Study suggests 75% of two million pet rabbits are badly cared for and commonly misunderstood by families who look after them.
From Brer Rabbit to Peter, the enduring appeal of the rabbit has led to it becoming one of Britain's favourite pets – only beaten into third place by dogs and cats.
But new evidence suggests they are also one of the most cruelly neglected and misunderstood. There are up to two million rabbits being kept and bred in the backyards and gardens of the UK. However, according to a new survey, up to three quarters of them are being badly treated. Not only are they being kept in woefully cramped conditions, a situation for which the pet industry bears a heavy responsibilty; they are also becoming sick through being fed the wrong food.
A majority of the rabbit owners asked did not know what the correct diet for their pet was, and almost half didn't know that rabbits needed space in which to exercise.
Animal campaigners are so concerned by the situation that this week has been designated a rabbit awareness week.
The owners' survey, commissioned by a group of animal welfare organisations including the RSPCA, found that 60% didn't know that their pets were intelligent and social creatures that needed mental stimulation.
"Officers have been worried for many years about the rabbit. They are intelligent and inquisitive animals who have been getting the bad end of the deal for a long time now, and we really have to try to do something to change people's attitudes and tackle the ignorance that sadly is so prevalent," said RSPCA inspector Tony Woodley, who added that the charity had rescued 33,000 pet rabbits from cruelty in the past three years. There have also been some 250 convictions of cruelty to rabbits over that period.
"If you ask any RSPCA officer which animal they feel most sorry for, it's usually the poor, forgotten rabbit sitting in a tiny hutch without the proper food, or any food at all, and some dirty water. It might once have been loved for a brief time by some child, but it has quickly been forgotten and it's a very sad sight that I have seen countless times."
Woodley said rabbits were often mistakenly seen as an "easy" pet instead of the smart, sociable and curious animal with a need to run and dig that they are. "People have been keeping rabbits in this country for a long time, but it originally was kept as food, so it would be in a tiny hutch for a very short period of time.
"But people are still buying these small cramped things, and the pet industry is still putting them out there for sale, and they are terrible. Rabbits are gregarious animals: they live in the wild in groups."
The situation has got so bad that some animal sanctuaries will not let their rabbits be re-homed as pets for children. "I wouldn't go that far," said Woodley. "But I would want the whole family to want the animal and be prepared to all take care of it." Animal behaviouralists agree that misconceptions about the species, first introduced to British shores by the Roman invaders who kept them as meat, are deeply ingrained.
Three-quarters of the rabbits seen by British vets are in poor health, suffering from obesity and rotting or overgrown teeth.
"We have this view of the cute, fluffy animal as opposed to the sleeker creature that we actually see out there in the countryside running wild, but actually they are the same," said Dr Anne McBride, an animal behaviour expert from the University of Southampton.
"People are feeding them a lot of concentrated food and not the kitchen scraps they would once have, mostly because people are eating more convenience foods themselves. But rabbits need hay, grass, fresh greens, and a lack of that is directly related to their dental problems."
TV vet Matt Brash, who is supporting rabbit awareness week, said bored and unhappy rabbits self-harmed and became aggressive and depressed.
"There are some damaging myths out there that have been passed down through the generations about how to care for rabbits. We want to get owners thinking about how rabbits behave in the wild to understand what they need as pets to keep them healthy and happy."
The popular pet
- Fossil remains of the rabbit species date back 64 million years.
- Rabbits can purr, almost like cats, and can climb trees and be toilet-trained.
- Between 1.6 and two million are kept as pets in the UK.
- When rabbits are happy, they will jump and twist. This is called a binky.
- A rabbit's ears can turn in any direction and help in regulating its temperature, which is useful as they can sweat only through the pads on their feet.