Rabbit Social Housing

Two pair-housed New Zealand white rabbits play with enrichment toysThe University of Michigan is the proud home of one of the most robust rabbit social housing programs in the nation. Part of the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine (ULAM), the award-winning Rabbit Social Housing Team provides evidence-based research and training on rabbit behavior and social housing in a laboratory setting.

To fulfill this mission, the team frequently collaborates with the Refinement and Enrichment Advancements Laboratory (REAL) and the Behavioral Welfare Group, both part of ULAM.

The team's findings have been shared with colleagues across a wide variety of platforms, including book chapters, journal articles, lectures, conference presentations, hands-on laboratories, telephone consultations, and webinars. In 2019, the team won the Laboratory Animal Welfare Training Exchange (LAWTE) Top Program Award.

Led by their dedication to optimizing the care of laboratory rabbits and improving animal welfare across the biomedical field, the Rabbit Social Housing Team is pleased to share the information and resources below.

Rabbit Social Housing FAQs

No. Rabbits with minor lesions that are expected to heal quickly without intervention (e.g. small scrapes or red marks, areas of hair loss) should be kept together. Minor cosmetic imperfections like these may occur as rabbits interact normally during grooming, play, or establishment of social hierarchies.

Instead of separating the pair, these animals should be monitored closely and given increased species-specific enrichment to ensure no progression occurs. Rabbits should be separated immediately if they have any lesions on the eyes or genitals, or if they have major lesions such as those that are actively bleeding.

All lesions should be assessed by veterinary personnel. 

No. Once separated, adult males must stay separated. If separated less than 24 hours, females can often be re-paired using the methods described in Thurston S., Burlingame L., Lester P. A., Lofgren J. Methods of Pairing and Pair Maintenance of New Zealand White Rabbits (Oryctolagus Cuniculus) Via Behavioral Ethogram, Monitoring, and Interventions. J. Vis. Exp. (133), e57267, DOI:10.3791/57267 (2018).

It is recommended that the separated males be provided with an alternative social experience, such as dividers with perforated holes, to help prevent the development of stereotypic behaviors from social isolation.  

No. Chasing and mounting are normal dominance hierarchy establishment behaviors for rabbits. If you interrupt these behaviors you could interrupt their hierarchy establishment, which will lead to actual fighting behaviors.

If chasing and mounting are observed frequently, increase their enrichment and monitoring; rabbits should remain together unless lesions necessitating separation are noted (see FAQ #1 above).

**Rabbits should be separated if they have lesions on the genitals or eyes, deep puncture wounds, or actively bleeding lesions.
Superficial lesions or cosmetic imperfections should be assessed by veterinary personnel but separation may not be required.
**

Yes. When two rabbits are engaged in circling behavior (chasing in which both rabbits are engaging in chasing each other, neither is attempting to flee away) and/or biting or fighting (rabbits will punch and kick out at each other aggressively), you should intervene with a squirt of water from a water bottle to each rabbit to stop the behavior.

Typically, the rabbits will retreat to opposite sides of the cage to groom the water from their fur. The pair may be able to remain together but examine them carefully for lesions that necessitate separation (see FAQ #1 above). If the animals do not have such lesions, the pair may remain together but you should increase monitoring and enrichment to ensure fighting does not progress.

An aggressive altercation does not necessarily mean that a pair will fail, and often pairs can work through issues with increased species-specific enrichment.  

No. First, increase their species-specific enrichment and monitoring. Next, brush out the fur to prevent matting or urine scalding. If the coat condition or underlying skin condition is impaired, notify veterinary personnel for further assessment.

Finally, move the pair to a different location on the rack or in the room. Often the change in scenery or neighbors can cause a large reduction in urine spraying behavior.

Full-body bathing of rabbits is NOT recommended even in cases of urine scalding. Proper cleaning of the impacted area can be accomplished without a full-body bath which can cause rabbits to go into shock.    

