The RSPCA and University of Bristol reveal that it is feared that more than half of all pet rabbits could be lonely according to a new survey.
The survey, commissioned by the RSPCA and carried out by the University of Bristol, found that 60 per cent of rabbits were housed without a companion, which could lead to suffering as they naturally live in groups.
A large proportion of rabbits – 58 per cent – were thought to be fearful of loud noises and 61 per cent were reported as stressed when handled by their owner.
Rabbits should have constant access to an exercise area as without this their welfare could be compromised but the study found that some rabbits only had irregular access and this was not given at a time when they needed it – in the early morning or evening when they are naturally most active.
Providing constant access to hay is one of the most important things owners can do for their rabbit as it is essential for dental and digestive health as well as keeping them busy and occupied, but ten per cent of owners did not feed their rabbits hay daily.
The RSPCA recommend that you feed your rabbit a bundle of hay as big as the bunny every day.
To help rabbits feel relaxed around people, owners should try to positively interact with their pet rabbits every day from when they are young, this can include gentle brushing and stroking. Older rabbits should also have regular positive contact with people. Although if they are not used to this, interactions should be built up slowly to avoid startling them. Interactions should take place at ground level, where possible, as people can be perceived as less threatening in this position.
About a quarter of the rabbits with companions were found to sometimes fight and avoid each other – more frequent and intense fighting can suggest the companions are unsuited.
The RSPCA and experts at the University of Bristol would always recommend thorough research is done before buying rabbits and if they have concerns about their rabbit’s health or behaviour they should contact their vet or a suitable behaviour expert.
Dr Nicola Rooney, Research Fellow in Farm Animal Science at the University’s School of Veterinary Sciences, said: “Many pet rabbits were found to be in good health, had compatible companions and were provided with enriched living areas.
“However, we also found numerous unrecognised welfare issues that affect large numbers of pet rabbits.
“These included living alone or in incompatible groups, numerous health issues, lack of regular access to exercise areas, showing fear of loud noises and behaving anxiously when handled by their owners.
“Our findings highlight the ways in which the needs of pet rabbits are often not being met and this information will help target education to best improve the welfare of pet rabbits.”
Dr. Jane Tyson, Rabbit Behaviour and Welfare Expert at the RSPCA, said: “Whilst it is encouraging to see that many pet rabbits are living healthy and happy lives, it is also saddening to hear that a large number of rabbits are not having their welfare needs met.
“The RSPCA is working with other charities, industry experts and academics to identify a number of different activities to protect and improve the welfare of pet rabbits and the findings of this study will be crucial in assisting this work as well as identifying advice and information for owners on how best to care for their rabbits.