The 2017 PDSA PAW Report estimated the UK rabbit population to be 1.1 million.
The PAW Report also revealed approximately 35% of rabbits inappropriately housed meaning potentially a massive THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE THOUSAND rabbits in the UK are housed in a way which doesn’t meet their minimum requirements.
The RSPCA guidelines are the basis for how animals in the UK should live. They are what the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is judged upon.
The main guidelines for the cage size for rabbits are that they can;
- easily hop at least three times down the length of their cage/ hutch
- can lie fully across the width of it
- are able to stand up freely with their ears pricked so their ears are not touching the top of their cage over the majority of their floor space.
These guidelines also are only for their cage. It is suggested rabbits have a pen or another space outside of their cage to spend much of their time.
Rabbits in the Wild
Wild rabbits live in the complex housing structure.
Their territory covers a range of 50,000m² with them living with a huge number of companions.
Underground, they create a large number of tunnels and warrens in which they burrow into. These burrows keep them nice and warm in the winter yet cool in the Summer. They also protect them from the winds and keep the inhabitants hidden to reduce the risk of attacks from predators. Finally, the tunnels are very dark and so keep them away from the harsh bright lights which can cause them to feel scared and, in some cases, damage their eyes.
Their large territory allows rabbits to move freely across huge expanses of land on a daily basis. This land is unrestricted and the movement allows them to keep both psychologically and physically fit. It also means you can get away from other members of their group if there are any squabbles going on.
Any amount of land often has areas which are higher up; even if only slightly. Rabbits use any higher land to their benefit; they use it as a vantage point, especially if they stand on their back legs on it. This helps them to survey the surroundings and look out for predators. The higher the ground, the further they can see and therefore, the more warning they get of approaching predators and, often, the calmer they can become.
Rabbits As Pets
Within captivity, whether as pets, lab animals or when farmed, most rabbits are confined to cages, hutches or pens for the majority of their lives. Even if they are not, they often only have a small proportion of the space of wild rabbits.
The lack of space can cause both physical and psychological problems and spur on fights between rabbits potentially causing the death of newborn bunnies.
Inadequate housing doesn’t just refer to the space provided, but also whatever is in (or importantly, not in) their cage which either doesn’t meet their requirements.
Pet rabbits have little control. They will only be let into bigger space if a human wants to and this may involve them being lifted, something which the majority of rabbits do not like. If possible, lifting should be avoided and therefore, a great compromise would be the attachment of a pen to their cage. This would reduce stress and, in some cases, it may be possible to give them continuous free access to a secure pen.
A lack of basic requirements may lead to something stereotypical behaviours. These are behaviours which animal do repeatedly and they do not have a normal function (an example eating is a behaviour which has a normal function).
Stereotypical behaviours include pacing around the cage or gnawing at the bars.
In order to ensure a rabbit can live as best as possible, there should be objects within their cages to replicate normal behaviours in the wild. I will explain this in more detail later on in this post.
How Big Should the Rabbits Cage Be?
The UK has guidelines for how big cages should be in labs, farms and those used for pet rabbits. These should not be seen as the ideal accommodation a rabbit should have but the very minimum and, if possible, a rabbit should have more space to ensure they remain healthy as possible.
As stated, the RSPCA guidelines suggest rabbits should be able to freely hop at least three times across the length of their cage and lay flat out across the width. Not only this but they should be able to stand straight up with their ears pricked and touching the top of the cage.
So, What Are the Measurements
For the average size rabbit, this equates to a cage being at least 1.8 m long and, 60 cm wide.
Large rabbits, who in some cases can hop 90 cm, their cage should be at very least 2.7m long and, 1m wide due to some rabbits reaching 0.9 m when laid out flat.
This is the not only space they need.
Rabbits need extensive time outside of their cage.
This can either be;
- space dedicated to them within the house,
- a space used for other things but is made safe rabbits to jump around (ie wires are moved out of the way from the rabbits),
- or a pen which is often out in the garden.
These spaces should be larger than their cages and should be at least 2.4 m long and 1.2 m wide for small to medium rabbits.
Of course, large rabbits needed to be much bigger as a rabbit should be able to run freely within these pens.
Ideally, rabbits could have free access to large proportions of the house and/or the garden.
Both within pens and cages, rabbits need to be able to stand completely straight. This means, for the average size rabbit, this space should be at the very least 75 cm high and with larger rabbits, potentially 90+cm.
Apart from Space, What Do Rabbits Need?
Rabbits don’t just need water, food, hay and bedding, they also require other things to keep them busy and feeling secure.
Rabbits evolved to spend much of their time in dark small spaces so feel at ease with these.
These dark spaces help them feel safe from their surroundings by creating a barrier through which they can hide behind. Therefore, rabbits need something like a hut to go inside and either hide or sleep where neither they can see out and you cannot see in.
These dark spaces protect their eyes from any bright light. This is extremely important in albino breeds whereby even relatively low lightlevels may be too bright for them and could cause them to be unable to see their surroundings.
In the wild, rabbits spend quite a bit of their outdoor time watching for predators. They like to survey their surroundings so they feel like they can run from anything which may suddenly appear. Rabbits, therefore do not need their cage fully covered over or to be completely dark.
With them often standing on things to increase the distance they can see,providing them shelves or other secure objects to stand on will be beneficial and often enjoyed. Rabbits do not need to be able to stand up fully when on top of these (though that would be beneficial) however, they need enough space to comfortably sit on them.
