Enrichment & The Single Rabbit Issue

View previous topic View next topic Go down

Enrichment & The Single Rabbit Issue

Post by Happy Hoppers on Mon Nov 21, 2011 6:56 pm

Enrichment and The Single Rabbit Issue
Jay, Edited by Dr Anne McBride, Bsc, PhD, FRSA

The recently published PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report (2011) (available for download here) did not make for encouraging reading on many aspects of rabbit care; from accommodation to basic needs, there is still much work to be done in educating owners about how to provide their rabbits with a better, healthier and enriched life. Nonetheless, things have improved dramatically over the past decade, and this report should be viewed as an indicator to areas of ownership, care and welfare that have scope for improvement.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a rabbit’s happiness is company of its own kind. Rabbits are naturally social animals, and live in hierarchal communal colonies when in the wild. They perform many activities together, such as eating, playing, sleeping, and grooming, and it is inherent to their psychological make-up to expect these activities with another rabbit – not with a person, dog, cat or guinea pig, etc

Given the opportunity, most single companion rabbits will actively seek the company of their owners, or with some planning and supervision can also be integrated well with some other pets. However, this not ideal as they communicate best with each other. A lonely rabbit can become very bored, depressed and aggressive, and they have even been known to self-mutilate by chewing their own fur. As intelligent, bright and social creatures, the starvation of company in minimal accommodation with little stimulation is psychologically damaging to these inquisitive and friendly animals, and they can so easily become a ‘bad’ rabbit, which is then ignored or surrendered to a rescue organisation.

"Companionship for rabbits scores the lowest in the entire PAW Report, making this one of the most neglected of all the welfare needs. Rabbits, like other social animals, can suffer chronic loneliness and boredom when housed alone. Ensuring rabbits have company from another compatible rabbit is a key area for improvement highlighted by the PAW Report."

It is worth noting that there is no legal obligation in the UK to have more than one rabbit, and the PAW report found that we have 1.6 million companion rabbits living in the UK, of which 1.1 million (67%) live alone.

Idealistically, the solution is simple; give them all a companion bunny friend. However, such an idealistic solution is precisely that: idealistic and not currently feasible as it is fraught with so many potential problems.

Currently only 56% of rabbits are registered with a vet and only 37% are neutered. 19% go outside their hutch only once a day and 6% never leave theirs. Accommodation and exercise space is not a priority for many of the owners questioned. For many rabbits, their dietary requirements are inadequately met, with 49% of owners feeding coarse museli type mixes, and 750,000 rabbits receiving insufficient quantities of hay and grass, if any.Until these problems are addressed and the right information is given and implemented, the obvious, if somewhat simplistic solution – embarking on a mass breeding programme to give our 1.1 million single rabbits a friend – is merely going to subject these rabbits to the same problems that their sole companions are presently experiencing. Generating so many rabbits will also create a boom in unwanted litters (only 67% of rabbits that do live in pairs or groups are neutered), and raise welfare concerns for the rabbits in breeding facilities. It is not a realistic solution by any stretch of the imagination.

How to phase in rabbit companionship as standard?

At point of purchase

The education of prospective owners is needed, as regards the social need of rabbits to live together as a neutered couple or in a group, and the encouragement of purchases on those terms. Fully trained and informed pet shop staff and breeders potentially have a strong influence on how their customers’ rabbit(s) live and are cared for. As most are sold unaltered, by explaining the health and reproductive risks attached to leaving them entire, along with providing the correct dietary and housing information, and only selling recommended sized products, the customer is better informed about how to provide a better life for their rabbit(s). They are able to digest the best information at the point of sale and adjust their purchases accordingly. As many people buy rabbits for their children and have little interest in them for their own pleasure, the interaction with the vendor may be the only advice they ever hear about rabbit care and welfare. Customers will believe what they are told if they know no better, and in the hands of untrained or ignorant staff, the consequences for their new pet rabbit could be dire.

Pet stores and breeders exclusively selling bonded, neutered rabbits

Unfortunately this will take a lot of rabbits beyond the cute baby stage, at which point they loose their main appeal to impulsive buyers and many children, and so may not be an attractive option to retailers. However, the purchase of baby rabbits is reported by rescue centres as the top reason that rabbits are surrendered to them. This is partly because it is difficult to correctly sex baby rabbits, and many owners who were sold two ‘same sex’ rabbits often end up with unwanted litters or rabbits that fight, and have to live separately or be surrendered.

