The Forgotten Pet: the Realities of Ensuring Good Rabbit Welfare

By Sophie Ingledew, Cambridge 

 Photograph: Pixabay 

Photograph: Pixabay 

When I was nine years old my first pet rabbit died of fly strike. At the time I was traumatised
and, looking back, I realise that he had suffered for a long time before he was taken to the vets. I vowed to myself that I would never let it happen to another rabbit of mine. Little did I know how common this kind of story still is today, 13 years later . . .

As of 2017, there are 1.1 million pet rabbits in the UK, and it saddens me to think of the extent and significance of the poor rabbit welfare seen nationally. The reality is that the UK is in the
midst of a serious rabbit welfare crisis. While these animals are the third most common mammalian pet, many people simply do not know how to look after them. In 2006, the
RSPCA warned that rabbits were the ‘most abused pet’ in England and Wales (1). More recently, the PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report (2) has identified some major issues with the way in which many people are keeping their pet rabbits and compromising their welfare. For example, in the wild, rabbits depend on complex social hierarchies, and as a pet, need
to be homed with at least one other neutered rabbit to avoid loneliness. Yet 56 per cent of pet rabbits in the UK are living alone (2). 

Misconceptions: an easy and cheap pet
Despite their seemingly low ‘shop value’, rabbits are not cheap animals to keep. A staggering 92 per cent of rabbit owners underestimated the minimum lifetime cost of rabbit ownership, which is around £6500– £9000 per pair of rabbits (2).  It is possible that this underestimation of cost may manifest as reluctance to seek veterinary assistance when it is welfare needed, especially when the cost of the consultation alone is likely to be more than the cost of the rabbit itself. Twenty-five per cent of rabbit owners stated that the reason they bought a rabbit was because their children wanted a pet (2). Rabbits are not easy animals to keep, nor do they make great pets for children. They are prey animals and being picked up can make them feel frightened and insecure. Furthermore, children tend to lose interest in the
rabbit and the parents end up being the primary carer for a pet that, in reality, they did not want responsibility for.

‘A hutch is not enough’
In 2016, Rabbit Awareness Week (RAW) ran a campaign entitled ‘A hutch is not enough’, to raise the issue of inadequate space and housing imposed on many pet rabbits. The traditional view of rabbits living in hutches was born out of the 19th century when the rabbit meat industry exploded in the UK, and has carried over into housing of the domestic pet. In the wild, rabbits carry out high levels of exercise over vast amounts of space, and so a little
hutch and a tiny run at the bottom of the garden simply isn’t enough.
Consequently, 35 per cent of UK pet rabbits are living in inadequate housing (2). 

Diet – a major concern

Many of the clinical health problems seen in rabbits are a result of an inappropriate diet. It is of great importance for a rabbit’s health that approximately 80 per cent of their diet is made up of fresh grass or hay, along with some greens and a handful of pellets. While this information should be common knowledge, 31 per cent of rabbits are being fed less hay than required (2). For many years now, and with solid evidence behind them, vets have been recommending against feeding muesli-style feed and advocating extruded pellets. Yet 25 per cent of rabbits continue to be fed a museli mix as part of their main food (2). 

Legal Protection
The responsibility of the owner for their pet’s welfare is enshrined in the Animal Welfare Act (2006).However, 27 per cent of owners have never heard of this legislation (2). While most rabbit owners do not intend to cause harm to their pet, ignorance can cause suffering by
neglect.
Nonetheless, not all the blame can fall on the public. The English government has constructed ‘codes of practice’ on how to provide for the welfare needs of both dogs and cats, but has not done so for rabbits. It argues that there is plenty of information already available on
how to care for rabbits. While this argument is valid (good resources are provided by the Welsh government and organisations such as the PDSA, Rabbit Welfare Association
and Fund and Animal Welfare Foundation, to name but a few), this information is not necessarily easy for a potential rabbit owner to find. Furthermore, this lack of interest in
rabbit welfare from our government is likely to perpetuate the misconception that rabbits are easy and cheap to look after.

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Awareness within the Veterinary Profession
There is no doubt that there is awareness of these welfare issues within the veterinary profession. In 2014, the BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey found that 1 in 5 British vets were concerned about rabbits kept as pets. A second survey by the BVA in 2017 highlighted that 85 per cent of vets had serious concerns about rabbit health due to the wrong diet.
The BVA also supports the RSPCA led Rabbit Welfare Vision Statement, which aspires to help improve rabbit welfare by promoting methods such as effective training programmes for all those working with rabbits. The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund has just completed a successful year of rabbit CPD programmes and is calling on delegates to make suggestions for this year’s schedule.

Does this translate to awareness within the rabbit owner population?
Although, as vets, most of us are aware of the problems faced by many pet rabbits, there seems to be a barrier to translating this information to the owners. For example, 80 per cent of female rabbits over the age of five are at risk of uterine carcinoma, yet 44 per cent of rabbits have not been neutered (1) A truly worrying statistic is that 50 per cent of rabbits have not had a primary vaccination course (2).  The two diseases that we offer routine vaccinations against, myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease, are often fatal. Practising vets are a trusted source of information and are ideally placed to continuously educate owners on the basic needs and medical requirements of pets, yet as a profession we are failing to convince owners that their rabbits are worth vaccinating. 

Who is responsible for providing this information?

Although vets are in a prime position to provide advice and guidance for current rabbit owners, 32 per cent of rabbits are not registered with a vet (2). In addition, 8 per cent
of rabbit owners did no research before buying their pet (2). How are we supposed to educate people who we, as vets, do not have contact with?

31 per cent of rabbits are being fed less hay than required

Perhaps one strategy could be to make it a legal requirement for rabbit sellers to provide the necessary information. After all, every rabbit owner must come in to contact with them when purchasing their pet. Forty per cent of owners get their rabbit from a pet shop (2) yet
there is currently no law that states breeders or pet shops have to provide information on how to care properly for these animals upon making a sale. 

Raising the Profile
The findings of the most recent PAW report (2017) highlight that although some  improvements have been made in recent years, there is a still a need to raise the profile
of rabbits as complex animals that require dedicated ownership. We need current and prospective owners to be more aware and understanding of their needs.

Both vets and pet shops have a role to play in educating the public on these matters. It’s clear that engaging with owners before they purchase their pets is essential in improving the health and wellbeing of rabbits. Discouraging owners from buying a pet rabbit unless they
have carried out adequate research is essential to ensure that these intelligent and social creatures are not forgotten at the bottom of the garden.

References
1 ‘Rabbits “now the most abused pet”’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6166113.stm. Last
accessed February 27, 2018.
2 PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report (2017) www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-cam-
paigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report. Last accessed February 27, 2018.

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