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Rabbits in Research

In 2015, rabbits were the second most commonly used Animal Welfare Act-covered animal in research, teaching and testing in the U.S., comprising 18% of animals used that year. Rabbits are frequently used in experimentation because of their relatively large size and docile nature. In 2015, 138,348 rabbits were used by United States Department of Agriculture licensees, representing an 8% decrease from the previous year.

New Zealand White rabbits, large albino rabbits, are the breed most commonly used in biomedical research, although other breeds, including Dutch Belted rabbits are used as well. Laboratory rabbits can be purchased from commercial vendors such as Covance, and range from $89-$292 per animal, depending on age and weight.

In 2015, about 44% of the rabbits used in research were subjected to procedures involving pain and distress. Rabbits are commonly used for toxicity and safety testing of substances such as drugs, chemicals and medical devices. They are used in skin and eye irritation studies, such as the archaic and painful Draize tests for cosmetics, personal care, household products and other chemicals. This controversial use of rabbits resulted in some of the first large-scale protests against animal experimentation in the 1970s and 1980s and pushed the scientific community to search for in vitro alternatives.

A number of rabbit models have been developed to study human diseases, the most common being cardiovascular disease, cancer and AIDS. They have also been used as bioreactors for the production of pharmaceutical proteins. The rabbit is the breed of choice for polyclonal antibody production, tools commonly used in a variety of research methodologies.

Once in the laboratory, rabbits are housed in spaces depending on their weight, according to recommendations made by The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. It is recommended that rabbits less than four pounds have a minimum floor area of one-and-a-half square feet per animal; rabbits up to nine pounds have a minimum floor area of three square feet per animal; rabbits up to 12 pounds have a minimum floor area of four square feet per animal, and; rabbits more than 12 pounds have a minimum floor area of five square feet per animal. The Guide also recommends that cage height be at least 16 inches, and indicates that more cage height may be required to allow larger rabbits to sit up.

Rabbits in the lab who are suffering from pain and distress may display a number of signs including lack of appetite, weight loss, self-mutilation, aggression, tremoring and/or vocalization.