ABSTRACT: Around 1.7 million rabbits are kept as pets across the UK and, unfortunately, the majority are not living the healthy and happy lives they deserve. For the first time, the PDSA Animal Well-being [PAW) report* reveals the true picture of rabbit care in the UK today, and highlights areas where improvements are needed. Veterinary nurses play a vital role in educating current and potential owners about what rabbits need, and this article offers practical suggestions to help veterinary practices focus their attention onto rabbit well-being.


Lonely, bored, malnourished and misunderstood are just a few words that paint a picture of pet rabbit welfare in the UK today. These words probably don’t surprise you, given what we see in veterinary practices up and down the country.

With 1.7 million rabbits kept as pets across the UK, it is saddening to know that the majority are not living the healthy and happy lives they deserve. And with only 56 per cent of them registered with a veterinary practice, many owners are ignorant of their rabbits’ health and welfare needs, which ultimately has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of rabbits.

The PDSA Animal Well-being (PAW) report* in 2011 gave the most comprehensive insight ever into the way rabbits are living in the UK today, and provides the vet and vet nursing professions with a number of key issues that will need collaborative efforts to bring about improvement.

The PAW report was carried out by the PDSA in conjunction with the leading research organisation, YouGov, to find out how dogs, cats and rabbits are being cared for and what owners really understand about their pets’ well-being needs. Without this benchmark of companion animal welfare it would be impossible to measure any improvement or behaviour change.

A nationally representative sample of 11,124 pet owners was surveyed – including 1,132 rabbit owners – to find out whether our three most commonly kept pets are receiving what they need to be healthy and happy.

Welfare guidelines

So what do rabbits need to be healthy and happy? The Animal Welfare Act 2006** introduced a legal ‘duty of care’ which requires all pet owners to meet the five welfare needs of their pets. These are similar to the Five Freedoms, and are the five key areas which, if properly provided for, should lead to a pet experiencing a good quality of life (Table 1).

Sadly, we know from clinical experience that welfare problems are experienced in varying degrees by rabbits across the country, but until now we have been unaware of their scale. The PAW report found that 87 per cent of rabbit owners say that owning a rabbit makes them happy – yet are their rabbits happy too? The PAW report found that many are almost certainly not.

So what did it find?


Around 150,000 (10%) rabbits live in hutches that are too small and six per cent of owners think rabbits never need to leave their hutch.


Three-quarters of a million rabbits (42%) eat less than their body size in hay or grass each day, with a further three per cent not eating any at all. One in 10 owners give their rabbits human foods, such as cheese, cake, toast and chocolate; and almost half (49%) of owners feed muesli-type foods to their rabbits.


Over one million rabbits lack adequate mental stimulation and 28 per cent were not handled daily when they were young. Whilst 46 per cent of owners have looked for advice on rabbit diet, only about a quarter (23%) have looked for advice on behaviour.


Two thirds (67%) of owners report that their rabbit lives alone – as a highly sociable animal this is a significant problem; and six out of 10 of owners (61%) leave their rabbit alone but with someone calling in to feed them, when they go on holiday (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Rabbits are social animals and should not be kept on their own


Over half of the rabbits (54% or 900,000) have never been vaccinated, and one million (63%) are not neutered. Twelve per cent of owners never check their rabbit for fly-strike, and only one fifth of rabbits (21%) have constant access to an exercise area outside their hutch.

It is not just these findings that give cause for concern. Almost all (99%) of rabbit owners underestimated the lifetime cost of their pet which could easily reach around £9,000. Only six per cent of rabbits are insured and nearly a third (30%) of owners found ownership harder work than they thought.

And why do people keep rabbits? Unsurprisingly, the main reason given was that “the children wanted one”.

This all paints a fairly dismal picture. But what can be done to help owners improve the situation?

Everyone who works in veterinary practice has an opportunity to educate owners about what they should be doing. Owners rarely set out to deliberately make their animals suffer, but until they understand what their pets need, it is impossible to ensure they will provide for their pets total well-being.

