There are thought to be more than 1.5m pet rabbits in the UK, and a large proportion of them could be leading very sad lives. A study of more than 6,000 rabbits treated by vets found alarming health conditions such as overgrown nails and teeth, digestive problems and skin issues.

Thanks to generations of stories featuring rabbits, and their sweet, cuddly appearance, they have long been a popular children’s pet but, says Dan O’Neill, senior lecturer in companion animal epidemiology at the Royal Veterinary College, and co-author of the study, “they are not a good child’s pet at all.” They are a prey animal – constantly alert to danger – so being handled by a noisy child can be stressful, especially if they are not used to it (if a child, say, only plays with the rabbit at the weekend).

Rabbit ownership is “easy to get right” says Rae Todd, a director at the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, though many people are surprised by their needs. They are social animals – she recommends keeping two, a male and a female, both neutered. “Rabbits in the wild will cover about half an acre a day,” she says. “Even if you’ve got a six-foot rabbit hutch, it’s not big enough. They need access to a safe exercise area – the minimum we recommend for two average-sized rabbits is an area 3m by 2m, and 1m high.” Rabbits have only really lived in hutches since Victorian times, she says, when they were bred for meat. “Hutches were short-term solutions, not long-term housing.”

Their diet should mimic that in nature – the bulk of it grass or hay (avoid the muesli-type food that encourages them to eat only their favourite bits and can lead to obesity). They have evolved to hide signs of illness which can make spotting health problems hard – O’Neill recommends six-monthly vet checkups (they need annual vaccinations too). “Their teeth grow continuously, and are designed for chewing rough hay, but if their teeth overgrow, they can’t digest properly and their faeces become soft.”

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Can the life of an unhappy, unhealthy rabbit be turned around? Physical health issues are hard to deal with, says O’Neill, “because by the time we’re aware of some of the problems, it can be management rather than cure.” Psychological issues are easier to solve. If you think you’ve got an unhappy rabbit, give them a rabbit friend – and space to exercise.



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