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Rabbits are now the most neglected pet in Britain - shocking, yes, but not surprising. There is still a huge gap between the general public's knowledge of rabbits and that of the rabbit community...

According to a recent report, the RSPCA now believe rabbits to be the most neglected domestic animal in Britain.  When you consider that they are also the third most popular, this adds up to a whole lot of unhappy rabbits.  With an estimated 33,000 - 35,000 rabbits abandoned or handed in to shelters every year, the majority of these within the first six months of the rabbit's life, it is clear there is a major knowledge gap in the public's understanding of rabbits.

Update for 2013: This figure now stands at approx. 67,000 rabbits in shelters.  Source: RWAF

The general public's view:  rabbits are kept in hutches, are usually looked after by a child and have little or no needs beyond feeding once a day.

On the other side of the coin, there is the rabbit community; those who have 'lifted the lid' on rabbits and seen what is underneath.  Once learnt, this knowledge can never be unlearnt and with many rabbit owners it becomes a personal crusade to change people's idea of rabbits.

The rabbit community's view:  rabbits live indoors, are cared for by adults, are free to run around, have regular trips to the vet, eat a very particular diet and need constant companionship, preferably from another rabbit.

The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund has existed since 1996 and has done excellent work ever since, most recently with its 'A Hutch Is Not Enough' campaign.  Businesses such as Burgess, Carefresh and Supreme are providing great rabbit products and the correct information on rabbit care.  Burgess runs Rabbit Awareness Week every year.  There are hundreds of private rabbit rescues and shelters working hard to save rabbits' lives every day.  Yet in spite of all this, baby rabbits continue to be sold in petshops as 'starter' pets along with small hutches, the wrong food, the wrong bedding and little or no information on rabbit care.

What needs to change?

The most obvious solution would be to ban the sale of rabbits in petshops.  However, as it is not actually illegal to sell cats and dogs in petshops, merely 'non-PC', this is unlikely to happen.  We need retailers to voluntarily remove rabbits from their shops, thereby encouraging would-be rabbit owners to go to a reputable breeder or adoption center where they would receive good information on rabbit care and also be subject to a screening process to ensure the rabbit is going to a good home.

This would certainly discourage impulse buyers, however, rabbits being rabbits there will always be a plentiful supply from casual breeders.  This is part of a wider problem in the animal community as you are only required to have a licence when breeding a restricted breed of dog, such as a pitbull.  Casual breeders will only cease once the demand dries up and this comes back to education of the public.

A legal minimum hutch size would certainly help a great deal in terms of basic welfare.  The RSPCA minimum recommended hutch size is 6ft x 2ft x 2ft but this is not adhered to across the board by retailers and indoor cages are often considerably smaller.  However, even if hutch sizes are improved, a rabbit in a hutch with no companionship, the wrong diet and no healthcare is still an unhappy rabbit.

No clear message

One major problem we face is that it is difficult to get across a clear message about rabbit welfare.  For example:-

  • rabbits should be kept in pairs.  Yes, but they must be de-sexed and even then not all rabbits will get along
  • rabbits should be kept indoors.  Preferably but depends on other pets, young children, whether house is rabbit proofed etc
  • rabbits should be allowed to roam free.  Yes, but only in a safe environment, protected from predators and other harm

In particular, the issue of keeping rabbits in pairs is fraught with difficulty.  For example, Pets at Home recently ran an offer on buying two same-sex rabbits together - while this was clearly well meant, it raised a lot of concern about the rabbits fighting if their new owners did not neuter or spay them.  A bonded pair of rabbits is a joy to see but it takes a lot more work than simply putting two rabbits in a hutch together.

The only thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that rabbits should receive proper healthcare and be fed a hay-based diet but this is hardly likely to grab the public's interest and indeed removes one of the so-called pleasures of rabbit ownership i.e. spoiling them with treats.

What next?

Public perception of rabbits needs to change to the point where it is socially unacceptable to keep a rabbit alone in a hutch.  This will be a huge step forward but there are still several obstacles to overcome.  For example, would it become the norm to buy a pair of bonded rabbits?  If one dies, is the owner going to replace the rabbit and how will they cope with the bonding process?  If the rabbit is moved indoors, is it merely exchanging an outdoor prison for an indoor prison?  If allowed free roam, is it safe from electrocution etc?

The more we think about this problem, the more we realise that rabbits are actually more of a 'specialist' pet, as a lot of knowledge and time is needed from the owner.  This may seem extreme but in the long run this is surely the most desirable thing for the public to think - we may see less rabbits around but they will be happier rabbits.

House rabbits are the ambassadors of the rabbit welfare movement, removing the 'out of sight, out of mind' mindset.  They may not be for everyone but the only way to truly know a rabbit is to live side by side with it, faults and all.  House rabbits are part of the family and we deal with their moods and foibles as with any other member of the family - with love and patience.

In summary, there needs to be a huge swing away from 'easy but boring' pet to 'tricky but rewarding' pet.  We all have a part to play in this - by supporting the RWAF and the HRS, lobbying retailers, educating our friends and family and creating as many websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and so on as possible that tell the real story about rabbits.

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