Animal Behaviour & Welfare Course

July 25th, 2014

I signed up for the an Animal Behaviour and Welfare course, run by Edinburgh University through Coursera – they offer short online courses from universities available free to people all around the world. It’s the end of week two, and I thought I’d share some of the interesting things I’ve learnt so far.

What Drives Welfare Changes

The first week looked at what animal welfare is, some history and cultural and political influences. I know a lot of you reading my blog are involved in rabbit rescue and educating people to improve welfare. One of the interesting points was looking at what drives changes – public opinion or science. Public opinion is based on emotion so it can be a big motivator, but sometimes it’s not based on facts (scientific evidence) which risk the wrong information being distributed or bad decisions being made. On the other hand you can have lots of scientific evidence, but it’s there is no pressure to change – nothing happens.

It made me think about the recent muesli v. pellets issue in rabbits diet. Educators have been saying for years that pellets are the best option for rabbit’s diet but the public favoured the more visually appealing muesli mixes. It was only when the scientific study was published showing muesli was linked with health problems that retailers started to remove muesli products from sale. Having independent evidence as back up can help make a stronger case for change and also make sure you are advocating the right changes. It also makes me frustrated that we are still waiting on evidence from studies on housing sizes that will be useful for advocating for change from hutch manufactures.

Assessing Animal Welfare

Week 2 looked at measuring animals physiological and behavioural responses to understand how animals feel about their living conditions.

Physiological Measures

Physiological measures are changes to the body, the idea is you can measure animals emotional response to a situation by how their body reacts. For example, if an animal (or a person!) is frightened by something there is a rise in heart rate and brain floods the body with adrenalin (to help with fight/flight). There are also changes in hormones, which can be measured through blood, saliva and faeces, when animals are subject to ongoing stress, such as poor housing. This is particularly bad for welfare because it also changes the immune system making animals more susceptible to disease.

The difficulty with measuring physiological responses is that it can be tricky to do the measuring without causing stress that would influence the results. When a vet checks your rabbit’s heart beat it’s going to be higher than when relaxing at home because a trip to the vet is stressful, not because your rabbit is generally stressed out.

An example of physiological research in rabbits was a study that measured glucocorticoid metabolites (a hormones that increases when stressed) in rabbit droppings in different housing sizes and with/without enrichment. They found that the levels were higher in rabbits kept in unenriched cages implying they were less happy with their living conditions.

Another is research on ‘trancing’ rabbits (tonic immobility) – encouraging them to lay on their backs immobile, often used for nail clipping or just as part of human-rabbit interaction. It used to be thought by pet owners that rabbits were quit relaxed in this state, but when their physiological responses were measured researchers found breathing and heart rate were elevated and stress hormone levels were similar to those after known stressful events.

Buijs, S. et al.(2011) Glucocorticoid metabolites in rabbit faeces—Influence of environmental enrichment and cage size’, Physiology & Behavior 104 (2011) 469–473

Behavioural Measures

Behavioural measures – are much easier for us pet owners to use as they are easy to observe. The downside is they are open to interpretation  and there is a risk of anthropomorphising (assigning human motivations which might be different to animal ones). The other problem is knowing what a rabbit is doing, doesn’t necessarily mean we know why.

The course introduced a few different measuring techniques:

Ethogram – This involves using a standardised list of behaviours, e.g. hoping, eating,washing, that everyone works from. You can then use this to measure frequency of behaviours in different living conditions. For example researchers have looked at how much time rabbits spend on different activities depending on the size of their housing and found that rabbits housed in small pens spent more time being inactive (sitting or lying down) and that they interacted less with the environment, than when housed in large pens. They used several different breeds of rabbits in the experiment so were also able to show that small rabbits were more active than large ones.

Choice or Preference Tests – This involves giving animals two options and recording which the animal moves towards most frequently – assumes animals will approach/stay with things they want/like. The drawbacks here are the choices are limited by what investigator provides, and we don’t know if they are exactly what  they want or just the best of the options provided, or whether they suffer if they don’t get their preference. The responses could also be influenced by the animals previous experiences, age or sex, and the external environment (e.g. temperature).

Motivational testing – this test was developed from human studies into consumer demand. The animals learns to operate device to make choices, for example pushing through a weighted door or pressing a button a certain number of times. The idea is you can measure the ‘price they are willing pay’ to get resource the want, and that the harder they work the more they desire the resource. Researchers used this to measure rabbit’s desire for social interaction with other rabbits by comparing how hard they would work for food, social contact and access to a platform. They found their motivation for social interaction was almost equal to that of food. They do point out that it doesn’t tell us if they wanted companionship or had another motivation such as territorial issues.

