They are often thought of as the perfect pets for children: cute, fluffy and low-maintenance. But many of the UK’s 1.5 million domestic rabbits lead miserable, disease-ridden lives, research has shown.
Overgrown nails and teeth, gut stasis and dirty backsides – which can result from poor diets and lead to myiasis – were some of the most common conditions found in a study of over 6,000 rabbits taken to vets.
The Royal Veterinary College also found collapse and flystrike – a condition caused by flies laying eggs onto the rabbit’s fur which then hatch into maggots and eat its flesh – among the most common causes of death.
Anorexia, which can occur due to conditions such as dental diseases, stomach ulcers or respiratory issues, was also a common cause.Dan O’Neill, a vet who co-authored the research, said the idea that rabbits only needed “minimal care and handling while being fed muesli-type food in a hutch” was misguided.
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“We now know that this level of care is completely unacceptable from a welfare perspective,” he said, adding that rabbits should not be kept in isolation.
“Rabbits don’t exhibit their suffering like other species so it behoves all of us to prevent and recognise their problems.”
The study also revealed that the average lifespan of pet rabbits was 4.3 years, although one was recorded as living to 14.4 years.Domestic rabbits have been kept in Britain since the 1800s, and are now one of the nation’s most popular pets. To date, there are 60 breeds recognised by the British Rabbit Council and over 500 varieties.
Concern has previously been raised about Lionhead rabbits, which are prone to dental problems which can lead to loss of appetite. Their flatter faces, which are often perceived as cute, can also cause breathing difficulties. Joanna Hedley, another vet and co-author of the research, added: “Many of the key medical issues are still problems that we should be able to completely prevent by appropriate husbandry, diet and health checks.
“Better owner education is necessary if we are to improve rabbit health and welfare in future years.”
A recent report by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), found that while pet rabbits are social animals in need of company, over half – 54% – in the UK were kept alone.
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It also found three-quarters of owners didn’t know their pet’s current weight or body condition score, while 28% of rabbits were being kept in a hutch or cage that was too small.