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Vet School research paves the way for a vision for rabbit welfare

Image of two rabbits

Welfare organisations, breeders, the pet industry and the veterinary professions have come together to agree on a strategy to best improve the welfare of rabbits Dr Nicola Rooney

Press release issued: 13 May 2015

A vision for improving rabbit welfare has been set out following research carried out by the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences. It is hoped the vision will enable one of Britain’s most popular pets to live healthier and happier lives.

This is the first time welfare organisations, breeders, the pet industry and the veterinary professions* have come together to agree on a strategy to best improve the welfare of rabbits in the UK.

The ten-point vision is based on the recommendations from a University of Bristol study, commissioned by the RSPCA, into rabbit welfare in the UK, which found that the welfare needs of many companion rabbits are not currently being met.

The proposals outlined include that all rabbits sold or rehomed are to be kept in compatible pairs or groups and that all rabbits should live in an environment which meets their physical, social and behavioural needs.

The next stage will be to develop a roadmap to achieve the vision in order to improve the lives of one of Britain’s most popular pets. 

Dr Nicola Rooney, Research Fellow in Animal Welfare and Behaviour at the University’s School of Veterinary Sciences, primary author of the strategy and who jointly led the original research, said: “We are delighted to have a vision for rabbit welfare that is strongly rooted in evidence-based information and it’s great that Bristol research is one of the key pieces of research underpinning the strategy.  

“There is a growing body of scientific understanding on how best to meet rabbits’ health and behavioural needs.  Both myself and my colleague, Richard Saunders, are part of the strategy group moving this vision forward and we’re very happy that everyone has joined forces to take this on board.”

Dr Jane Tyson, rabbit welfare expert at the RSPCA said: “We are really excited that stakeholders in animal welfare, the pet industry, breeders and the veterinary profession have been able to come together to share this vision.

“We share a common goal which is improving the lives of rabbits - one of Britain’s most popular pets, but also arguably one of the most misunderstood.”

The Rabbit Welfare Vision Statement states that:

  1. All companion rabbits enjoy a good life in which they can experience positive welfare, i.e. good physical and psychological health) as well as being protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
  2. All rabbits have access to an appropriate diet, known to optimise animal health and minimise the risk of disease. This includes having continual access to both good quality fibre-based material, e.g. hay or fresh grass to eat and fresh, clean water.
  3. All rabbits live in an environment which meets their physical, social and behavioural needs, e.g. to run, jump, graze, dig, rest and stand up on their hind legs without their ears touching the roof.
  4. All rabbits are sold or rehomed to be kept in compatible pairs or groups.
  5. All rabbits are bred, reared and kept in a way known to minimise their chances of developing fear of handling and other stimuli.
  6. All rabbits are given regular preventative health care as recommended by veterinary experts, e.g. vaccinated against myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), a virulent and fatal viral disease of rabbits, according to current vaccine licence recommendations.
  7. All rabbits are given appropriate and timely veterinary treatment to protect them from pain, disease and suffering.
  8. All those working with rabbits, including vets, retailers, breeders, rehoming organisations, undertake effective training programmes and have resources available to them on current good practice in housing and husbandry, the promotion of health and welfare, and the management of disease and welfare risks.
  9. All rabbit health and welfare advice and recommendations are based on international scientific knowledge and professional experience. The veterinary professions offers up-to-date expertise in recognition, management and prevention of disease and in practices to promote good welfare.
  10. The number of rabbits requiring rehoming, both privately and via rescue organisations, is minimised.

The organisations will now seek for this vision to be incorporated into a Defra Code of Practice for rabbits in England, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (a code for rabbits already exists in Wales and Northern Ireland).

Further information

* Vision for Rabbit Welfare in the UK was created by the University of Bristol, the British Rabbit Council, the Pet Industry Federation, the RSPCA and the RWAF. It has also been endorsed by the Blue Cross, the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA), the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), PDSA, Wood Green the Animals Charity.

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