November 22, 2008

Animal behaviour and welfare: Rabbits Part 1


Image: Breeds: Handling: Euthanasia

By Dr Clive Dalton

The rabbit's image
  • Rabbits have a terrible image in New Zealand because of the environmental devastation they have caused since their introduction in the 1800s, the mountains of 1080 poison used to reduce their numbers over the years, the controversial Calici virus smuggled in to kill them in the late 1990s.
  • Rabbits have ruined many farmers and cost taxpayers a fortune. They are seen as vermin and most New Zealanders believe the only good rabbit is a dead one.
  • But rabbits also have a very friendly cuddly image and the thought of causing them pain or suffering is very alien to the keen rabbit owner.
  • Under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 they have a right to the five freedoms when alive as well as a humane death.
  • There is a great deal of concern about pet rabbits escaping or being released back into the environment when people want to dispose of them and cannot face euthanasia.

Why keep rabbits?
  • They make great pets for children. This is true but there are some important qualifications. What happens is the child gets a pet rabbit, and then they get sick of it. Mum then takes over feeding and cleaning, with no time for handling. The child goes back at some later stage to play with the rabbit, and finds the rabbit bites or scratches.
  • Rabbits are very territorial and they don't like it interfered with.
  • They must be handled regularly and kindly by the owner.
  • Rabbits are bred for exhibition and there are breeders' organisations in most parts of the country.
  • They can be kept for a domestic meat supply or can be run commercially for meat. They produce white meat, which is grouped with poultry and veal but they have the large advantage that they don't compete with man for grain.
  • Commercial rabbit farming for meat is usually a large operation where production, processing and marketing are all integrated like broiler chickens. What they produce per kg of body weight far exceeds any other farm animal and their reproductive rate far exceeds any other farm animal.
  • Rabbits can also be kept for their fibre (Angora) either as a hobby with a few animals, or with larger numbers in a commercial operation.
  • They are been integrated with a tourism where the Angora rabbits are on display, their fibre harvested, spinning is demonstrated and end garments offered for sale.
  • They can also provide pelts, usually as a byproduct from some other commercial operation such as meat. However some coloured and patterned pelts come from surplus exhibition rabbits.

Breeds and types

In New Zealand all breeds have been imported, but we do not have the full range seen in Europe or USA. Below are the main ones.

Meat rabbits

NZ White

  • New Zealand White
  • Flemish Giant
  • Dutch
  • Californian
  • Himalayan

Fibre rabbits

  • Angora

Exhibition rabbits
  • Netherlands dwarf
  • French lop
  • Rex
  • Chinchilla


  • You can lift small young rabbits by holding them gently and firmly around the loin.
  • Larger rabbits are carried by holding the scruff in the right hand for balance and taking the animal's weight on your left hand and forearm held under the rump. If the rabbit struggles, the left arm can hold it.
  • Vicious rabbits (biting and scratching). There can be a number of reasons for this so try to find out why. It may be rough handling, starvation, too cramped conditions, teasing, etc. Regular quiet and gentle handling is a good investment, especially for pet animals.
  • If rabbits are persistently vicious, then they should be culled.

  • Caged rabbits will need to have their nails clipped at regular intervals.
  • With Angoras they can be nail clipped when shorn.
  • Use proper nail clippers and only cut about 5mm from the quick, which is easily seen against the light. If you cut into the quick the nail will bleed and cause pain.
  • Use a strong light under the nail to help see the blood line and avoid cutting into the quick.
Rabbits have teeth occlusion problems where top and bottom teeth do not meet correctly and are not worn down evenly. They grow past each other so grown long and need to be treated. Consult a veterinarian for the correct procedure.

  • Rabbits must be killed in a humane way to avoid committing an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.
  • Neck dislocation is the most common method, but it must be done correctly and needs experience. Get an experienced person to show you.
  • Hold the back legs of the rabbit in one hand, and press the chin up and the head down with the other hand with a quick stretching action until the neck breaks.
  • If you don't feel competent, stun the rabbit (see below) and then carry out neck dislocation.
  • The rabbit may also be stunned with a blow from a heavy instrument on the back of the head, and then immediately have its throat cut to ensure it has bled to death.
  • The action of stunning alone may not kill the rabbit.

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