Important Rabbit Welfare Information Provided By The Rwaf

The following welfare information regarding rabbits is very useful to read before making the important decision to buy or adopt a rabbit, and has been edited and republished with consent from the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF).

Rabbits can make wonderful pets but there is more to looking after them properly than many people realise.

The first thing to note is that rabbits are not cheap and easy children’s pets, they have complicated needs.  Rescue shelters are bursting at the seams with rabbits abandoned by owners who didn’t take the trouble to find out what was involved – an estimated 67,000 rabbits a year go through rescue.

If you are thinking of taking on rabbits, please read the following:

Rabbits are not...

  • Good pets for children
    Rabbits are rarely cuddly – as prey animals they are nervous by nature and can bite or scratch when stressed. Building up a relationship with a rabbit takes time and patience and has to be on the rabbit’s terms. Children often lack this patience.
  • Happy to be picked up/petted
    Rabbits are a prey species, so when they’re picked up their instinct tells them they have been caught by a predator, and they often react aggressively. Most good owners will only pick up the rabbits to check their health.  The pleasure is in watching them display their natural behaviours.
  • Happy in small spaces
    The Victorians kept rabbits in hutches for easy access for meat and the habit stuck. Wild rabbits live in large underground warrens. When they are above ground they cover a large area each day.  Rabbits need a large, secure enclosure that gives them the space to exercise and display their natural behaviours. Their total space should be 10ft by 6ft and at least 3ft tall.  A hutch should be at least 6ft by 2ft by 2ft and be attached to an exercise run permanently. If it is outside, it must be protected so that a fox is unable to dig or chew it’s way in. The rabbits should be locked up at night unless you are 100% sure that the run is totally fox proof.
  • Happy living alone
    Studies show that rabbits value companionship almost as  much as food.  Watch a pair or group of bonded rabbits snuggling up together and cleaning each other and you’ll see exactly why it’s cruel to keep a rabbit on its own. The best combination to keep is a pair of neutered rabbits of opposite sex.
  • Easy to look after
    Rabbits should be cleaned out every day and given fresh hay and clean water.  They can live for over ten years so that’s a lot of clean outs! They need annual vaccinations and can be very susceptible to medical problems, so expect visits to the vet!
  • Cuddly toys
    Rabbits suffer for their looks. Children see a cute and fluffy rabbit in a pet shop and pester their parents to buy it. But as with their toys, children often lose interest quickly and the rabbit is abandoned or endures a miserable life alone in a hutch at the end of the garden.
  • Cheap pets
    Whilst pet rabbits are inexpensive to buy, caring for them isn’t.  You’ll need a secure large outdoor enclosure or good quality large indoor cage as well as food, hay and bedding, neutering (castrating for males, spaying for females), vaccination and vet trips.  Caring for a pair of rabbits over their lifetime can cost over £10,000.

Rabbits are...

Beautiful, curious animals that deserve to live full and enriched lives. The list above highlights just some of the misconceptions about rabbit care.  The bottom line is that looking after rabbits is a big commitment.  You must…

  • have at least two,
  • have them checked regularly by a rabbit-savvy vet and vaccinated against both Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (1+2)
  • have them neutered. 60% of female rabbits over the age of 3 develop uterine cancer.
  • provide them with an environment that allows them to display their natural behaviours.
  • clean them out and check them over every day.  As part of their make-up as a prey animal, when rabbits are unwell they often don’t show it so you need to be vigilant.
  • provide fresh water every day and check water bottle is working and clean. .Feed them unlimited good quality hay (85%) along with fresh vegetables (10%) and an eggcupful of good quality pellets (5%)

And all this for up to 12 years!

Rabbits are sociable!

Wild rabbits live in colonies, never on their own. Pet rabbits should be kept in neutered pairs or compatible groups. Even if neutered, pairs of the same sex may fight with each other unless they have come from the same litter and even then it is not guaranteed that they will get on with each other when they reach maturity. If they’re not neutered, you are asking for trouble! Recent scientific research has confirmed that rabbits suffer from stress and loneliness if kept alone: they value companionship as much as food – and you wouldn’t keep them without food, would you? If you have a single rabbit check your local rescue centre for a friend for your bunny. Introducing a new rabbit to your existing one needs to be done on neutral territory and should be done carefully and slowly. Please read https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-care-advice/bonding-rabbits/ for further advice.

