Educational Series: Pet Rabbits Need Space and Compassion, Not Cages

With their cute appearance and docile reputation, domestic rabbits are one of the most popular pets in the United States, second only to cats and dogs. There is much to love about rabbits–however, many people who bring one home do not realize how much care and attention these intelligent, socially complex animals require. Contrary to what some new pet owners expect, they need lots of space, frequent socialization, and regular visits to the vet in order to stay healthy and happy in captivity. Nor are rabbits always mild-mannered; like any animal, they can behave aggressively when scared or improperly handled. Domestic rabbits can indeed make good pets, but only when given the time and commitment they need from their caretakers in order to thrive.

A pet rabbit requires plenty of space–and, unfortunately, the popular wire cages marketed to pet owners are not suitable for these sensitive animals. Not only are such cages usually too small, but the wire floor can hurt the rabbit’s feet. The nonprofit House Rabbit Society recommends that a rabbit be provided with at least eight square feet of space at all times, plus five hours or more per day of access to a larger “exercise area” at least 24 square feet in extent. Outdoor or indoor pens can work well (so long as the rabbit is protected from predators in outdoor spaces) and well-trained rabbits can be allowed to roam free in a house or apartment. If you do let your rabbit out into the house, be aware that like cats or dogs they may exhibit natural behaviors like chewing and shedding fur.

Just as important as giving your rabbit enough space is making that area into a suitable habitat. Your pet should have a shelter, bedding material, structures to climb on, and toys to play with. In nature rabbits are social animals that live in family groups, and they need to be able to socialize in captivity. Although interacting with their human caretaker can help–and you should be prepared to socialize with your rabbit frequently, especially if you have only one–it is better to have at least two individuals who can keep each other company. If you already have a rabbit and decide to bring home another, be aware that these animals can be territorial and will need to be introduced carefully. Consult a resource like the House Rabbit Society for advice on how to make the introduction as successful as possible.

Of course, if you have two rabbits with the potential to reproduce, it is essential that they be spayed or neutered. Other than cats and dogs, rabbits are the domestic animal most likely to end up abandoned in a shelter, and finding good homes for rabbit babies (known as kittens) can be exceedingly difficult. Frequently, young rabbits are adopted by well-meaning pet owners who have no understanding of how difficult it is to care for them properly. When the rabbit grows older and begins exhibiting natural behaviors like chewing or aggression, there is a good chance of it being abandoned. We currently have a domestic rabbit overpopulation crisis, and responsible pet owners must ensure they are not adding to the problem.

Anyone familiar with the dog breeding industry will soon recognize many parallels between “puppy mills,” and the conditions under which domestic rabbits are often bred for profit. Breeders have a financial incentive to mass produce and sell as many young rabbits as possible, and in many cases this objective sadly takes precedence over the health, safety, and wellbeing of the animals. Rabbit kittens are routinely separated from their mothers and delivered to pet stores when they are too young to care for themselves. As a result, there is a high mortality rate among rabbits en route to the store. The Rabbit Advocacy Network estimates 20-30% of baby rabbits die before they even make it to a store. However, those who do survive the journey will face additional dangers.

By selling wire cages and other unsuitable dwellings, major pet stores encourage pet owners to keep their rabbits in conditions conducive to a lifetime of misery. In addition, rabbits raised by breeders may continue experiencing health problems throughout their lives because they were selectively bred to exhibit physical characteristics that appeal to people, but which are detrimental to the animals. Some breeds have unnaturally short faces, causing the rabbit to suffer from dental problems and ear infections later in life. Breeders who select for such traits are ensuring generations of animals are born into lives of chronic pain and illness.

Just like with dogs and cats, it is much better to get your pet rabbit from a shelter, rather than a pet store that sources from a breeder. Not only will you be rescuing one animal from abandonment; by buying from a shelter, you also avoid giving breeders a cash incentive to mass-produce even more rabbits. Offering a shelter rabbit a loving home and proper care is an excellent way to save an animal who otherwise might well endure abuse and neglect for most of its life.

Unfortunately, some domestic rabbits never get a chance to be adopted and given a good home at all. Various breeds are common subjects for animal testing in laboratories, including for the development of cosmetic products that do nothing to improve human health or medicine. According to the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), 142,472 captive rabbits were used for testing by facilities licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2019. NAVS estimates that 37% of these animals were subjected to tests “involving pain and distress.” Historically, the number of rabbits in labs was even larger, and the fact that it has gone down as public opinion turns against animal testing is a sliver of good news. However, far too many rabbits are still forced to endure unnecessary procedures for the sake of human vanity and luxury.

As cruel as life in captivity can be for rabbits kept in unsuitable conditions, attempting to release pet animals into the wild is never a good idea. Most domestic rabbits are descended from wild European species that are not native to the United States and most other parts of the world. Furthermore, many breeds now look so different from their wild relatives that they would be ill-suited to survive even in the European landscape where their ancestors lived. Domestic rabbits released into a wild environment are almost certain to quickly fall victim to predators, exposure, or other dangers. If they did survive, they would cause problems for native wildlife as an introduced exotic species.

Domestic rabbits are beloved by countless people, and their relationship with humans has potential to be beneficial and enriching for both species. With the right care, a pet rabbit–or, even better, a pair who keep each other company–can be a happy part of an animal lover’s household. However, it is important to realize that these animals are complex creatures with needs at least as extensive as those of a cat or dog. Most importantly, it is time to leave behind the myth that rabbits can exist happily in a small wire cage. Instead they need space, enrichment, and companionship, just like any animal.

Photo credit: Rawpixel

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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