RABBITS

The rabbit as Companion Animal

Rabbit enthusiasts all over the world are often asked why they choose rabbits for companion animals. People wonder why dedicated animal lovers would not rather live with, for example, a dog or a cat. Most people think of the rabbits they have seen in tiny cages, and do not understand that there is so much more to these subtle beings. The seemingly shy and nervous rabbits are therefore often considered boring and uninteresting, while they are actually active and inquisitive when given the opportunity to be so.

What to think about before getting a rabbit

  • Time perspective
  • Allergies
  • The rabbit’s character (behaviour)
  • Costs
  • Nutrition
  • Living conditions
  • ….

Around the world, rabbits have come to be popular pets. In Britain, for example, the rabbit is one of the most common companion mammals, only beaten by dogs and cats. At the same time they seem to be one of the most misunderstood and cruelly neglected species we claim to love. In Britain alone, there are up to 2 million pet rabbits, but unfortunately most of them are kept in woefully cramped conditions. An RSPCA survey found that 75% of companion rabbits were being badly treated.

This alarming discovery This alarming discovery is also supported by further studies and research. PDSA’s PAW Report1 reveals, as we will see throughout this chapter, that many companion animals in the UK suffer due to lack of knowledge and understanding.

With knowledge of similar conditions and challenges in the USA, Australia and Europe, one can say that these results unfortunately are similar in other countries as well. Rabbit Behaviour, Health and Care will seek to increase knowledge and understanding of the rabbit in all areas that will influence the species’ welfare.

Time Perspective

Buying a rabbit is a long-term commitment. With good care, they can live as long as a cat or a dog, and one should incorporate the animal into any future plans.

Rabbits can live for 8–13 years although the average life expectancy is lower due to incorrect diet and poor husbandry. A thorough study in the Netherlands evaluated the welfare of pet rabbits in Dutch households. The survey revealed that the average lifespan of pet rabbits is 4.2 years, while the potential lifespan is around 13 years. This tremendous distinction can be seen as a result of poor husbandry.

They are totally dependent on daily care, regular checks, vaccinations and a proper environment for all of their life. If you are not prepared to take on this responsibility for such a long time you should consider taking on a rabbit that is already a few years old. Because of the abundance of rabbits, shelters will always have a number of companion animals. Taking care of an adult rabbit is also recommended for children and adolescents who often move away from home during the rabbits’ life expectancy anyway. With an even shorter time perspective, one can have a rabbit in foster care for a local shelter.

The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, the biggest UK charity dedicated to improving the lives of pet rabbits, found that the number of unwanted rabbits has nearly doubled in recent years. The last meaningful survey conducted by the charity estimated the number of rabbits given up to rescue shelters at around 67,000 per year.

Allergies

Is anyone in your household allergic to rabbits or grass? If someone in the family develops allergic symptoms, the first step is to determine whether the rabbit is to blame. It might be the rabbit’s hay, dust in the living room or simply the seasonal trees and plants outside causing these reactions.

If a sensitivity test shows that you are actually allergic to your rabbit, there is no need to rehome it right away. The majority of allergy sufferers can actually live happily with their animal, merely by putting in some extra effort.

First of all, it is important to minimize the trigger to the allergic reactions. Frequent cleaning of the home is necessary if living with a house rabbit. HEPA filters on vacuum cleaners may also be helpful for reducing allergens in the air. Restrict your rabbit’s living area, e.g. by forbidding access to the couch or having rabbit-free rooms. It is also crucial to wash your hands after touching and grooming your rabbit.

Second, there are several allergy neutralizers on the market, depending on in which country you live. Petal Cleanse from Bio-Life is a product that might make life easier for those who are struggling with allergies. It removes allergens and other annoyances that cause allergic symptoms, and is astonishingly effective. It helps to rub Petal Cleanse on the rabbit’s fur once a week. The brand also carries similar products such as textile spray, air spray and detergent, to provide further help against allergic reactions. AllerPet and AllerPet/C are also similar liquids that can be regularly applied to the fur and skin. One must also be responsible for regular grooming of the rabbit’s fur.

If you are allergic to the hay, it might be worth trying another brand. Some people may react to timothy, while they tolerate oat or other grasses. Try different sorts of hay, minimize the contact and always wash your hands after handling it.

Someone who is allergic can also be medicated with antihistamines, and allergy sufferers should talk with their physician.

