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Why do rabbits need a friend?
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Georgina Mills reports on new research showing the benefits of housing rabbits together.

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It’s crucial that we take rabbits’ needs for a companion seriously

Housing rabbits together reduces stress-related behaviour and helps keep them warm in winter, new research has found.

The study, from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), compared the welfare of 15 single and 30 paired rabbits at a rabbit-only rescue centre. The single rabbits were housed mostly in smaller enclosures than the pairs, and were awaiting pairing with a suitable partner.

To reflect how most pet rabbits are kept, they were housed either outdoors or in unheated outbuildings.

The researchers observed bar biting – a stress-related behaviour that has previously been linked with frustration and attempts to escape – in over half of the single rabbits, but in none of the paired rabbits.

On cold days, all rabbits adopted more compact postures, and showed relaxed postures less frequently, suggesting that they were actively attempting to keep warm. Body temperature was significantly lower in singletons than in paired rabbits, with at least a 0.5°C mean difference.

After handling, it was found that pairs resumed normal behaviour significantly more quickly than singletons when returned to their enclosure. Pairs also interacted socially almost one third of the time, showing behaviours such as huddling together, grooming or nuzzling each other.

The results indicate that social housing can mitigate against behaviours such as bar biting, can help rabbits keep warm and may help buffer stress.

Charlotte Burn, associate professor in animal welfare and behaviour science at the RVC, said: ‘It was really sad to discover that lone rabbits were so much colder than the paired ones, and that more than half of them were seen biting at the bars of their enclosures.

‘It’s crucial that we take rabbits’ needs for a companion seriously. There is a culture of getting “a rabbit” and this needs to change, meaning that pet shops, vets and animal welfare charities should advise owners on housing rabbits with a compatible partner.’

Earlier this year, the BVA, the British Veterinary Zoological Society and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association published a joint position statement calling for greater awareness of the benefits of housing rabbits in compatible pairs. The organisations also recommended that rabbit medicine should feature more prominently in the veterinary curriculum so that vets are better equipped to care for the species. ●

Thermal images showing (left) one of the single rabbits biting the bars of its housing with blue colouring showing the colder areas of its body, and (right) a paired rabbit grooming its partner during the study with red colouring shows the warmer areas of their bodies, where they have been huddling together

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