Whether you're new to keeping rabbits or you find yourself looking for up-to-date welfare information, housing rabbits has come a long way since they were first introduced to households and domesticated centuries ago.
While our flop-eared friends are traditionally thought of as residing in a hutch, often found in the backyard or in a shed, nowadays you're just as likely to find them living indoors as you are out.
But, just what do rabbits need to thrive and live a long and happy life? Are rabbit hutches cruel and out-of-date or can they still be used as part of the ideal housing arrangement for your bunny?
Whether you're toying with the idea of purchasing a secure rabbit hutch for your fur friend and are either not sure whether it should be an outdoor or an indoor rabbit hutch, or if you should simply do away with the hutch altogether in favor of the more modern rabbit litter box approach, this article will explore what is the perfect accommodation for your pet.
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Do rabbits need a hutch?
Rabbits need somewhere safe and secure to live, but hutches do not have to be part of their housing. Keeping rabbits in hutches stems from decades and potentially centuries ago, when they were commonly used to keep rabbits in as a source of meat.
Nowadays, we keep pet rabbits for the joy of having them in our lives, so need to offer them suitable living conditions with appropriate welfare considerations, whether that is inside or outside. Hutches or indoor rabbit cages, on their own, do not meet these needs.
Are hutches cruel?
Keeping rabbits in closed hutches does not allow them the space and enrichment they require to live a happy and healthy life. It is cruel to keep rabbits shut in a hutch for any length of time – they are active and curious animals and will suffer mentally as well as physically if shut in a hutch.
A rabbit owner will also lose out: they will never see what intelligent, entertaining behaviors their pet is capable of. We would never dream of keeping a dog or cat in such a small space, and it is not acceptable to keep rabbits in this way either.
However, a hutch can form part of their environment and act as a sleeping area for the rabbits, but they should never be shut into the hutch. They require free access all the time to a safe and enclosed area.
The hutch can then be placed in the rabbits’ enclosure or attached to it so they can come and go as they please.
What is the minimum size requirement for a rabbits' living area?
Rabbits should always be given plenty of space to roam. It's important to think not only about the size of sleeping quarters but the entire living area.
The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund indicates that rabbits should live in pairs and their living area should be at least 3m x 2m x 1m high, while their sleeping quarters (such as a hutch) should be a minimum of 1.8m x 0.6m x 0.6m high (or 6ft x 2ft x 2ft).
Ideal housing set up for outdoor and indoor rabbits
Indoor rabbits should have access to one room in the house – preferably more. This area should cover at least 3m x 2m, with enrichment in the form of places to hide, areas to forage, boxes for digging in, litter trays, toys and tunnels.
Even though they may have more opportunity to socialize with their owners, house rabbits still need a rabbit companion.
Indoor rabbit cages, or puppy crates, can be used within their environment and many rabbits will use these as a ‘den’, a safe and secure retreat, or even a litter tray, but the rabbits should not be shut in them for any length of time.
Rabbits kept outside need a large environment, again a minimum area of 3m x 2m x 1m high. The enclosure must be secure, not only so the rabbits cannot escape, but so predators cannot enter.
They need space to run, dig, sleep, explore, forage, play and interact with another rabbit, so fill the enclosure with hides, digging boxes, toys, forage and places to explore and always keep rabbits in neutered pairs or groups. A hutch of 1.8m x 0.6m x 0.6m can be provided as a sleeping area but the rabbits must be able to choose where they want to spend time and not be shut into it.
Whether inside or outside, the bigger and more enriching the rabbits’ space is, the better. Think how much space wild rabbits have – we cannot replicate this (few gardens are sufficiently secure and safe to allow free access, so there are always possible predator threats and theft to consider), but we need to make sure we offer our rabbits the best accommodation we can.
Alternative to hutches
Most hutches do not last more than a year before they need replacing, so although they may seem relatively cheap to purchase, they often end up being expensive over the course of the rabbits’ lifetime, which may be over 10 years.
It is better to buy quality housing, which may be more expensive to buy, but will last for many years. You should budget anywhere from $537 -$1,343 (£400-£1000) for decent outdoor rabbit accommodation.
Outdoor dog kennels or aviaries
Outdoor dog kennels or aviaries make good rabbit housing, although ensure the wire on the enclosure is small enough to stop the rabbits from getting their feet trapped and prevent mice and rats from entering; 13mm is good. Chicken wire is not secure enough to stop foxes and other predators, and should be avoided.
Sometimes you have to ‘think outside the box’! A garden shed or children’s Wendy House can easily be adapted to house rabbits and an outdoor run can be attached by using a connection kit to allow the rabbits safe access to go outside.
These connection kits can also be used to attach a hutch to a run, to provide the rabbits with enough space.
People have kept rabbits in hutches for decades, and as part of a larger enclosure they are okay. However, using just a hutch or indoor cage as your rabbits’ home does not allow them the opportunity to exhibit natural behaviors and will contribute to years of suffering.
There are better, more suitable housing options, which will allow you to enjoy seeing your happy rabbits demonstrating their natural behaviors.
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Claire currently works in Kettering as a Head Nurse in a practice with a high rabbit caseload, as well as frequently lecturing and writing on rabbits to both veterinary professionals and owners.