Before You Start …

Over the 30 years that CottonTails® rabbit and guinea pig rescue has been running, I have often been asked how to start a rabbit rescue.  I always begin by asking five basic questions:

  1. Why do you want to do this type of work?
  2. What do you hope to achieve?
  3. Do you understand the difference between a rehoming centre and a sanctuary?
  4. How much time and effort are you prepared and able to give to the project?
  5. How are you going to fund the work?
  6. Have you already bred or intend to breed rabbits?

Considering that most small animal rescue centres give up within the first two years, planning and thinking things through thoroughly is vital. This gives you a much greater chance of succeeding and “staying the course”, and perhaps you may even enjoy yourself in the process! Let’s take each point in turn.  

Six Important Questions

Why do you want to do this type of work?

It is very common to be swayed emotionally to “do something” when you hear of cases of neglect or cruelty, but you can quickly end up doing more harm than good if you start up for the wrong reasons. Many people do charitable or voluntary work to fulfil a need in themselves, and this is not a problem in itself so long as the inner motivation is strong enough to keep you going even when things get tough, as they inevitably do in this line of work. By the nature of animal rescue work, many of the rabbits taken in will either have health or behavioural problems or both, so you must have a level of competence, knowledge and experience beyond basic husbandry.

What do you hope to achieve?

It would be best if you decided whether you want to take in a few rabbits and keep them for the rest of their lives (a sanctuary) or whether you will be re-homing regularly. The two approaches are entirely different, one involving yourself and those immediately around you, the latter resulting in you having to deal with the public – a complicated, time-consuming and frustrating task! Either way, decide on the maximum number you can take and stick to it, no matter how people pressure you to take more. Using a waiting list is essential, together with a list of other rescues you can refer people to when necessary.

Do you understand the difference between a rehoming centre and a sanctuary?

There is a crucial distinction between an organisation predominantly a rehoming centre and one that prides itself on providing sanctuary.  A rehoming centre puts all its efforts into finding suitable new homes for the animals under its care, whilst a sanctuary provides a permanent home to its inmates, however long that may be.  The knock-on effect of this difference is that a rehoming centre will have a much higher throughput of animals and can help significantly more than a sanctuary. 

As a sanctuary provides a home for each animal for life, the spaces will be filled very quickly, resulting in no new animals being admitted until there is a “vacancy”.  Additionally, a sanctuary, by its very definition, often ends up caring for animals with significant issues such as long-term health concerns or disabilities – usually resulting in big vet bills and a lot of time needed to give the individual the care required.  Each approach has its merits, each providing an essential service, but it is necessary to decide at the outset which approach you want to take, as mixing the two rarely works satisfactorily in the long term.

How much time and effort are you prepared to put in?  

Do not underestimate how much animal rescue work will influence and affect your life. There is a tremendous amount of hard work involved, both physical and mental, and most people give up because they are not adequately prepared or have not realised how much time has to be devoted for it to be run efficiently and competently. Many marriages have crumbled due to the stresses associated with rescue work! If you have a full-time job, it may not be realistic to try running a re-homing centre. However, having a few “unwanted” bunnies may be an excellent practical alternative.

Bear in mind, however, that rabbits should be cleaned out several times a week to avoid unpleasant smells. Furthermore, you may have to apply for planning permission as your local authority may view the project as beyond the range of a hobby. Neighbours can create great trouble in this respect even though the premises may be kept clean and tidy, and they may even involve the Environmental Health Department. You should be aware of these critical issues before you start.

How are you going to fund the work?

Rabbit rescue is a costly undertaking. A good rescue centre will neuter and vaccinate all the rabbits before adoption, and this can be very expensive unless you can make a special arrangement with your vet. Neutering is essential not only from the non-breeding aspect but also is vital to prevent uterine cancer in females, as well as sorting out many behavioural problems in both sexes. Neutering also allows you to match up most rabbits into compatible pairs.  

Another important issue is that of Public Liability insurance – this is primarily for your protection if you will have members of the public visiting regularly.  If you have any volunteers helping you, you will also need Employers Liability Insurance, as volunteers now have the same rights as paid employees.  Insurance is costly, so you must bear this in mind when working out your setting-up expenses.  Our annual Public/Employers Liability Insurance bill is almost £500 (2012 figures).

Are you already a breeder or intend to breed rabbits?

This issue is black and white, with no grey areas.  If you are a rabbit rescue, you never breed from the rabbits, not even your own.  If you are a breeder, that is what you are first and foremost, and you happen to take in some unwanted rabbits as well, out of the goodness of your heart, but that does not make you a rabbit rescue!  It would be like the RSPCA deciding to produce puppies and kittens – it just isn’t done.