Many rabbits enjoy tunnels. These replicate the small space in a borrow. Some tunnels also suitable for them to gnaw on, helping them to grind their teeth down and may taste nice, for example, those with cardboard coveredin hay.
With rabbits having continuously growing teeth, they should be provided with things to gnaw on. This may just be provided as a piece of furniture or,it may be something dedicated to such as a block of wood.
Issues with Lack of Space
The main issue with a lack of space is that rabbits cannot move as freely as they usually would. This negatively impacts upon their physical health.
When any animal is moving, their muscles continue to either maintain or gain their strength. If you move less your muscles become weaker and smaller.
If a rabbit can’t move as much the muscles around their spine become very weak which increases the risk of them injuring their spine compared to those with plenty of space and exercise.
Rabbits with weak spines can break their back just from jumping from small heights or, in some cases, even from thumping their feet.
I’ve seen a rabbit which had a disagreement with its cage mate and ran intoa tube. When he was in his tube he thumped his foot and then when the owners saw him leave the tube he was screaming in pain (rare for a rabbit and only seen with excruciating pain) and dragging his back legs. He no longer had any movement or feeling in his back legs and sadly was put to sleep. Any other treatment wouldn’t have helped. Rabbits notoriously have weak backs and the lack of movement that comes from living in small spaces means increases their problems.
A lack of space also means rabbits are likely to become bored. They have less to do and can’t move around as far and therefore may start pacing around.This affects them really badly mentally and pacing can become a big compulsion.
Being confined to small cages means cagemates cannot get away from each other. They were often forced to be right next to each other in very close quarters.
It is like you being forced to stay in a room with a friend. It may be fun at first but all it takes is one small argument and it can set up a fight which neither of you can get away from. Having to stay close together will causethe argument to spiral and lead to both of you no longer wanting to spend time together and maybe even falling out.
Fighting due to a lack of space is a big problem. This is intensified with rabbits who don’t know each other well, when one is in season, pregnant or has newborns. Fighting is also common when there isn’t enough space for rabbits to eat together. With fighting worsening when kept in small spaces, keeping rabbits in small houses increases the odds of them becoming seriously injured or even needing to be separated.
Rabbits who cannot move around much become frustrated. Imagine you’re stuck it in your house for weeks can’t get out. You start feeling like you could run up the walls. Rabbits feel the same. They become frustrated that they can’t anything move around much and may have little to do which can lead to them becoming apathetic. Becoming apathetic means your rabbit has no interest in what is going on. They often just sit or lay in a corner and do little else; they may even ignore toys. In more severe cases they may not even react to loud sounds which would usually startle mentally healthy rabbits or at least lead to them becoming alert. Apathy is a bit like depression so rabbits in this state are not happy and may have lost hope of things improving.
Lack of space and things to hide under/play with can also lead to stereotypical behaviours.
These are things such as gnawing at the bars or pawing at the bars or cage walls. Behaviours such as this don’t help the rabbit and may hinder them; bar chewing can sometimes damage the incisor teeth. These are known as stereotypical behaviours or stereotypies.
Stereotypies may be done at any time. Rabbits are usually more active during the night and therefore these behaviours are usually worse then. As most rabbit owners are asleep at night they may not see all of these behaviours and/ or not realise how frustrated their rabbits are.
Some people spray cages and hutches with bitter substances to stop them gnawing on the walls. This is not something I recommend. Doing this punishes rabbits for a behaviour that they do out of frustration, boredom or as a compulsion (like OCD). Instead, it is better to try and improve your rabbit’s cage and let them out more. Punishing or preventing them from carrying out stereotypical behaviours will make them feel insecure and become apathetic which may lead to more destructive behaviours such as self-mutilation (biting themselves).
Rabbits Need Friends
Just like humans, rabbits are highly social animals and need to be with other rabbits. Stereotypical behaviours and apathy are often worse when rabbits are isolated from others.
The best thing is to always house to rabbits together or, if this is not possible, house them in close contact with others such as having the cages touching.
In the few cases where rabbits cannot be housed together, placing a safe, non-breakable mirror (or something which will act as a mirror) in there cages will give them something to interact with and may reduce stereotypical behaviours. This can work well in horses who have been confined to their stables and isolated due to needing box rest to recover from an injury.
As humans cannot play with rabbits 24 hours a day, and human behaviour and body language are completely different to rabbits, a person just spending time with their rabbit is inadequate; though better than nothing.
Housing rabbits with guinea pigs should not be done due to the risk of injury to the guinea pig and them having different dietary requirements.
Surprisingly, in some cases, both lab and farmed rabbits have more space than pets. At least with lab and farmed rabbits, there are clear requirements over the sizes and things that need to be in the cages. The guidance for pet rabbits in the UK are much looser and open to interpretation; how can you tell for certain how long three hops are for each rabbit especially before you buy the cage.
Pet rabbits often have inadequate environments with them often being too small and having not enough resources.
Your rabbit should be able to lie down fully and flat-out along the width of the cage and hop at least three times along its length. Alongside this, they need something to stand upon and hide underneath whilst still having areas where they can see outside the cage. Finally, rabbits should have access to areas outside their cage for several hours per day to ensure that they remain mentally and physically healthy. Ideas of what a rabbit needs can be seen in this post; though related to guinea pigs most of the suggestions are relevant.
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