A new English study has found that, despite recent surveys suggesting that about half of pet rabbits are housed singly, housing rabbits together actually reduces stress-related behaviour and helps them keep warm in winter.
The study by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC)—which sought to compare the welfare of single versus paired rabbits—was conducted during wintertime at a rabbit-only rescue centre, and included 45 rabbits, comprising of 15 housed singly and 15 pairs.
Like most pet rabbits, they were housed either outdoors or in unheated outbuildings. Singletons were mostly in smaller enclosures than the pairs and were awaiting pairing with a suitable partner.
In the wild, rabbits are social, but they are also territorial. Therefore, it was predicted singletons would show more stress-related behaviour, and reduced body temperature (being unable to huddle with another individual when cold), but that pairs may be aggressive towards each other.
The results from the study showed that pairs interacted socially almost one third of the time, such as huddling together, grooming or nuzzling each other. Interestingly, aggression between pairs was never observed during the study.
Most of the pairs comprised a neutered female and neutered male, which may be the most harmonious partnership for pet rabbits.
The study also found that body temperature was significantly lower in singletons than pairs, with at least 0.5oC mean difference. On colder days, rabbits adopted compact postures more often, and relaxed postures less frequently, suggesting that they were actively attempting to keep warm.
After handling, pairs returned to normal behaviour in the home-pen significantly faster than singletons did.
“It’s crucial that we take rabbits’ needs for a companion seriously,” said Dr Charlotte Burn, Associate Professor in Animal Welfare and Behaviour Science at the RVC.
“There is a culture of getting ‘a rabbit’ and this needs to change, meaning that pet shops, vets and animal welfare charities should advise owners on housing rabbits with a compatible partner.”