The effect of environmental enrichment on the behaviour of caged rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Rabbits show less stress in an enriched environment

source: L.T. Hansen and H. Berthelsen
Applied Animal Behaviour Science (68) 2000
starts p 163, 16 pages long

A study of caged rabbits has found that they can benefit from an enriched environment. Traditional cages tend to restrict social behaviour and foraging, and rabbits may not have enough room to move, which could affect their skeletons. Traditional cages are often not high enough for rabbits, which need to be able to sit upright and not have their ears touching the cage top.

There were 47 male and 49 female rabbits used in this study, all French Lop crosses with New Zealand Whites. They had previously lived alone in conventional cages. Half the rabbits were put in enriched cages, which were 80 cm high at the back, compared to 40 cm for conventional cages, and which also had a wooden box at the back. Daylight from windows supplemented artificial light, turned on from 7am to 4 pm. Videos were recorded of some of the rabbits, and the rabbits were also observed during the daytime by a researcher. The rabbits were also observed in a large area (‘open field test’) as well as in their cages.

There were some sex differences, for example, females spent longer gnawing, and males spent longer grooming. Females in the enriched system were also more likely to use the nest box.

Rabbits in the enriched system were less restless than rabbits in conventional cages. Restlessness, or not finishing activities, is seen as a symptom of stress. Rabbits from enriched cages were also less timid when being caught following the open-field test, and this was especially true for female rabbits. Females were also more likely to gnaw bars in the conventional cages. Females do appear less able to cope with a barren environment compared with an enriched environment. A disturbance often caused rabbits in enriched cages to jump onto the nest box, where they seem to have a better lookout position. Few rabbits went inside the nest box to shelter or for rest, and those that did were mainly females. Female rabbits in the wild tend to spend more time in burrows than do male wild rabbits. There was little difference between rabbits from enriched and conventional cages in terms of space covered in the open field test, though the rabbits from enriched cages may have moved out of boldness, and those from conventional cages may have moved due to fear.

Rabbits in both systems spent longer grooming than do wild rabbits. This may be a displacement activity arising from disturbance, or linked to understimulation, or to social deprivation. Both wild and caged rabbits tend to spend much of the time inactive.

Rabbits do appear to benefit from an enriched environment, and this is especially true for female rabbits.