Improving Rabbit Welfare by Understanding Their Behaviour

rabbitLast week we had another superb webinar from Sarah Heath and it was a freebie because the webinar was kindly sponsored by Burgess Pet Care. I always find Sarah’s webinars really useful and judging from all the positive comments that were sent to The Webinar Vet at the end of the presentation, so does everyone else!

Sarah started the webinar by providing an overview of the role of the rabbit and I must admit, I had never heard of rabbit agility before but that is one of the many positive aspects of my job, I am constantly learning alongside thousands of veterinary professionals within our community. There has been a change in attitude of rabbit owners which was discussed by Sarah, where owners have expectations of increasing interaction with their pet rabbits. This has led to an increased spending on toys and accessories for rabbits. Subsequently there is an increase in expectations of owners in terms of veterinary treatment, insurance policies and behavioural therapy, and as a result, rabbits are being presented to first opinion practices more frequently.

Medical conditions that can lead to behavioural changes include: dental issues; gastrointestinal stasis; allergies; hormonal; skeletal problems and pain. Sarah discussed the importance of the rabbit skeleton with respect to rabbit bones having extremely thin cortices and therefore more likely to fracture. There are normal yet undesirable behaviours such as digging, chewing, aggression (fear and territorial), sexual (mounting and spraying) and scent marking. Sarah advised before approaching any behavioural problems, it is vital to know how problem behaviours develop, the individual history and the associated human factors. In terms of survival aims, rabbits want to escape consumption, reproduce and eat. Physical adaptations, reaction to novelty, behaviour towards fear inducing stimuli, communication, sexual, social and feeding behaviours were discussed by Sarah with respect to these survival aims. The behavioural options for rabbits towards a fear inducing stimuli are inhibition, avoidance or repulsion which can also be termed freeze, flight or fight respectively. Often people do not identify that inhibition is a response to fear and increased stress in rabbits. Tonic immobility, ‘trancing’ or ‘death feint’ (the latter being a term used by Darwin back in 1839) can be seen by pet owners who anthropomorphise and think it means that the rabbit is happy and chilling out with their owner. I must admit, I think I was guilty of this as a child but I am pleased to report I thought of creative ways to feed my rabbits as a form of enrichment.

Karen Smith from Burgess Pet Care also provided a short presentation which provided an update on the Burgess Pet Care range. Karen also shared a special offer for the people who watch the webinar so if you haven’t already watched the webinar yet, watch out for the offer at the end. Unsurprisingly, Sarah was inundated with questions and gratitude at the end of the webinar from the live attendees. I’m already looking forward to Sarah’s next webinar!

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