We know you care about your rabbits and want to do what’s best for them. Unintentionally, often due to a lack of knowledge, most rabbit owners don’t know what a rabbit needs to thrive. Indeed 1 in 5 rabbits live in accommodation smaller than lab rabbits! When looking at rabbit accommodation, space is a crucial factor that your enclosure must have. It may seem simple but so many rabbits are subjected to tiny, barbaric homes that stop them from behaving how they normally would – it would be like putting you in a room where you had to bend to fit and could only move in very small circles. You should get the biggest H.E.A.R.T.S. compliant rabbit accommodation your garden can tolerate, allowing them to be active twenty-four hours a day – you’ll be amazed at how your rabbit comes alive when given the room to move. They will hop around, stretch out, periscope and binky (jump for joy) to show you how happy they are. These are all ‘normal’ behaviour’s that your rabbit needs room to exhibit – otherwise they could suffer from mental stress, apathy and depression. Your rabbit should be able to be curious, active and explore most of the time to suit its routines, not ours.
Your rabbits like to know what is going on around them, to be sure they are safe and to feel secure in their home. You will often find them standing on their hind legs, periscoping, in order to get a clearer view. You need to be sure their home has enough room for them to do this without being cramped – their ears should be able to be fully pointed without being crushed against the roof. Research conducted for H.E.A.R.T.S. shows that, despite rabbits only actually needing 52.6cm to fully rear up, their enclosure should be at least 75cm high so they don’t feel claustrophobic – just as you enjoy ceilings in your home taller than you.
Your rabbits have a multitude of predators after them; cats, badgers, birds of prey and a multitude of others. However, due to its ability to climb, jump, gnaw and pull, foxes are by far the biggest threat to rabbits in their enclosures. Your rabbit’s accommodation has to be able to withstand a prolonged attack as foxes will keep coming back for an easy meal – your rabbit in a cage. Letting rabbits loose in the garden unsupervised is not the option many think it is. Foxes are effective day and night predators, far more common than perceived and with an ever-changing populace. The adage “I’ve never seen a fox in my garden” does not mean they don’t visit and they only need one chance to kill your rabbits. As part of H.E.A.R.T.S., we conducted experiments on various thicknesses of mesh to see how many would resist a fox attack. We built a replica of a fox’s jaw, based on the average European red fox, and applied a nominal force of approximately 185N (7.5 kg). These experiments tested five areas; mesh, exposed corners, door edges, panel edges and connecting tubes. You’ll note it’s not just the mesh that needs to stand up to predator attacks, but the framework too. Not all materials are suitable for rabbit housing. Although plastic is easy to clean, this can lead to numerous digestive diseases including lead poisoning or digestive tract obstruction if consumed. Conventionally, hutches are made out of timber but you need to look out for slow grown, treated timbers as soft, untreated timbers can degrade swiftly or be chewed more quickly and easily by your rabbit.
As with humans, the hygiene of your rabbit’s accommodation is crucial to keeping mortality rates down. Rabbits themselves are relatively clean pets but are very territorial and are likely to ‘scent’ their home with chin gland secretions and waste wherever they need to – there is not always a designated spot. This means their enclosure must be cleaned regularly to avoid ammonia poisoning or flystrike. The accommodation needs to be primarily made from material that won’t absorb this waste and ensures the waste can be removed easily during cleaning. Small panel gaps, hidden corners or areas that aren’t accessible via a door, panel or brush will be detrimental to your rabbits and should be avoided at all costs.
It would be ridiculous to suggest having an accommodation exposed to the elements that is left untreated. If it comes into contact with water, which will happen in the British climate, it needs to be protected against rot, mould and insect infestation. You need to be careful which treatment you choose as you don’t want one that can make your rabbit sick through ingestion especially the use of CCA and tributyltin. H.E.A.R.T.S. describes what to look out for when choosing a home for your rabbits.
Rabbits like to chew. If there is anywhere on the accommodation that is not covered then your rabbits will try and chew it. This chewing can lead to teeth related problems, digestive upset, respiratory infection and even kidney failure. As there is no treatment available in the market that is 100% safe for rabbits, regardless whether they are falsely advertised as such or not, so you need to make sure the design of the accommodation prevents chewing by either using material that can’t be chewed (metal), materials that are difficult to chew (dense timber) or have timber or chewable trims on all plastic edges so your rabbits aren’t able to get to it.
Rabbits are social creatures and should never be without a fellow rabbit. In fact, they consider social interaction with other rabbits as important to them as food. Morton DB & M has defined the minimum definition of a run giving your rabbit at least three hops (which equates to 1.8m) per rabbit. These measurements need to increase depending on how many rabbits you have in the enclosure. An area of 1.68m2 should be considered the absolute bare minimum for two rabbits but bigger is always better!Rabbits are intelligent creatures and, as such, need plenty of activity to keep them happy and improve their physical and psychological wellbeing. However, like humans, they sometimes need some space apart following an argument or hormone imbalance which is why your enclosure should always include a separate space per rabbit that your rabbits can run to if needed.
Britain is cold. The average air temperature in January is 1.3 degrees. As H.E.A.R.T.S. states, rabbits ideally need a temperature of between 10 – 20°C. They can deal with slightly lower but not if they are kept in draughty, damp, ill built enclosures that leave them exposed to the elements. The H.E.A.R.T Standard states that insulating the sleeping area of your rabbit’s permanent accommodation is essential. For your rabbits to be comfortable, you need to make sure the combination of insulation and the heat generated by your rabbits raises the temperature to 6°C higher than the outside temperature during cold weather.
Rabbits can literally be scared to death by dogs barking or firework displays (around 3,000 rabbits die a year from shock from fireworks). Rabbits are normally ‘burrowing’ creatures with underground dens that they can retreat to. This wouldn’t be possible in your garden as domestic pets – for a variety of reasons but mainly as they won’t be accessible if ill or injured. You need to ensure that any outdoor enclosure can provide protection from loud noises. There is no literature on specific levels of noise a rabbit can tolerate so, using the highest frequencies that occur in fireworks (125,250 and 500Hz) and a dog’s bark (400 – 700Hz), we tested different frequencies on different materials. The results were as we thought; thicker walls are better and, if you can get it insulated, do so to help reduce the dB level your rabbits are exposed to. If possible, bring them inside during firework seasons.
Rabbits, like any other animal, produce waste. If left, this waste can result in your rabbit having health issues. In addition to potentially fatal flystrike, you also need to be aware of ammonia. Commonly found in urine, ammonia is toxic to your rabbit and can cause them respiratory diseases or severe bacterial infection. Ensure your rabbits accommodation has plenty of ventilation so the concentration of ammonia doesn’t go above 20 ppm (parts per million).