Rabbits are often considered to be cuddly animals that are easily taken care of and therefore, the perfect pet for children.
In a survey conducted by PDSA to a selection of the UK’s rabbit owners, 26% commented that they had indeed brought rabbits into the home as a result of their children wanting a pet. While this may seem to cement the belief that rabbits make ideal pets, there are several reasons why they and other animals such as guinea pigs may not be the perfect ‘starter’ animals for children.
Contrary to the age-old image of a rabbit living happily in a hutch, small mammals like rabbits and guinea pigs actually require more space than you think, in order to maintain their mental and physical wellbeing.
These animals need to have an area which allows them to practise all of their instinctive behaviours such as running, jumping, grazing, playing and even hiding, when they need to.
Our Goodheart Home for Rescued Rabbits, also known as ‘The Burrow’ demonstrates just how much room rabbits need, and was built following guidance from The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF). Their campaign: ‘A Hutch Is Not Enough’, states that two rabbits which are housed together should be kept in an area which is a minimum of 2m X 3m with a 1m high roof, consisting of both indoor and outdoor spaces to give them a cosy area to nest and plenty of space to exercise.
Despite previously being considered to be appropriate housing, a simple hutch does not allow rabbits or guinea pigs to display the natural behaviours they need to keep them both mentally and physically stimulated.
Hutches can lead to issues such as obesity and in some tragic cases spinal deformities if the rabbit cannot stretch adequately. These hutches can be used as an indoor area but additional runs must be provided to ensure high standards of welfare.
A rabbit in a traditional hutch
Sanctuary resident Bigwig enjoying the large outdoor run in our Goodheart Home for Rescued Rabbits.
As with any animal reliant on humans, the care of rabbits and guinea pigs is not something to be taken lightly.
As well as providing them with fresh food, water and bedding on a daily basis, rabbits also require frequent checks to be performed by their owners to ensure that they are happy and healthy, and ideally shouldn’t be left alone for any longer than a 12-hour period. This care is on top of any trips to the vet for check-ups, medications or nail trimming.
Alongside the everyday care of a pet rabbit, there are also several expenses which are necessary to ensure that your companion leads a good life. As rabbits are generally inexpensive to buy (adoption fees can be around £25 for one rabbit) it may be assumed that they do not incur much of a financial cost after this. However, things can quickly add up when you think about their housing, food, toys, equipment, neutering, bedding, vaccinations – the list goes on. In fact, it’s estimated that a pair of rabbits could cost around £11,000 throughout their lives. Other animals such as guinea pigs can be equally costly, as they require a diet of varied vegetables to supply them with the vitamins and minerals they need.
Vet bills can also be expensive as rabbits are susceptible to a range of health issues, from diarrhoea and overgrown teeth to more serious problems such as flystrike. Trips to the vet and appropriate medication can all add up, making them potentially costly pets.
Another misconception about small mammals like rabbits and guinea pigs is that they love human interaction and are happy to be picked up and cuddled, but the reality is often quite the opposite.
Rabbits were only relatively recently domesticated by humans to be farmed for their meat in the 5th century. Although this may seem like a long period of time for domestication, their fellow pets were domesticated far earlier with cats in 7,500 BC and dogs around 14,000 years ago. The wild behaviours of small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs must, therefore, be carefully considered when keeping them, as they are inherently prey species and still have a nervous disposition. This means that their natural instinct will be to flee or hide when frightened, and they may bite or scratch you if not given enough space.
Being constantly picked up can actually cause these animals a lot of stress, so it’s important that prospective owners understand the animals’ temperament and only interact with them in a space where the animal has somewhere to retreat from human company when they have had enough. By providing your pet with a spacious, stimulating environment and species-appropriate enrichment, they are more likely to feel relaxed and calm enough to approach you.
Due to their prey status in the wild, both rabbits and guinea pigs are most comfortable in groups, however when this is not done responsibly it can lead to fighting, so it’s often best to stick with a pair in order to provide them with the feeling of safety and comfort they need.
Rabbits have been shown to value companionship as much as they do food and so those kept alone will therefore suffer with stress and loneliness. Despite this need, a survey conducted by PDSA found that a significant 48% of rabbits were housed singly, with over a quarter of this percentage stating that they did not want to own more than one rabbit. Although many owners will spend as much time with their pets as possible, with the busy lives that we lead this may result in only a very short period with their rabbits, leaving them on their own for significant periods. Of the 48% questioned above, 13% had not considered getting a second rabbit, which highlights the importance of education around keeping rabbits as pets.
When considering housing rabbits together, there is also the discussion of neutering. Rabbits that have been neutered are generally more relaxed than those which have not, it can also reduce potential future health issues. Housing individuals together which have not been neutered can result in aggressive behaviours being performed, both towards the owner and to the other rabbit, creating a stressful environment. This procedure is therefore encouraged even when housing same sex individuals.
While it’s often stated that rabbits only live for around 5 years, the average lifespan is actually closer to being 8 to 10 years. This means they are a much bigger commitment than people may think, with parents often being left to look after the animal when children leave home or lose interest.
In conclusion, the following points should be considered before adopting a rabbit or guinea pig:
The potentially unforeseen costs and time requirements may be why so many rabbits and guinea pigs are given up for adoption each year.
In 2021, the RSPCA alone took in a staggering 859 rabbits, with over 1,500 individuals having been abandoned and a shocking 5,541 classed as being neglected. These are especially sad figures when combined with the decrease in the number of people able to rehome these lovely animals.
While we thankfully had room to take our two resident rabbits Bigwig & Fiver, animal sanctuaries should not be relied upon to take in ex-companion animals. Pets are a lifelong commitment and prospective owners should think very carefully before adopting, to ensure they understand the time, care and money needed to look after them.