Guidelines for starting up your rabbit rescue


Before you start taking in unwanted rabbits, you must equip yourself with good quality hutches of appropriate size for the needs of the individuals to be accommodated. Hutches should be a minimum size of 4’x2’x2’ for single rabbits and 6’ x 2’ x 2’ for pairs.  Larger hutches are needed for bigger breeds. It is important to provide somewhere for the rabbits to exercise, such as a run or enclosure, preferably on concrete or a similar surface, to allow for regular cleaning and disinfection of the area. Better still, the runs should be attached permanently to the front of the hutches, allowing access 24 hours a day.  Take into account possible fox problems and ensure the accommodation is safe at all times. 

If a communal run is used where rabbits take turns, disinfection between inmates is vital to stop the spread of E. cuniculi, snuffles, coccidiosis, and external parasites. The whole area needs to be thoroughly sprayed between each rabbit using it.  This is where concrete or paving is essential, as soil or grass cannot be disinfected, and you risk spreading disease very quickly.  It is all well and good to say rabbits should be allowed access to grass to graze, but in a rabbit rescue situation, this is not practical if you want to stop the spread of diseases and parasites.

If the rabbits are to be housed inside, ensuring good ventilation to minimise the spread of respiratory infections such as Pasteurella (snuffles) is essential. Remember that visitors note how well the rabbits are kept, and it pays to set a good example – if standards are poor, there is no incentive for new owners to do any different. Other equipment items, such as water bottles, food bowls, pet carriers, and cleaning utensils, will have to be bought.

Permissions required

Before starting a rabbit rescue, you must speak seriously to your neighbours.  Not everyone is happy about the practicalities of living near such an establishment.  If appropriately run, there will be no nasty smells, but even so, there can be a “grassy” sort of odour from the hay and bedding.  Furthermore, although rabbits are virtually silent, they can make a tremendous amount of noise by thumping, chewing and moving their furniture around, which is incredibly annoying at 3 in the morning!  It is best to involve your local council too as if they are informed from the start and you have their blessing, this will help later on if they get any complaints from neighbours.  If the rescue is kept very small, the impact on the immediate area will be minimal. However, there will still be people coming and going, more so than before the rescue started, and this can also annoy even from the car parking point of view. 

If the rescue becomes a busy centre, you may have to register as a business or a registered charity if you draw too much attention.  The former will involve business rates for council tax (expensive) and employing an accountant; the latter will exempt you from that. However, registering is another complicated task you may wish to avoid.  More on that later.  These points must be thought through and can even limit fundraising capabilities if you want to keep a low profile.


Find a reliable, cost-effective supplier, preferably local food, hay, and wood shavings. You may find it helpful to check if they will deliver to your door, as these are bulky items and sufficient quantities cannot be easily transported in an ordinary car. You will also need to consider what storage facilities are available.

Waste Disposal

Decide how to safely dispose of the inevitable bags of manure/soiled bedding. Many local authority recycling centres will not accept animal waste, and most refuse collectors will not take the quantity that you will generate. Local allotment holders may be interested, but do not assume that will be the case – make sure you have a legal and practical waste disposal method before you start.


Biosecurity is a system of best management practices designed to reduce the introduction and spread of infectious diseases. This issue is critical whether you own one little pet bunny or several pedigree show rabbits.  For more information on this topic, read the article on Biosecurity on the website.

Vet inspection

Regular (annual) inspection by your local vet at your invitation is an excellent idea. Although a charge may be incurred, this is primarily for your benefit as you can display the subsequent letter in a prominent position for visitors to see. The letter should contain the following points:

  1. How long you have been regularly attending that particular practice.
  2. How much experience you have with rabbits, and any relevant previous employment details.
  3. The premises are clean and tidy, with no overcrowding, and the pens/hutches are adequate; there is provision of food and water; bedding is clean with free access to good quality hay; all food is stored in rodent-proof containers.
  4. That no breeding of the animals is taking place. If you are rescuing rabbits, you should not add to the problem by producing more.
  5. A maximum number of animals should be stated as appropriate for the premises concerned to avoid the temptation of overcrowding.
  6. There is evidence of good basic book-keeping, including details of the animals kept, the dates that they were brought in and re-homing dates, details of new owners, and any miscellaneous details such as veterinary treatment, vaccination and neutering dates, age, and any other relevant information.
  7. There is provision for disease management, for example, the isolation of new arrivals and any animals that are not well, as well as evidence of good biosecurity rules that all volunteers and staff must follow. 


It is essential that all rabbits are neutered before adoption and also before bonding if the individuals concerned are not already living together.  Likewise, single male guinea pigs must be neutered to allow them to live with females once infertile (usually after a calendar month).  This is extremely expensive, so neutering will be almost impossible without funding. You must also be prepared for the organisation required if the neutering is done in batches.  The photo below shows the line of carriers set out ready on a typical neutering run morning.