Rabbits are active!

They need plenty of space, including a spacious and safe exercise area that is permanently attached to their hutch or cage. In addition, they’d really enjoy free run of the garden or rabbit proofed parts of the house) when supervised. Cages/hutches should be regarded as burrows to rest in as part of a larger living area, not prisons! In the wild they run about for several hours every day. We recommend a minimum area of 10ft x 6ft x 3ft high (3m x 2m x 1m) for a pair of average sized rabbits, regardless if they live indoors or outside.

Rabbits can live indoors as house rabbits, or outdoors in a large hutch that has an exercise run attached to it that must be fox proof. To stop a fox digging in, a mesh “skirt” of at least 2’ around the perimeter should be put in place or you can mesh the floor of the run but the turf must be laid back over to stop the mesh cutting the rabbits’ feet. Unless the sides of the rabbit run are at least 6’ high with holes small enough to stop a fox climbing, then the run should be netted over.

If you are keeping the rabbits indoors, make sure all electrical wiring is protected as it will be chewed!

There are lots of options: indoor cages of different designs; adapted wooden playhouses for the garden; and various combinations of runs attached to hutches. Whichever you choose, you will need to adapt part of the house and/or the garden for your pets. Check out this link  for advice on accommodation for your rabbits https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-housing

Rabbits eat grass (or hay)!

Rabbits should be fed in a way that is as close as possible to their natural diet: mostly grass or hay. In fact, rabbits could live on hay and water alone, but we recommend providing some fresh leafy vegetables and a small amount of commercial feed. The long fibre of grass or hay is vital to their digestive, behavioural and dental health.We recommend that their diet should consist of 85% good quality hay, 10% leafy greens, vegetables and herbs and 5% of complete food (about an eggcupful twice a day) Muesli is not recommended. Apple and willow branches are ideal as they love gnawing them and are good for their teeth. You can also give them additional wild plants such as dandelions and cow parsley but make sure they are safe to eat first.  Check this list -  https://www.saveafluff.co.uk/rabbit-info/poisonous-plants

If using a water bottle, clean it out regularly and make sure it is working properly. They can become frozen in winter, so check first thing every day in cold weather.


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Rabbits are someone else’s dinner!

Because rabbits are preyed upon by many other species (dogs, cats, foxes and even humans), they are naturally shy, quiet animals who hate being held above ground level. They do not like to be picked up and carried around, so children should be encouraged to interact with them at ground level instead. Gaining the trust of a rabbit takes time and effort. If your child is looking for something soft and cuddly to pick up then buy a fluffy toy, a rabbit is not for them.

Rabbits don’t like loud noises or sudden movements, so don’t terrify your pets with loud music and rowdy games. Keep toddlers away – their jerky movements are very scary to bunnies. Rabbits don’t like being picked up (the only time a wild rabbit gets picked up is if it is about to be eaten by a fox) and they have large teeth and claws, which they’ll use if they are scared or angry.

Rabbits need a good vet!

Wild rabbits don’t live very long… but a well cared for pet rabbit can live a very long time- 10 years or more. You need to find a good rabbit vet. Even healthy bunnies need to see the vet regularly (just like humans, they need to be immunised against deadly diseases) and if your rabbits are ever injured or ill they will need rapid veterinary care. It’s also important for pet rabbits to be neutered.

You’ll need to visit the vet at least once a year for their vaccinations, but it’s useful to have at least one more check-up during the year. We hope those are the only visits you’ll need to make to the vet, but having a rabbit-savvy vet is vital so make sure yours is. A great vet is your pet’s very best friend.

Can they dig it?

Rabbits love to chew and dig – it’s what they do when making burrows. Pet rabbits need things to chew (eg hay; apple or willow twigs; kitchen roll inner tubes stuffed with hay and grass) and somewhere to dig. You can make a “digging box” by putting peat into a cardboard box and cutting a hole half way up the side.  Let your rabbits play in a sandpit; or just accept they are likely to burrow in the garden, and make it secure to avoid escapes!

