Rabbits are one of the most popular pets in the UK. The behaviour of the rabbit has not changed significantly through the domestication process, and their behaviour is still analogous to their wild counterparts. Yet, companion rabbits are often housed singly in barren environments and suffer from boredom, stress, and frustration.
If a new rabbit companion is unsuitable for single-housed rabbits, enrichment can help ameliorate the physiological and behavioural problems that may occur in the solitary environment. The introduction of enrichment strategies such as modification of the physical environment, and changes in the presentation of food can enhance the welfare of both single and group housed rabbits.
Wild rabbits utilise complex three-dimensional environments and spend most of their time underground in burrows, venturing above ground at night to feed and to monitor their territory for predators. A complex system of underground burrows is extremely difficult to replicate in a home or garden environment. However, environmental enrichment to facilitate digging, vigilance, and hiding behaviours is likely to promote good welfare.
It is important that a suitable substrate such as sand or straw is provided to promote digging behaviour. Elevated platforms will help rabbits fully visualise their environment. Rabbits are highly motivated to access raised platforms, which suggests that platforms are very important to rabbits. Therefore, introduction of raised platforms may encourage natural vigilance behaviour, reduce anxiety, and improve welfare. Moreover, even if the platform is not used, it may serve as a ‘bolt-hole’ function, and inclusion of this may help to reduce anxiety if rabbits have an escape opportunity.
In addition to a raised platform, tunnels and barriers can facilitate natural hiding behaviour and may mimic a burrow system. Tunnels and barriers allow rabbits to distance themselves from others. Moreover, tunnels may connect to other cages or pens, allowing rabbits control over their environment.
As many rabbits present with malocclusion, chewing is another behaviour that is fundamental to promote in order to improve rabbit welfare. Rabbits are shown to have a preference for food-related enrichment items, and use hay more often than grass-cubes and gnawing sticks. Rabbits are also evidenced to be highly motivated to access hay by spending a large amount of time and energy pulling single pieces of hay out their water bottle. This highlights how important hay may be for rabbits. Moreover, as rabbits are very active, working to obtain hay should help promote good health. Expending time and energy acquiring hay will also provide mental stimulation and this is shown to reduce or eliminate stereotypical behaviour.
There are a number of commercially available toys that encourage natural chewing and locomotory behaviour. Rubber or plastic balls, and even cardboard tubes can be filled with hay. These toys provide rabbits the opportunity to explore and manipulate their environment. These enrichment methods all allow rabbits to use the same locomotor and sensory skills that they would use in the wild; this will likely keep the rabbits active and increase their behavioural repertoire. However, there are no studies evaluating the use of toys and the welfare benefits.
All of the above suggestions are inexpensive and easy for owners to provide. Encourage owners to have complex, exciting environments for their rabbits.