At the RSPCA Manchester & Salford Branch we have one of the largest dedicated facilities for housing rabbits in the RSPCA network. Each rabbit at the centre has a 3m x 1m pen, some of which can be doubled in size by the swift release of a hatch. Having specialised in small furries for over 14 years we’ve had the privilege to care for thousands of rabbits during that time and be supported by an excellent team of exotic specialist vets at a private practice. We thought we offered a good, enriched experience for rabbits that adopters could strive to emulate, but our first experience of long-term housing of ‘case’ rabbits in a centre taught us a whole lot more.
Baby overload! Lots of resources need to be provided for such a large group but babies often like to share anyway!
Over the course of caring for 27 case rabbits we ended up with one group that consisted of 6 adult females and their collective babies. We housed them in a large room with plenty of resources so there was no (apparent) need for competitive behaviour. Our well rehearsed approach to rabbit care served us well, for a time:
– Variety of diet (fresh hay from bales, timothy hay, readigrass, lettuces).
– Feeding/forage opportunities.
– Provision of 3 dimensional objects such as leaping ledges/platforms, hiding opps, cardboard boxes, tunnels.
– Daily socialising with dedicated volunteers (we use a ‘traffic light’ system to identify how best to interact with individuals).
– Consistent, routine provision of care.
However, the hierarchical world of rabbits coupled with the rise of pesky ‘teenage’ hormones began to interfere with our best laid plans. Tensions started to rise and we had to up our game! The first thing we had to do was separate the boys (from the group and each other), as they hurtled towards puberty post 10 weeks of age. That enabled us to bide a bit more time housing the female adults and babies together and Sharon, one of our highly talented rabbit ‘whisperers’, came up with a plan to keep the all-female gang entertained.
One of our many ‘case’ babies!
Spending hours in her own time creating the most magnificent boredom breakers, Sharon provide the rabbits with DIY activity centres that were a sight to behold! They were an absolute hit with the buns and they really helped to reduce friction by diverting their attention to seeking and searching for prized tasty morsels of forage! They also bought us a bit more time whilst we waited for space to become available elsewhere to house them in smaller groups.
We like to stuff good quality hay into wooden toys and cardboard tubes
When the time came to separate the gang there were, thankfully, some very obvious social groups. Others were less obvious and despite our best attempts we ended up with 3 single females. One became withdrawn and unhappy living alongside other rabbits, whilst the other two (possibly related but differing in age) presented with overgrooming of their toes. It was a strange presentation but startlingly apparent, so we had to commence investigations.
Cardboard boxes are great – they can be hid in, chewed and jumped on!
The first thing we did was to rule out a physical cause of the overgrooming. We had them examined by an exotic vet specialist who then conducted xrays and blood tests. Thankfully there was nothing physically wrong with the overgroomers but we tried them on a course of anti-inflammatories to start with. This seemed to have some degree of benefit, the overgrooming settled down for a while, but once off the medication for a while it flared up again. We repeated the medication trail but the same occurred once off it for a while.
Overtime we felt that the medication was potentially working due to the extra interest it provided to the rabbits’ daily routine, i.e. twice a day they were presented with a sweet tasting elixir they licked from a syringe. What a great activity! So it got us thinking about new activities we could introduce to each rabbit. For Lavender we felt she needed stress/boredom relief, so we set about involving her with different types of puzzle feeding – stacking cups, puzzle feeders, snuffle mats. For Binky it felt like she needed to be able to release frustration, so we offered her different styles of dig boxes; the one that was the biggest hit was a mix of soil and sand.
Rabbits should have ‘vantage points’ so they can look around or ‘periscope’
The additional enrichment certainly helped, but ultimately, we knew that Binky and Lavender most likely just needed a change of environment with a lot more space and human/rabbit company. Don’t get me wrong, they lived alongside other rabbits in a way that afforded them both visual and sensory communication, plus they had daily socialising time with people, but it simply wasn’t enough after so very many months in our care. Unfortunately, the constraints of caring for case rabbits meant that we could not go about pairing them with others, and there were no other facilities to send them to that were bigger than our 3m x 1m pens.
For the withdrawn rabbit, it seems she had taken a disliking to living alongside other rabbits (irrespective of their age, gender, breed, neuter status), so we tried placing a partition between her and her neighbours. This seemed to provide her with more comfort (despite having plenty of hiding opportunities already) so they stayed up until she was released for rehoming and was adopted by a volunteer who had fallen for her grumpy charms.
You can also buy willow toys for bunnies to chew and throw around!
Over time puzzle feeders were rolled out to all the adult rabbits at the centre for ‘puzzle’ feeding at teatime. We use them to deliver tasty treats at the end of the day and we have different types depending on the ability of each rabbit. The rabbits all seem to relish the opportunity to ‘work’ for their favourite treats and create a truly joyful sound, like ‘click clacking’, across the centre as they play with their boredom breakers. To maintain their appeal and novelty they are removed after all the treats have been eaten, so the next day it adds renewed excitement to their daily routine.
We now also provide every adult rabbit a dig box consisting of part soil and sand. Admittedly it is messy and is often used as a latrine, but they seem well liked by the bunnies. We often find them lounging around in them and even cooling off in the heat of Summer days.
Check out the dig box at the back and well used puzzle feeder at the front!
Little did Sharon know what she would have started all those months ago. It is a pleasure to learn more ways to improve an animal’s experience of being in our care. We managed to achieve it with very little money and for the rabbits we have brought new elements to their environment and daily experience. Don’t worry, the cats haven’t missed out! They too have been introduced puzzling using egg boxes and textured ‘licky’ mats to the cats. We are also in the process of making sensory play matts for kittens!
We see each animal as an individual with their own specific needs, likes and dislikes and it is this appreciation and understanding that drives us to do the best we can for them all and keep our minds open to learning and improving what we do.

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