A Guide to Rabbit Enrichment
Updated: Apr 25, 2020
What environmental enrichment does my rabbit need?
Enrichment is when you improve the quality of a rabbit's environment. Rabbits are active and intelligent animals and will suffer if bored and, as domesticated rabbits, they are usually confined for most of the day, freedom and choice are important within their environment. Interesting environments that encourage physical and mental stimulation will create a happy home and your enrichment choices should encourage positive natural behaviours while decreasing abnormal behaviours, and maximise your pet's ability to cope with the challenges of captivity. The freedom to explore, exercise and forage as well as interact with other rabbits and animals is vital to your pets' health and wellbeing.
Why is enrichment important?
Rabbits are active, intelligent, social and inquisitive. Bored rabbits with not enough to do may suffer emotionally and then physically. As domestic rabbits are often confined for much of the time, they need to have some control over their environment and make choices about what they do which is why they need their own large space for play time. This doesn't mean a permanent area in a room of your house needs to be filled with rabbit toys so that your pet can roam free, but retractable play pens and some toys and shapes can go a long way.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, all pet owners have a legal duty to meet their environmental and behavioural needs - including enrichment within rabbit housing and care plans can help do this.
Whilst enclosure size is very important, what their enclosure contains is also important. Interesting environments provide both mental and physical stimulation and opportunities to perform normal behaviours, e.g. exploring/hopping/foraging, and as opportunities to play and interact with other friendly rabbits/people.
Enrichment is the umbrella term for a range of things, this includes:
A large enclosure with a big floor area and high ceiling allowing opportunities for normal behaviours, e.g. running/jumping/hopping/rearing up on hind legs and having a stretch.
Permanently attach shelter (e.g. hutch/cage/shed/playhouse) to the enclosure (e.g. exercise run/pen). This provides greater space and choice about which section they spend time in and when, rather than having intermittent access to the exercise area.
Regular exercise is very important for rabbits. They are designed to run very fast in short bursts and dodge and twist to escape predators; this is why you often see rabbits "binkying" i.e. leaping in the air and racing around. Exercise helps young rabbits develop a healthy bone structure and helps adult rabbits maintain a healthy physique.
Ideally, rabbits should be able to exercise whenever they want to but a minimum of 4 hours free run a day is recommended, ideally split into two exercise periods morning and evening of about 2 hours each. Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are naturally more active at dawn and dusk. Rabbits kept in indoor cages or outdoor hutches should be allowed access to a large exercise run or be given free run in the house or garden whilst being supervised.
Rabbits differ in their exercise needs according to age, breed and whether or not they are de-sexed. Younger rabbits tend to be a lot more active and are more likely to exhibit destructive behaviour such as chewing furniture or the bars of their cage if they are bored. Older rabbits usually sleep more but still need regular exercise. Larger breeds tend to be less active than small or dwarf breeds, while neutered or spayed rabbits slow down a little and put on weight more easily.
Play Time with your rabbit
Playing games with your rabbit is a great way to prevent boredom, encourage exercise and get to know them a bit better. Mornings and evenings are the best times as this is when rabbits are most active.
One of the simplest games is to sit or lie on the ground and let your rabbit approach you. It will probably hop on and off you from every direction, investigate every bit of your clothing (watch out for nibbles!) and may even lick your face as a sign of affection. 15 minutes well spent...
You can build an obstacle course for your rabbit out of cardboard boxes, tunnels, newspapers and so on. Many rabbits love jumping so you could even create a set of jumps. Some rabbits like playing with footballs or basketballs, rolling them around the floor, digging at them or even running after them when you throw it.
If you have enough space, or a garden, you can play "chase" with your rabbit. This does not mean you are chasing the rabbit, although some rabbits do enjoy this and may initiate it themselves by flicking their ears and racing away from you playfully. The general idea is that the rabbit chases you. Run across the room or garden, calling your rabbit. A confident rabbit will soon get the idea and chase after you, perhaps adding in some jumps and twists as it runs.
Remember that rabbits tire quickly so if you rabbit flops down after a few minutes, give it a chance to rest and recover. Never force your rabbit to play with you - they will let you know when they've had enough!
A large empty space for your rabbit to run around is great, but won’t be enough for full enrichment. Rabbits need mental stimulation and opportunities to exert natural behaviours such as digging, climbing, hiding and foraging even in their captive lives. We have a few buyer’s guides on small pet toys for certain price ranges, however you don’t need to spend a lot of money to enrich your rabbit’s life - here are some ideas you can do at home! First let’s dig into some of your rabbits natural behaviours.
Behaviour 1 - Digging
Our natural populations of wild rabbits are mainly contained to underground houses they dig out. If you’re out and about on a forest walk you’re sure to notice many rabbit holes around. With this, it’s not hard to understand why our pet bunnies enjoy having a good dig. That doesn’t mean they need to dig up your back garden in order to have a good time though!
Behaviour 2 - Burrowing
As rabbits are natural prey animals, having somewhere to scuttle off to when they feel vulnerable is very important. This is also important if you have more than one rabbit as it is natural for rabbits to have a pecking order, which can lead to “disagreements” – make sure they can hide away and give each other space if they have a a falling out (for any continued bullying, it is always recommended you consult your vet).
Behaviour 3 - Foraging
A wild rabbit doesn’t wander over to their local feeding station when it’s hungry, or wait for mother nature to hand it a cabbage leaf – it has to work for its food! We are not suggesting that you leave your rabbit to fend for itself of course – it relies on you to provide them the correct diet – but making your rabbit forage for it’s food will not only keep them occupied, it will also encourage them to tap into the food gathering instincts.
A HomeMade Digging Box
Very simple! Find a box (perhaps an old plastic storage box or cardboard box) and fill it with soil, sand, hay, stripped newspaper or a mixture of these and let your bunny dig away! The simple act of digging should amuse your rabbit, but if you wanted to make it a bit more fun you could hide some bonus treats amongst the mess. This covers behaviour one and two, as your rabbit can either explore new territory or they can create a little den for themselves!
Ready Made Tunnels
Plastic or cardboard tunnels can mimic the dirt tunnels of rabbit warrens perfectly – there could no better place for a rabbit to dart to safety, or bumble through on their travels. Pop down to your local traders yard to see if they have any spare plastic guttering cut offs (making sure they have no sharp edges!), or perhaps your local carpet shop in search of discarded carpet inner tubes. You could even use these to build an intricate above ground tunnel if you’re feeling up to the DIY challenge!
Toilet and Kitchen roll tubes
Everybody ends up with these, and they make great little accessories to stuff with hay and treats! It gives your rabbit something to throw around while also providing them with rewards for the exercise. You could try hanging the roll too, tempting your rabbit on to its back legs to feed.