Environmental enrichment has been defined as “the stimulation of the brain by its physical and social surroundings in an attempt to reduce or overcome problems caused by containment” [1–3]. Its goals are to alter the rabbit’s captive behaviour so that it is similar to the normal behaviour of rabbits in the wild.
To understand what environmental enrichment is required for rabbits, it is first important to understand what behaviours , abilities, and requirements are shared by all rabbits (both wild and pet) that can be considered to be characteristic of rabbits (‘species typical’ information). It is then important to select enriching strategies that are behaviourally relevant and physically feasible for the rabbit. Designing an enrichment plan that is incompatible with the animals’ normal behaviour, physical attributes or existing environment may not only be fruitless but may also cause frustration and potential harm.
Behaviour of wild rabbits
In the wild, rabbits can be found in a many different habitats, such as grasslands, swamps, open paddocks, and bushland. They have also been seen in some of the most inhospitable desert terrains and on sandy beaches. Rabbits have truly shown themselves to be adaptable and robust when faced with a variety of environments and climatic conditions.
This can be attributed to their fairly simple basic needs – they either need ground they can burrow into (or shade and long grass to hide and stay cool in) during the day, and a simple and abundant food source of fresh or dried grass, and water.
They are social creatures and enjoy being in close proximity to other rabbits. The groups that wild rabbits live in are accurately termed “colonies” and their burrows can become extensive enough to be called “warrens.” These warrens can be quite complex, with many entrances and exits to allow both ventilation and escape. They have multiple nesting chambers where the females will give birth and care for their young. Wild rabbits go out to graze in groups, rarely venturing far from the safety of the burrow or warren. Daily movements are generally within 150m-200m of the warren, but this distance can increase during droughts (up to 1500m) or decrease during the breeding season.
There is an extensive body of literature devoted to observations of wild rabbit behaviour [5–7]. They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Although they can still be seen during the daytime (especially if they are undisturbed or if their numbers are high), they will always be more active at beginning and end of the day. Wild rabbits will often occupy areas of vegetation during daylight hours, which allows them to hide from predators while they graze or sleep – they are comfortable grazing in the open only at night. Activity appears to decrease at night if there are high winds or rain, which limits their ability to detect predators. While there are a lot of species-specific differences in the detail of daily behaviour, the routine is often fairly consistent.
- Their active day usually beings in late afternoon or early evening, when rabbits emerge from their burrows and begin to feed.
- Wild rabbits feed throughout the night, and return to their daytime resting place, above or underground, soon after dawn.
- Rabbits rest through the morning hours, possibly until mid-afternoon.
- How active rabbits are during the day seems to primarily depend on how hungry they are and, therefore, indirectly on population density relative to food supply. Young rabbits are often hyperactive and playful. After about one year of age, adult rabbits become more sedate and predictable with occasional periods of activity.
In captivity this routine is virtually reversed; with the food in the same place at the same time each day, rabbits only need to spend 10%-20% of their time looking for food. This leaves 80% of the rabbit’s active day to be filled with other activities. When a rabbit is housed on their own, with limited social opportunities available, it is no wonder that some captive rabbits develop behavioural problems such as over-grooming, stereotypic behaviours, and mental dullness.
Environmental enrichment therefore aims to provide activities for the rabbit to engage in that ‘fill’ the currently empty 80% of the day and stimulate the rabbit’s brain while doing so. It is generally considered that animals behaviourally well-adapted to their environment display “species‐specific behaviour” as permitted by their social and physical environment and not abnormal behaviours. Rabbits who are not adapting well display a range of abnormal behaviours, including:
- Excessive grooming
- Stereotypic behaviour (repetitive behaviour that serves no purpose), e.g., pawing at the corners of cages, wire-biting, overeating, and playing with the water supply
- Poor socialisation skills, e.g., aggression towards other rabbits and people
- Phobic behaviours, e.g., neophobia (fear of something new), startling behaviour, etc.
- Excessive sleeping
There is a tendency to think that environmental enrichment means just providing some toys or other distractions. This is only a small part of the process. An enrichment plan should include some or all of the following:
- Foraging enrichment
- Physical enrichment
- Sensory enrichment
- Social enrichment
- Occupational enrichment
Foraging is the act of searching for and finding food. As mentioned earlier, wild rabbits can spend up to 80% of their day foraging and feeding, most actively in the morning and the evening. Foraging therefore has great social and behavioural importance, but is one of the most severely constrained classes of behaviour in pet rabbits and this can have potential negative impacts on their welfare. Given that we know rabbits engage in four basic behaviours on a daily basis – foraging, socialising, grooming, and resting – removing the ability to forage (by feeding the same food in the same bowl at the same time) leaves a gaping hole that has to be filled with the other behaviours. A rabbit who lives alone without other rabbits to socialise with may therefore start to over-groom or sleep excessively. Worse, they may develop stereotypic behaviours such as aggression, pacing, biting the wire of their enclosure, etc.
Foraging enrichment therefore seeks to prevent or treat these problems. It requires the rabbit(s) to chew and sort through, manipulate and/or open objects to get to food. It should reflect the rabbit’s natural foraging behaviour (e.g., feed them morning and night, and ensure there is sufficient hay to last the night) and can be increased in complexity as the rabbit’s skill levels increase. This food should be part of, and not in addition to, their normal daily amount of food.
