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NC3Rs: National Centre for the Replacement Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research
Guidance

Housing and husbandry: Rabbit

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.
  • Pens should have sufficient height for rearing upwards for scanning, exploration and play.
  • Floors should be solid with substrate (2 to 5cm in depth) for hygiene, comfort and to permit foraging and digging behaviour.
  • There should be sufficient space for group housing, exercise and inclusion of essential enrichment that facilitates the animals to perform a wide range of normal behaviours.
  • Rabbits should be housed 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. 
  • For longer-term studies, males should be castrated to allow for social housing.
  • Breeding females should be provided with nest boxes containing nesting material, that are designed so that littering does cannot see each other to minimise the risk of infanticide.
  • Rabbits should have a raised area to make use of the vertical space, offer a comfortable resting place and refuge, stimulate exercise and offer a choice of microenvironment.
  • Hay should be provided for foraging, play, nest building, and for a varied diet.
  • Rabbits should always have access to something to gnaw (e.g. wooden blocks) for enrichment, chin-marking and to prevent the teeth from overgrowing.
  • Visual barriers should be provided to allow the animals to initiate or avoid social contact. 
  • Rabbits should have access to substitute burrows (e.g. plastic crates, sections of appropriately sized PVC pipe) for retreat in fear-provoking situations and to manage social interactions.
  • There should be good visibility out of the pen (e.g. mesh or plastic wall) so that the animals can overlook their surroundings and see approaching personnel.
  • Rabbits should experience gentle and frequent handling from early in life.
  • Rabbits should be habituated to procedures, particularly when they are used for repeated sampling.
  • Health monitoring in the rabbit unit should be in accordance with the Federation of European Laboratory Animal Science Associations (FELASA) guidelines.
Two white rabbits in a floor pen. The cage is grey and you can see sawdust and straw on the floor. The closest rabbit is sitting on a raised ledge looking towards a food hopper which contains hay and carrots. The other rabbit can be seen exploring the floor towards the back.

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 domestication; New Zealand White rabbits kept in a near-to-nature environment show the same behaviour as their wild relatives [3].

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 [4,5]. 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 [3]. Most of the time above ground is spent feeding and they mostly consume grass and herbs [5]. They need coarse fibres for their digestion and it is critical to maintain their intestinal flora [5].

Rabbits are often described as nocturnal, however, as the activity of wild peaks during dawn and dusk, crepuscular is the more accurate term [6,7]. Within a research environment rabbits can adapt to a diurnal schedule [8].

In the group there are two separate social hierarchies, one among males and another among females [3]. 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 rabbits [3,4,9,10]. 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 objects [6].

Welfare problems of laboratory rabbits

Confinement within small enclosures has negative effects on rabbit welfare, both in terms of psychological stress and physiological health [11,12]. Housing in larger, enriched enclosures is associated with behavioural indicators of higher welfare [8,13,14].

Rabbits are a naturally gregarious species and single housing can causes significant welfare issues [8,15,16]. As with any species, care and consideration should be taken when pair or group housing rabbits and a well-structured plans for monitoring and maintaining welfare are essential [17,18].

See the Managing aggression in laboratory animal species webinar for more information, species specific information for rabbits begins at 15:33.

The separation of rabbits 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 diet [7]. This can lead to the development of abnormal behaviours, for example, excessive wall-pawing or bar-gnawing [7,9,16,19]. Stereotypic behaviour seems to be most frequent at night when rabbits are most active [7]. Rabbits that are more active tend to become more frustrated and show more abnormal behaviours [7]. Social isolation has been shown to induce physiological signs of stress [6] and individually caged rabbits can also show signs of restlessness [20] and boredom [7,20]. They also develop intestinal disorders [7] and the limited freedom of movement has been shown to give changes in muscles, bones and joints [4,7,13].

Social housing

Rabbits should wherever possible be kept in social groups in pens to meet their need for social behaviour and exercise [8,15,16,18;20-24]. Females can be kept in groups in pens and breeding females in groups with a male [24]. Rabbits in groups are more active and show fewer stereotypies than those kept in cages [15,16]. 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 stress [22,25].

