New research led by the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Medicine has found that pet rabbits have higher levels of the stress hormone – corticosterone – and show a bounce back when kept in small hutches and given exercise. The research highlights the importance for pairs of pet rabbits to be free to exercise outside their home even when they are kept in cages that are larger than conventional size.
Rabbits are a popular choice for many families, with an estimated 900,000 rabbits being kept as pets in the UK. Many studies have investigated the housing needs of rabbits kept in laboratory and for meat, but very few studies have explored the housing needs of domestic rabbits and these studies have focused on solitary rabbits only. Animal welfare organizations recommend that pet rabbits live in pairs.
The aim of the study published in Applied Animal Behaviorto investigate the effects of common cage sizes and access to exercise area on the well-being of pet rabbits kept in pairs.
Twenty pairs of ex-neutered adult rabbits (one male and one female) were kept for eight weeks in standard housing. Ten couples were in small log huts (0.73 square meters) and ten couples in large log cabins (1.86 square metres). The exercise area was a path – measuring 3 by 1 meter – attached to the cages, and the rabbits either had unlimited access to it, or access was restricted to three hours in the middle of the day.
Each pair had access to each run for three weeks. Behavior was observed at dawn, dusk, and noon, and stool samples for corticosterone analysis were collected at the end of each arrival period.
In a subsequent study, ten pairs of rabbits were given access to a 24-hour run, and their behavior was recorded.
The study showed that pairs of rabbits were most active when access to running was restricted to three hours. Regardless of cage size, physical activity including play jumps increased significantly when pairs with restricted access were released into the run. The researchers suggest that this refreshing activity demonstrates the rabbits’ need to move every day, and their well-being is compromised when they are only able to do so in the middle of the day.
The research team found that there was a significant interaction between cage size, access to activity, and stress hormone levels, which were higher in pairs kept in small huts with restricted access to running. When the rabbits had unfettered access to the run, midday was the least active time for the rabbits.
“Rabbits are active and need to be able to fully hop, run, jump, dig and stretch when lying down,” said Drs Nicola Rooney and Susan Held, authors of the paper from the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School. Restrict rabbits’ opportunity to move away from each other and transition to times of the day, When they are not normally active, peak activity and elevated stress hormone levels are likely to contribute to couples in smaller cabins with limited access to running.
“Housing guidelines for rabbits need to highlight the importance of allowing pet rabbits morning and afternoon exercise, even if they are kept in cages that are larger than the conventional hutch size.”
The study indicates that cage sizes of around 0.75 square meters should not be recommended for pairs of rabbits, even if they have access to the exercise area for three hours per day during the middle of the day.
The research recommendations have been incorporated into the RSPCA and other animal charities’ rabbit welfare advice on housing.
Dr Jane Tyson, rabbit welfare expert at the RSPCA, said, “The results of this research are very welcome to confirm what many of us have known for a long time, which is that keeping rabbits in small hutches with limited opportunities for exercise is detrimental to their welfare.”
“Rabbits are often misunderstood as animals but the results of the study show that housing rabbits in an enclosure consisting of a sheltered area with continued access to more space is critical.”
“Not only does this allow the rabbits to have more room to exercise, but it gives them choice and control over their environment so they can perform the behaviors they want to do, when they want to.”
The results of the study have also influenced Rabbit UK’s rabbit welfare strategy which will be published later this year.
Nicola J. Rooney et al, Run access, cage size and time of day influence well-being-related behavior and fecal corticosterone in paired pet rabbits, Applied Animal Behavior (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2023.105919
the quoteStudy Finds (2023, April 25) Pet Rabbits Need Freedom to Exercise, Retrieved April 25, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-pet-rabbits-freedom.html
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