Highlands & Islands

Call to review pet rabbit protection in UK

Rabbit running in garden
Image caption Defra said owners were required to provide their pets with an adequate environment and exercise

Pet rabbits need better legal protection, according to an animal welfare scientist.

James Oxley said that unlike some EU countries, the UK does not have legal requirements on the size of hutches, or that rabbits be kept in pairs.

Writing in the World Rabbit Science Association's journal, he said rules in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 were "non-specific".

He has also suggested a review of how existing law impacts on rabbits.

Mr Oxley, who is involved in researching rabbit owners' interactions with their pets, said the review could also look at how the UK compared with other EU countries in its protection of the animals.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Rabbits Require Rights say the animals are the UK's most neglected pets

In a letter published in the journal World Rabbit Science, he said: "It has recently been noted that there are an estimated one to 1.7 million rabbits within the UK.

"Currently there have only been several small-scale studies in the UK which have looked at the management, personality and behaviour of pet rabbits and the views, personality and attitudes of new and current rabbit owners."

Mr Oxley said one study of pet owners had found that 60% of them planned to have an enclosure which was either the same, or smaller, than the recommend minimum size.

The research also suggested that 41% intended to keep their rabbit on its own.

Animal welfare charities the PDSA and Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund say a hutch should be no smaller than 6ft (1.8m) long, 2ft wide and 2ft high.

Both recommend pet owners provide rabbits with much larger enclosures than the minimum size, as well as a big run.

In the wild, rabbits live in social groups within large territories.

UK environment department Defra said owners were required to provide their pets with a suitable environment and proper exercise.

A spokesperson said: "Existing legislation provides adequate protection for the welfare of domestic pets including rabbits - anyone who fails to provide for their pet's welfare needs may face prosecution.

"There are no proposals to amend the legislation."

In Scotland, the campaign Rabbits Require Rights has a petition calling for rabbit welfare-specific legislation.

It said rabbits were the UK's third most popular pet, but also the most neglected.

The Scottish government said it was not planning any changes to the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, but would keep it under review.

A spokesman said: "Provisions within this legislation include making it an offence to cause/allow unnecessary suffering and abandonment.

"It is an offence not to ensure that an animal's needs are met to the extent required by good practice."

He added: "Guides to good practice for keeping rabbits are available and updated in view of changing knowledge and understanding."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Rabbits live in large social groups in the wild

UK-based Mr Oxley has been working with Switzerland's Dr Elodie Briefer on the rabbit-owner interaction research.

Dr Briefer, an expert on animal behaviour, has an interest in how birds and mammals use vocal signals to send out information about their species, body size, age, dominance status and mood.

In collaboration with Mr Oxley, she produced a questionnaire for rabbit owners.

They were asked about how often they talked to their pet, and about the tone that they used while doing so.

Other questions asked whether people had their rabbits with them while they relax in front of the TV, whether they believed talking to rabbits calmed them down when they were stressed and how intelligent they thought the animals were.

The results of the survey are now being processed.

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