An unlikely sport has come forward in leaps and bounds among rabbit-owners in recent years: bunny-jumping competitions.

Rabbits are put through their paces on a small track with hurdles. Sometimes they’re guided lightly by a leash, but more often they are left to spring over the obstacles and complete the course on their own.

The winner is the bunny who completes the circuit in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of errors – for example, knocking over a crossbar.

Hurdles range in height of up to 45cm, according to the difficulty class of the race. Participating pet owners say it’s a welcome workout for bunnies who may spend much of their time confined in cramped cages.

“The thinking behind it is that bunnies like moving about and have fun getting out of their cage and doing something different,” says school pupil and bunny-jumping enthusiast Tahira Paul from Germany.

The 12-year-old and proud owner of Astrid, Fluffy and Halva feels bad when she comes home from a long school day, too tired to pay her furry friends much attention.

Tahira attends group training sessions once a week to get tips and advice for her quirky hobby.

What does it take to be a successful bunny-jump trainer?

“Understanding and patience,” says Tahira. The animal should never be forced to jump over an obstacle.

It may well all sound adorable but, for some, the sport is a cause for concern in terms of animal welfare.

“We think it’s basically a good thing when pet owners take an active interest in their animal and look for ways to offer it variety from its life in a cage,” says biologist Juergen Hirt from German veterinary and animal welfare association, TVT.

“But the transportation and competitive environment is, in our view, a huge source of stress for rabbits, who are by nature flight animals.”

He believes rabbits jump over the hurdles mainly because they have learnt that afterwards they will be able to return to their safe dens. In particular, Hirt is against the use of a leash.

“Voluntary participation without the pressure of a lead is fine, that’s a good interaction between human and animal.”

Whilst Hirt has doubts about the suitability of group race environments, Kai Sander of rabbit breeding association ZDRK reckons it’s better that newcomers learn the sport in group training sessions.

This way, they are under the guidance of more experienced racers. “At a club training session, it’s not just about how to encourage the bunny to jump over a hurdle. We give the animals check-ups, and the owners tricks and tips for animal care, training and food.”

And the leash? “It is occasionally used to maintain contact between animal and human. Anyone who tugs on it is disqualified,” says Sander. – dpa