A pet store that demonstrates a more conscientious and responsible approach will certainly attract more ethically minded, and/or welfare-orientated clientele. Many pet owners who support the re-homing of animals and high welfare standards will not use regular pet stores even for supplies where the store allows impulsive purchasing, and the future welfare of the animals being offered is uncertain. So, in the longer term, the ethical selling of older, neutered and bonded rabbits may well be a commercial advantage to retailers. Look what has happened in other areas such as the selling of ethically produced foodstuffs.


The free and accessible provision of literature by welfare and animal protection groups, such as the RWAF, HRS and RSPCA (and similar international organisations)

If pet stores can be encouraged to routinely give customers the correct information from expert bodies that are known and respected, at point of sale, then the first time impulse purchaser has the best information they need to consider their new companion rabbit(s). The purchase of a rabbit, small hutch or cage, and supplies can easily cost over £150, and a good rabbit care book could well be felt to be unnecessary if the advice that rabbits are “easy to look after, all you need to do is ….”. However, provision of free information that generates interest in care and welfare makes sense for both animal welfare and for improving profit margins. Such free information is likely to generate some future sales in books, as many new owners will learn that their new companion rabbit is far more complex than they may have been lead to believe. Most people would not wish the life that they provide for their rabbit(s), they have just not been told anything constructively different.

Provision of vouchers for free or reduced cost neutering

These could perhaps be funded by welfare charities and local veterinary clinics. Veterinary practices would do well to consider such a scheme, as 44% (730,000) rabbits in the UK are not registered with a vet. Providing a reason to engage with vets opens a dialogue with the veterinary clinic, which can then promote the veterinary and psychological needs of rabbits. This in turn will help to reduce the number of unregistered rabbits, and improve their care, health and welfare. Once registered, automatic reminder cards for vaccinations will bring a percentage of those clients and their rabbits back into the practice, whose health and well-being can be monitored for the duration of their lives.

Improving veterinary training standards for rabbits

With 1.6 million rabbits in the UK, veterinary training at source would benefit from being lifted out of the 'exotic' category it currently resides in with many other species, and given more exclusive emphasis. Concerned rabbit owners are currently directed to find a 'Bunny savvy' or 'Rabbit interested vet', but this implies a dual level of knowledge and skills in rabbit medicine. Like medical doctors, people rightly listen to their vet, and a vet who has a more comprehensive knowledge about rabbits has the chance to instill into owners the degree of responsibility required to ensure the happiness and welfare of their rabbits. Given the number of rabbits as pets, they really should form a greater part of mainstream veterinary education so that all small animal veterinarians can be proficient in providing for the basics of rabbit care as is seen with dogs and cats.

We contacted the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and asked about the veterinary curriculem, and if there are any plans to increase the level of basic training for rabbits. President, Harvey Locke, told us that "There is an enormous amount of pressure on the veterinary curriculum and detailed lectures on all species will never be possible. However, some veterinary schools, such as Edinburgh and Bristol, have recognised that as rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK it makes sense to have dedicated expert lecturers in rabbit medicine. These initiatives are certainly welcome. Once qualified veterinary surgeons must also undertake an average of 35 hours a year in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses. Many vets in small animal practice will choose to gain more knowledge in rabbit medicine in this way.”


Education in schools

There are already some rescues that take rabbit education into schools, and do a few hours with different groups of children, educating them on their rabbits needs – this could be extended nationally with the support of welfare organisations and even education authorities. There could be links with various parts of the curriculum, using rabbit knowledge to help with everything from history and biology to mathematics. As rabbits are primarily acquired for children, involving them in their pet's welfare is a powerful weapon in changing things at home.

So what do we do about our 1.1 million single rabbits - are they to become the forgotten generation?

Whilst the mantra really should be 'Rabbits should live in neutered pairs or groups' this is going to take at least one, and probably more, rabbit generations to be realised.

"Only 23% of owners have looked for advice on aspects of their rabbits’ behaviour in the last four years compared to 46% of rabbit owners who have looked for advice on diet."

Introduce another rabbit!

