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Enrichment

Why is enrichment important?

Rabbits are active, inquisitive, intelligent and social animals that need the freedom and space to exercise, explore, forage and socialise. Denying them this can cause health and behavioural problems.

 

Whether you have an indoor or an outdoor setup your rabbits need an environment which will give them the opportunity to carry out their normal behaviours; such as exploring, hopping, playing, socialising, binkies and zoomies; all of this is essential for your rabbit’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.

 

Rabbits are not solitary animals they are social creatures who live in large colonies in the wild. We humans domesticated rabbits and so therefore it is our responsibility to mimic their natural environment as much as we possibly can. Not doing this leads to frustration, followed by unwanted and destructive behaviour which most owners blame their pets for when it is actually the owner at fault. It is now a welfare NEED for rabbits to have company of their own kind.

 

Failure to meet your rabbit’s basic needs can cause them stress.

 

Another way to enrich your rabbit’s life is to give them attention. The best way to gain their trust is to sit with them and allow them to come to you. Don’t force them to interact if they don’t want to. Trust takes time to build and if you let them come to you then the trust can be built more quickly. If they nudge you with their nose that’s one of their ways of saying pet me / stroke me / play with me. Sometimes if you miss this cue they might gently nip you. This is their way of getting your attention.

People often get disheartened when their rabbits don’t seem to like being picked up or stroked. As they are prey animals’ being picked up is totally against their instincts; to them this is like being trapped and caught by a predator. In fact just them approaching you shows some trust and should feel rewarding; these behaviours shouldn’t be taken for granted.

How to make your rabbit's home more interesting for them

Rabbits are territorial animals. Your pet will claim everything they encounter and do this by rubbing their chin on it to mark it with their scent glands (chinning).

 

Enrichment for your rabbit's home whether indoor or outdoor should include:

  • A large enclosure with a big floor area and high ceiling allowing opportunities for normal behaviours, such as running, jumping, hopping and rearing up on hind legs (periscoping). This should be at least 3m x 2m by 1m high as a minimum.

  • A Permanently attached shelter such as a hutch, cage, shed or playhouse to the enclosure. This provides greater space and choice about which section they spend time in and when. The door to the hutch, shelter etc. should remain open at all times in order for them to have full time access to the exercise area.

 

Toys that most rabbits enjoy playing with

  • Paper – rabbits love shredding paper such as paper bags with the handles removed.  Put of wrap your rabbits' favourite food or treats in brown paper or bags for them to unwrap! Be aware that the ink on some paper can contain toxins so use unprinted paper where possible and avoid glossy pages.

  • Cardboard boxes with holes cut into them make fabulous hiding places; rabbits often chew cardboard so make sure there are no staples before using them. Avoid glossy printed card as it may contain toxic ink.

  • Cardboard tubes, such as toilet roll or kitchen roll inners, can be stuffed with hay and healthy treats as part of their daily ration. Stuff a small cat ball with a bell inside and they’ll enjoy throwing it around to make a noise. When first giving your rabbits cardboard keep an eye on them and ensure they not eating a large amount, some rabbits will eat a little which shouldn’t hurt but a large amount can lead to tummy issues

  • Chew toys such as Tree branches (make sure these are suitable for rabbits such as untreated apple and willow branches.) Many rabbits will be happy chewing on wooden sticks and willow balls.

  • ‘Washing line’ – tie a length of twine at a suitable height and peg edible leaves etc. to it so your rabbit has to stretch upwards to get the food.

  • Tunnels are a great way to mimic their natural environment; plastic or fabric tunnels are relatively inexpensive to buy. You could create your own tunnels from cardboard boxes or tubes and large ceramic or plastic pipes (please make sure these are wide enough for your biggest rabbit to explore without getting stuck.)

  • Logs and rocks in the garden can be a homemade obstacle course for your rabbit to hop around and explore. Move the objects around from time to time too as this will seem like they are exploring new territory. If the logs are hollow and big enough they will double up as tunnels too.

  • Climbing – rabbits love to sit on higher platforms to keep a watch out for potential danger. Make sure that whatever they can climb on is at a height and width that they can safely jump on to, will take their combined weight and has a surface that will not make them slide off it. If necessary add ramps or steps leading up to the platform (again these need to be wide enough and solid enough to be safe for your rabbits.) Some things that can be used as platforms are wooden crates, tree stumps, straw bales, wooden shelter with a flat roof and the top of a strong cardboard box.

  • Objects to play with or throw such as untreated straw, wicker baskets and balls, sea-grass mats and plastic flower pots. Solid plastic baby toys such as 'key rings', rattles, stacking cups can make good rabbit toys.

  • Digging box some rabbits like to play with some form of 'digging box' such as a plastic storage box, cardboard box, large litter tray, large plant pot or a childs sand pit (without the sand) or ball pit. Fill with soil, shredded paper, hay, straw or plastic balls and sprinkle dried forage/treats in for them to find.

  • You can also hide food in or under some of the above objects, as well as buying treat dispenser toys where they need to work out how to get to the treats. Rabbits will naturally forage for their food. Putting food in bowls means they eat food more quickly and it doesn’t keep them stimulated. Sprinkling food over hay, in dig boxes, putting in treat dispensers and hiding in toys etc. all add to their natural eating behaviour.

 

With all of the above forms of enrichment you need to:

  • Regularly inspect items for damage and repair, discard or replace any items that become damaged or dangerous.

  • Keep a close eye on your rabbits when first giving them a new item in case it makes them stressed or frightened. If it does then remove the item and watch their behaviour.

  • If you are using plastic items make sure your rabbit isn’t chewing on them; you don’t want them to get a blockage from swallowing plastic.

  • If you have multiple rabbits give them enough items for each rabbit to play with to avoid them competing for them.

  • Regularly rotate toys and objects to keep them interested.

  • Rabbits need a predictable routine - if they get used to receiving a certain toy or other item at a specific time each day, keep up this routine to avoid stressing them.

  • Don't fill your rabbits' housing with so many items they can no longer exercise easily. Rabbits need to run, jump, stand fully upright on their back legs and take a sequence of continuous hops safely.    

  • Be careful with fabrics such as towels, blankets, 'vet beds', rugs or carpet which could cause your rabbits harm if they eat them. Only provide such materials if you're sure they won't chew and eat them or use them only when you can supervise your rabbits. If your rabbits already use and are used to these items don’t panic and remove them if they are not chewing them. Simply watch out for this starting to happen.

 

Creating hiding places for your rabbit

Rabbits are prey animals and tend to hide if they're feeling afraid, stressed, unwell or simply want time away from other rabbits or humans. Providing your rabbits with hiding places in addition to their main shelter, hutch, run, shed, x-pen etc. is very important to their health and happiness as it's really important that they are able to hide if they feel threatened by potential predators. This will also play a role in them trusting you and helping with confidence

 

Position their hiding spaces where they are free from sights, smells and sounds of any potential predators; this should also be away from direct sunlight and draughts. The hide should have two openings wide and high enough for the rabbits to move into quickly but small enough to give them a feeling of safety. As a prey species rabbits feel comfort in having more than one entrance/exit.

If the hide is low enough they can also jump onto the top of them to observe their surroundings for potential threats; this also helps keep your rabbit fit if they regularly jump on and off the top. Make sure that it is strong enough to withstand the weight of your rabbits.  that the top surface is not slippery and there is nothing to low above it that they could injure themselves on when they jump on or off.

 

If you find your rabbits start using their hiding places regularly and for large amounts of time they may be unwell, stressed or frightened. Check their area and your rabbit to see what it is that is troubling them.

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