The Rabbit’s Character

It is important to be aware of the species before choosing a rabbit. Many are surprised and disappointed that the little bunny they bought turns out not to be the cuddly animal they expected. Most rabbits do not like to be carried around or to sit on your lap. They are happiest when allowed to sit on the floor in control of their body. However, it is important to obtain trust from the small animal living in your house, and when you have gained the rabbit’s confidence it will charm you by dashing through the apartment, throwing itself around in joy and seeking you out to demand treats. One must also be aware of the fact that there actually is a rabbit in the house, and rabbits tend to dig and gnaw. This should not be seen as problem behaviour, and one should instead be prepared to arrange suitable conditions so that the rabbits can unleash their instincts without sacrificing your quality of life.

Many seem to wonder if rabbits are like cats or dogs. I would say they have traits from both species, while remaining quite distinctive. They can be as social and devoted as a dog, while at the same time be as wilful and stubborn as a cat. The main difference is that rabbits are prey, while dogs and cats are carnivores. Managing and socializing with rabbits is therefore different to training a wolf or rough play with a tiger.

Costs

Having rabbits will prove to be far more expensive than you thought. The PAW Report revealed that owners dramatically underestimated the lifetime cost of their rabbits. As many as 99% guessed incorrectly, which means that only 1% had a real understanding of the cost of pet ownership. The lifetime cost figures are based on both initial and ongoing costs and owners should be aware of the need for such investments as neutering, microchipping, vaccinations and necessary accessories.

Consumables like hay, pellets and litter must also be accounted for, and in addition there will be a variety of salads and herbs. Rabbit owners must also have the liquidity to pay for veterinary treatment when necessary, which can be expensive. The report shows that veterinary fees are the most underestimated cost by pet owners in general and we strongly recommend insuring all rabbits. Approximately 94% of rabbits are not insured, which means that only 6% can obtain expensive treatment without giving the owner financial worries. At the time of writing, estimated overall costs are about £1000 per year for up to 12–13 years.

Nutrition

Make sure you can offer the rabbit hay, grass and water as soon as it arrives in your home. You should also give a recommended amount of supplementary food, such as high-fibre pellets or nuggets. However, be aware that a rapid change in diet might upset their digestive system. Therefore, if possible, offer the same pellets as they are used to and change to a new brand gradually.

Hay and grass are essential for ensuring the health and wellbeing of rabbits. It is therefore of great concern that the majority of rabbit owners asked did not know what the correct diet for their companion animal was. The PAW Report found that 42% of rabbits do not eat sufficient amounts of hay with a further 3% not eating any hay at all. The report revealed a diet disaster for UK rabbits and that many use ‘common sense’ when deciding what to feed their rabbits. However, this is not sensible at all, as 49% reported that their rabbit diet consisted of rabbit muesli, 88% gave carrots and as many as 10% gave leftovers like cake, toast, cheese, chocolate and biscuits. Compared to other species surveyed, rabbits are offered by far the worst diet and suffer as a result of this.

Living Conditions

A rabbit’s housing should be planned and arranged before the animal enters its new home. If the rabbit is going to live inside the house, rabbit-proofing of one’s home is essential for protecting both rabbits and wires. Offer the rabbit non-slip carpets and enough space to run, a litter tray and places to act as caves or hiding places. A rabbit is not invisible, so be aware that you will see traces of the animal in your house. If you have allergic reactions to straw or hay, or become overwrought at the sight of it all over your floor, you may not be suited to life with a grazer.

If the rabbit is going to live outside, make sure to provide both a large escape-proof run and a dry and safe shelter. Make the living areas big enough for housing at least two rabbits, as one must always offer rabbits appropriate company. Whether the rabbit lives inside or outside, a hutch is never enough!

Rabbits that are used to living indoors must not be moved out during winter or when it is cold outside. If you buy a rabbit from a pet store, it cannot be put directly into a hutch and run in the garden when the temperature is low. It must be several degrees above zero, even at night, so that the temperature change is not too great. A rabbit who is used to pleasant and mild temperatures inside the house will not have developed the required protective winter coat, and the rabbit will freeze and could contract pneumonia. Rapid changes in temperature may also lead to other respiratory diseases.

Research reveals that almost half of the rabbit owners asked did not know that rabbits needed space to exercise. The PAW Report also found that 10% of rabbits, around 150,000 at the time of survey, live in hutches that are so small that they can barely jump two hops; 6% of owners did not think the rabbit needed to go outside its cage; and 16% of rabbits only had access to a run no bigger than the hutch. Based on this, it seems crucial to inform owners about a proper environment.

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