The ideal solution and certainly many of the lone rabbits in the UK could have a friend, as they are alone partly due to ignorance and/or bad advice. But, there are issues to consider such as age, size and gender of the companion-to-be. Unfortunately, this is not quite as simple as going into a pet store, buying a new baby rabbit, and putting them together.

Your current rabbit should be neutered or spayed (altered). Costs vary: altering a boy (Buck) is cheaper, and spaying a girl (Doe) is usually around £60 - £100. Another reason to have your rabbit altered is that 80% of does (females) are likely to contract uterine cancer if left entire, and bucks (males) can contract testicular cancer. Altering can also reduce hormonally driven habits like spraying, and aggression. Leave your altered bunny for three to four weeks to allow sex hormones to leave the system and then your rabbit will be able to meet up and partner with another rabbit without the distraction of hormonal instincts and urges. This eradicates many of the potential pit-falls that can be encountered when ‘bonding’ – the complex process in which partnerships are established. Remember, your new rabbit will also need to be altered in good time prior to meeting your present one.

Try to introduce a rabbit that is near the same age and size as your present one. Pet stores usually do not sell anything much bigger than babies, but some do have adoption sections that may have older rabbits. However, without the option of your rabbits meeting first, bringing any rabbit back home is a risky strategy, as rabbit friendship and bonding can be very complex and need to be handled delicately!

The best solution for an inexperienced owner is to contact your nearest rescue – in the UK the RSPCA, the Blue Cross or private rescues – many of which offer a bonding service for a small fee. You take your rabbit to the centre, and usually leave it there for a day or two. Do not be surprised if your rabbit chooses as its friend a rabbit that is different from the one you might have chosen, but at the end of the day it is to be their best friend, not yours! This is important, as rabbits can be quite selective about partners, and are more likely to fight if incompatible. The most successful pairings are Male and Female, although some same sex couples do live just as happily together. Many rescue organisations have an appropriate policy of neutering and vaccination prior to re-homing, and a donation is usually required which is often far less than the cost of these veterinary charges.

You may be offered another rabbit by a friend or relative, or acquire one from a breeder (although you are unlikely to get an altered rabbit), and want to try bonding at home. Unless you are prepared to have two rabbits living as singles, in separate accommodation, a caveat to return the incoming bunny should things not work out is a wise one. Bonding must take place on neutral territory, such as a bathroom, bath, or a pen outside – as long as neither rabbit has been in this space before.


For more information on bonding at home, see the Happy Hoppers film 'Bonding rabbits - A walk-through information film'

I can’t have/don’t want another rabbit…

It is a common read on internet forums and message boards to see an owner asking about enrichment ideas for their single rabbit only to be advised that the only solution is to 'get it a friend'. This may be the ideal, but may not be feasible for many. In addition, if this were applied to every lone rabbit in the UK, rescues would be empty and breeders would be in much demand – something that would suit them both very well! The estimated number of rabbits in rescue is c. 35,000, which if re-homed to single rabbits would still leave 1,065000 single rabbits, and lots for the breeders to do. Not all owners want another rabbit – there can be many reasons for this.

  • The rabbit was acquired for their children, and their children have lost interest in their rabbit, so why get another? Whilst this may not be your attitude, if we are to help rabbits and owners, we need to respect everyone’s personal situation and work with them.

  • It can be expensive to keep rabbits, especially if they have genetic predispositions to dental issues, for example. For many people the additional cost of a second may simply be untenable, especially in the current economic climate. The PAW report states that "Only 1% of rabbit owners were anywhere near estimating the lifetime costs correctly." The figure given for the cost of a rabbit over its lifetime is £9000, with 99% of owners unaware of this. 81% of owners thought that the cost is more likely to £1000.

  • Two rabbits need more room and larger accommodation. This may not be an option if space or funds are limited. Adequate hutches and runs are expensive, but costs can be cut by making the accommodation. The Rabbit Welfare Association & other welfare organisations recommend that accommodation size for a pair of rabbits in 6’ x 2’ x 2’, with a large, attached run, to which the rabbits have free access.


All rabbits will bond with another rabbit ... won’t they?

