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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Housing and companionship for your rabbits

During Rabbit Awareness Week we thought we would look at some rabbit welfare issues.

Generally, rabbits dislike being picked up off the ground, as they are prey animals and need to feel able to get away when necessary. They are, however, social creatures and there will be ideal situations for you to spend time happily interacting with you as their companion, and other rabbits they live with.

Your hutch
These should be raised off the floor to allow air to circulate and prevent surface water being absorbed into the floor. They should have a waterproof roof, but please be aware that hutches become hot during the summer months and should be sited in a shady position.
The hutch must be secure against any predators, but you must also ensure it is secure so your racbbits cannot escape. For this reason, bolt fastenings are better than turn buttons etc as they cannot be opened accidentally.
Wire floors should not be used as flooring since sore feet can quickly develop; overlaying a wooden floor with wire makes cleaning difficult.
If you obtain a second-hand hutch, please make sure you scrub it out thoroughly with a recommended animal cage cleaner. This must be done some days before you expect to house new rabbits, as the timber must be allowed to dry properly before you prepare the hutch for its new occupants.
No hutch can be too large, in fact the bigger the better! Rabbits need to be able to stretch out lengthways, hop around, and stand up on their hind legs, otherwise they can experience skeletal aches and pains from being too cramped.You should have at least two rooms in your hutch. The main hutch area should have a wire front and be spacious enough for your rabbits to hop around. Your pet's food should be kept to this area and, if they toilet there, a litter tray could be placed in an appropriate corner, if you have the space. A sleeping area with access onto the main hutch should have solid walls and a door where your rabbits can retreat and relax allowing them some privacy.

Your rabbit's outside run
Ideally their run should be attached to the hutch so that your pets can choose whether to be in or outdoors. The run should be as spacious as possible to allow the rabbit's to hop, jump, and have total freedom of movement. Ideally the minimum size for two rabbits should be at least 200cm x 200cm. It must be secure, remember the underside, as a rabbit’s natural behaviour is to dig. Just as important is keeping it secure from predators. 
Fresh water must always be available wherever your rabbits are - whether inside the hutch or outside in the run.
Your run should be attached to the hutch, however, if this is not possible a large free-standing run can be obtained which gives shelter, shade, and a place within to hide from would-be predators. Just a thought - the sun moves around during the day, so remember a run that starts in shade may be in full sunlight a few hours later.
Your rabbits’ health depends a great deal on their environment, and a daily cleaning regime is really important. 
It will not be long before you know where your rabbits like to toilet. This area can be under-laid with newspaper to provide not only good absorbency, but ease of cleaning. Some rabbits like litter trays. These should be large enough for the rabbit to climb completely into. There are many litters available. Daily removal of any faeces and dirty bedding and newspaper is important. 
Spilled food or uneaten fruit or vegetables should be removed daily. Uneaten food in bowls can be mixed in with fresh food unless it is contaminated with bedding, faeces or is inedible.
Rabbits kept in dirty hutches can develop snuffles, sore feet, urine scalding and dirty bottoms – which can easily result in fly strike. The eggs of the fly are laid in the surrounding area and, within approximately 12 hours, can hatch into maggots which will invade the rabbit’s body. Especially during warmer weather check your rabbit's bottom twice daily. Once fly-strike happens the condition is often fatal. Please ask our advice about the best sort of preventative treatments. Please never assume that your rabbit is healthy if you have not actually checked them that day.
Rabbits are naturally sociable, so they need companionship of their own kind. Rabbits are much happier living in pairs or compatible groups. They will become very lonely living on their own. It is easiest if rabbits are kept together from birth, but rabbits less than 12 weeks old will usually live together happily. Neutered companions are the ideal friends. Two litter brothers, or two litter sisters, will also get on well, but ideally they should be neutered to prevent fights.
The Blue Cross Charity have some great leaflets including advise on introducing new rabbits to each other. Go to: http://www.bluecross.org.uk
On a final note...
If rabbits are not given daily opportunity to exercise, they may begin to suffer from skeletal pain and become bad-tempered. Lots of people take on rabbits as children's pets. It is essential that an adult is the person who takes responsibility of companion and animal carer. Rabbits are great pets but be aware they do need lots of attention and can often live for 8 to 12 years.