Table 1

Welfare issues for pet rabbits (unranked) derived through thematic analysis of the anonymous online discussion board

Category of concernSpecific welfare issue
Health issues
  1. Unrecognised or undertreated diseases, for example, dental, ocular, fly strike

  2. Unrecognised or untreated injuries

  3. General preventive healthcare (eg, routine vet visits, microchipping) not seen as standard for rabbits

  4. Many owners still do not routinely neuter

  5. Lack of owner awareness about benefits of neutering, for example, uterine cancer

  6. Inappropriate diet—can cause dental disease and GI stasis

  7. Albino rabbits may lack eye protection (on sunny days)

  8. Ear disease

  9. Lack of owner awareness (failure to vaccinate) for Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD2), myxomatosis

  10. Many vets still not recommending vaccination against RHD-2 to owners

  11. Rabbits not valued in practice economics (Veterinary Nurses often lead practice) increases owner perception of a cheap pet

  12. Lack of rabbit-specific knowledge by vets, not up to date with changes to rabbit medicine/surgery

  13. Lack of rabbit-specific teaching to vet students (different level of care afforded to cats/dogs)

  14. Not all practices run healthcare programmes/advice similar to dogs and cats

  15. Reduced life expectancy of UK pet rabbit population (can be >12 years)

Housing and environment
  1. Permanently housed in hutches with no, or unpredictable access to exercise area

  2. Pet stores often selling too small hutches

  3. Breeders still using stacking cages/hutches

  4. Rabbits in hutches often transferred to exercise area, at inactive times (crepuscular)

  5. Owners unable to easily source suitable accommodation

  6. Rabbits not housed with enough space to hop, jump, explore, stand fully upright on their hindlegs without their ears touching roof

  7. Water bottles—animals do not naturally drink from bottles

  8. Rabbits are unable to exhibit normal behaviours (run, jump, dig, graze, chew, and so on)

  9. Many indoor rabbits inadequately protected from dangers, for example, foreign body ingestion, inadequate hiding places, overhandling, and so on

  10. Too firm flooring—increasing risk and severity of pododermatitis

  11. Inappropriate shelter from elements, for example, lack of sufficient bedding (winter), shade (summer)

  12. Owners unaware that rabbits do not just doze if they are given enough space, furnishings, interaction

  13. Lack of mental stimulation, facilitating movement (increases confidence, reduces frustration, aggression, and so on)

  14. Lack of nesting substrate to hide in/forage/dig/create shallow rest areas

  15. Lack of ‘quality’ space, not just quantity

Diet and feeding
  1. Many owners do not understand rabbit dietary needs, for example, lacking high-quality fibre

  2. Lack of provision of fresh clean water

  3. Pet food manufacturers (some) still produce inappropriate foods marketed for rabbits (rabbit muesli)

  4. Owners feeding diets high in concentrated food, sugary treats and carrots in high quantities

Behaviour
  1. Solitary living (social species—boredom, frustration, fear)

  2. Poor bonding (to a companion) experience—can be difficult to bond them in the future (solitary life)

  3. Inappropriate companionship: cats, dogs, guinea pigs, entire animals together

  4. Inappropriate socialisation

  5. Too many rabbits in a small space (overstocking) can increase aggression

  6. Mishandled animals can lead to them being fearful or biting

  7. Not grooming longhaired rabbits

  8. Owners unable to recognise subtle changes, not noticing they are ill/in pain, and so on

Knowledge and expectations
  1. Owners regarding rabbits as ‘disposable’—for example, cheaper to buy a new one than pay for medication

  2. Many owners unaware of, and unprepared for, the costs associated with ownership

  3. Many find ownership harder work than they thought

  4. New owners fail to thoroughly research the needs of rabbits before acquiring them

  5. Rabbits bought cheaply/easily, fuelling number in rescue centres

  6. Owners using rabbits as children’s pets or ‘starter’ pets

  7. Rabbits alone at the bottom of garden: infrequent visits to be fed/cleaned/stimulated

  8. Lack of early socialisation and/or inappropriate handling can leave rabbits fearful of grooming, health checks, handling

  9. Lack of research regarding importance of socialisation periods in rabbits

  10. Pet industry and large-scale breeders not considering socialisation and living as pets

  11. Owners inducing tonic immobility and incorrectly believing it induces a ‘relaxed’ state

  12. Handling not demonstrated to new rabbit owners

Breeding and reproduction
  1. Breeding for exaggerated conformation (eg, lop ears, brachycephalic, dwarf)

  2. Breeding from animals with hereditary problems, for example, malocclusion, split penis, and so on

  3. Mis-sexing at point of acquisition, resulting in accidental litters, and/or fighting

  4. Failing to separate the sexes of offspring litter can breed

  5. Keeping entire rabbits together leads to fighting, then separation, then living solitarily

  6. Overbreeding (planned or unplanned)

Regulation, education and legislation
  1. Incorrect husbandry advice given by breeders/sellers to new owners

  2. Lack of legislation that covers other species (eg, dogs and cats)

  3. No legal minimum housing standards

  4. Often inadequate or highly varied levels of training of pet store staff

  5. Breeders—some may have outdated/bias advice

  6. Lack of regulation of breeders

  7. Owners receiving misguided information on online forums

  8. Lack of research undertaken on rabbit health/welfare, compared with dogs and cats

  9. Inappropriate representation in the media does not help with educating the public

  10. No home checks or follow-ups from sellers

  11. Local authorities do not prioritise complaints to pet shops—reliance on Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)

  12. School rabbits—bad example to children (eg, expected to be active, inappropriate housing conditions, multiple caretakers)

  13. No inspections or licences of petting zoos/farm parks/mobile zoos

  14. Mobile petting zoos, for example, transport, temporary housing, overhandling, stressful stimuli

  15. Lack of cohesive public messaging from scientists, vets, professionals on best care practices

  16. Lack of basic standards of care, for example, legal minimum floor space, and so on

  • GI, gastrointestinal.