Rabbits need exercise

1st May 2018

At Bollington Veterinary Centre we are very keen to make sure that the rabbits we see are provided with opportunities to exercise and stay fit and alert.

Exercise is essential for the health of us all, but all too often many rabbits are left in small cages and enclosures for much of the day and suffer from all sorts of physical and behavioural problems.

We thought it would help if we highlighted some of the problems they can develop, and offer some suggestions on how to help your rabbit exercise safely at home.

Why do rabbits need exercise?

  1. Obesity

Obesity in rabbits is usually caused by two factors - a diet too high in calories and lack of exercise. Just as in humans, if a rabbit lives a sedentary life, where it’s exercise routine is limited to eating, grooming, defecating and urinating, you’ll soon find that the calories consumed vs the calories burned is unbalanced, resulting in fat deposition around the body.

Obesity and lethargy will cause stress on the heart and circulatory system. Large folds of fat may form around the tail base and dewlap, which will make grooming difficult and inhibit normal caecotroph consumption. This in turn will cause nutritional deficiencies, a constantly soiled bottom and subsequent skin disease. There is also the danger of fly strike which can result in death if not caught and treated quickly.

  1. Pododermatitis

Pododermatitis is a bacterial skin infection of the back feet and hocks. It can be caused by several factors, but the two most common ones are obesity and damp flooring. Wire cage floors have also been implicated. There is also a genetic disposition to this condition in some breeds, such as the Rex. Left untreated it can result in ulceration of the skin, which in severe cases can progress to bone infections.

Keep your rabbit fit and maintain a healthy weight to avoid those pressure sores. Make sure you’re committed to cleaning the living area and use good hygiene. You could try using some ‘vet bedding’ in some areas, as well as clean absorbent pelleted bedding in the litter tray. Using straw as bedding for rabbits that live outside helps to alleviate pressure on the hocks and back feet and using towels or soft matting for carpeted or hard floored areas for indoor rabbits, can often help. 

  1. Poor Bone Density

Animals that don’t get enough exercise can develop osteoporosis. Rabbits continually confined to a small cage will eventually develop thinning of the bones that could result in fractures. Daily exercise is vital to the production of healthy bones, so let your rabbit roam. Vitamin D is also key for strong bones and teeth and is produced and absorbed when the sun shines on your rabbit’s skin. It is important that rabbits have access to the outside in order to get enough vitamin D. This is especially important for house rabbits as the UVB rays that produce vitamin D cannot pass through windows. Even more reason to get your bunny outside and active!

  1. Poor Muscle Tone

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

Regular exercise will help your rabbit to build up strong muscles. It is also important that your rabbit has enough room in it’s cage or run to behave naturally; being able to stretch, stand up on their back legs, hop up onto different heights, hope about and lay stretched out are all important natural behaviours for rabbits.

For one or two compatible rabbits accommodation should be at least 3 x 1 x 1m (L x W x H), which comprises of an exercise area and a sleeping area. The sleeping area should be 1 x 1m (L x W) and at least 0.75m high (or 1.25m if open above). Rabbits need an uninterrupted length of 3m to allow them to run and exercise freely. The rabbits should have permanent access to all areas of the accommodation. Where it is not possible to provide daily exercise in the garden, a large exercise run should also be attached to the hutch. The exercise run should be a minimum of 2 foot 6 inches tall and be as large as possible to allow your bunny freedom to move around.

  1. Gastrointestinal and urinary problems

If a rabbit is not allowed to move about freely it may 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. If you notice that your rabbit is straining to pass urine, urinating more frequently, has not passed any pellets within a 24 hour period and/or has diarrhoea please call us straight away.

  1. Behavioural Problems

The biology and behaviour of pet rabbits is very similar to that of wild rabbits, so it’s very important that we understand and consider their natural habitat and behaviour to ensure that they’re as happy and healthy as possible. Rabbits that have not been neutered or spayed are also far more likely to have behavioural problems, caused by sexual frustration and/or territoriality

Lack of an interesting environment, opportunities to exercise, appropriate company and mental stimulation can lead rabbits to display abnormal behaviours including depression, fur plucking (self-harming), aggression, chewing cage bars, altered feeding, drinking or toileting habits, sitting hunched, excessive hiding, reluctance to move and repeated circling of their enclosure.

