Rabbits

Here we provide general information on the housing and husbandry requirements of laboratory rabbits. More detailed guidance can be found in the related resources and references provided.

Key principles

Good housing and husbandry for rabbit housing should take account of the following principles:

  • Housing in pens on the floor should always be considered before cage housing. Where cage housing is used an elevated platform should be provided.
  • Pens should be large enough for animals to hop, jump and make quick changes of direction.
  • Enough height for rearing upwards for scanning, exploration and play.
  • Solid floors, with substrate (2 to 5cm in depth) for hygiene, comfort and to permit foraging and digging behaviour.
  • Sufficient space to permit group housing, exercise and allow essential enrichment such that the animals can perform a wide range of normal behaviour.
  • Housing in stable, compatible groups, established with immature animals of the same age and sex, as soon as possible after weaning.
  • Entire male rabbits should be separated from other males at sexual maturity (12 to 14 weeks) and housed individually with visual and olfactory contact with other rabbits. 
  • Nest boxes with nesting material for breeding females, designed so that littering does cannot see each other and cause infanticide behaviour.
  • A raised area to make use of the vertical dimension, offer a comfortable resting place and refuge, stimulate exercise and offer a choice of microenvironment.
  • Hay for foraging, play and nest building, and a varied diet.
  • Something to gnaw (e.g. wooden blocks) for enrichment, chin-marking and to prevent the teeth from overgrowing.
  • Visual barriers to allow the animals to initiate or avoid social contact. 
  • Substitute burrows (e.g. plastic crates, sections of appropriately sized PVC pipe) for retreat in fear-provoking situations and to manage social interactions.
  • Good visibility out of the pen (e.g. mesh or plastic wall) so that the animals can overlook their surroundings and see approaching personnel.
  • Gentle and frequent handling from early in life.
  • Habituation to procedures when used for repeated sampling.
  • Health monitoring in the rabbit unit in accordance with the Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Associations (FELASA) guidelines.

Natural behaviour of rabbits

Rabbits used in laboratories descend from the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)1,2. Their behaviour has not changed significantly through domestication3, and New Zealand White rabbits kept in a near-to-nature environment show the same behaviour as their wild relatives4,5.

Wild rabbits live in social groups consisting of one to four males and one to nine females. The group defends a central warren but can come together with other groups while grazing when they feed in an area known as their home-range which can be up to 50,000 m2 6,7. The females construct nests in which the young are born, and the nests are visited once daily for a few minutes to feed the young. After about three weeks the young come out from the nests and they are weaned a week later 5. Rabbits are nocturnal animals and wild rabbits feed at dawn and dusk8. Most of the time above ground is spent feeding and they mostly consume grass and herbs7. They need coarse fibres for their digestion and it is critical to maintain their intestinal flora7.

In the group there are two separate social hierarchies, one among males and another among females4. The males occupy territories which they defend from one another while the females stay in a specific area but will not defend it against other rabbits4,5,9,10. Rabbits have a number of scent glands located under the chin and in the anal and groin regions. They mark their territory with their faeces or by rubbing their chins-against objects7

Welfare problems of laboratory rabbits

Rabbits kept in laboratories have traditionally been housed singly in cages. One reason to keep this naturally gregarious species socially isolated has been the problem with aggression among non-compatible animals11. The separation from conspecifics in a barren environment prevents them from performing natural behaviours such as digging, allo-grooming and some locomotory activities. It also reduces their exposure to variations in odours and diet8. This can lead to the development of abnormal behaviours, for example, excessive wall-pawing or bar-gnawing8,9,12 . Stereotypic behaviour seems to be most frequent at night when rabbits are most active8. Rabbits that are more active tend to become more frustrated and show more abnormal behaviours8. Social isolation has been shown to induce physiological signs of stress7 and individually caged rabbits can also show signs of restlessness13 and boredom13,8. They also develop intestinal disorders8 and the limited freedom of movement has been shown to give changes in muscles, bones and joints5,8.

Social housing

Socially housed rabbits in floor pen

Rabbits should wherever possible be kept in social groups in pens to meet their need for social behaviour and exercise11,14,15. Females can be kept in groups in pens and breeding females in groups with a male16. Rabbits in groups are more active and show fewer stereotypies than those kept in cages11. They also express a broader behavioural repertoire. When rabbits are kept in groups their quality of life significantly improves even though they may experience from time to time social stress14,17. For group housing, it is important to consider the compatibility of individual animals; when incompatible rabbits are housed together they will fight and this is especially problematic with males11. When males are going to be used for longer studies, castration is a good option as castrated males function well in group housing7

Enrichment

By providing environmental enrichment the amount of abnormal behaviours can be reduced. Suitable enrichment includes straw, hay, chew sticks, cardboard boxes, raised areas and background noise and taking the rabbits out of the cage for handling or exercise15,7. A mirror in the cage can also improve the welfare of rabbits18,19. Where cages are used, a raised area or shelf should be provided as it reduces abnormal behaviours and nervous responses when animals are captured7. It adds structure to the cage and allows the rabbits to move in a way so as to maintain normal function and the structure of muscles, bones and joints16. The shelf provides a darker area which can be used when disturbed16 and functions as an important hiding place from intense light, which can cause retinal damage in albino animals7. Taking individually housed male rabbits out of the cage and letting them run in a floor pen with different objects can also be an enrichment, as they are given a change of environment, odours from other male rabbits which stimulate scent marking, and opportunity to move over a larger area, which can help to reduce obesity12,20.