Records should be kept of money received as donations and money paid out in expenses. Bear in mind that if a new owner can’t afford an appropriate donation to purchase the rabbits, there must be some doubt about their ability or willingness to pay for their pet’s upkeep, veterinary bills, etc.  Charging a minimum adoption fee is acceptable, as neutering and vaccinations are not cheap and even registered charities can’t run on thin air!  Remember, if you are a registered charity, you can use Gift Aid to boost the value of the donation.

Waiting List

A waiting list is essential as there will be times when you are full but don’t want to turn people away. Overcrowding must be avoided due to the high risk of spreading disease and other welfare issues. A fair priority system should be operated so rabbits in danger of cruelty or neglect come higher than those who need to come in because their owner is bored with them. However, remember that an unwanted rabbit may also be at risk of neglect. “Pretty” rabbits should not have a higher priority over “standard” looking ones; likewise, rabbits with mild deformities should not be penalised. Rabbits should be accepted all year round, space permitting, as rescue work does not stop just because it is winter! It is often the busiest time of year due to people dumping their rabbits because of their reluctance to look after them in the cold weather.


Veterinary advice recommends that all rabbits be vaccinated against VHD (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, or RHD) and Myxomatosis, and with the new combined vaccine now available, each rabbit is fully covered against both diseases for a year.  Rabbit rescue is more at risk of a significant disease outbreak if the stock is not vaccinated shortly after arrival.

 Declaration/Follow-up Visit

If there is any doubt that the rabbit will not go to a good home, follow your instincts and refuse to let it go. If it is possible to carry out home checks, this is very helpful in making this decision.  However, this is not always possible in small rescue centres where time and staffing are in short supply. However, always ensure you get details of the accommodation in the form of photographs and the new owner’s name, address and telephone number before the rabbits go out so that you can keep in touch. A follow-up visit could be arranged if you felt it necessary and if this were possible. It is helpful to ask the new owners to sign a declaration, although it would not have any legal “clout”.  An example of this is below.

I, the undersigned, promise:

  1. To keep the animal healthy and provide veterinary treatment where necessary.
  2. To allow a representative of (name of rescue) to see the animal and its accommodation at any reasonable time.
  3. Only to part with the animal with the permission of (name of rescue), but to return the animal to (name of rescue) if no longer able to look after it.
  4. Not to allow the animal to breed (this point is not relevant in good rescues where all rabbits are neutered before adoption anyway).
  5. N.B. (name of rescue) reserves the right to remove any animal considered to be unsuitably placed

Care sheets/websites/telephone advice

An information sheet, website link, or telephone number should accompany every rabbit placed in a new home, and the new owners are encouraged to contact you for advice should any problems arise.  The RWAF produce an excellent booklet all about rabbit care, which can be purchased at minimum cost by contacting them directly.


It has to be up to individuals to decide on their policy for euthanasia in cases such as severe behavioural problems or chronic long-term health issues such as malocclusion/dental disease. However, you must consider that for every individual rabbit you keep permanently, this is one less place you have available to take a rabbit that you could do something for and successfully re-home. Sadly, if you adopt a non-euthanasia policy, you will quickly fill up with problem bunnies with no room to take in any more. This is often the case with sanctuaries, whereby a new rabbit is only taken when an inmate finally dies. Still, this policy rarely works in a re-homing centre unless extensive foster care facilities are available.

Other Agencies

It is often helpful to notify your local RSPCA and any other animal welfare organisations and inform them of the type of rescue work you offer. You will likely find it beneficial to work in conjunction with such organisations rather than in competition with them.

Charitable Status

It is certainly not easy to become a registered charity, and it will make very little difference to your rescue centre apart from helping a bit when you apply for grants from grant-awarding bodies.  You can achieve just as high a profile whether you are registered or not, and the success of your organisation depends on the enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteers concerned, not whether you are registered. 

You will need to go through a solicitor; otherwise, your chances of being accepted by the Charity Commission are not so good. Choose a solicitor that specialises in charity law.  It will not be cheap, and you may feel the funds would be better spent on the animals rather than the solicitor’s fees, but at least you can make enquiries.  You will also find that the red tape will tie your hands in several issues, and suddenly, you will not be in control anymore.  However, if you think you may have large donations or grants, it is undoubtedly important to become a registered charity to protect everyone’s interests, including that of the trustees and the animals.

Cover when ill or away

It is easy to get carried away initially, especially if you are relatively young and in good health, and to think you can run a rabbit rescue single-handedly.  Take my word for it – you can’t!  You must set up a backup plan even if you think you won’t need it, so if you are suddenly taken ill or something happens that you are called away, there are at least two people who are reliable and know the ropes so that the animals are properly cared for until everyday routines can be established.  Ignore this warning at your peril! GOOD LUCK!