November 22, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Rabbits Part 3


Weaning: Feeding: Housing: Health & welfare

By Dr Clive Dalton

  • Young rabbits are normally weaned at 8 weeks of age and the sexes should be caged separately after this.
  • Number weaned averages around 6 but with a wide range from 2-10.
  • Some litters may wean themselves at 28 days, but it's a good idea to leave them as family group till 56 days.
  • You can leave a couple of kits with the doe for a few days after weaning a heavy-milking doe, to avoid milk build up and caking on her skin.
  • To reduce the stress of weaning young rabbits and possible weight loss, transfer the feeder from their old cage to the new one, so some familiar smells go with them to their new quarters.

  • Pet rabbits will live well on kitchen and garden scraps, grazing the lawn and supplemented with pellets from the pet shop. In fact they may become obese on this diet unless you take care to avoid overfeeding.
  • If you want rabbits to grow and reproduce effectively, then you will have to consider their nutrition very seriously.
  • High performing rabbits must be fed a balanced diet containing all the nutrients required to meet their needs. These will vary with climate, pregnancy, growth, lactation, litter size and so on.
  • From day 1-21 days of pregnancy a doe will not need much more than the feed needed to maintain her bodyweight. But from day 22-31 there is a massive increase in feed requirements to nurture her growing litter up to birth.
  • Calcium and phosphorus are particularly important for growth, pregnancy and lactation. There are also a large number of vitamins and trace elements needed for health and high production.
  • Rabbits require fibre which can be incorporated in a fully pelleted diet. Diets fed as pellets save a lot of waste.
  • Pelleted diets should contain at least 15 % crude fibre and 17% protein. Check the nutritional content before you buy.
  • For rabbits producing fibre, the Sulphur amino acid content of the ration must be above 0.6%.
  • Clean water should be made available at all times.
  • All feed and water troughs/bottles must be kept clean - neglect will lead to digestive upsets and disease.
  • Don't leave feed in the hopper for more than two days as it becomes stale.
  • Make sure that rabbits clean up what they are offered each day - don't overfeed them.
  • Stale, mouldy or contaminated feed must never be fed to rabbits. It can lead to rapid death. Don't store feed for more than 6-8 weeks incase of moulds developing.
  • Introduce any new type of feed or new batch, over a few days to allow the gut flora to adjust. Mix the last bag of the old batch with the first bag of the new batch.
  • Check the feed analysis on the bag and if you don't understand anything, consult your supplier.

Coprophagia(eating faeces)
  • Rabbits produce two types of pellets - hard and soft.
  • The hard pellets drop through the cage and are not eaten.
  • If these hard pellets are soft or diarrhoea occurs, then feed more hay and cut down the pellets.
  • The rabbit will also produce naturally-soft pellets which it eats direct from the anus. This is Coprophagia.
  • Coprophagia is part of a normal rabbit's digestive system where it recycles vitamins.


Inside commercial Angora rabbit house with rabbits in cages

  • For generations, rabbits have been kept very successfully as pets, for meat and for fibre in hutches either outside in gardens or inside other buildings.
  • Hutches. Size is not critical, as long at the rabbit has enough area (see below for cage sizes). Rabbits like a dark enclosed resting/nesting area, and an open area for feeding and exercise.
  • Outside hutches need to be weather proof, but avoid using treated timber incase the rabbits start chewing the wood and get poisoned. Covering outside surfaces with bitumastic felt is ideal for weather protection.
  • Pet rabbits are also commonly kept in runs with a covered area where they can graze the lawn.
  • For larger rabbit operations, it's better to consider cages inside buildings.
  • For purpose-built structures you need to be aware of local authority regulations and bylaws.
  • Siting of rabbit houses is critical to success, and to avoid environmental/health problems.
Outside commercial rabbit house

Minimal floor areas needed for caged rabbits.