Health

Rabbits are susceptible to different diseases and should be purchased from breeders using barrier breeding systems7. Rabbits from sources other than a barrier system or wild caught rabbits should never be mixed with the barrier bred rabbits. When introducing rabbits from another colony, quarantine should be used as a precaution7. FELASA has developed recommendations for health monitoring laboratory animals in different situations, and have published an updated recommendation concerning rodents and rabbit colonies in breeding and experimental units21.

 

 


 

Related resources

Comfortable quarters for rabbits in research institutions. Animal Welfare Institute.
Refining rabbit care: A resource for those working with rabbits in research. RSPCA.
Appendix A of the European Convention for the protection of vertebrate animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes (ETS No. 123), 2006. Guidelines for accommodation and care of animals (article 5 of the convention). Approved by the multilateral consultation.
Code of Practice for the Housing and Care of Laboratory Mice, Rats, Guinea-Pigs and Rabbits in Victoria, Australia (updated March 2014)

References

1. Harcourt-Brown F. (2002) Biological characteristics of the domestic rabbit. In: Textbook of rabbit medicine. Butterworth-Heinemann.

2. Zeuner FE (1963) A history of domestic animals. Harper & Row.

3. Bell DJ (1984) The behaviour of rabbits: implications for their laboratory management. In: Proceedings of UFAW/LASA Joint Symposium. Standards in Laboratory Animal Management, Part II. Pp.151-162. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.

4. Vastrade F (1986) The social behaviour of free ranging domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus L.) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 16: 165-177.

5. Lehmann M (1991) Social behaviour in young domestic rabbits under semi-natural conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 32: 269-292.

6. Lidfors L, Edström T, Lindberg L (2004). The welfare of laboratory rabbits. In: The welfare of laboratory animals, Kaliste E (Ed.), Kluwer Academic Publishers.

7. Lidfors L, Edström T (2010). The laboratory rabbit. In: The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory and Other Research Animals, Eight Edition. Hubrecht R, Kirkwood J (Ed.) Wiley-Blackwell. 

8. Gunn D, Morton, DB (1995) Inventory of the behaviour of New Zealand White rabbits in laboratory cages. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 45: 277-292.

9. Held SDE, Turner RJ, Wootton RJ (1995) Choices of laboratory rabbits for individual or group-housing. Applied Animal Behavior Science 46:, 81-91.

10. Arteaga L, Bautista A, Martínez-Gómez M et al. (2008). Scent marking, dominance and serum testosterone levels in male domestic rabbits. Physiology and Behaviour 94: 510-515.

11. Morton D, Jennings M, Batchelor GR et al. (1993) Refinements in rabbit husbandry. Second report of the BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW, J.W.G. Refinement. Laboratory Animals 27: 301-329.

12. Lidfors L (1997) Behavioural effects of environmental enrichment for individually caged rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52: 157-169.

13. Podberscek AL, Blackshaw JK, Beattie AW (1991) The behaviour of group penned and individually caged laboratory rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 28: 353-363.

14. Trocino A, Xicatto G (2006) Animal welfare in reared rabbits: a review with emphasis on housing systems. World Rabbit Science 14: 77-93.

15. Hawkins P, Hubrecht R, Buckwell A et al. (2008) Refining rabbit care - A resource for those working with rabbits in research. Report from the UFAW/RSPCA Rabbit Behaviour and Welfare Group. ISBN: 978-0-901098-06-1

16. Stauffacher M (1992) Group housing and enrichment cages for breeding, fattening and laboratory rabbits. Animal Welfare 1: 105-125.

17. Verga M, Luzi F, Carenzi C (2007) Effects of husbandry and management systems on physiology and behavior of farmed and laboratory rabbits. Hormones and Behaviour 52: 122-129.

18. Jones SE, Phillips CJC (2005) The effects of mirrors on the welfare of caged rabbits. Animal Welfare 14: 195-202.

19. Dalle Zotte E, Princz Z, Matics Zs et al. (2009) Rabbit preference for cages and pens with or without mirrors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116: 273-278.

20. Knutsson M (2011) Exercise pens as an environmental enrichment for laboratory rabbits. Student report 2011:48 in Veterinary program, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 32 pp.

21. Mähler M, Berard M, Feinstein R et al. (2014)  FELASA recommendations for the health monitoring of mouse, rat, hamster, guinea pig and rabbit colonies in breeding and experimental units. Laboratory Animals, 48 (3): 178-192.

Information provided by Lena Lidfors, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Last updated: March 2014