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The Use of Rabbits in Society and associated welfare implications

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

Society and its use of Animals

Animals have for a long time played an important part in human society. They have many uses; from companion pets to useful work tools, animals are a vital part to how the human world works and functions. Even in early in human history, animals were starting to become domesticated and were used to benefit humans and their survival as well as allowing the human populations to expand and develop. In modern society, animals are used for a wide variety of uses and purposes. In everyday life, a huge number  of different species are used for various tasks, some species even double as working animals, tools and pets.

The uses of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and its uses in society, including welfare implications.

The European Rabbit

The European rabbit is a member of the order Lagomorpha along with hares and pikas, and is therefore considered a lagomorph. They are commonly mistaken as rodents, however rodents have only one set of upper incisor teeth whereas lagomorphs have two sets (Aspinall, 2006). Their genus and species gives the European rabbit the Latin name Oryctolagus cuniculus, which translates into ‘hare-like digger’ and ‘underground passage’. (Davis et al, 2003). In the wild, the European rabbit grows to weigh around two and a half kilograms, however domestication and selective breeding has caused variations in sizes and weights from breed to breed. (Aspinall, 2006).

The European rabbits is an alien species in the British Isles. It was brought to the United Kingdom, England specifically, by humans for pelts and meat. The largely social and quick breeding rabbits spread throughout Europe and in particular France, in the thirteenth century. With trading among countries being so popular in these times, rabbits soon made their way to England as an expensive and luxurious item. By the middle of the fifteenth century, rabbits had become a common commodity and were easily available (Veale, 1957). Due to a mixture of rich countryside and the lack of natural predators, rabbit populations spread and grew. It was then the line was drawn between useful small mammal and pest.


Domestic rabbits in modern society come in a large range of breeds with various sizes, colours, coat textures and temperaments. These have all been domesticated and selectively bred from the European rabbit and share its Latin name. Early domestication began when rabbits kept for meat were caught, caged and fattened. Later came the housed breeding of rabbit in French monasteries from the 6th century. Colours and temperament developed as a side effect of selective breeding for meat. By the 1500s, domestic rabbits were visibly distinguishable from their wild ancestors due to their white and coloured coats. By the end of the 18th century, rabbits were considered truly domesticated in the United Kingdom, and breeds were developed (De Blas et al, 2010). It was then a new range of uses for rabbits became apparent in modern society.

The range of uses in society

Companion animals

Rabbits are commonly kept pets in the United Kingdom. They are readily available from almost every pet shop or pet supplier in the UK and are sold as ‘easy-to-keep’ pets which have a high public appeal due to their appealing aesthetics. Media has a part to play in the popularity of pet rabbits. Rabbits in the media and similar sources portray rabbits as humble and cute creatures; they are rarely given bad press. From merchandise with photographs of small, fluffy rabbits to the increasingly popular pet rabbit shows, the rabbit is given a status which encourages people to want to keep them as pets. Animal lovers and younger people in particular show a large interest in keeping pet rabbits partly due to their appeal and partly due to their ease of care. Compared to a dog or cat, rabbits are reasonably inexpensive and can be limited to a small housing area, making them easier to keep.

There are many welfare implications involved with keeping rabbits that many pet rabbit owners are unaware of. The biggest welfare implication of keeping pet rabbits is the amount of stress even handling can cause a rabbit. Due to the physiology and natural behaviour of rabbits, human contact and handling cause great amount of stress; being prey animals, they see humans as predators (Paul-Murphy et al, 1998).

Food and Fur

Rabbits have always been a source of meat and fur for humans and these are the primary reasons they were introduced to the UK. Although fur farming was banned in England under the Fur Farming (prohibition) Act 2000, rabbit fur is still used over the world primarily for fashion purposes. Rabbit meat, although not one of the most popular meats, is still farmed in the UK. It is more commonly imported due to the demand being a lot smaller than beef, pork, lamb and poultry (DEFRA.gov.uk, 2009).

There are a lot of controversy over the welfare implications of farming, including the farming of rabbits. The physical pain and poor conditions rabbits were kept in for the purpose of fur farming were such an issue that it became banned in England and Scotland. Meat farming remains under supervision from authorities such as the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) due to the fine line between poor and acceptable animal welfare in the farming industry. Within farming conditions, rabbits are certain to suffer incredible stress. Once of the biggest stresses was transportation, where rabbits are loaded into trucks and transported in three levels of cages. The levels of corticosterone, a hormone involved with stress response, in the blood was significantly higher during and after transportation of rabbits used for meat (Liste et al, 1971).

Scientific Research

Rabbits are a key species used for animal experimentation and for scientific research purposes. For years, rabbits have been bred especially for the purposes of laboratory research and huge leaps have been made in the scientific and medical industry. Rabbits, particularly albinos, have always been used for a particular test known as a draize test. It is used to assess the toxicity of particular chemicals and cosmetics. The draize test involves dripping a concentration of the substance into the eye or on the skin of the animal.

Observation is then taken to see any physical signs of damage to the skin or eyes, such as irritation, abrasiveness or blindness. It is predicted that about twenty thousand rabbits are used each year for animal testing in the UK for a number of different scientific experiments including the draize test (aboutanimaltesting.co.uk, 2011). All of these experiments are designed to benefit humans even if some are seen as unnecessary i.e. cosmetic purposes.

There is a huge amount of concern relating to the welfare of animals used for experimentation and research purposes, particularly for rabbits used for draize tests. The amount of welfare concern is due to the stress that animals encounter in laboratories and the physical trauma caused by some of the experiments. Laboratories such as Huntingdon Life Sciences, one of the largest animal testing facilities in the UK, say that animal welfare is one of their main priorities. Other sources, including animal welfare activist groups claim that these facilities are abusing their power over animals and causing unnecessary amounts of pain. The types of testing that involves huge amounts of physical suffering such as the draize test and the amount of rabbits used then euathanised makes animal research a controversial issue with huge welfare implications.