The good news is that there are some simple actions you can take to prevent these problems and ensure your rabbits are happy and healthy:

  • Provide an interesting environment with lots of hiding places and toys to interact with. Provide your rabbits with opportunities to exercise in a large, interesting area every day. Rabbits love to run, dig and jump and this keeps them emotionally and physically fit.
  • Spend time with your pets every day. Rabbits are intelligent, social creatures, that need to play and interact with other friendly rabbits as well as with their owners. They love toys and can even be ‘clicker-trained’, which is great for their mental stimulation.
  • Provide a well-balanced diet with lots of hay, grass and healthy high-fibre snacks to promote foraging behaviour. Think about how you dispense their food. Use a variety of dispensers such as willow balls, cardboard boxes, hay racks and treat balls so that accessing some of their food is made more challenging. This keeps rabbits busy and stimulated.
  • Provide lots of places to hide. Rabbits are prey animals and their natural response to potential threats is to run and hide. They will feel more secure if they know they have lots of bolt holes to access.
  • Allow them to be themselves. Rabbits have amazingly individual personalities and make great members of the family as long as their specific needs are taken into consideration. Nowadays, we have a far greater understanding of what rabbits need to keep them happy and healthy. It is also important to remember that the way a rabbit behaves will depend on their age, personality and past experiences.


Safe exercise at home

Before you let your rabbit out, don’t forget to make sure it’s safe. Check for the hidden dangers below.

Electrical wires

Preventing rabbits from chewing on electrical cords is critical as they can be badly burned, electrocuted or even killed. The consequences of biting into an electric wire are so severe that the only way to be safe is to keep all electrical wires out of reach. There are some simple ways of doing this, such as by using ‘spiral cable wrap’, plastic cable tubes or even metal strips.

Poisonous plants

Many houseplants are toxic. Make sure you place them on high furniture out of your rabbit’s reach. Watch out for leaves that may fall and go unnoticed.

Here’s a list of some of the common poisonous household plants

  • Flamingo Flower
  • Caladium or Elephant Ear
  • Clivia or Forest Lily
  • Dumb Cane or Leopard Lily
  • Devil’s Ivy
  • Poinsettia
  • Ivy
  • Amaryllis
  • Myrtle
  • Swiss Cheese Plant
  • Oleander
  • Oxalis
  • Heart-Leaf Philodendron
  • Aralia
  • Jerusalem Cherry
  • Peace Lily
  • Arrowhead Vine

If at any stage you think your rabbit may have eaten something poisonous, call us at Bollington Veterinary Centre and we will help.

Protecting furniture and walls

If a rabbit insists on chewing the table leg or corner of the sofa, try placing hardboard over the furniture to make them inaccessible while also providing an alternative chewing surface.

Clear plastic panels can be fixed to the wall to protect against your rabbit chewing or tearing off the wallpaper.

Restrict the areas of your home

Allowing your pet rabbit to explore the house is great, but it may be wise to restrict the area to just one or two rooms. That way you’ll find it easier to protect your pet from hazards and remove unwanted dangers.

Entertain and enrich your rabbit

Perhaps the most effective way to prevent damage to the home is to provide your rabbit with plenty of toys and behavioural enrichment. As a species they love to graze, roam, dig, burrow and explore. Cardboard boxes, cardboard tubes, hay balls, hay racks, edible branches and chews all help to satisfy your rabbit’s curiosity.

Make your garden safe

You can take some simple precautions to secure your garden.

  • Barriers - make sure your fence is at least four feet high - rabbits are adept at jumping!
  • Prevent digging - put wire mesh underneath fences to a depth of 30cm
  • Safe area - consider setting aside a specific area of the garden for your rabbit as it’ll be easier to monitor
  • Perimeter - check regularly for escape holes
  • Shelter - don’t leave your rabbit outside without protection from the wind, rain and sun
  • Avoid chemicals - don’t use weed killers, pesticides, insecticides, particle fertilisers or slug pellets anywhere near your rabbit’s grazing area

Be aware of poisonous garden plants

  • anything growing from a bulb – snowdrops, hyacinths (including grape hyacinths), bluebells, crocuses, daffodils, tulips and any other bulb-grown plant should be kept out of areas where rabbits graze.
  • Likewise buttercups, foxgloves, primrose, delphiniums/larkspur, columbine (aquilegia) hellebore, comfrey, poppy, periwinkle, monkshood, nightshade, ivy, privet, holly and yew are all reasonably common garden plants and all are toxic.

If you have these growing, either remove them or else ensure your rabbits cannot get to them.

Give us a ring if you would like more help with your rabbit