by Lori Gaskins, DVM, DACVB, DACAW
Research regarding rabbit welfare and behavior indicates that there are many things that general practitioners and pet rabbit owners can do to improve the welfare of pet rabbits.
Veterinarians can play an active role in improving rabbit welfare during veterinary visits by using and recommending stress-reducing techniques. Some of these techniques include recommending owners bring a bonded companion to the exam; using aromatherapy; handling in a stress-free fashion; and offering treats and hiding places.
Veterinarians can also help prevent behavioral complaints of owners such as aggression, destruction, and house soiling. The majority of rabbits are fearful when lifted and handled, which can result in aggression to owners. Providing advice on reading the communication signals of rabbits and not handling them in ways that induce fear will decrease the risk of injuries to both the pet and the owner, and improve the human-animal bond. Other examples of responsible advice include housing the rabbit in a large and complex environment, getting rid of the food bowl and allowing the rabbit to forage for food, providing water in a bowl and not a water bottle, providing an appropriate litterbox, and always providing a companion and a hiding place. If veterinarians educate owners regarding their rabbits' innate behaviors and emotions, this will increase the likelihood that each owner will provide a more welfare-friendly home for their pet.
How Rabbit Owners Can Improve Their Pets' Welfare
Pet rabbit owners can improve their pet’s welfare in the home by providing their rabbit with companionship, foraging opportunities, hiding places, perches, digging boxes, positive reinforcement training, proper litterboxes, and a large enough enclosure to provide all of these things. Additionally, since the majority of rabbits are fearful when lifted and handled, these practices should be discontinued. An alternate method of moving the rabbit around is to train the rabbit to target an object, such as a finger or a stick with a ball on the end. The pet should be trained with positive reinforcement to place his nose on the target. This is done by luring the rabbit to the target with his favorite treat, then giving the treat if he sniffs or touches the target. Once the rabbit is trained to move to wherever the target is in order to touch it, the target can be placed wherever the owner wants the rabbit to go. This allows for fun interactions that can replace those that include picking the rabbit up and cuddling him.
Pet rabbit owners should work to decrease the stress of traveling, whether it’s for boarding or veterinary visits. The target training will help here, as the owner can place the target in a crate to get the rabbit crated for travel. Travel stress can also be decreased by always allowing bonded rabbits to travel together, using non-slip flooring in the crate, covering the crate with a towel, using aromatherapy such as lavender or valerian or blended essential oils, and providing favorite treats in the crate.
The 5 Domains of Welfare and the Pet Rabbit
Improving rabbit welfare can be accomplished using the framework of the 5 Domains of Welfare.
- Health: Provide timely veterinary visits to ensure the rabbit is physically and mentally healthy.
- Nutrition: Provide a nutritionally balanced diet and require rabbits to forage for food as nature intended.
- Environment: Provide natural light, appropriate temperatures, and hiding places.
- Behavioral Interactions: Provide a rabbit companion, stress-free interactions with humans, and a complex mentally stimulating environment which simulates the natural environment.
- Mental state: Provide a life that approximates what nature intended and therefore makes life worth living.
Lori Gaskins is a veterinarian who is a diplomate of the American College of Animal Welfare and of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. She has been a practicing veterinarian for over 30 years and has been teaching animal welfare and behavior for 16 years. For more, see her ACVB Webinar on Rabbit Behavior and Welfare.