Exercise is vital for the health of a rabbit. All too often we hear well meaning, but poorly informed people describe rabbits as easy to keep because “they can be caged and don’t take up much space!” This idea has led to many rabbits being caged most of their lives with the distinct possibility of developing both physical and behavioral disorders.
Let’s take a look at the behavior of the ancestor of the domestic rabbit, the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus. The normal territorial space of an adult of this species is about two acres but may be even larger if food is in short supply. This is the area over which the rabbit would wander each day to feed and to look for mates. We know that rabbits require large volumes of high-fiber food that necessitate traveling great distances each day, particularly during winter months. In addition, rabbits are anatomically designed to be able to move at great speed in order to elude predators. Observe the powerful back legs built to run and leap.
So, we take this beautiful, graceful animal that is designed to range over a large area, at times even at great speed, and put it in a cage that is 24 x 24 x 18H for most or all of its life and expect it to thrive and do well. Some people would say that they are happy in their cage because the European rabbit spends part of the day in the extensive burrows they dig underground and the cage represents that secure burrow space. Ah, but they don’t spend all day in the burrow, they need to exercise all their muscles, including the heart, strengthen their bones, burn fat and stimulate internal organ function which can scarcely be done when confined to a small space. In addition, rabbits can develop behavioral and medical problems when they are confined continuously to a small cage.
Some people argue that the domestic rabbit is content in its cage environment because they reproduce successfully in small cages. The internal drive to reproduce is extremely strong in rabbits because they are a prey animal and in the wild, much of a rabbit’s family will be eaten by other animals as part of the natural food cycle, therefore they must keep replacing the losses. If minimum requirements of food and shelter are met, the rabbit will reproduce if allowed to because he must! But minimum requirements are not necessarily synonymous with a long, healthy life and humane living conditions!
Problems Caused by Lack of Exercise
Obesity can be caused by a number of factors, but the two most common are a diet too high in calories for daily need and a lack of exercise. Just as in humans, if a rabbit sits around all day and moves just enough to take care of minimal daily requirements such as eating, grooming, defecating and urinating, he isn’t going to burn many calories, nor is he going to build muscle tissue. Obesity puts undue stress on the cardiovascular system, can result in pododermatitis (inflammation of the foot) stresses the vertebrae as well as making the rabbit feel sluggish. Large folds of fat can develop around the rectal area or in the dewlap that interfere with normal grooming and prevent eating the nutrient-rich cecotropes. If cecotropes aren’t eaten, the result can be nutritional deficiencies. An inability to groom properly can lead to a constantly soiled rectal area and subsequent skin disease. The cure for obesity is to keep your rabbit on a healthy diet of grass hay and fresh foods, strictly limit commercial pellets and avoid high starch or sugar foods.
Pododermatitis (Sore Hock)
Pododermatitis is a condition where the skin on the underside of the feet becomes inflamed resulting in ulcerations that can range from superficial to deep enough to involve bone. This condition can be caused by several factors, but the two most common are obesity and damp flooring. Wire cage floors have often been implicated as a cause of pododermatitis, but this alone rarely causes a problem. In addition, there is a genetic disposition to this condition in breeds of rabbits, such as the Rex or Mini Rex, where the fur on the underside of the foot is too thin to afford sufficient protection.
Obesity can contribute to foot disease because of the excessive weight being carried by the feet resulting in unusual wear on the footpads. In addition, if the rabbit is so fat that he can’t clean itself, urine and stool can collect on the hindquarters and feet and result in inflammatory skin disease.
A continually damp floor caused by urine or water in the cage or litter box (where rabbits often like to sit) is a contributing factor to the development of pododermatitis. If a rabbit is confined to a small cage he often has no choice but to sit in a wet area. Urine, in particular, is caustic and can result in serious burns and ulceration of the feet.
In the wild, rabbits are exposed to a wide variety of surfaces from hard packed ground or rocks to soft grass. It is important to provide some soft areas in addition to the normal wire or solid flooring. Squares of fake fur or fleece work well because they are absorbent, washable and non-toxic to the rabbit. We do not recommend using carpet squares because they are not washable, and in some cases are more abrasive then the regular flooring. Use absorbent pelleted bedding in the litter box rather then kitty litter. Pelleted bedding pulls moisture away from the surface, which keeps the feet dry. In addition, pelleted bedding is non-toxic, eatable, and compostable. Kitty litter is not only abrasive, but some rabbits will eat it and can develop a fatal intestinal impaction.
