pushing through weighted doors) which increased every 2 days. With rising costs, rabbits generally rescheduled their behaviour, often reducing visit number and increasing visit length. Measures from economics and behavioural ecology ranked the relative importance of resources similarly (food ≥ social contact ≥ platform > empty cage). ‘Travel cost consumer surplus’ (the area under a demand curve of price versus number of visits) ranked food and social contact similarly, but higher than the platform; ‘aggregate consumer surplus’ (the area under a plot of weight against the number of rabbits paying each price level for the resource) placed food higher than both social contact and the platform; ‘reservation price’ (maximum weight pushed) did not discriminate between the three resources; and ‘expenditure rate’ (weight × visits/days) again ranked food and social contact similarly, but higher than the platform. Overall, rabbits' motivation for access to limited social contact thus came close to that for food, suggesting that they value this highly. Rabbits were almost as strongly motivated to be near a platform, but rarely used it, suggesting it might serve a ‘bolt hole’ function.
Plasma testosterone, LH and FSH levels were determined and correlated with reproductive organs growth, testicular differentiation, fighting and mounting behaviour in maturing rabbit. An infantile phase of development extends from birth to 40 days, characterized by low testosterone and FSH levels, decreasing LH levels (until 20 days) and by a slow growth of testis and seminal vesicle. The peripubertal phase starts abruptly around day 40. It is marked by simultaneous events: the appearance of mature Leydig cells in the testis, a striking increase in testosterone and FSH levels, a small rise in LH levels and an acceleration of testicular growth. The phase of rapid growth of seminal vesicle and the first meiotic divisions start around day 70, in presence of high circulating levels of FSH and testosterone. Fighting (3 months) and mounting behaviour (146 ± 13 days) occur lately after a long period of high circulating testosterone levels.