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Size does matter: the effect of enclosure size on aggression and affiliation between female New Zealand White rabbits during mixing

By A. J. Valuska, J. A. Mench

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Abstract

Social enrichment is increasingly employed to improve the welfare of laboratory animals, including rabbits. However, the high levels of injurious aggression that can occur when unfamiliar adult rabbits are introduced to one another are a barrier to implementing social housing. One factor that could affect aggressive interaction is the size of the enclosure in which the animals are introduced, although this has never been tested in rabbits. We evaluated the aggressive and affiliative behavior of 11 pairs of unfamiliar adult female New Zealand White rabbits during 1-h trials. Using a balanced repeated measures design, pairs were tested in a smaller (Small) enclosure the size of a double cage (0.76 m * 1.22 m * 0.61 m) and a larger (Large) enclosure (1.22 m * 1.22 m * 0.61 m), both of which contained PVC barriers that allowed contact but prevented injury. There were no main effects of treatment or treatment order on aggressive or affiliative behavior, but there were significant interaction effects ( P=0.01). During their first trial, pairs tested in the Large enclosure showed higher levels ( P=0.07) of affiliative behavior (mean number=37.65.0) and lower levels ( P=0.02) of aggressive behavior (back-transformed mean number=1.1) than pairs tested in the Small enclosure (20.73.0 and 3.5, respectively). During their second trials, pairs behaved as they did during their first trial, resulting in the opposite pattern: significantly more aggressive behavior in the Large enclosure than the Small enclosure ( P=0.002). In total, there were 47 bites observed among does first introduced in the Small enclosure, as compared to only one in the pairs first introduced in the Large enclosure. Overall, these findings indicate that the Large enclosure was effective at reducing aggression when rabbits were unfamiliar to one another, but that behavior during a subsequent interaction was determined by prior experience rather than enclosure size. More research is needed to determine whether does' short-term behavior in an experimental apparatus is predictive of long-term pair housing success.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 149
Issue 1/4
Pages 72-76
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
Language English
Author Address Animal Behavior Graduate Group and Center for Animal Welfare, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.valuskaa@gmail.com jamench@ucdavis.edu
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Tags
  1. Aggression
  2. Aggressive behavior
  3. Animal behavior
  4. Animal housing
  5. Animal models
  6. Animals
  7. Animal welfare
  8. APEC countries
  9. Australasia
  10. Bites and stings
  11. Commonwealth
  12. Developed countries
  13. Effect
  14. Enrichment
  15. Equipment
  16. Laboratory and experimental animals
  17. Lagomorpha
  18. Leporidae
  19. Mammals
  20. Nations
  21. New Zealand
  22. Oceania
  23. OECD countries
  24. peer-reviewed
  25. rabbits
  26. Techniques
  27. trauma
  28. vertebrates
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  1. peer-reviewed