How to Improve Your Pet Rabbit’s Quality of Life
Imagine being a being a curious and energetic pet rabbit who enjoys interacting with their human family, but unfortunately, these needs are not being met. You may be living in a cage that is too small for hopping, stretching, and running around. You may live alone without other rabbits and only interact with your family when you are provided food and water.
Rabbits in New Zealand
In recent years, rabbits have become a popular pet in New Zealand. The New Zealand Companion Animal Council (NZCAC) estimated there were 116,000 companion rabbits in 2016, an increase of 31% from 88,000 in 2011. While NZCAC’s 2016 survey showed most cat (35%) and dog owners (41%) adopted for companionship, 22% of people said that they got a rabbit because ‘it’s fun for the children.’
Rabbits are intelligent, social animals with a life-span of 8-12 years. They require a lot of care, interaction with their owners, and are most definitely not a ‘low-maintenance’ pet. Rabbits are a prey species who can be fearful of many things, so they don’t often like being held, chased, or played with in the same way as a cat or dog. This may be why the novelty of a child’s ‘new pet rabbit’ can wear off, leaving them misunderstood and to live a life cooped up in hutches which are far too small, given unsuitable food, and left without adequate socialisation.
In New Zealand, the Animal Welfare Act 1999 sets out how people should take care of and act towards animals. It is a clear statement to New Zealanders that animals are sentient and must be provided with proper and sufficient care. The Codes of Welfare outline minimum standards of care and handling of animals.However, there is currently no Code of Welfare for rabbits in New Zealand, meaning there is no official guideline or information relating to their care. Having a Code of Welfare makes it easier for SPCA Inspectors to educate about best practice for rabbit owners, and provides a guideline for minimum standards such as cage size. This can be used to provide a statutory defence, and sufficient evidence in court for an official animal welfare investigation.With no Code of Welfare to protect them, rabbits are extremely vulnerable in New Zealand and they can easily be subjected to potential abuse and neglect.
Ways to improve your rabbits’ life
Provide your pet rabbit companionship
Rabbits are social animals; therefore, they should not be kept alone and should always be housed with other, desexed rabbits. There are only a few unusual circumstances that would make it acceptable for a rabbit to be housed without other rabbits; these would include if a rabbit does not get along with other rabbits (this is very unusual if they are properly socialised and bonded with another suitable rabbit) or if they not desexed (this should only be a temporary situation). Even if a solo rabbit happily lives inside with other animals, or their owners, there is no stronger bond like there is with a companion of their own kind and the importance of rabbits having the companionship of other rabbits cannot be overstated.
Rabbits should generally live in ‘bonded’ pairs,; before two rabbits can be ‘bonded,’ there is a process that needs to be followed. This can take time and patience and not every rabbit will successfully pair with another, but the process is completely worthwhile. Rabbits are very social and a desexed rabbit friend is essential for your rabbit from a welfare, behaviour, and health perspective. They form a powerful bond for life and this is a recipe for happiness. Your rabbit will have a friend to play with, groom, and cuddle with. Companionship of another member of your own species is a basic necessity that people also require. However, be careful never to introduce undesexed rabbits; rabbits of the opposite sex can reproduce from a very early age, and undesexed males may fight.
Improve your pet rabbit’s housing
Rabbits need a lot of space to move around. Most hutches do not provide enough space to meet their needs. Can you imagine being cooped up just in your bedroom 24 hours a day? This is what it’s like for many rabbits who never experience the outside of their wiry cage. You might not realise that many hutches sold in shops for rabbits are far too small for them to live in. If rabbits live outside, their hutch should be a minimum size of 3m (length) x 1.5m (width) x 0.75m (height) but the bigger the better. The hutch should always be attached to a spacious run to allow your rabbit to hop, run, jump, and stand upright on their hind legs. Ideally, your backyard should be fully fenced, and your rabbits should also be allowed supervised play in the garden. Nothing will make you (and them!) happier than watching your rabbits flick their legs in the air (a happy rabbit behaviour known as binkying), graze, and investigate. You might even see multiple ‘zoomies’!
