Coda, K. A., Fortman, J. D., García, K. D. 2020. Behavioral effects of cage size and environmental enrichment in New Zealand white rabbits. JAALAS 59(4), 356-364.
One of the goals of environmental enrichment is to encourage species-typical behaviors, while discouraging abnormal behaviors or stereotypies. Assessing the effectiveness of various enrichment modalities can be challenging, particularly for prey species such as rabbits that exhibit freezing responses in the presence of people. In this study, we housed rabbits in 3 different sized cages and observed their behaviors. The 3 cage sizes were our standard rabbit housing cage, a medium sized cage, and a large run. Based on analysis of the recordings, ethograms were constructed and behaviors were quantified. The rabbits in large runs spent more time performing active, exploratory behaviors (431 ± 74 s) than rabbits in the standard cages (184 ± 55 s). However, space constraints inside research facilities often make it impractical to house rabbits in large runs. Therefore, we decided to explore if enrichment devices could promote the expression of active behaviors, similar to those displayed by rabbits housed in the large runs. We selected 3 devices: a hanging toy, a destructible device, and a dig bin. All 3 enrichment devices promoted more time spent performing active, exploratory behaviors (389 ± 48, 463 ± 50, and 420 ± 44 s, respectively), compared with control rabbits housed without an enrichment device (226 ± 53 s). We also analyzed the fecal glucocorticoids of rabbits after shipping or surgery to determine if enrichment devices could mitigate the physiologic impact of these stressors. We found no significant differences in fecal glucocorticoid levels between rabbits that experienced the stressor and rabbits that did not, or between rabbits with or without enrichment devices. Overall, the provision of larger caging and/or addition of enrichment devices encouraged a broad spectrum of active, species-typical rabbit behaviors, suggestive of improved animal welfare.