Where single housing is deemed necessary animals should be provided with adequate environmental enrichment and visual and olfactory contact with conspecifics.

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 males [18]. When males are going to be used for longer studies, castration is a good option as castrated males function well in group housing.

Continuous monitoring of groups is necessary as factors such as life stage, reproductive status and hierarchical position can influence preference for social interaction and group stability [17,27]. Group housed rabbits should be provided with enough space and environmental complexity to manage their interactions with their group mates.

 

A number of white rabbits can be seen in a grey floor pen set up for social housing. The floor is covered in sawdust and straw.  There are multiple boxes to provide shelter and dividers so that they can exhibit natural behaviours within the group. Food hoppers are attached to the sides of the pen.

Enrichment

Environmental enrichment is essential for the psychological and physiological wellbeing of rabbits. Creation and maintenance of suitably hygienic, enriched spaces for rabbits is achievable in a research setting [11,26,29].

Suitable enrichment includes straw, hay, chew sticks, cardboard boxes, raised areas and background noise (e.g. music) and taking the rabbits out of the cage for handling or exercise [19,22,28,29]. 

The inclusion of mirrors within the enclosure can improve the welfare of rabbits [31-33]. However, the evaluation of mirrors as enrichment is necessary and should involve careful monitoring of individual responses, as mirrors may have a detrimental effect on some rabbits [33].

Where cages are used, a raised area or shelf should be provided as it reduces abnormal behaviours and nervous responses when animals are captured [6]. 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 joints [25]. The shelf provides a darker area which can be used when disturbed [25] and functions as an important hiding place from intense light, which can cause retinal damage in albino animals [6]. 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, odors from other male rabbits which stimulate scent marking, and opportunity to move over a larger area, which can help to reduce obesity [19,29].

Health

Rabbits are susceptible to different diseases and should be purchased from breeders using barrier breeding systems [6]. 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 precaution [6]. 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 units [34].

Handling

Rabbits should be habituated to handling with frequent, gentle contact from a young age. This training video from ACT online training outlines key considerations for handling rabbits.

The following videos show the traditional techniques for how to lift a rabbit and how to restrain a rabbit. Note that the while the scruff of the neck may be used to secure a rabbit, they should not be lifted by the scruff and should always have their weight fully supported from below

The handling and restraint of rabbits should be refined using positive reinforcement training. For example, rabbits can be trained to hop directly from their enclosure into a transport box, removing the need for capture and manual restraint in some circumstances.

