FEB 07, 2018 06:00 AM PST

Social Housing of Laboratory Rabbits

  • Social Housing Coordinator, University of Michigan
      Sarah Thurston received her Bachelors of Science in Biology from Saginaw Valley State University in 2008 and is a certified Laboratory Animal Behavior Professional (expected 2018) and a certified Laboratory Animal Technician through the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. In her current role as the Social Housing Coordinator at the University of Michigan, she oversees the implementation of new methods of social housing as well as refinements in processes for existing social housing situations. Since 2013 her main research emphasis has been the social housing of laboratory rabbits by focusing on an underlying knowledge of the natural behaviors of New Zealand White rabbits and their ancestors, the European Rabbit.
      Sarah also works as a research laboratory technician lead within the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine (ULAM) Faculty Laboratory and the Refinement and Enrichment Advancements Laboratory (REAL). In this role, she is able to work on a variety of projects dedicated to the refinement and improvement of the laboratory animal's lived experience.


    There is a considerable interest and need for evidence-based recommendations regarding the social housing of laboratory rabbits. This presentation will review the principles surrounding the social housing of laboratory rabbits including; the natural history of the New Zealand White (NZW) rabbit, current regulatory guidelines that provide oversight to rabbit social housing and a brief overview of peer-reviewed literature that provides insight into laboratory rabbit behavior. Rabbits benefit significantly from social housing in a myriad of physical and psychological ways and should be housed accordingly whenever possible. However, many challenges arise from housing adult paired rabbits within a cage setting, which if not mitigated, can be severe. We have developed a process of pair housing our extensive colony of approximately 400 rabbits annually by pairing adult non-related females in addition to related male and related female weanlings.  We have developed a behavioral ethogram categorizing expected behaviors during social interactions and what these behaviors may indicate. To provide stable pair maintenance across the lifespan of the pair, we have developed a structured process for intervening with various treatments when certain behaviors are observed. Utilizing these methods over the last 12-month period, we have maintained 172 NZW laboratory rabbit pairs (62% female, 38% male) with only 8% having to be separated for excessive aggression. 

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