How do I keep my pet rabbits happy?

Posted on July 16 2019

How do I keep my pet rabbits happy?

Rabbits are naturally active, social, curious and intelligent animals. In the wild, rabbits will graze, play, explore and groom each other. When kept as pets, rabbits are often confined for long periods of time. Without adequate stimulation and environmental enrichment, these long hours of confinement can lead to boredom, frustration, and poor welfare.

What is environmental enrichment?

The concept of environmental enrichment for animals is to enhance their quality of life by providing stimulation that promotes physical and psychological well-being. This is generally achieved by offering animals ‘choice’, allowing them greater control over their environment and allowing them to express normal behaviors.

What are some ideas to keep my rabbits happy?

  • Rabbits are a social species and need the companionship of other rabbits with whom they are compatible [2]. They should not be kept alone or without at least one other compatible rabbit. Generally, rabbits should live as part of a bonded pair of rabbits; this is a process that takes some time and patience but, if successful, will hugely improve your rabbits’ quality of life. It is important that the rabbits are desexed, to prevent them from producing unwanted litters.
  • Make sure that the size of your enclosure allows sufficient floor area and height for your rabbits to engage in natural behaviors such as hopping, jumping and running. The minimum size for an enclosure for two rabbits should be 3m (length) x 1.5m (width) x 1m (height) as recommended by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund. Rabbits in small enclosures are less active and interact less with their environment [1]. Include shelter in the enclosure that is large enough for all of your rabbits to be inside and lie outstretched and sit down without restriction, so they can choose where they spend their time.
  • Use shredded paper, straw or hay on top of newspaper-covered flooring within the enclosure to allow natural digging behavior. This will also prevent foot trauma from the hard floor of the enclosure.
  • Use ramps to allow climbing, exploration, and play behavior [2]. A second level with a ramp for access is beneficial.
  • Add hiding places in the enclosure such as cardboard boxes.
  • Provide toys and objects to encourage play and exploratory behaviors. Food-based toys are the most effective [2]. Toys don’t have to be expensive – food wrapped in paper, tunnels made from cardboard boxes, plastic flower pots hiding food, cat litter trays filled with soil for digging, and sturdy bird toys which rattle all make great, inexpensive enrichment options for rabbits. Keep in mind toys should be rotated to avoid boredom and must be safe.
  • Hiding food to encourage foraging or providing food in a way that makes the rabbit work (such as to treat balls, food wrapped in paper, etc.) are good forms of dietary enrichment. Note, rabbits must always have unlimited access to good quality grass hay and fresh water. See our article on what to feed your pet rabbits here.
  • Allow regular supervised outdoor activity for natural foraging, exercise, and exposure to unfiltered sunlight, which is essential for the production of vitamin D which is important to maintain health. Outdoor yards must be free of toxic plants and safely secured from predators and unfamiliar rabbits. Outdoor exercise pens for rabbits are commercially available. Please ensure your rabbits have access to shade and fresh water when outdoors.
  • Positive interactions with humans, such as training, playing games, and grooming, are excellent forms of environmental enrichment. Spend quality time with your rabbits several times a day [3].

References

[1] Dixon L.M., Hardiman J.R., Cooper J.J. (2010). The effects of spatial restriction on the behavior of rabbits. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5, 302-308.

[2] Clauss M., Hatt J. M. (2017). Evidence-based rabbit housing and nutrition. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, 20(3), 871–84.

[3] Mullan S.M., Main D.C.J. (2007). Behavior and personality of pet rabbits and their interactions with their owners. Vet Record, 160(15), 516-520.

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