Related resources

References

  1. Harcourt-Brown F (2002). Biological characteristics of the domestic rabbit. In: Textbook of rabbit medicine, 1st edition. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  2. Lidfors L and Dahlborn K (2021). Behavioral biology of rabbits. In: Behavioral Biology of Laboratory Animals, 1st edition. CRC Press.
  3. Lehmann M (1991). Social behaviour in young domestic rabbits under semi-natural conditions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 32: 269-292. doi: 10.1016/S0168-1591(05)80049-8
  4. Lidfors L et al (2004). The welfare of laboratory rabbits. In: The welfare of laboratory animals (Ed. Kaliste E), Volume 2. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  5. Lidfors L and Edström T (2010). The laboratory rabbit. In: The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory and Other Research Animals (Eds. Hubrecht R, Kirkwood J), 8th Edition.  Wiley-Blackwell. 
  6. Gunn D and Morton DB (1995). Inventory of the behaviour of New Zealand White rabbits in laboratory cages. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 45: 277-292. doi: 10.1016/0168-1591(95)00627-5
  7. Clauss M and Hatt JM (2017). Evidence-based rabbit housing and nutrition. Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice 20(3): 871-884. doi: 10.1016/j.cvex.2017.04.006
  8. Jilge B (1991). The rabbit: a diurnal or a nocturnal animal?. Journal of experimental animal science, 34(5-6), 170-183. PMID: 1814463
  9. Held SDE et al. (1995) Choices of laboratory rabbits for individual or group-housing. Applied Animal Behavior Science 46:, 81-91. doi: 10.1016/0168-1591(95)00632-X
  10. Arteaga L et al. (2008). Scent marking, dominance and serum testosterone levels in male domestic rabbits. Physiology and Behaviour 94: 510-515. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.03.005
  11. Matzek D et al. (2021). Evaluation of a Configurable, Mobile and Modular Floor-Pen System for Group-Housing of Laboratory Rabbits. Animals 11(4): 977. doi: 10.3390/ani11040977
  12. Dresher B (1996) Deformations of vertebral column in breeding rabbits, The 6th World Rabbit Congress, Toulouse, France, 9–12 July.
  13. Coda KA et al. (2020). Behavioral Effects of Cage Size and Environmental Enrichment in New Zealand White Rabbits. Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science 59(4): 356-364 doi: 10.30802/AALAS-JAALAS-19-000136
  14. Valuska A and Mench J (2013). Size does matter: The effect of enclosure size on aggression and affiliation between female New Zealand White rabbits during mixing. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 149: 72–76. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.10.002
  15. Chu LR et al. (2004). A behavioral comparison of New Zealand White rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) housed individually or in pairs in conventional laboratory cages. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85(1-2): 121-139. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2003.09.011
  16. Burn CC and Shields P (2020). Do rabbits need each other? Effects of single versus paired housing on rabbit body temperature and behaviour in a UK shelter. Animal Welfare 29(2): 209-219. doi: 10.7120/09627286.29.2.209
  17. Thurston S et al. (2018). Methods of pairing and pair maintenance of New Zealand White rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) via behavioral ethogram, monitoring, and interventions. Journal of visualized experiments: JoVE 133. doi: 10.3791%2F57267
  18. Morton D et al. (1993) Refinements in rabbit husbandry. Second report of the BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW, J.W.G. Refinement. Laboratory Animals 27: 301-329. doi: 10.1258%2F002367793780745633
  19. Lidfors L (1997) Behavioural effects of environmental enrichment for individually caged rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52: 157-169. doi: 10.1016/S0168-1591(96)01141-0
  20. Podberscek AL et al. (1991) The behaviour of group penned and individually caged laboratory rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 28: 353-363. doi: 10.1016/0168-1591(91)90167-V 
  21. Trocino A and Xicatto G (2006) Animal welfare in reared rabbits: a review with emphasis on housing systems. World Rabbit Science 14: 77-93. doi: 10.4995/wrs.2006.553
  22. RSPCA/UFAW (2008) Refining rabbit care - A resource for those working with rabbits in research
  23. Thurston S and Ottesen JL (2020). The Rabbit. In: Animal-centric Care and Management, 1st edition. CRC Press.
  24. Stauffacher M (1992) Group housing and enrichment cages for breeding, fattening and laboratory rabbitsAnimal Welfare 1: 105-125.
  25. Verga M et al. (2007) Effects of husbandry and management systems on physiology and behavior of farmed and laboratory rabbits. Hormones and Behaviour 52: 122-129. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2007.03.024
  26. Baumans, V (2005). Environmental enrichment for laboratory rodents and rabbits: Requirements of rodents, rabbits, and research. ILAR 46: 162–170.  doi: 10.1093/ilar.46.2.162
  27. Dal Bosco A et al. (2020). Assessing the Preference of Rabbit Does to Social Contact or Seclusion: Results of Different Investigations. Animals 10(2): 286. doi: 10.3390/ani10020286
  28. Peveler JL et al. (2018). Effects of music enrichment on individually housed male New Zealand white rabbits. Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science 57(6): 695-697. doi: 10.30802/AALAS-JAALAS-17-000153
  29. Knutsson M (2011). Exercise pens as an environmental enrichment for laboratory rabbits. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
  30. Jones SE and Phillips CJC (2005). The effects of mirrors on the welfare of caged rabbitsAnimal Welfare 14: 195-202.
  31. Dalle Zotte A et al. (2009) Rabbit preference for cages and pens with or without mirrors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 116: 273-278. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.08.011
  32. Mastellone V et al. (2019). Mirrors improve rabbit natural behavior in a free-range breeding system. Animals, 9(8), 533. doi: 10.3390/ani9080533
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  34. FELASA (2014) 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. doi: 10.1177%2F0023677213516312
Information provided by Lena Lidfors, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

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