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What is it?

Stress is defined as “a state of physiological, mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances''. In simple words it is anything that makes your rabbit feel unsafe or uncomfortable and the issues that form as a result of that.

Why is it important?

Rabbits are prey animals, meaning that they have a high ‘flight’ instinct. As a result, pet rabbits find many situations that we put them into stressful. Stress releases chemicals into the body which can cause damage to organs alongside other issues.

What’s the risk?

All rabbits are prone to stress, it’s in their nature. However, like people they are all individuals and one may find something stressful that another may not. It is our responsibility as owners and carers to recognise these situations and try to keep them to a minimum for our pets.

Causes of stress:

  • Other animals/pets in the household or garden
  • Handling (particularly if rough or the rabbit’s not used to it).
  • Pain and disease.
  • Inappropriate housing/feeding, including temperatures, access to water and food, hiding.
  • Car journeys - necessary vet visits/other reasons.
  • Noises (inside or outside).

  • What happens to the rabbit?

    Stress can cause issues in rabbits with:

  • The heart: in extreme situations causing heart attack and death.
  • The gut: causing ileus/gut stasis (where the guts stop moving properly) and/or stomach ulcers (painful and life-threatening damage to the lining of the stomach).
  • Mobility: resulting in obesity and related issues, can cause urinary issues such as cystitis.
  • The kidneys:reduced blood flow to the kidneys causing damage.
  • Immune system: levels of white blood cells (the cells that fight disease) are lower in stressed rabbits, meaning that they are more susceptible to disease.
  • The liver: stress can cause a rabbit to stop eating which results in liver failure and death.

  • How do you know what’s going on?

    You may notice less activity than usual (hiding away), changes in appetite or weight, rapid breathing when handled, freezing still or trying to run away.

    What can be done?

    There are many little management changes that can be made at home to help reduce stress levels.

    Predators - Ensure that rabbits feel safe from predators (this includes dogs/cats in the home!).

    Companionship - Rabbits kept in a bonded pair will have lower stress levels, this is because one is always able to ‘look-out’. Always remember this when your rabbit goes to the vet and keep them together. Rabbits will recover better with their friends.

    Handling - Gentle and regular handling is advised. Don’t allow children to handle rabbits without adult supervision and make sure that you all learn how to handle rabbits safely. When picking them up put a hand under the chest and one to support the bottom, hold them close to your body so they feel secure and are less likely to struggle, injuring themselves or you. Try to avoid picking them up too often as this makes them feel vulnerable - allow them to come to you for a fuss and you will soon find this more rewarding as they come to trust you even more.

    Housing - Provide places to hide both indoors and out. Hides should have a separate entry and exit - this stops a rabbit feeling ‘cornered’.

    Vet visits - These will always be stressful due to unfamiliar noises, smells and other experiences. There are a few things that you can do to try and reduce this.

  • The journey: Minimise travel time (don’t book an appointment at rush-hour), travel bonded companions together, use a safe and enclosed carrier.
  • The wait: Try not to sit in a busy and noisy waiting room, if it is noisy then politely ask if you could wait outside/in your car/a quiet room until your appointment time.
  • The examination: Rabbits that are used to being handled gently will usually cope well with examination. Take a towel with you, this can be put on the table and also be used if required to wrap the rabbit for examination (of teeth, head etc.). It may also provide a familiar smell.
  • The aftercare: If your pet is prescribed medication then wrapping their body in a towel has been proven to lower stress levels and will make administering medications easier for both of you. If they are hospitalised, consider allowing their bonded companion to stay with them.

  • What can I do to protect my pet?

  • Have a look at your rabbits’ housing and make sure it’s appropriate and allows natural behaviour, improve it if you can to allow places to hide where they can feel safe.
  • Don’t allow contact between your rabbits and other household ‘predator’ pets.
  • House rabbits away from noisy areas of the garden/household.
  • Handle rabbits regularly so they are used to it, but avoid picking them up off the floor where possible.
  • Try to provide a bonded companion for your rabbit.
  • If you worry that your pet is suffering from stress - either at home or during their vet visits - please speak to your veterinary team about ways to help alleviate this for them.