Poor Bone Density
Animals, as well as humans, who do not get sufficient exercise can develop osteoporosis (thinning of the bone). It is well known in humans that the best natural method to prevent osteoporosis is regular weight-bearing exercises. Rabbits who are continually confined to a small cage can exhibit marked thinning of the bones. Osteoporosis results in a spine or long bones that can break easily when the rabbit is handled, leaps off a high surface or runs or jumps rapidly. It has been my observation that the rabbits whose backs are fractured during normal handling are usually those that were never allowed normal exercise. Daily exercise is vital to the production of healthy bones.
Poor Muscle Tone
Obviously if the rabbit can’t exercise, the muscles will be underdeveloped and weak. This can lead to an inability to move properly. The most important muscle is the heart. If the heart muscle is weak, the rabbit will be unable to tolerate stressful situations that occur, such as a child or a curious puppy that chases the rabbit when he is let out to play. Rabbits in the wild do not ordinarily drop dead when being chased by a predator. They are superb athletes and can move rapidly, sometimes for great distances, to find shelter. This type of behavior is part of their normal daily routine.
However, if you take a rabbit that sits in a cage day after day and then let him out and force him to run around the room rapidly, he may faint or even die of cardiac failure. It would be the same as taking a couch potato-type person and suddenly make him run a marathon at high speed. His heart couldn’t take the stress and he would collapse. Therefore, exercise will help your rabbit develop a healthy cardiovascular system and be able to withstand inevitable stressful situations successfully.
Gastrointestinal and Urinary Function
A rabbit who sits all day in the cage with little exercise can develop abnormal elimination habits. Rabbits that exercise routinely will urinate and defecate frequently, which is good for the urinary and digestive systems. Holding urine or stool may contribute to a variety of conditions such as gastrointestinal shutdown and concentrated sludgy urine.
Behavioral problems in rabbits, as in other creatures, are complex. However, I have observed a number of problems resolve when rabbits are taken out of the caged environment and allowed more freedom in an area with environmental stimulants such as toys and hiding areas. It is not scientifically correct to place a human name on a rabbit ‘emotion’ but one can only imagine that rabbits who are caged all the time are bored. What do they have to do but sleep, move a couple of steps and eat or drink, move a couple of steps and defecate or urinate? Continually caged rabbits can exhibit a wide range of abnormal behaviors including lethargy, aggression, continual chewing of the cage bars (sometimes leading to incisor damage), chewing fur (obsessive grooming), and destruction of the entire contents of the cage.
Certainly these behaviors can also be seen in rabbits that are not caged, however, we find that rabbits exhibiting these behaviors often improve in a more open environment. The destructive behavior and fur pulling decreases when they are given constructive toys and a place to play. We have also seen many lethargic rabbits bloom into delightful playful creatures and seen aggressive rabbits become calmer when allowed more freedom.
Ways to Encourage Exercise
- Exercise Pen – An easy way to provide an open exercise area for your pet is to use dog exercise fencing that comes in panels, often called an x pen, that can be connected together in many shapes. These panels can be used indoors or out to provide a safe exercise area.
- Short Periods of Confinement - Some rabbits who have free access to very large areas 24/7 sometimes become floor potatoes and just hang out in their favorite spot. For these bunnies it can be helpful to make their area smaller for a few hours a day and then release them back to the larger area to explore again.
- Toys – Provide various objects in the environment your rabbit can interact with. Large cardboard tubes to run through (found at hardware stores) and cardboard boxes to jump on and play in are easy and inexpensive. Put wadded pieces of newspaper in the box and cut a hole in the side to make a nest to arrange. Move objects around daily to promote more movement as they investigate. Even small changes will prompt curiosity!
- Foraging – Hide the daily pellet allotment or a few pieces of dried fruit or vegetable in crumbled pieces of newspaper or toilet paper or paper towel tubes with the ends folded shut and distribute these around the exercise area. Put unfinished baskets (no paint or varnish) stuffed with hay around the area so they can root around and have a healthy snack.
- Digging Box – Take a large cat litter box about 15 x 15 x 12 high and put many layers of newspaper in the bottom and then put in some crumpled sheets of newspaper on top. A bunny can spend days to weeks working on this project of shredding and tearing. A white bunny may end up with a grey nose and feet but he will be happy!
- Elderly rabbits - For elderly rabbits or rabbits who may not be able to move great distances, you can encourage exercise by picking them up and moving them carefully some distance from their home base and let them gradually make their way home with some treats along the way (see foraging above for some ideas!).
- Get on the floor! Get on the floor with your bunny and play with various objects. Just being on the floor with her will encourage investigation and movement. Move from place to place around the room and entice your bunny to visit you with healthy treats.
- Train your bunny - Consider training your bunny to do some movement behaviors. There are several Internet sites now available with information and books and videos to teach you how to train your rabbit using positive reinforcement methods.