The researchers also noted was whilst they were willing to gain access to the platform area, and spent a lot of time there, they didn’t use the platform much – they suggest this maybe because knowing they have access to a bolt-hole (the space under the platform) was very desirable even if they didn’t use it all the time.

Dixon, L. M (2010) The effects of spatial restriction on the behavior of rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2010) 5, 302-308.

Seaman, S. (2008) Animal economics: assessing the motivation of female laboratory rabbits to reach a platform, social contact and food, ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR, 2008, 75, 31e42

Qualitative Behaviour Assessment

The final thing was Qualitative Behaviour Assessment – looking at the whole animal moves around the environment, in other words their body language. I was surprised how new this approach is, I think the scientists might be a bit behind us there! In ethnography, for example there is no distinction between how a rabbit is moving. I’m sure you’ve noticed a rabbit’s posture when hoping can tell you what they are feeling. When they are nervous or being cautious, they move slowly and their body is closer to the ground – it looks very different to a rabbit normally hoping along. Likewise, a change in ear position can sometimes be the only signal that a rabbit has moved from a relaxed state to an alert one.

rabbit ear meaning

If you’d like to learn more about rabbit body language pick up a copy of my book – Understanding Your Rabbit Habits.

There is also still time to sign up for the course if you want to learn more about animal welfare and behaviour, it’s covering animals general including livestock – the rabbit examples here are my own but rabbits are meant to come up in next weeks lectures!

5 Ways to Cool Down Your Rabbit

July 17th, 2014

We are meant to be getting a heat wave over the next few days. So I thought it would be a good time for a post on keeping your rabbit cool in hot weather. There are a lot of tip and tricks from cooling down hot rabbits, here are some recommended by Scamp’s twitter from and some Scamp tried out too.

1. Cool Flooring

Rabbits are generally pretty low to the ground (Scamp get down off the table!) which is good because it’s generally a bit cooler down there as heat rises. You might have noticed your rabbit digging/rearranging bedding to sleep on the bare floor – wild rabbits do they same. They dig scrapes, shallow hollows of bare earth, to lay in. These are lovely and cool. You can offer the same opportunity by providing soil in a box or tray if your rabbit doesn’t have access to bare ground.

A ceramic tile (or a paving slab outside) is a bit less messy. You could spray them with water or, for tiles, pop them in the fridge awhile to make them even cooler. Scamp has sorted out his own cool flooring by removing the bottom of his cardboard box so he can sit on the tile underneath. Don’t forget though, this only works if the floor is in the shade. Although they are good at staying cool, they’ll also heat up quickly if left in full sun.

2. Shade

Talking about shade. It’s a really important part of keeping your bunny cool. For outdoors, greenhouse shade netting is great or just a cotton sheet. You can peg or tie them to your rabbit’s run. Check through out the day to see where the shade hits, as you may need to adjust as the sun moves. Provide extra shade with boxes and tunnels. Inside, keep curtains closed when the windows are in direct sun, that will keep the general room temperature down. Open windows (making sure bunnies can’t escape!) whilst the outdoor temperature is lower (early mornings/evenings) but close them again once the temperature outdoors gets higher than inside.

3: Frozen Water Bottle

Some days it’s hot even in the shade, so you need a way to cool things down not just stop them getting hot. A frozen water bottle is  great for cooling down the area around your bunny. Just use a normal plastic bottle filled with water and left in the freezer. Your bunny might decide to sit next to it, but if not it will still cool the area around them. The only draw back is plastic bottles of water and chewing can be a messy combination! If your bun lives in a cage or crate, one solution is to place the ice bottle on top away from bunny teeth and the cool air will sink cooling the cage below.

frozen water bottle rabbit

Scamp licking a frozen water bottle whilst rocking a moult related new hairdo.

  I tested this out by placing a 1L frozen bottle inside Scamp’s cardboard sleeping box. This dropped the temperature 3-4 degrees! Having the frozen bottle inside something like a box or tunnel is more effective, as that way you are only trying to cool the box rather than the whole room. Having several bottles so you can rotate whilst you wait for them to refreeze will help you keep up a constant supply of DIY air con.

4: Ice Lollies

It’s a hot day, what do you want? An ice lolly – I think you call them popsicles in the US? As the things in ice lollies are definitely not bunny suitable, we made our own. Broccoli popsicle or carrot lolly pop, anyone? It’s very easy all you do is freeze your bunnies favourite veggies or herbs. You could also puree them and freeze them into icecubes or on string! Give them a few seconds to loose that stickiness lollies have when they come straight out the freezer and let your bunny nibble.

frozen vegetables

Carrot and Broccoli frozen ‘ice lolly’. Scamp says yumm!

