Years ago, rabbits were childrens' pets. No one thought twice about sentencing them to a dreary life at the bottom of the garden in a tiny cage, because no one knew any better.
Most vets had no idea what to do with a rabbit and treated them as small dogs or as cats.Animal behaviourists considered them stupid and boring, and beneath their notice.
Now all that has changed.
We now know that rabbits are very different from cats and dogs. They are prey animals rather than predators and as such have very specific behavioural and environmental needs. They are herbivores, not carnivores and they need lots of exercise and lots of fibre. And they need company, preferably in the form of another rabbit.
Rabbits come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be kept indoors and outdoors. This versatility has made them the 3rd most popular pet in the UK, behind cats and dogs. Britons keep 2 million rabbits as pets and one recent study estimates that 75% of these are not having their basic welfare needs met by their owners.
As a bunny owner, there are 5 areas you must meet your pets requirements for. If you have a rabbit as a pet, or are considering getting one, please read on to see if you are really giving your pet all it deserves.
In the wild, rabbits have a large territory and exercise and feed in. This keeps them happy and healthy.
Rabbits require a hutch for warmth and shelter, but should never be confined to it 24/7. They need a run attached to their hutch; this should be tall enough to allow the rabbits to stretch up to full height and they should be able to run, rather than just hop. A suggested minimum size of run for most rabbits is 8ft x 4ft x 2ft high.
Rabbits are intelligent and social animals, but have only been recently domesticated so their needs are very close to those of their wild relatives. They need a large enclosure and opportunities to run, dig and jump. They need to be able to hide if scared, and a change of scenery every so often. Regularly rotating their toys, and introducing new ones regularly will help prevent boredom.
Rabbits are happiest with the company of their bonded bunny or a small friendly group. The best combination is a neutered male/female pair or two neutered females. Un-neutered does often go on to develop uterine cancer, and can be very grumpy so it's best for everyone if they are spayed.
Rabbits shouldn't be kept with guinea pigs, as they often bully them and have different dietary needs.
Humans shouldn't replace another bunny for companionship but often provide a welcome supplement.
As for most pets, there is a long list of things that can cause a rabbit to be unwell. Most vets these days have some idea of how to treat common bunny diseases but it's always worthwhile asking around to see if there is a vet who is especially interested in rabbits near you.
Treatment can be involved and expensive.Some pet insurance companies do offer policies for rabbits, and you might want to consider taking some out.
Rabbits are fragile and flighty, and can break bones very easily, so if your pet suddenly seems lame or reluctant to move, you need to see a vet pretty quickly. Many rabbits hurt themselves leaping out of their owner's arms after being picked up, so it's wiser to leave them on the ground. If you have to cuddle them, sit on the ground and let them come to you.
A rabbit that isn't eating is in serious trouble and should get medical attention as soon as possible. If they don't have food coming in to their stomach, their gut stops moving and they can quickly die.
A lot of rabbits have teeth problems which cause them pain and illness. Bad breeding is a common cause of dental dysfunction as is a poor diet with not enough fibre in it.
Keep an eye on their poos. You should see round, hard individual pellets but if you see long strings of pellets stuck together or watery faeces then, again, see your vet.
All bunnies should be checked around their rear ends at least daily, as fly strike can develop within hours; but if you have a rabbit with diarrhoea or open sores, they need to be kept clean and checked twice a day. You can get fly repellent which can be applied to bunnies and will help keep them fly-larvae free, and fly netting around their cages can also be useful.
All bunnies should be micro chipped, in case they escape and vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, which are spread through flying insects.
70% of a wild rabbit's time above ground is spent foraging for high fiber foods, such as grass and plant. The continual chewing helps grind down the rabbit's constantly growing teeth and keeps their gut healthy.
Good quality grass and hay should make up the majority of your rabbit's diet. The remainder should be small amounts of extruded pellets and a few bits of fresh vegetable.
If you want more detailed information on any of these welfare areas, then check out the Rabbit Awareness Week website. You will find lots of information on all aspects of Bunny care, as well as details of Rabbit Awareness Week events near you.