Welfare concerns related to inadequate guinea pig and rabbit housing

Guinea pigs

Evidence of inadequate enclosure space has been published this year from a guinea pig housing survey in New Zealand (Cameron et al. 2022). Cameron et al. conducted a pet guinea pig study in New Zealand, comprising a sample of 330 owners. The authors found that although most guinea pigs were kept in pairs or larger groups, some were housed alone or with other species, and that 37.4% of guinea pigs were housed in cages smaller than the minimum recommendation by the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA), that cages provide a minimum of 0.7 m2 per guinea pig. An additional aspect discussed in the paper is provision of guinea pig access to time outside of cages. The authors recommend further research to determine the welfare impact of housing size. The paper is to be followed by a husbandry related paper, hopefully later this year.

Dr Kristie Cameron, lead author, said “There is no code of welfare or standard in NZ for the care of GPs and advice from a reputable agency is sparse. Further research would provide scope for science-based guidelines for the care of the cavy.”

The above study supports the findings of a larger-scale UK study by Harrup and Rooney (2020), who highlighted welfare issues including inadequate housing. They found the most common enclosure was a hutch or cage with no attached run. Nearly one in five guinea pigs were housed in enclosures smaller than the size specified by the British Cavy Council (0.28mper guinea pig) and laboratories (0.25mper guinea pig). The dimensions of enclosures reported raises concerns over enclosure size currently marketed as appropriate. 37.2% owners reported cage gnawing and 71.1% teeth chattering; nearly 8.7% of owners had never observed their guinea pigs to ‘popcorn’ and 16.9% had never seen their guinea pigs stand on their hindlegs. Suitable companionship and appropriate accommodation have both been shown to influence positive guinea pig behaviours. Recommendations included further research into optimal size of enclosures and an accessible, evidence-based owner education source/body, devoted to guinea pigs.

Rabbits

There are an estimated 1 million pet rabbits in the UK (PDSA, 2022), the third most popular pet. A study by Mee et al. (2022) found that one-third of rabbits were housed in inadequate accommodation, including small hutches and cages. Even if rabbits do have access to a run, the run is not necessarily of adequate dimensions. The authors also found that one-half of rabbits lived alone; many owners lack sufficient knowledge about the social needs of rabbits. The authors determined an association between certain demographic factors and inadequately sized rabbit housing. The authors make many useful recommendations including the formulation of a rabbit-specific history template for veterinary professionals as well as rabbit-specific nurse clinics. Although a statutory Code of Practice does not yet exist for rabbits in England, a Good Practice Guide has been produced by the All-Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW). The authors acknowledge limitations of the study, that further research is warranted to understand the associations and if intervention and support can be implemented; overall, there is much scope for future research in the area of small prey mammal welfare.

Grace Mee, lead author of the study, said “As veterinary professionals, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of rabbit environment. During routine consultations, we can ask more specifically about housing, suggest sources of suitable housing and direct owners to the Good Practice Code for Rabbit Welfare. We can encourage our colleagues to do the same by involving our practices in Rabbit Awareness Week, as well as undertaking rabbit-related CPD. Through taking these small actions, we can improve public perception towards making spacious rabbit housing a priority.”

Considering housing is still such a concern since earlier studies, for example, Rooney et al. (2014), which found nearly 10% of rabbits were kept in cages less than 0.54 m2, the impact of inappropriate housing is a pertinent topic for consideration by veterinary professionals.

See the UK Good Practice Code for Rabbit Welfare here; a similar code for guinea pigs is currently being drafted.

Cameron KE, Holder HE and Connor RL (2022)  Cross-sectional survey of housing for pet guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) in New ZealandNew Zealand Veterinary Journal 70:4

Harrup AJ and Rooney NJ (2020) Current welfare state of pet guinea pigs in the UKVet Record 186:9

Mee G, Tipton E, Oxley JA and Westgarth C (2022) Owner demographic factors are associated with suitable pet rabbit housing provision in the United KingdomVet Record e1736

Norman R and Wills AP (2016) An Investigation into the Relationship between Owner Knowledge, Diet, and Dental Disease in Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus)Animals 6:73

PDSA (2022) PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report.

Rooney NJ, Blackwell EJ, Mullan SM, Saunders R, Baker PE, Hill JM, Sealey CE, Turner MJ and Held SDE (2014) The current state of welfare, housing and husbandry of the English pet rabbit populationBMC Research Notes 7:942