I’m not sure it’s going to have a significant effect on how warm your bunny is, but who cares because it’s a pretty fun enrichment activity. That said, he had quite a cold nose when he tried to lick me afterwards. Laura also suggested ice cubes in the water bowl, which sounds like another good way to cool down a bunny and the general temperature around the bowl.

5. Soggy Ears

Another twitter bun suggested a spritz of cool water for the ears. Humans cool down by sweating – the sweat evaporates cooling the skin. Rabbits don’t sweat and they have very insulated fur, so the only way they have to cool is to divert more blood flow to their ears, where the fur is very thin. That’s why some rabbit’s ears lop in hot weather. When it gets warm, more blood flows through their ears to help with cooling, making them heavier, so they droop.

By making your bunnies ears damp – just run your hand under a tap and then stroke your rabbits ears, don’t tip water over their head! as the water evaporates it will help cool their ears and the blood flowing through them.

Really, was that necessary? I already washed behind my ears today.

Really, was that necessary? I already washed behind my ears today.

Scamp didn’t seem to object to having his ears made soggy, but then he had to spend ages grooming them, plus they dry out quick and you have to reapply. If you’re outside, you could spray water on the floor instead, although then they’ve probably have to clean their tootsies instead.

Just a note on heatstroke: if your rabbit gets too hot e.g. lethargic, rapid breathing etc. then contact your vet and begin cooling them slowly e.g. by laying on a damp towel in the shade. Also don’t forget to check regularly for flystrike.

If you’ve got any more suggestions leave them in the comments below or you can tweet them at me.

5 Rabbit Safe Weeds for Foraging

June 4th, 2014

One of my readers (Hello!) asked me about edible weeds, and I realised I haven’t really written anything about tasty weeds. Forage (plants you find in your garden or even further afield) are a great way to supplement your rabbit’s diet. They are free, yummy and much closer to a rabbits natural diet so just what their digestion is good at handling.

There are a few key things when foraging for plants:

  • You must be sure which plants are safe to feed. Some plants are poisonous. Don’t let this put you off though, you don’t have to turn into a botanist, even if you just learn a few common ones you can focus on finding those without having to know lots about weeds.
  • Don’t pick from areas alongside roads or where cars are parked to avoid pollution that settles on leaves. Also avoid anywhere that might be sprayed with weedkiller – so ask before raiding other peoples gardens! And, watch out for places that might be soiled by animals, if there is a lamppost just near a park, chances are the dandelion just next to it might be watered by a lot of dogs!


Most rabbits consider dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) very tasty! They are quite easy to recognise, their leaves can look a bit like other plants if you aren’t used to weed ID but the big pom pom seed heads on a single stem  are easy to spot. Rabbits can eat the leaves and flowers.


Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Dandelion Flowers (because mine have all been eaten!

Dandelion Flowers (because mine have all been eaten!

Scamp (the reason I had trouble finding dandelions to photograph).

Scamp a couple of weeks ago (the reason I had trouble finding dandelions to photograph).

Sometimes dandelion can turn rabbit wee orange/red – don’t panic if this happens!

Goose Grass

Goose grass (Galium aparine) also known as cleavers, sticky bud, sticky willy or a variety of other common names is very easy to identify because of it feel – it’s sticky. It’s covered in lots of tiny hooks so it will stick to clothing and fur.

It’s got short leaves arranged in a circle around long stalks, small white flowers which turn into round stick balls as seed heads, and if often grows wrapped in and around other plants.

sticky bud / cleavers

Goose grass (Galium aparine)

Smooth Sow Thistle

Rabbits can eat prickly thistle (Onopordum acanthium), don’t ask me how they manage it – I wouldn’t want to chew one, but for ease of picking I’d recommend the smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) instead.  The leaves are a similar shape to dandelion but slightly grayish green (sometimes even purplish as it gets older) and instead of growing low to the ground it grows tall stalks which can be several feet high. The flowers are yellow but smaller than the dandelion and each flower spike has several flowers.

Smooth Sow Thistle

Smooth Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

One plant that looks similar but isn’t safe to feed is wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola), they are easy to tell apart though, wild lettuce has spikes running down the centre of the underside of each leaf, smooth sow thistle on the other hand is smooth.

Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) also know as Jack in the Hedge has quite large heart shapes leaves with jagged edges. The flowers are small and have four white petals each. It also smells garlicky. I only just realised this is what we’ve got trying to sneak in the back of our border – Scamp will be pleased!

garlic mustard

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Dead Nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is fine for rabbits to eat – they don’t seem to notice the sting. However, it does pose some problems collecting and having it laying around the house (ouch), so unless you are armed with some very thick gloves go for dead nettle (Lamium album/purpureum) which looks similar but doesn’t sting.

