A new study by the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science has uncovered several issues affecting the welfare of the nation’s rabbits.

Targeted education could improve rabbit welfare.

The aim of the study, which was funded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was to find out how pet rabbits are housed and cared for, and to compare their health and welfare.

Questionnaires were completed by a cross-section of 1,254 pet rabbit owners in the south-west (Bristol and north Somerset), the north-west (Manchester and the Wirral) and the east of England (Norwich and eastern Norfolk).

As expected, researchers found pet rabbits in England are kept in a variety of housing. Most rabbits had access to extra areas for exercise, but access was often irregular or not at the times of the day when rabbits are naturally most active, which is the early morning or evening.

Around 60% of the 1,254 rabbits were housed without a companion, which limits their opportunity to show natural social behaviours. About a quarter of the rabbits with companions were found to sometimes fight and avoid each other.

Hay is extremely important for rabbit health and in this study, the researchers were encouraged that 98% of owners did feed hay to their rabbits, but for 10% this was less than daily, which may be cause for concern.

Nicola Rooney, research fellow in farm animal science at the university’s school of veterinary science, 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 be used to help target education to best improve the welfare of pet rabbits.”

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