This is the final article in a series looking at welfare-related issues relating to breeding pet rabbits. Having looked at gut and dental health in the first article; the parasite E cuniculi in the second, we now move onto behaviour and temperament.

First, understand the species.

Although rabbits have been domesticated for hundreds of years, selective breeding has concentrated upon appearance and size rather than temperament and "tameness". Hence, domestic rabbits retain many of the behavioural characteristics of the wild rabbit.

Rabbits are prey animals: their entire lifestyle has evolved to reduce the risk of being eaten. Everything from their unique absentee parenting (wild rabbits visit their suckling youngsters only once a day, domestic rabbits usually twice) to their digestive system is designed to minimise the time they spend above ground where they are vulnerable to predation.

Because they spend most of their time underground, communication with other rabbits is achieved mainly by scent and sometimes by sound, but relatively little by sight. This means that rabbit body language is far less expressive to human eyes than other species (e.g. dogs and cats) commonly kept as pets.

On the other hand, certain rabbit characteristics add to their attractiveness as pets. Rabbits live in groups, so they have a good social memory. They need to learn the layout of their burrow complex and surrounding area, so they have a good spatial memory. And they have to be inquisitive: if a tree blows over and blocks their quickest route back to the burrow they need to have found and explored the change in terrain before they are running for their lives back to the burrow with a dog in hot pursuit!

What does this mean for pet rabbits?

The traditional British view of the pet rabbit is of a docile, cuddly bunny that the kids can play with. Unfortunately, this misconception is one of the leading reasons why more than 30,000 rabbits a year end up in rescue - because whilst rabbits are amazing creatures that can make wonderful family pets, they really aren't docile and cuddly at all!

The perfect pet rabbit would probably be described along the lines of: Friendly and confident to approach and be approached by humans Willing to be picked up and held Calm in the family home and around people and other pets On the basis that rabbits are innately fearful of many things including loud noises; larger predator species; open spaces; and being picked up; it is clear that to turn a rabbit into a confident pet willing to interact with a large and noisy predator species (i.e. humans) will require some behaviour modification!

What can breeders do?

Whilst it is perfectly possible for pet rabbits to acquire all the attributes listed above, it is unlikely to happen without effort from both the breeder and new owner.

In an ideal world, new pet owners would thoroughly research the nature and needs of the species they have chosen to keep as a pet. Sadly we do not live in an ideal world (and to make matters worse, rabbits are often purchased for children by disinterested adults) and if a pet rabbit is to have a fighting chance of a decent quality of life (cf. being ignored in a hutch at the bottom of the garden) breeders must take steps to maximise the chance of producing confident, friendly baby rabbits; accustomed to being picked up; and capable of taking new events in their stride.

A word about aggression Aggression is a very common reason for pet rabbits to end up in rescue centres. Most aggressive rabbits are actually fearful - if freezing or fleeing fails to stop something scary happening (e.g. being being picked up roughly) then the rabbit will learn to attack instead. Confident, well handled, and well socialised baby rabbits are less likely to be fearful of handling and less likely to become aggressive due to fear. And friendly pet rabbits are more likely to stay loved and wanted.

As an aside, a form of territorial aggression is very common in unsprayed female rabbits - fine for breeding females (breeders know that a doe who is grouchy and territorial is often receptive to mating) but not so good in female pet rabbits, for whom routine spaying is recommended.

Choice of breed Although all rabbits retain many of the behavioural characteristics of their wild ancestors, there are differences in temperament and "reactivity" both between different breeds; and between strains of the same breed. Meat/fur breeds are often much more placid than dwarf Fancy breeds, and it is perfectly possibly to selectively breed for placid temperament.

However, the pet market typically demands certain breeds (e.g. miniature and dwarf lops; Lionheads; Netherland Dwarfs) which are more reactive than the bigger breeds such as New Zealand Whites.

Hence, breeders should select foundation stock that are as calm and placid as possible (as well as physically healthy) and as the breeding programme progresses, ensure that sound, placid temperament is one of the criteria for selecting breeding stock to retain.

What about mum and dad?

Traditionally, most animal breeders would believe that it is the mother who has the greatest influence on the behaviour and temperament of her offspring. In most species this is very true: a confident, friendly mum can demonstrate to puppies/ kittens/ foals/ calves/ piglets that human contact is rewarding and safe.

With bunnies the situation is slightly less clear. Wild rabbits never get to see their mother except when she suckles them once a day (and on day 28 she just doesn't come back and they have to get on with it!) but domestic rabbits do typically spend some time with their mother, which provides them with opportunities to copy her response to humans.

However, maternal experiences during pregnancy may influence the behaviour of offspring. Rodent studies have shown that exposing pregnant females to stressful situations can make the offspring more reactive (i.e. less placid) probably due to the influence of maternal corticosteroids. In practical terms, this means that mums-to-be need to be kept happy and calm.

Finally, don't forget dad. the paternal influence on behaviour may be greater than we realise. Research has shown that confidence and boldness passes down the paternal line in cats, although it is not yet known if the same applies to rabbits.

Socialisation & habituation Many readers will be aware that puppies and kittens have well defined "socialisation periods" when young animals learn to recognise and interact with the species with which they live - which needs to include humans, as well as their own species, and any other they are likely to come into contact with.

There is now evidence to suggest that rabbits have a socialisation period, although the exact timing and duration of it are not yet certain. This conclusion is based upon experimental work showing that handling baby rabbits between days 10 and 21 resulted in them being more willing to approach humans at 48 days of age; and early exposure to cats reduces their fear of them later.

Hence, breeders must start to handle baby rabbits before 21 days of age to begin the socialisation process. Many novice rabbit breeders are afraid of handling baby rabbits until they leave the nest, in case doing so triggers maternal rejection of the litter. Although this is a theoretical risk, with a few simple precautions (i.e. rubbing hands in the mother's litter before touching the litter) there should be no problems, especially once the litter have opened their eyes at 10 days. Such early handling is vital, and in fact, if breeding does are relaxed and well socialised themselves it does not usually cause any problems to briefly pick up babies even in the first week of life.

Along with socialisation comes "habituation", which has been defined as "the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them." Baby rabbits destined for the pet market should become accustomed to as many people and experiences as possible before they are sold. Bring litters into the house in a box to hear household noises; beg/borrow/steal children of various ages to stroke and carefully handle the youngstock under close supervision; carefully introduce the baby rabbits to dogs and cats; take them for a short ride in the car.

Time consuming? Definitely. Important? Undoubtedly.

The brutal reality is that baby rabbits whose breeders don't bother with a programme of socialisation and habituation are at higher risk of joining the thousands of other fearful, aggressive, unwanted and neglected pet rabbits that lead a miserable existence in back gardens across the UK.

Rabbits are wonderful creatures, that can make superb family pets, but they really do deserve better and where better to start the process of producing healthy, happy rabbits than with responsible and compassionate breeders?