It is also a standard belief that all rabbits will bond with another rabbit – this is not always the case. Rescues, sanctuaries and many owners across the UK will tell you that they have resolutely single rabbits that are happiest either alone, or with human company, despite many attempts to pair them up. These rabbits are in the minority, and should not be used as evidence against the ideal. It is however, from single rabbits and their dedicated owners, that through sharing experiences on-line, we can learn how to enrich the lives of lone rabbits and give them better levels of stimulation, sociability and help them explore more of their natural behaviours.

Bring them indoors to live as houserabbits

As prey species, an outdoor rabbit living alone will often encounter moments of fear and sometimes terror – extreme weather, predators, and solitude can be frightening to a rabbit, and rabbits are easily stressed. They also comfort each other in adversity when together, and without this comfort, the rabbit is experiencing these fears alone. Currently 16% of UK rabbits live indoors. Houserabbits make wonderful indoor companions provided that they are stimulated, have plenty of space and lots of interaction from their owners. As rabbits are most active in the mornings and evenings, they sleep through most of the day time, which fits in nicely with average working hours. Rabbits like routine, and will soon align their meal and sleep times with that of the household!

However, be aware that noisy homes, for example filled with young children and loud music may be just as, or even more distressing for the rabbit than being outside.

The benefits to the single rabbit of living in the home and being a houserabbit are that it is able to express its social behaviour as part of the family, and many houserabbit owners are astonished at just how interactive and sociable their bunny can be. Houserabbits tend to live longer - this is partly because with more intimate observation, owners are able to spot any signs of illness, or changed behaviour, and act quickly. Houserabbits will not be attacked by outdoor predators, but are vulnerable to injury from other pets and if the space they inhabit is not safe for them. Even indoors, a rabbit will need a large cage and/or pen to live and exercise in. There is a lot more flexibility with indoor housing and some rabbits live ‘free range’ in the home, or with access to selected rooms. Houserabbits need a 'bunnyproof' or safe space for them to inhabit. Any rooms that they have access to also need to be safe

Bringing a rabbit inside however is not an option for many owners

  • Landlords and homeowners are rightly protective of the interiors of their properties, and a houserabbit can be very destructive if left alone. This can be very costly, as can preventative measures.

  • Space may be limited, and the garden may provide more exercise space.

  • Many people are intolerant or allergic the rabbit fur and/or hay and dust. All of these are present in a houserabbit's environment.

  • Having a houserabbit requires extra time, interaction, mess and cleaning (the vacuum will be out more often!)



The following videos demonstrate why rabbits can be destructive in the home
and how it can be prevented with effective bunnyproofing.


Part 1


Part 2



Outdoors and indoors!

Many rabbit owners allow their rabbit(s) supervised or free access indoors, and keep their accommodation outside. Some rabbits will happily hop in and out for toilet visits and exercise whilst some need a litter tray and feeding/watering station indoors. You can keep your bunny confined easily with the use of a large pet pen, or dog crate. If your bunny has access to only one room, then this space can be bunnyproofed to be safe for your rabbit, if it is to have unsupervised time there.

This is a good compromise that provides the rabbit and their human family with social interaction and stimulation, while avoiding many of the challenges and changes that a houserabbit can bring to the home.

IF the rabbit is going to be indoors and out, there must be consideration for temperature changes, especially in the winter when going from a hot, from the rabbit’s point of view, centrally heated house back outside. The outside accommodation should, for all rabbits, be draught proof and have plenty of bedding into which they can burrow down such as hay.

Play and interact!

A rabbit indoors is good company and will participate in various activities in the home – many owners report that their rabbit likes to help them with fixing electrical appliances, decorating, carpet laying, playing chase, hopping around the room with their tax bill in their mouth, or simply watching TV! Rabbits spend a lot of time resting, taking many short “10 minute” naps a day, and many enjoy listening to gentle music, with some having a favourite artist or composer!

All rabbits, indoor or outdoor, usually relish free massages, nose strokes, ear strokes, and can learn to enjoy regular grooming sessions. Some are known to reciprocate what they experience as grooming, by licking their owner’s face in return – not ideal if you are allergic to rabbit fur, as it is more commonly the saliva than the fur that is the allergen.

Eating together is commonplace, sociable and sometimes expected by the rabbit. It’s not unknown for rabbits to wait until someone is sat beside them before eating their dinner! Shop bought or fresh willow twigs can be held while the bunny chomps away on them, eroding their ever growing teeth.