  • Does - 8/litter to 5 weeks (0.56m²)
  • Does - 8/litter to 8 weeks (0.74m²)
  • Weaners 5-12 weeks/rabbit (0.07m²)
  • Rabbits over 12 weeks/rabbit (0.18m²)
  • Adult breeding stock over 12weeks (0.56m²)
The main problem in buildings is environmental control to deal with the cold in winter, high temperatures and humidity in summer. Cold in New Zealand is a minor problem except for young kits or newly shorn Angoras. Our problems are more likely to be heat and humidity control.
  • With commercial houses being open-sided, the problem can be air control without causing draughts. Windbreaks can be planted alongside rabbit houses which can also provide fodder (e.g. tree Lucerne).
  • Cages are essential if you want to keep any number of rabbits. They're easy to keep clean and provide free air flow.
  • Cages need to be made of welded wire mesh.
  • Floor 25 x13mm mesh of 2.5mm diameter.
  • Sides and top 50 x 25mm mesh of 2mm diameter.

Cage sizes
  • For does and litter to weaning , - min floor area of 0.54m², 900mm x 600mm x 450mm high.
  • Weaners 5-12 weeks - ditto (provides 0.07m²/head)
  • Woollers over 12 weeks - 770 x 450 x 450 high (0.3m²/head)
  • Cage doors. Should be big enough to get rabbits and equipment in and out easily. An opening of 330 x 420mm is ideal. Side doors are preferred to those on top to allow more room below cages and ease of operation.
  • Feed hoppers. Should be fitted with a dust extractor, either gauze or a narrow slot and a lip or partitions in the trough to stop the rabbit scratching out the feed.
  • Fit the feed hoppers through the cage wall with the base not more than 75mm above the floor. It must be big enough to hold a day's feed.
  • Nipples are the best way to ensure a continuous clean water supply. Fit them about 200mm above floor height. If fitted too low it may discourage drinking and if too high it could be out of reach.
  • Check water nipples regularly as lack of water is the main cause of rabbits not eating.
Nest boxes.
  • Should be large enough for the doe to kindle in comfort, and suckle the kits for 3-4 weeks without risk of injury through over crowding.
  • Size 500mm x 250mm x 250 mm high.
  • Make one side 180mm high for easy entry by the doe and retain the kits.
  • Untreated 12mm plywood is ideal for nest boxes. Or use a wire mesh frame with a disposable wax cardboard liner. Or a box with sheet metal top and sides and a wooden or composition floor. In freezing conditions put polystyrene in the nest box under the hay for extra insulation.
  • Nest boxes can be put inside the cage or mounted outside the doorway.
Waste disposal.
  • Pits dug 500mm deep below the cages are best. Put a layer of coarse sand or fine road metal in the bottom of the pit for drainage. The dung should be left undisturbed and kept as dry as possible (watch for leaking water systems). This method should last six months or a year before cleaning is needed.
  • Rake off waste hay at regular intervals. The dung pits are an ideal place to start worm farming. It's a very good idea to concrete the walkways between the cages for both hygiene and safety reasons.
  • For optimal production, 15 hours of daylight every 24 hours should be maintained.
  • Rabbits and their leftovers will attract vermin such as rats, mice, stoats, weasels, ferrets and possums. Make sure you have a pest prevention and destruction programme in place at all times.
Health and welfare
  • The secret to success is to provide a good healthy environment and remember that prevention is always more effective and cheaper than cures.
  • Rabbits should live to 5-6 years old if healthy and well cared for.
  • Constant vigilance is the key to see problems almost before they have developed.
  • Dust, toxic gases like ammonia, and high humidity irritate lungs and nasal passages and will make a rabbit more prone to respiratory problems such as snuffles.
  • Ammonia fumes are killers. They arise from accumulated dung and urine below cages. Make sure you have good ventilation all year round.
  • Rabbits must have a free flow of air at all times, but without draughts.
  • Cages must be kept clean, especially from a build up of dung, hay or fibre. A regular clean with a blowtorch is a good idea. This will also remove dung pellets hanging from hairs below the cages.
  • In commercial operations, cages must be up off the ground where dung and urine fall into a pit below to be cleaned out once a year. One tier of cages is best as banks of them often cause problems. Many producers keep a worm farm in the droppings below the cages.
  • The water supply must be kept clean and free from faults. Nipple drinkers are best.
  • Discuss an animal health programme with your vet before you start, then you'll know how to develop a management programme based on disease prevention.
  • Have a quarantine or isolation area for new animals brought in or those under observation. Sick animals can also be held here when under treatment.
  • Normal temperature in the rabbit is 38-39°C.
  • Normal respiration is 32-60beats/min.
  • Now that the Calici virus is here in New Zealand, it would be wise to contact your veterinarian about protection against it by vaccination.

No comments:

Post a Comment