A discussion about pet rabbit health and welfare – part one, Luisa Dormer

When you think of pet rabbits, a few things spring to mind: dental disorders, aural issues and myiasis to name just a few. But how much do we really know about the prevalence of disorders affecting pet rabbit health, and how is this impacting on their welfare?

Inadequate housing, improper handling or socialization, inappropriate diet and lack of vaccination against preventable diseases were identified as key welfare issues by a panel of experts, according to a recent study by Rioja-Lang et al. (2019), which also concluded that pet rabbits in the UK may experience a reduced life expectancy. The study used a modified Delphi method to generate expert consensus on the most important welfare issues facing pet rabbits in the UK. This method involves an expert panel completing multiple rounds of surveys in an attempt to reach a consensus on an important issue, relying on the assumption that group opinion is more valid than individual opinion. Whilst this study has highlighted welfare concerns that warrant further investigation and action, it should be noted that the number of experts included in this study was small (eleven), and the reliability of the study has not been tested on other groups of experts.

Myiasis, anorexia, recumbency/collapse and ileus were the most commonly recorded causes of mortality in a further study conducted by O’Neill et al. (2019). Furthermore, the median age at death of rabbits in the study was 4.3 years, providing support for the conclusions reached in the Rioja-Lang et al. study. The study by O’Neill and colleagues sought to identify the most prevalent causes of morbidity and mortality of domestic rabbits under primary veterinary care in England using veterinary clinical data from the VetCompass programme.

The top five most prevalent specific disorders were: overgrown claw/nails (16%), overgrown molar(s) (7.6%), perineal soiling (4.5%), overgrown incisor(s) (4.3%) and ileus (4.2%).

At a grouped level of diagnostic precision, the top five most prevalent disorders were: dermatological (20.2%), oral (10.9%), gastrointestinal/abdominal (9.5%), ocular (7.3%) and parasitic (7.1%).

Of the most prevalent disorders and causes of death, many are disease processes which could potentially be prevented by improved husbandry, vaccination and parasite control, and therefore highlight the value of regular veterinary care and preventive medicine.

Whilst the O’Neill et al. study may provide an evidence base for the prioritisation of rabbit health and welfare issues based on prevalence, one limitation of the study is that it only included data on rabbits that presented to a veterinary practice in England. We do not know whether the results would be the same for rabbits that do not present to a veterinary practice, or for rabbits in other countries.

Written by Luisa Dormer, Scientific Editor at BSAVA.