  • The best enrichment items for rabbits are the ones that allow them to express their natural tendencies to forage and dig; therefore, items like stuffed bags and boxes are a form of cheap and easy enrichment that satisfies this need. You can also fill a small litter pan with shredded paper, hay, and/or corn cob bedding and bury treats to create a foraging pan. For quick and free enrichment that allows them to dig, roll up cardboard and stick it in the cage door; they will have to work to pull it into the cage and then will dig and shred the cardboard.
  • Wood blocks/chew sticks and toys are good short-term items and provide excellent opportunities for gnawing, but because they do not provide opportunities for engagement beyond a few minutes, they are relatively low value.
  • Food treats are a high-value item but should be provided in a way that requires the rabbit to work in order to access the food (e.g., freeze chunks of produce in an ice cube tray or stuff carrot sticks into a ball with holes). Finally, supplemental enrichment should be provided in addition to other items but never as the sole enrichment item. This could be low volume instrumental music or a white noise machine. Note that either option should only be provided for a maximum of eight hours.
  • Items must be rotated frequently for novelty and, as with all enrichment, ensure you have approval from your institution's enrichment committee, veterinary personnel, and Principal Investigator prior to providing any new enrichment items.
  • Review the presentation on Rabbit Categories of Enrichment for more information and additional suggestions.  

No. Male pairs can be maintained well into adulthood with proper monitoring and enrichment intervention when necessary. As long as husbandry staff is properly trained on rabbit behavior and what signs to look for that may indicate that species-specific enrichment should be increased, male pairs can be maintained for the length of their life in the laboratory. 

Sexual maturity in rabbits is around 16-24 weeks, but an internal study found that approximately half of rabbit pairs started to show signs of aggression between weeks 10-20.

It is recommended to monitor pairs closely during these weeks as the likelihood of aggressive altercations is higher and thus there may be a need for enrichment intervention.

Typically, pairs that are maintained through this period can be maintained well into adulthood.

Additional Information & Resources

Books

  • Thurston S., Ottesen J. The Laboratory Rabbit. (2020). In: Animal-centric Management: Enhancing Refinement in Biomedical Research. Ed. Sorensen, D., Cloutier, S., Gaskill, B. CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group. (Pre-Publication).
  • Lofgren J. Rabbits. (2015). In: Comfortable Quarters for Laboratory Animals. Ed. Liss C., Litwak K., Tilford D., Reinhardt V. Animal Welfare Institute.

Journal Articles

  • Thurston S., Burlingame L., Lester P. A., Lofgren J. Methods of Pairing and Pair Maintenance of New Zealand White Rabbits (Oryctolagus Cuniculus) Via Behavioral Ethogram, Monitoring, and Interventions. J. Vis. Exp. (133), e57267, DOI:10.3791/57267 (2018).

Popular Press Articles

Online Presentations

  • Sarah Thurston, BS, LAT, CLABP – ULAM Social Housing Coordinator, Program Founder
    • Provides program oversight; behavioral evaluations and interventions; in-house and inter-institutional training.
  • Lisa Burlingame, BS, LVT, LATG – Primary Veterinary Technician, Program Founder
    • Provides medical care; behavioral evaluations and interventions; in-house and inter-institutional training.
  • Patrick Lester, DVM, MS, DACLAM – Faculty Veterinarian, Program Founder
    • Provides medical care, in-house, and inter-institutional training; serves as a liaison for laboratory staff.
  • Jennifer Lofgren, DVM, MS, DACLAM – Faculty Veterinarian, Program Founder
    • Provides in-house and inter-institutional training.
  • Tara Martin, MS, DVM – Faculty Veterinarian, Veterinary Social Housing Liaison
    • Provides medical care; veterinary oversight; in-house and inter-institutional training.
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Questions?

For any rabbit social housing questions please contact Sarah Thurston, ULAM Social Housing Coordinator, at sthursto@umich.edu.

If you would like to know more about REAL, or are interested in learning about how animal enrichment can enhance your next project, please contact ulam-questions@umich.edu or call (734) 764-0277.