Compromising and Enhancing Welfare Implications

Within all of the uses for rabbits in society, there are ways that welfare can be enhanced, but also ways that it is compromised. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 contains all information relating to animal welfare in the UK. One of the main points it stresses is that animals have five basic needs; the need for a suitable housing, suitable company, a suitable diet, to be protected from pain and suffering and the need to express natural behaviour. Human uses for rabbits provide a lot of chances for these needs to be ignored, for reasons such as money or practicality. This is why compromising and enhancing welfare issues need to be addressed.

The need for suitable housing

Animal used in society, for pets, farming or research, are kept in captivity. It is difficult to recreate natural habitats in captivity, especially for the purposes they are used for. Hutches, for example, provide shelter but they restrict movement so the rabbit cannot run and usually have open, mesh walls which will make a crepuscular animal like the rabbit uncomfortable during the daylight hours. Even though it is acceptable to keep a pet rabbit in a hutch and laboratory rabbits in cages, it is not natural to the rabbit. By using housing that allows rabbit privacy and somewhere to ‘hide’ you will decrease the amount of stress. Also, providing enrichment in the enclosure, it prevents boredom which will also lower stress levels (burgesspetcare.co.uk, 2011).

The need for suitable company

Although some good pet store or pet rabbit breeders will advise customers to buy rabbits in correct pairs or groups, often rabbits are bought and kept alone. Rabbits being naturally social animals will live in large mixed gender groups in the wild, however in captivity this is rarely the case. Being alone is a welfare issue as suitable company would require living in a group like they would in the wild. Typically, one buck, four to five does and young rabbits until weaned should be kept together in housing to match similar groupings in the wild. This provides social bonding, free breeding and other natural behaviours (Stauffacher, 1992).

The need for a suitable diet

In the wild, rabbits will eat large amounts of grass and vegetation. Pet rabbits will often be fed dry food and fresh vegetables with fresh hay and fresh water available all the time. Although unnatural, this diet (when fed in the correct quantities) will provide the pet with all its vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is commonly seen in veterinary practises health issues related to rabbits being overweight, including fly-strike as the rabbit is too fat to eat its caecotrophs and clean itself in the anal area. It is when irresponsible or ignorant rabbit owners fail to feed their pets the correct foods in the right quantities that it become a welfare problem. Also, rabbits kept in farming and laboratory environments will often be fed a complete food, which although meets the rabbits nutritional requirements, is not natural or enriching. By Providing block dry food, the rabbit will prevent selective feeding and by introducing scatter feeding or treat balls, it is more enriching for the rabbit while allowing them to get the correct nutrition (Harcourt-Brown, 2002).

The need to be protected from pain and suffering

This need is mostly related to the use of rabbits in testing laboratories. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 states that pain and suffering should be prevented, where many tests and experiments directly cause pain and suffering. The Scientific Procedures Act 1986 offers scientists wanting to test on animals guidelines and regulations they must follow to legally cause pain and suffering to a rabbit or animal. Some of the regulations involve that the minimum of animals should be used, they should use the lowest degree of neuro-physiological sensitivity possible, cause the least pain, suffering distress and lasting harm possible and they must produce satisfactory results (Offical-documents.co.uk, 2011). Even though there is current legislation allowing the use of animals in scientific procedures, it is difficult to prove that these regulations are being followed and that animals are not suffering unnecessarily, which become a welfare issue. This is an example of where animal welfare is being compromised, while companies try to enhance it.

The need to express natural behaviour

Natural behaviour exhibited by rabbits includes burrowing, crepuscular foraging and grazing, free breeding, running and social bonding. The majority of natural behaviours, including the ones mentioned, are innate behaviours which rabbits will have and want to express regardless of domestication and selective breeding. In a captive environment these natural behaviours can rarely be expressed even if the rabbit has the drive and the desire to do them. To an extent, humans can recreate some behavioural patterns such as feeding them at dawn and dusk and letting pet rabbits into a run, and some behaviours like grooming and breeding are able to go on in a captive environment. There are some innate behaviours however which are physically and practically unavailable to captive rabbits. Burrowing is difficult to recreate due to the vastness on rabbit made burrows in the wild with additional practicalities; lab rabbits need to be readily available to scientists. If welfare is enhanced for the other four needs, the natural behaviour of rabbits is already promoted. To provide good housing, nutrition and company, it needs to be as natural as possible and allow rabbits to carry out natural behaviours. Along with being healthy, rabbits will be far less stressed in a captive environment.

Rabbits have provided humans with a vital tool to use in their society. Whether it is as companion or novelty as a pet, a source of meat or a way of discovering vital medical breakthroughs, the rabbit as a species has benefitted people in their modern lives. Along with the uses of rabbits to humans however, it is up to humans to develop ways of making sure that the rabbits welfare is taken care of. Through legislation, morals, ethics and knowledge, people have been able to highlight welfare problems and can therefore strive to improve them.

Since rabbits where introduced to England and the UK, much has been done to change the ways they are used and how they are kept. Many changes have been made to improve the care. husbandry and welfare of rabbits; fur farms have recently been made illegal in England and Scotland and the uses of rabbits in greyhound racing has been abolished. With all the legislation and welfare regulations now in place, the keeping of rabbit is not only benefitting humans but is also better for the captive rabbits. However, there are still many ways that the welfare of captive rabbit can be enhanced, they just rely on humans to have the right knowledge and make the right decisions.

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