Your rabbit & guinea pig's 5 welfare needs

Calling all rabbit and guinea pig owners! Are you familiar with your pet’s 5 welfare needs as laid out in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act? This states that anyone responsible for a pet must pay attention to five important aspects of care: Environment, Health, Company, Behaviour and Diet.

When you adopt or buy a new rabbit or guinea pig, they are totally reliant on you to provide a safe environment, a healthy diet, daily and emergency health care, companionship, training and outlets for natural behaviours. Read on to find out what each of these means for you as a rabbit or guinea pig owner.

ENVIRONMENT

Rabbits and guinea pigs need a LOT of space.  Rabbits need room to run, jump, stretch up, dig and forage.  And as a social animal it is vital to give your rabbit a play mate, otherwise they can easily become stressed.  Happy bunnies have a large weather-proof hutch connected to a large run. The recommended size for their run is a minimum of 6ft, allowing your bunnies to run around, stretch and investigate as they would in the wild. Owners can consider joining two runs together for even more space. A small hutch is only suitable as a temporary shelter in a run or enclosure.

As rabbits can live up to 12 years it’s important to buy a nice spacious home and run for them, and most importantly to allow access to fresh grass and clean hay daily. It’s also important to remember that rabbits and guinea pigs tend to be ‘crepuscular’ which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. This means they will be happier exercising on their own terms and not by your daily routine. Unrestricted access to their run is essential. Did you know you can train rabbits to use cat flaps? It’s easy to install one on their hutch or run and give them freedom without letting in draughts or damp.

We’ve all seen rabbit burrows while out in the countryside, so you will not be surprised to hear that rabbits and also guinea pigs just love to dig! But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your lawn… Whilst access to grass is essential, by providing a large container of soil or earth your pet will be more than happy to dig in there rather than digging up your daisies!

So you’ve got the large hutch and large run, you may be thinking you’re sorted. But, what about including some fun enrichment toys for your pets? Boredom is common among rabbits and guinea pigs but it can be very easily resolved. Many toys can be easily made at home, stuffing treats and grass into un-dyed toilet roll tubes to roll about makes a great toy and is fun for children to make too! Alternatively you can buy fun re-useable toys, tunnels, dens and hay racks for your pets here. Remember to change your pet’s toys regularly so they have new things to explore and discover.

HEALTH

Choose a good quality bedding and floor covering for your cage or hutch and ensure that it is kept dry by removing any wet areas twice daily. Check their feet regularly as damp bedding can cause foot disorders for rabbits.  Keep your bunny away from draughts, very high or low temperatures and humidity. Sunlight is very important for rabbits as it provides vitamin D which helps the calcium build up strong teeth.

If you spot your bunny eating their poop… don’t freak out. This is natural behaviour and is part of their digestion. Rabbits and guinea pigs will eat their first poop to ensure they have absorbed absolutely every last molecule of nutrients they can from their diet.

In summer spray your rabbit’s rear end to prevent fly strike. If your rabbit has long hair, carefully trim their rear end so that they do not get faeces matted in their fur. Check your pets daily for signs of fly strike and take action fast.

DIET

It goes without saying that fresh water should be provided 24/7 and checked a few times every day – especially during hot or very cold weather. Multiple water bottles should be dotted about their run and hutch so they are never too far from a cool drink.

Both rabbits and guinea pigs are herbivores and graze throughout the day (and night) to keep their digestive systems moving. Ensure you can provide unrestricted access to fresh grass and clean hay at all times. Grass and hay is the most important element in your rabbit or guinea pigs diet, and must be the majority of their diet. However, you can also supplement their diets with fresh fruits and vegetables, nibble logs, seeds, pellets and more (although avoid iceberg lettuce). Remember to stick to the manufacturer’s instructions on pellet food. Guinea pigs also need daily intake of vitamin C, which can be provided via fresh leafy greens such as kale and broccoli. Contrary to popular belief, rabbits and guinea pigs do not naturally eat root vegetables (such as carrots) in the wild, so remember to feed these sparingly!  Guinea pigs really enjoy herbs such as fresh parsley, and also other plants such as dandelion and groundsel! (Remember to wash the leaves first).

Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life and need to be worn down and kept at the correct length and shape by eating grass, hay and leafy green plants.  Your pet can develop dental disease if the correct foods are not eaten regularly.

Rabbits and guinea pigs produce two types of droppings; hard dry pellets, and softer moist pellets that they eat and are an essential part of their diet. This is known as secondary digestion and helps extract every last bit of nutrients from their grass diet.

BEHAVIOUR

Rabbits and guinea pigs love company so if you’ve ticked that box you should have a happy camper. However, for the ultimate happy hopper, you need to think like a rabbit. Scary things for rabbits include cats, dogs and even birds of prey or large birds. Loud noises, cars and fast moving objects also present hazards to rabbits and guinea pigs and can cause stress. Observe the times of day when they are most active and watch them in the garden so you get to know their usual behaviour. If you know your rabbits and piggies well, you will find it easy to spot when something is wrong and take the necessary action.

COMPANY

Rabbits and guinea pigs require friends to keep them happy, just like us! However, it is not always advisable to keep rabbits and guinea pigs together and this can often lead to both animals feeling stressed and even fighting – not to mention that they also have different dietary requirements. The RSPCA recommends these animals are only kept with their own kind.  Another bunny will be the perfect companion, and it doesn’t get better than a neutered male and female combination!  Neutering is essential when keeping rabbits… you know the old saying?  Well… let’s just say, they weren’t wrong!

Guinea pigs also enjoy company and must be kept with a friend. Common sense will tell you that care must be taken when choosing a friend for your piggy or your rabbit. Just as we can take a dislike to someone, the same can happen with your pets. Introductions should always be done on neutral ground away from either territory. Female guinea pigs may be kept together in pairs or small groups but most often males are kept as pairs. It is possible to keep males and females together, usually one male with a small group or trio of females.  Having enough space for your piggies is the key to a happy relationship. Give them enough room to explore on their own terms and places to hide and play.

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