Lack of exercise – encouraging rabbits to do more

Exercise is essential for the health of us all, and this certainly applies to rabbits. All too often rabbits are kept in cages that are far too small, spending hours on their own at the bottom of a garden. Sadly, there are plenty of badly informed people who describe rabbits as easy to look after because they can be caged and don’t take up much space. To us this is obviously unacceptable, as it will lead to all sorts of physical and behavioral problems. However, it’s our duty to educate and inform rabbit owners to know the difference and change.

Posted: 12 November 2019

Lack of exercise – encouraging rabbits to do more


Do you talk about the 5 Welfare Needs?

At Burgess Pet Care we have been trying to raise this subject over many years. Working together with the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) and Rabbit Awareness Week we constantly try to promote the 5 welfare needs of rabbits. Every pet owner must provide for the following needs of their pets:

  1. Health – protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease and treated if they become ill or injured.
  2. Behaviour – the ability to behave naturally for their species eg. Play, run, dig, jump etc.
  3. Companionship – to be housed with, or apart from, other animals as appropriate for the species. i.e. company of their own kind for sociable species like rabbits.
  4. Diet – a suitable diet. This can include feeding appropriately for the pet’s life stage and feeding a suitable amount to prevent obesity or malnourishment, as well as access to fresh clean water.
  5. Environment – a suitable environment. This should include the right type of home with a comfortable place to rest and hide as well as space to exercise and explore.

Lack of exercise – are your clients aware of the problems?

A. Weight gain - obesity is usually caused by two things, namely a high calorie diet and lack of exercise. Any animal with a sedentary life, where its exercise routine is limited to eating, grooming, defecating and urinating, will end up gaining weight. In rabbits this will result in;

  • Fat deposits around the tail base and dewlap
  • Inability to access and eat caecotrophs
  • Stress on the cardiovascular system
  • Difficulty grooming
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Soiled bottom
  • Skin disease
  • Increased risk of fly strike
  • Pododermatitis

B. Pathological fractures – any animal that doesn’t get enough exercise is at risk of developing osteoporosis. Rabbits confined to a small cage will eventually exhibit marked thinning of the bones that could result in spinal or long bones fractures.

C. Muscle weakness and heart failure - a rabbit sitting in a cage day after day will become weak and unfit, which will in turn lead loss of muscle tone and disuse atrophy. All the muscles of the body can be affected, including the heart.

D. Faecal and urinary soiling - a rabbit that’s not allowed to move about freely can develop all sorts of abnormal elimination habits. Wild rabbits that exercise routinely will urinate and defecate frequently, whereas a bored lethargic pet rabbit may hold onto its urine or faeces causing alternations to the normal faecal pellets and caecotrophs, as well as increased calcium sediment (sludge) in the bladder.

E. Aggression - behavioural problems in rabbits are complex. A bored, confined rabbit which isn’t allowed to exercise freely will develop a wide range of abnormal behaviours including lethargy, aggression, chewing and barbering.

Fortunately, there are numerous things you can suggest to your clients to help them encourage their pets to do more. Below are 8 of our ideas.

The lazy rabbit – 8 ways to get them moving

  1. Exercise area - create an exercise area in the home. This could be a quiet back room, or perhaps a safe area in the garage. Don’t forget to check for wires, cables and other dangers.
  2. Obstacle course – these offer a creative way of exercising whilst providing mental stimulation. You can do this by providing toys and objects they can interact with, such as tunnels, boxes and bedding hay.
  3. Garden - make sure the garden is rabbit proof before releasing the animal to explore. They shouldn’t be able to escape anywhere or be near potentially dangerous objects.
  4. Confinement – it’s strange to suggest this, but it can work to confine an animal to a smaller area for short periods, and then open the area up at different times of the day. If they have access to the whole area all the time, they may get bored and lazy, remaining in their favourite area all day. By confining them, they are more inclined to explore when they are released.
  5. Toys – offer a variety of safe objects that the rabbit can interact with.  Large cardboard boxes and tubes to run through are ideal. Move objects around daily to make them curious and stimulate them to move about as they investigate. 
  6. Forage – hide food and hay in crumpled pieces of newspaper or cardboard tubes with the ends folded over, and then distribute these around the exercise area to encourage foraging.
  7. Digging and shredding – provide activities which rabbits enjoy, such as digging and chewing. You’d be surprised how much exercise and mental stimulation they can get by working on a pile of newspapers in a box. Start by placing several layers on the bottom and some shredded and crumpled pieces on top. Another idea is to mix soil and straw in a box, and again let them explore, dig and chew. So many hours of fun!
  8. Move and return – for those very sedentary individuals, especially the older rabbit, you can encourage some exercise by placing them in another room and allowing them to find their way back to their preferred space. Scatter some treats and forage along the way.