Hide and seek

Rabbits are inquisitive, and love exploring. This is because wild rabbits always need to know the quickest way back to their burrow, and where to find the best food. Rabbits like to climb into (and onto) new toys. So give them cardboard boxes, large pipes, or bits of rolled up carpet to play with. They also like searching for tasty food, so you can hide titbits and watch your bunnies hunting for them! Rabbits like somewhere to hide – wild rabbits use their burrows both as a safe haven in times of danger, and as a place to relax in safety. Bunnies need a dark hidey-hole where they can chill out in peace. Never force your rabbits to come out of their hidey-hole: they will become frightened of you, and may bite or scratch in protest.

Indoor rabbits

Indoor rabbits need at least as much space as they do outdoors.  They must be kept safe from any other pets – cats and dogs to them are predators, no matter how friendly they may seem to you. They need to be safe from eating electric cables too, or anything else in the home that might harm them – house plants for example. They should have a comfortable climate, not too hot and not too cold, and they need to be safe from escape when you open the front door.

Have a routine

Without making things boring for you or your rabbits, have a routine so that things don’t get forgotten. Breakfast time means rabbit feeding, changing water, some cage/hutch cleaning and checking their bodies for any problems like dirty bottoms. Work out what you have time to do before going to work.

Evening may be when you have more time and a full clean of their home may be easier then. Check water again, give them more hay – they can never have too much – check their bodies again, move toys around, check their home is secure and just spend time with them and enjoy their company.

Common illnesses

Because rabbits are prey animals they will hide symptoms of illness for as long as possible so if you have any concerns about your rabbits’ health then you must seek vet advice as soon as possible.

There are two very common illnesses caused by viruses that are fatal for unvaccinated rabbits. They are Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (1+2).. There are two strains of RVHD, known as RVHD1 and RVHD2.  Both strains are lethal and you must vaccinate to protect your rabbits.  RVHD2 has been in the UK since 2013 and in time is expected to overtake classic RVHD as the primary strain. Wherever your rabbits live they can catch either disease, so vaccination is essential for all rabbits, from 5 weeks of age.  Vaccinations need to be repeated at least every year, with two separate injections given at least two weeks apart – one for Myxo-RVHD1 and a second one for RVHD2.

Flystrike is a terrible and fatal condition where flies lay their eggs in your rabbits' fur. The maggots can eat into flesh within 24 hours and cause an agonizing death in a very short time. If your rabbit has a mucky bottom and/or is too fat to reach round to clean himself, he will be at high risk of this. It almost always occurs just during the summer months, so be extra vigilant during this time.  A product called “Rearguard” can be applied to help prevent flystrike and can be bought online.

Rabbits can’t catch cold but if you see them looking like they have, that is called snuffles. It’s caused by bacteria.

Head-tilt looks exactly as you might expect from the name, the rabbit’s head tilts over to one side and it’s unable to straighten up. There may be a loss of balance, weakness in the hind legs, incontinence and if it’s severe, spinning and rolling. This, and going off their back legs, can be caused by a brain parasite named E. cuniculi, for which treatment is available. Ear infections can also cause head tilt, therefore regular ear checks from your vet are vital.

Dental disease is a common problem and your rabbit’s teeth should be checked regularly by a vet.  Often poor diet is to blame. Rabbits need to eat hay, hay and more hay. Grass is much the same thing as hay, with a higher water content, but grass clippings from the lawnmower should never be fed, as they ferment and cause gastrointestinal disease. Every rabbit should eat its own body size or more in hay every day to keep the gut healthy but just as importantly to keep teeth ground down. So between 80% and 85% of what they eat should be hay or grass. . Watch out for runny eyes or dribbling as this can indicate a problem with overgrown roots or a tooth spur.  If you find a lump or an oozing spot then it may well be an abscess which must be dealt with immediately by a vet.

Rabbits are about as susceptible to cancer as humans are. The biggest risk is uterine cancer in females. This can be avoided completely by having your female rabbits spayed. By the age of 3, 60% of unspayed females will have uterine cancer, so please make sure yours isn’t one of those.

You need to budget for the cost of healthcare throughout your rabbit’s lifetime. Make you sure you have set aside funds for potential treatments and consider insurance and healthcare plans.


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