Veterinary nurses play a vital role in educating clients and here are some ideas that could be put into practice straight away:

   During routine consultations and post operative checks try to discuss at least one of the five welfare needs. For example, if they are in for a post dental check, ask about what company they have, their diet, or what size hutch or run they live in.  

   Set up a clinic offering general advice on rabbit well-being. Try to focus the sessions around the five welfare needs in order to help owners understand that looking after a rabbit is not just about feeding the right diet (although this is obviously very important too!).

   Try to encourage prospective pet owners to come in and discuss the complexities of looking after rabbits – it isn’t just about topping up the bowl of muesli every day; and because “the children want one” isn’t a good enough reason to take on a pet that could be part of the family for the next five to 10 years.

   Theme an area of the waiting room around what rabbits need. Use hard¬hitting facts – such as those found in the PAW Report – with pictures, and try to find some case studies of clients who have built an amazing run or hutch for their rabbits. Maybe build or do some drawings of what an ideal run would look like, or run a colouring competition for children?

   Include an article on the five welfare needs for rabbits in your newsletter, focusing on more than just vaccinations or fly-strike.

   Discuss some of the cases you have seen or ideas for encouraging new rabbit owners to register with your practice – nearly half of rabbit owners are not registered with a veterinary practice.

Rabbit Awareness Week

Encourage your practice to take part in this annual initiative which is supported by key animal welfare charities and other rabbit- friendly organisations. You will be provided with educational materials and posters and there will be an increase in the number of rabbit owners visiting for advice.

For more information visit www.rabbitawarenessweek.co.uk

How the PDSA can help

The PDSA can supply copies of the PAW ‘mini guide’, which is an appealing brightly coloured, fact-filled, A5 leaflet with information on each of the five welfare needs for rabbits (Figure 2). It contains top tips and handy checklists for owners to work their way through.

Figure 2: The PAW mini guide' is an appealing brightly coloured, fact-filled, A5 leaflet with information on each of the five welfare needs for rabbits

The PDSA website has much useful information on rabbit care and welfare, including a symptom checker, videos and an online library covering common conditions and problems. All of the information is evidence-based and themed around the five needs, so can be used to demonstrate how each of the needs can be met.

Visit www.pdsa.org.uk/pethealthadvice for more information, and the ‘Your Right Pet’ web tool, www.pdsa.org.uk/your-right-pet, is a fun and interactive pet selector which explains the well-being needs of rabbits, how much they will cost over a lifetime, and whether they are suitable for an individual’s lifestyle.

We have a wide range of posters available for waiting room displays; and our pet health nurses can offer talks to client groups or practice staff, in most regions, on the issues facing rabbits and how to provide for their five welfare needs (Figure 3).

Figure 3: PDSA pet health nurses are available to give talks on rabbit care to different groups

For more information, e-mail paw@pdsa.org.uk and to download your copy of the PAW Report, visit www.pdsa.org.uk/pawreport

We would also love to hear about your ideas, or any success stories you have had.


Although the outlook for rabbits in the UK today looks fairly miserable at present, there is so much that can be done to improve the situation, simply by educating our existing clients as well as the rabbit owners of the future.

The challenge facing all of us in the vet and vet nursing professions, both in charities and private practice, is to translate the five-point duty of care into something that owners can understand and follow on a daily basis.

At the PDSA, we think it would be fantastic if every single owner knew about the five needs, similar to the widespread awareness of ’5-a-day’ that has been achieved in human nutrition.

There are so many things that you as veterinary nurses can do to make that difference so if you have a passion for rabbits put some of the ideas into practice and together we can drive up standards of care.


Nicola Martin BVSC MRCVS

Nicola graduated from Liverpool University and spent two years in private practice before joining the PDSA at Wolverhampton PetAid hospital. Recently she has taken on the role of Senior Veterinary Surgeon – Pet Health and is responsible for a wide range of pet health initiatives.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00146.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 66-68

• VOL 27 • February 2012 • Veterinary Nursing Journal