Examples of foraging enrichment include:
- Scattering the food over the floor of the enclosure
- Placing the food in small cardboard boxes or tubes, or in paper parcels that have to be chewed open to access the food
- Hanging hay and grass in suspended racks so the rabbit has to reach and stretch to get to the food
- Multiple food dishes around the cage the enclosure, some with food, some without
- Covering the food dishes with paper or cardboard through which the rabbit has to chew to access the food
The rabbit will have to be taught how to use some of these foraging tools; e.g., leaving a cardboard box open till the rabbit learns there is food in it, and then gradually closing it. Weigh your rabbit daily, watching for unexpected weight loss, and check their faecal output to check if the rabbit might be having difficulty locating food.
Physical enrichment ranges from objects placed in the rabbit’s environment (such as toys, swings, ladders, mirrors, etc.) to the environment as a whole (e.g., the space available for the rabbit to engage in locomotory behaviours such as running or hopping). This is where the toys that many people provide come in. There are some general guidelines to follow when considering safe enrichment items for rabbits:
- If the item is constructed of synthetic components, use sturdy and large enough materials to prevent ingestion. Avoid cotton or natural fibres, as these are frequently eaten and can lead to gut obstructions
- For multiple rabbits in a cage, provide multiple enrichment devices to reduce item guarding and aggression – at least one per rabbit, plus a few spares
- For rabbits fearful of new items, slowly introduce the enrichment to the rabbit’s enclosure (or the rabbit to the enrichment area)
Some suggestions for physical enrichment include:
- Paper – shredded newspaper, paper bags with the handles removed and telephone directories (with the glossy covers removed). Wrap your rabbits’ favourite food in brown paper for them to unwrap!
- Cardboard – boxes with holes cut into them make great hiding places.
- Tunnels – buy plastic and fabric tunnels or create tunnels from cardboard boxes or tubes and large ceramic pipes (with a wide diameter).
- Objects to play with or throw – such as untreated straw, wicker, sea-grass mats and baskets, balls and plastic flowerpots. Solid plastic baby toys such as baby ‘key rings’, rattles, stacking cups and some robust cat and parrot toys can make good rabbit toys.
- Digging opportunities – try to provide them with some form of ‘digging box’. Safe places for rabbits to dig include large plant pots or litter trays filled with earth, cardboard boxes filled with shredded paper or sandpits filled with child-friendly sand.
- Places to mark their territory – make sure there are objects or areas within your rabbits’ home where they can mark their territory using chin secretions, urine, and droppings.
Sensory enrichment utilises the rabbit’s senses such as sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Providing ‘a room with a view’, background noises, videos, toys, etc. can improve a rabbit’s welfare. It must be used with caution, as some rabbits may become visibly stressed with loud sounds, certain images, or a perceived lack of security/privacy. Placing a rabbit’s enclosure in the middle of the family room can certainly provide sensory enrichment but the rabbit must have the ability to ‘get away from it all’ when the family activities become too much.
Social enrichment is the social interactions between rabbits, and between rabbits and people. It can be indirect, where the rabbit can see or hear other animals, such as when a rabbit is in an outdoor enclosure. Direct social enrichment includes cage mate pairing, social rooms or enclosures with numerous rabbits interacting, and allowing contact between enclosures. Done well, it allows the rabbits to perform ‘species‐specific’ behaviours (which is highly likely when compatible rabbits are housed together), but it has the potential to have drawbacks and unwanted behaviours such as cage mate aggression. Social enrichment may need to be carefully chaperoned until it is clear the rabbits can safely intermingle and there is an escape mechanism in case aggression occurs. See here for our article on companionship and bonding.
Occupational enrichment includes providing your rabbits with items that elicit activities including problem solving, learning, and choosing and controlling some feature in the rabbits’ environment. This includes providing rabbits choices about how they spend their time and is not just providing them with foraging opportunities. For example, although it comes with certain risks, allowing your rabbits to free range in the house (or even outside) can provide occupational enrichment. Having the ability to move freely between the hutch and the run is another form of occupational enrichment.
As rabbits are a prey species, it’s important that they’re able to scan their area for threats. Giving them a ‘lookout point’, such as a raised platform, will reduce anxiety and provide a potential hiding place where they can go if they feel scared. A platform also helps your rabbit keep fit, as jumping on and off a raised area will help keep their weight healthy and their bones strong. These platforms can be as simple as a bale of hay, a cardboard or wooden box, or a tree stump.
A word of warning
Some rabbits suffer from ‘neophobia’ – the fear of something new. If the environment is familiar and free of danger signs, the rabbit behaves normally. If the environment changes or is unfamiliar, or if the rabbit senses danger, they become stressed. Providing them with new toys and activities must be done gradually to prevent the rabbit from been overwhelmed (stressed out) or ‘flooded’ – so overwhelmed by the new things that the rabbit gives up and becomes less interactive and more inactive. The smells of hay and familiar foods tend to lessen stress.
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