Provide more mental stimulation and interactivity with food. NB: all of the following can and should apply to ALL Rabbits

Rabbits are highly intelligent and active animals. Whether indoors or outdoors, single or paired, rabbits will be less prone to boredom, aggression and depression if they have the chance to use their brains. Wild rabbits naturally spend up to 70% of their waking hours grazing, which keeps them busy. Any rabbit, lone or otherwise, in an indoor cage or outdoor accommodation which deprives them of this essential activity is also being deprived of essential rabbit behaviour. A bowl of food presented to the rabbit offers no challenge or stimulation, and the short time taken to consume it does not alleviate boredom. Likewise, simply introducing a companion rabbit to a single rabbit, but giving them nothing to do can lead to problems of boredom, and even fighting.

Rabbits are naturally inquisitive, playful, and easily inspired by their insatiable appetite! There are many ways that food can be offered food that will keep rabbits busy in their quest to devour it. Simply spreading the food around the run, hutch, or a room indoors, will give the rabbit some level of occupation, and replicates their natural eating habits.

Treat Balls (activity feeders) a great boredom buster, but there are so many things around the home that can easily be adapted into a stimulating food toy.

'Hopping Mad!' and Dr Anne McBride have co-produced three films to accompany this article:
'Boredom Busters' 1, 2 & 3.


Boredom Busters 1 - Treat Balls (activity feeders)




Boredom Busters 2 - With Food




Boredom Busters 3 - With Food and Objects




Cheap and easy enrichment toys!

Toilet rolls
Fill an empty toilet or kitchen roll tube with hay, grass, bits of vegetables, herbs and a few pellets, all tightly packed. Rabbits tend to like things that they can throw around, and this is good exercise for their back bones and muscles. If you include pellets, put them in the centre. The rabbit will smell them and will persevere until it reaches them. The toilet roll usually ends in pieces too, and chewed, which is good for a rabbit's teeth!




Cardboard egg boxes
Simply pack them up with similar food and punch out a few small holes in the top, fill them with a sprig or herb, or grasses, close the lid, and watch the rabbit go! It can take it some time to get the egg box open, and many buns will end up chomping the cardboard as well (which is ok)!




Hiding food
Place food under plant pots, in tunnels, cardboard boxes, paper bags etc. Hiding food is a great way to give rabbits an easy challenge that keeps boredom at bay. Once they learn that food is to be found they will actively seek it out! Some rabbits need some encouragement, and you may need to lift the pot and let the rabbit see and smell the goodies inside before they embark on the task.




Bunny - earn your treats!
Pelleted food should form the smallest part of a rabbit’s diet, and is recommended only as a supplementary food to hay, grass, leaves and vegetables. Daily recommended amounts depend on the size of the rabbit, but an egg cup full is generally the most they should have….but…bunnies love pelleted food! So owners can use this overwhelming desire to give them exercise and stimulation. Encourage the rabbit to come to the owner’s hand for a pellet, eating it from the palm, and say ‘good bunny’ (or similar) when they take the pellet. Keep repeating this for each pellet. Once the rabbit realises that it is the hand that feeds them, try showing the rabbit a pellet and then hold it above its head, encouraging it to reach up to get it. This is a natural movement for rabbits, and in the wild they will often reach up to nibble branches. Rabbits can be lead around, over and through a variety of toys, tunnels, boxes etc. simply by following the hand that contains the food!

Once the bunny understands that it gets rewarded for this action, a whole different area of challenge and stimulation opens up, as you can start training your rabbit to do various tricks.




Lure and reward training can also be used. This is simply luring the rabbit with food to achieve the same end as clicker training. As long as the rabbit has learnt that the hand contains goodies, they can be trained to do many things! Use various foods, herbs, vegetables and pellets during the training sessions to keep the rabbit interested, and only use very small pieces as training rewards, a rabbit mouthful. Lure and reward training is a good introduction and precursor to clicker training.
Amongst other things, rabbits can be taught to:

• Stand up

• Walk on their hind legs

• Jump through hoops

• Jump over and run through tunnels

• Come when called (recall)

• Master a bunny obstacle course


(Clicker) training
Whether using a shop bought dog clicker, or simply making a clicking sound with your mouth, the principal is the same. Just like with training dogs using clickers, the rabbit learns to associate the action required with a noise and a reward.With continued practice, ultimately, your rabbit(s) will perform tricks on demand, without the need for edible rewards, although, these should still be given intermittently, to encourage the rabbit(s) to practice! Rabbits are far more intelligent than many people realise, and will respond well to training. Clicker training also gives owner and rabbit exclusive bonding time together, and can be practiced indoors or out.