Did you know that rabbits can actually live inside? Welcoming rabbits into your household as part of the family can be rewarding. Rabbits can even be toilet trained or learn to use a cat flap. Rabbit proofing and setting up a safe space for them to go is also a must. Having an indoor rabbit might not be realistic for you, but it is a great way to introduce your rabbit into your family life. This form of housing rabbits is known as ‘cage free’ and is becoming more and more popular. It is a fantastic way to spend time with your rabbits, bond with them, and get to know their unique and wonderful individual personalities.Remember, children and other pets such as dogs and cats should be supervised with pet rabbits at all times. This is to make sure that the whole family is interacting in ways that keep everyone happy and safe.
Improve the quality of nutrition provided to your pet rabbit
Pet rabbits require a special diet to meet their nutritional needs, but often this is not provided to them. SPCA’s small animal attendant, Justine Somerville, has worked with rabbits for over 10 years and has noticed a lack of knowledge about rabbit care: “It’s so sad that great people just aren’t aware their rabbits need to see a veterinarian asap if they stop eating, or fall ill,” says Justine. “I often hear that people don’t like having rabbits because they die easily. Once someone said, ’we had a rabbit for ages, it was nearly two when it died,’ and, ’I don't know why my rabbit died, it wasn’t eating for three days and it just passed away.’ These are not normal things for rabbits! Rabbits kept with proper care can expect to live between 9-12 years. sick rabbits are good at hiding their symptoms, as a sick rabbit in the wild would be easy prey. Therefore, it’s important to pay close attention to your rabbit’s appearance and behaviour. Sometimes a rabbit that just looks a bit down is actually unwell; any signs, such as being ‘down’ or not eating should be taken very seriously and veterinary attention sought asap.
Rabbits need to eat at least every three hours and when they haven’t eaten for 12 hours, they need to be seen by a veterinarian. A pet rabbit’s diet should consist of 80% hay and grass, 15% fresh vegetables, and 5% good quality pellets. While popular children’s stories suggest rabbits can eat lots of vegetables such as carrots and lettuce, this is not the case. Carrots are okay as a small treat once a week, while lettuce is best avoided. It’s also important to note that not all rabbit pellets sold commercially should be fed to your rabbit, particularly ‘muesli’ type pellets. This type of feed can result in the rabbit getting a bottom covered by faeces (sometimes called a ‘poopy butt’) from consistent diarrhoea because the rabbits choose pellets over their hay. ‘Poopy butt’ can eventually lead to fly strike, a painful and serious condition that requires immediate veterinary care. Rabbits should always have access to fresh water.
Just like any other animal, rabbits should be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year for check-ups and vaccination boosters. Dental problems, eye problems, matting, and digestive problems are common health issues seen in rabbits.
Keeping rabbits aspets is more difficult than most people realise. SPCA Inspector Jamie has seen many cases involving rabbits in her time at SPCA:“A lot of people think rabbits may be an easy pet for their children to care for but unfortunately these animals do have some quite specific care requirements. Many people may find rabbits are more difficult to keep than expected. People breeding excessive numbers of rabbits for show purposes are constantly giving away or selling cute baby bunnies for cheap. So, these rabbits often end up being given or sold to people who are unprepared to properly care for them. The low price of the rabbits causes them to have no monetary value, which further puts them at risk of neglect and abandonment.”
These are reasons why pet rabbits may have a poor quality of life, but the good news is that there are many easy ways to change this. In this article, we have provided you with some basic first steps; however, we didn’t cover everything there is to know about rabbits, or describe in-depth a step-by-step checklist to give them a better life. So here is a challenge for you: go and learn ten things about them you never knew, whether you are a rabbit owner, or not. You are guaranteed to be pleasantly surprised. You can get a head-start by visiting our website here: www.spca.nz/advice-and-welfare.