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Pet rabbits need space and freedom to play and exercise

New research conducted by the University of Bristol Veterinary School has discovered that pet rabbits experience higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone when kept in small hutches with limited exercise opportunities. 

Funded by the RSPCA, the study emphasizes the importance of allowing pet rabbits the freedom to exercise outside their enclosures, even if the hutches are larger than the traditional size. Rabbits are a popular pet choice for many families in the UK, with an estimated 900,000 pet rabbits in the country.

Previous studies have explored the housing needs of rabbits in laboratories and for meat production, but there has been limited research on the housing needs of pet rabbits. Animal welfare organizations recommend that pet rabbits be housed in pairs. 

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, aimed to investigate the effects of common hutch sizes and access to an exercise area on the welfare of pet rabbits living in pairs.

The research was focused on 20 pre-established pairs of adult neutered rabbits (one male, one female) housed for eight weeks in standard housing. Ten pairs were kept in small wooden hutches (0.73 square meters), while the other ten pairs were housed in large hutches (1.86 square meters). The exercise area, or run, was a 3 x 1-meter area attached to the hutches. 

The rabbits either had unlimited access to the run or access was limited to three hours at midday. The behavior of the rabbits was observed at dawn, dusk, and midday, and fecal samples were collected for corticosterone analysis at the end of each access period.

The results showed that rabbit pairs were more active when run access was limited to three hours, with physical activity, including play jumps, significantly increasing when the pairs with restricted access were released into the run. The researchers suggest that this activity rebound demonstrates the rabbits’ need to move every day, and their welfare is compromised when they can only do so at midday.

Drs Nicola Rooney and Suzanne Held, senior authors of the paper from the University of Bristol Veterinary School, stated: “Rabbits are active and need to be able to hop, run, jump, dig and stretch out fully when lying down. Restricting rabbits’ opportunity to get away from each other and to move to times of day when they would not naturally be as active is likely to contribute to the activity peaks and high stress hormone levels in the pairs in the smaller hutches with limited access to a run.”

The study further suggests that hutch sizes of around 0.75 square meters should not be recommended for rabbit pairs, even if they have access to an exercise area for three hours per day during the middle of the day. These recommendations have been incorporated into the RSPCA and other animal charities’ rabbit care advice on housing.

“The findings of this research are highly welcomed confirming what many of us have known for so long, that keeping rabbits in small hutches with limited opportunities to exercise compromises their welfare,” said Dr. Jane Tyson, an RSPCA rabbit welfare expert. “Rabbits are often misunderstood animals, but the findings from the study show that housing rabbits in an enclosure consisting of a sheltered area with constant access to a larger space is critical.”

The study’s findings have also influenced the UK Rabbits Strategy for rabbit welfare, which is set to be published later this year.

The research highlights the importance of providing pet rabbits with access to an exercise area, even when they are kept in larger hutches. This is particularly important for pairs of rabbits, as they require social interaction and physical exercise to maintain their wellbeing. 

Other important notes for keeping rabbits as pets

Keeping rabbits as pets can be a rewarding experience, but it’s crucial to be well-informed about their needs and behaviors to ensure their health and happiness. Here are some essential points to consider when caring for pet rabbits:


Rabbits require a balanced diet consisting mainly of hay or grass, which aids digestion and promotes healthy teeth. They also benefit from fresh vegetables and a small amount of high-quality rabbit pellets. Avoid feeding rabbits human treats, such as sugary snacks, as they can cause health issues.


As mentioned in the previous article, rabbits need spacious and secure housing with constant access to a larger exercise area. A hutch or cage should provide shelter, a comfortable place to sleep, and enough room to stretch, hop, and play. The enclosure should be kept clean and dry to prevent disease.


Rabbits are social animals that thrive in pairs or small groups. Keeping rabbits together can reduce stress and provide mental stimulation. However, it’s essential to ensure that rabbits are neutered to prevent unwanted litters and aggression.

Handling and socialization

Gently handling rabbits from a young age helps them become accustomed to human interaction. Be patient and approach rabbits calmly to avoid causing fear or stress. Rabbits prefer being stroked rather than picked up, as they can become nervous when their feet leave the ground.

Health care

Regular vet check-ups are essential to monitor your rabbit’s health. Look out for signs of illness, such as changes in appetite, lethargy, or abnormal droppings. Keep your rabbit’s vaccinations up to date to protect them from serious diseases.


Providing toys, tunnels, and other objects for rabbits to explore and interact with can promote mental and physical stimulation. Rabbits enjoy digging, chewing, and playing, so ensure that their environment offers these opportunities.


Regular grooming is essential, especially for long-haired breeds, to prevent matting and reduce the risk of hairballs. Rabbits also need their nails trimmed regularly to prevent overgrowth and injury.


Ensure that your rabbits’ environment is secure from potential predators, such as dogs, cats, or wild animals. Check fencing and enclosures for any gaps or weaknesses that could allow entry.

Temperature and weather

Rabbits can be sensitive to extreme temperatures. Ensure that they have adequate shade and ventilation during hot weather and proper insulation during cold periods.


Continue learning about rabbit care, behavior, and health to provide the best possible environment for your pet. Consult with veterinarians, rabbit rescue organizations, and other rabbit owners to gain insight and advice on proper rabbit care.

History of rabbits

The history of rabbits can be traced back millions of years. They belong to the family Leporidae, which includes hares and rabbits, and the order Lagomorpha. The history of rabbits can be broadly categorized into their evolution, domestication, and their role in human society.


The ancestors of modern rabbits first appeared around 40 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. These ancient lagomorphs, such as the small Palaeolagus, eventually evolved into several distinct lineages. The crown group of modern rabbits and hares, known as Leporidae, emerged around 12 million years ago during the Miocene epoch.


The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, originated from the European wild rabbit. Domestication is believed to have begun in the Roman Empire around 2,000 years ago, with the primary purpose of providing a source of food and fur. The domestication process continued throughout the Middle Ages and expanded across Europe.

Role in human society

Rabbits have played various roles in human society throughout history. They have been a source of food, fur, and leather for thousands of years. During the medieval period, rabbits were kept in specially designed enclosures called warrens, managed by warreners.

Rabbits were introduced to various parts of the world by humans, sometimes with negative consequences for native ecosystems. For example, the introduction of rabbits to Australia in the 19th century led to widespread environmental damage and the displacement of native species.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, rabbits became increasingly popular as pets, especially in Western countries. The development of different rabbit breeds began in earnest during this period, with breeders selecting for specific traits such as size, color, and fur type.

Rabbits have also played a role in scientific research, particularly in the fields of genetics, immunology, and reproduction. Furthermore, rabbits have been featured in folklore, mythology, and literature across various cultures, often symbolizing fertility, innocence, and trickery.

In summary, the history of rabbits spans millions of years, from their ancient ancestors to their domestication and various roles in human society. Today, rabbits continue to be valued as pets, sources of food and clothing, and important symbols in our culture.


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