[center]The 'Rabbit Awareness Week' website (2011) has an excellent complete guide to clicker training which you can see HERE.

The following videos demonstrate what can be achieved with clicker training.

'Rabbit clicker training assault course'
Produced by BertieBunnysUToob

'Rabbit Agility'
Produced by markkpct



Provide more mental stimulation using household cast-offs and equipment!

Recyclable paper based products can be made into many different bunny toys. When using cardboard products, choose plain print-free cardboard. Toys that are made of natural products, such as straw, grasses, hemp, willow etc. should be untreated.

Digging boxes
Most bunnies love to dig - it's in their nature! Take a box (cardboard or untreated wood), or an old washing up bowl, and layer soil, sand, straw and newspaper, or a telephone directory. Pop on some treats to encourage the bunny in, and they should get the hang of it fairly soon. If not, they may just use it as a litter tray – despite our best intentions, rabbits can be very unpredictable! Ensure that all the contents are safe, and are not hiding dangerous elements, like gardening slug pellets or chemical treatments.




Cardboard condos
Cardboard castles and play houses can be bought on-line, but with a few minutes and some spare boxes, you can make a really fun environment for a rabbit. All that is required are cardboard boxes, tubes, a supply of paper and hay; a tearing and energetic time can be had by the rabbit with lots of amusement for the owner! Cut small holes into the side of boxes, the rabbit will chew at them to make them bigger, and using small strips of double sided tape, stick boxes together and on top of each other, to create what is to a rabbit a man made warren. Put some paper, hay, and a treat or two inside to encourage them to spend time in there. Placing some of the boxes at different heights encourages the rabbit to jump, which exercises their hind legs and back.




Waste paper bins
Choose on that is made of untreated straw, hemp, wicker or another natural fibre. These can be bought quite cheaply, and give your rabbit both a digging and chewing toy in one! It can take a bunny many days or even weeks to completely destroy a waste paper bin, which makes it a good investment. Entice them in with some strips of hay, vegetables or herbs.




Tunnels
Rabbits love to burrow and tunnel! You can use a cardboard carpet inner roll (just ask your local carpet layer!) as an indoor tunnel, the cardboard is very thick, and it will take most bunnies months to chew through them. Block the tunnel with a hemp rug, or old towels to give a tunneling challenge! Plastic house piping makes a great tunnel – a friendly word with the builder should get you an off-cut!
You can also buy flexible plastic and material tunnels that are suitable for indoors and outdoors from pet stores.


A relatively new product that has been well received by owners is the ‘Runaround’ system.
"Runaround is a connective rabbit or guinea pig run system that can attach any hutch to any run. This is possible with a Runaround door and burrow pipe which safely transports your pet out of its hutch and into the run. Add on Runaround tunnels to increase the distance your pet can travel or go for a complete overland warren with crossroads and T junctions and lots to do!"




All rabbits are different and enjoy a different activities - what stimulates one may not stimulate another, so don't give up if your rabbit doesn't seem interested in one activity, there are plenty more to try! Alll of these suggestions have come from owners who tried different things, some with success, some without, enjoy being creative and your rabbit(s) will help you to help them!




This article was first published in Hopping Mad! Bunny Magazine, June 2011. The original article can be read HERE
Produced for Hopping Mad! Bunny Magazine Copyright © Happy Hoppers Forums Uk - June 2011 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.



Last edited by Jay on Tue Nov 22, 2011 10:19 am; edited 2 times in total (Reason for editing : Formatting)
avatar
Happy Hoppers
Admin

Gender : Female
Number of posts : 6477
Registration date : 2008-06-14

http://happyhoppers.org.uk

Back to top Go down

View previous topic View next topic Back to top

- Similar topics

 
Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum