Exploring domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) personality utilising behaviour coding, behaviour testing and a novel behaviour rating tool

  • Clare Frances Ellis

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The purpose of the study was to attempt to identify personality traits in domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and to evaluate a range of tools, suitable for use in a shelter setting, that can be used to measure personality traits. A literature review highlighted limited evaluation of reliability and validity in rabbit personality research published to date. Additionally, there is a lack of clarity on what is being measured by some behaviour tests that are currently employed in animal personality research and there are limited tools available to measure domestic rabbit responses to humans.

Chapter three highlights several uses of rabbit behaviour and personality data in United Kingdom (UK) shelters. Shelter staff reported uses for understanding the behaviour of an individual rabbit to support the management of the individual while at the shelter and to match the rabbit to the most suitable future home. Challenges facing shelter staff to collect behavioural data for their rabbits centred around a lack of resources, specifically time available for collecting behavioural data. An additional challenge reported by shelter staff was inaccurate information being reported by the person handing the rabbit into the shelter. To ensure any personality assessment tool could be integrated into shelter routines, the tools would need to be relatively quick to complete and should ideally include a range of data collection methods so that a full picture can be available. 
In Chapter four, the results of a behaviour rating survey that was distributed to a self-selected pool of rabbit owners or those that worked with rabbits, using social media are reported. The survey was also completed by animal care technicians for rabbits taking part in direct behavioural observations, including a suite of behaviour tests and observations within the home cage. The use of an online survey enabled a large number of participants to take part. Following examination of the reliability of the data (interrater) and dimension reduction statistics, three components were retained that included 15 of the initial 47 items and accounted for 60.6% of the variance in the data (n=1,234). However, sufficient thresholds for inter-rater reliability were not achieved. As intended in the selection of survey items, the retained components accounted for intraspecific social behaviour, human-rabbit interactions (avoidance of humans) and boldness in relation to the environment. However, only the human-rabbit interaction component had sufficient distribution of scores across the sample population to consider this a personality trait.

Behavioural tests are commonly used as measures of an individual animal’s personality; however, several tests have conflicting interpretations of the underlying traits that may drive behaviour in these tests. In Chapter 5, a suite of tests were used, reflecting three commonly used test paradigms for domestic rabbits; the open field test, novel object test and a new human interaction test. Five human-interaction items measured were reliable between raters and between tests and two items, location during subtest 3 where the handler was sat inside the door of the enclosure and a combined outcome score for subtest 3, 4 (stroke rabbit) and 5 (pick up rabbit) were retained to create component 2 on the final solution of the principal component analysis. From two variations of both the open field and novel object tests, two components were also derived, reflecting exploration and curiosity in rabbits. These three components were reliable between raters and between tests and accounted for 75.2% of the cumulative variance in the data. The component labelled ‘exploration’ comprising variables of activity in the open field tests were found to negatively correlate with component 2 from the behaviour rating scale, reflecting avoidance of humans. This is similar to past research in young rabbits where resistance to handling was correlated with activity in the open field.

The use of behavioural observations in the home cage environment is rarely performed for personality assessment in domestic animals due to how time consuming such observations can be. As a requirement for the tools was to be able to be utilised by shelter staff, where time constraints are an important factor, home cage behavioural observations were designed to be quick to complete. Following a pilot test including three hours of observations over the day, it was possible to determine the behaviours that could be observed using video cameras positioned adjacent to or above rabbit enclosures. Additionally, this pilot test revealed that within the times of day available for testing, none were preferable over any other in terms of the range of behaviours observed in 12 rabbits. The main study therefore utilised three five-minute sampling points across the day with the refined ethogram and 30 second focal sampling. It was not possible to complete dimension reductive statistics on the sample of 16 rabbits used for this part of the study, although the behaviours observed in the relatively short time frame did represent activity patterns observed in past research.

Two tools, the behaviour rating survey and suite of behaviour tests, are proposed to be retained for future examination of the utility of these tests in a shelter setting to measure rabbit behaviour and personality. These retained tests would provide information on an individual rabbit’s social behaviour (intraspecific), response to humans, boldness in relation to the environment, exploration and curiosity. Future research is recommended to determine the suitability of these tests for use in shelters, and to understand the predictive validity of these tools. That is to understand the usefulness of rabbit personality assessments to identify aspects of behaviour that are stable between different environmental contexts, such as between a shelter setting and within a home following being rehomed.
Date of AwardSept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorChris Holt (Supervisor) & Wanda McCormick (Supervisor)


  • Animal personality
  • rabbit
  • behaviour tests
  • reliability
  • validity

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