The easiest way to tell them apart, excluding poking them to see if they sting, is to look at the flowers. Stinging nettles have tiny sprays of whitish green flowers that don’t look much like flowers at all, where as dead nettles have larger white or purple flowers arranged around the stem.

dead nettle

Dead Nettle


Do you forage or feed weeds to your rabbit? What’s your bunnies favourite?



Homemade Pinata Rabbit Toy

May 2nd, 2014

A few weeks ago the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) asked if I’d be interested in contributing a craft project to their ‘I Heart My Pet‘ campaign. If you read regularly I’m sure by now you know I love making new toys for Scamp to play with and I’ve had an idea percolating in the back of my mind for a little while and this seemed the ideal opportunity. So I give you: Bunny Pinatas.

You will need:

  • Thin paper e.g. brown paper packing or paper bags
  • A bowl of water
  • Flour
  • Balloons


Step 1 – Blow up balloons

The balloons are just templates so the colour doesn’t matter – if fact you’re going to pop it later so don’t pick anything too nice! Blow them up to the size you want your finished pinata to be. I went for chicken egg  to small melon but there is no reason you couldn’t go for a giant size one if you want (though it will take a little longer to make).

blown up balloons

Step 2 – Shred Your Paper

Shred your paper into pieces, mine are about 1″ wide and 1.5″ long. Smaller pieces work better on smaller balloons (as they fit around the curve better), if you’re going for a giant pinata you could get away with slightly bigger. You don’t need to be too precise though, in fact you could just leave this task to your rabbit (Scamp is an excellent shredder).

tear paper into strips

Step 3 – Turn it into Papier Mache

Take your bowl of water, add a pinch of flour and stir. That’s it. You don’t need much flour at all. You might need to restir the mix now and then whilst you’re working as it seems to settle out if left. Then add some of the shredded paper and leave it a minute or two to soak.

Note: Flour is perfectly safe for bunnies to lick/eat, if you check your rabbit’s pellet food or store bought treats wheat is often on the ingredients. Scamp notes it doesn’t have any effect on his desire to eat the paper either.

soak paper

Step 4 – Apply paper to balloon

This parts when it gets a big messy!Take your soggy pieces of paper and apply them to the balloon, they should stick in place quite easily. You want to slightly overlap each piece (don’t try and match the edges). Leave a little gap around the balloons knot, that’s where you’ll stuff the pinata latter.

apply paper to balloon

Pro Tip: Put the balloon in an egg cup to hold it steady so it doesn’t roll off the table and get covered in carpet fluff (or bunny fluff).

Step 5 – Leave to Dry

Once your balloon is covered with the first layer, you need to leave it to dry out. It shouldn’t take too long – overnight at most. You can speed the process by leaving it somewhere warm like near a radiator.

first layer papier mache

Step 6 – Repeat Steps 4&5

Once your balloons are dry, it’s time for a second coat. Do exactly the same thing again. Depending how sturdy you want your pinata to be you can add a third layer if you like. I found two was fine but it ripped up quite easily.

Step 7 – Pretty it up

I thought the plain white pinata looked a bit boring, so I thought I’d experiment a little. I cut some shapes from brown paper and applied them the same way as the original strips. I’m not sure how much Scamp will appreciate my creativity … do you see a likeness?

decorate papier mache

Step 8 – Remove Balloon

Once your pinatas are completely dry, you need to remove the balloon. To do this puncture the balloon with something sharp (I just snipped the knot with scissors). Don’t worry, it won’t make a big pop if it’s not blown up very far. Once the air has escaped the balloon should pull out easily.

remove balloon

Step 9 – Fill with something tasty

You can now fill it with something tasty! There are lots of options, some lovely hay, dry herbs or pellet food. Avoid fresh veggies as the damp isn’t a good combination with papier mache. Some homemade treats would work well too.

tasty rabbit treats

Step 10 – Hang (Optional)

You can give your pinata to your bunny to play with on the floor, but hanging them up makes things even more interesting. Use sisal or similar rabbit safe string and thread it through a hole in the pinata with a stick to stop it pulling back through.


The Results

After all that hard work it’s now time to let your bunny loose on them!

craft_finished rabbit pinata craft_finished3

Scamp was being very good, he only left a few teeth marks whilst I took photos, but fun was had and they were shredded a couple of hours later for their tasty filling!

If you have a go I’d love to see pictures or hear what your bunny thought. You can leave a comment below or reach me via facebook or twitter.

Free Ebook 10 Rabbit Behaviour Problems Solved

April 21st, 2014

Just a short post this time. I’ve set my ebook 10 Rabbit Behaviour Problems Solved to download for free on Amazon on the 20/21 April.



If you’re not in the UK/US just go to your local amazon and search for the title.

free ebook

Of course, if you prefer you can buy the paperback version of my other book, Understanding Your Rabbit’s Habits, which includes this too.