Rabbit production is a livestock enterprise with great potential and room for expansion. This is because of the minimal investment requirements needed for rabbits, as well as their ability to reproduce fast. Their feed requirement is low, especially with regard to demand for grain. Their housing and disease control management requirements are also low, yet their meat is highly nutritious and a healthier source of protein when compared with other sources of meat.
Rabbit production has experienced steady growth in the past few years, with gender biases associated with its production fading away. This is a significant change considering that for many years rabbit production in countries like Kenya was confined to the youth, mainly 4-K club members and young farmers. Though rabbit meat marketing is yet to gain ground, there is hope that with the growing awareness of the benefits of rabbit meat, it will be possible for rabbit meat to be introduced into the regular meat market.
The realization that rabbits are well suited to rapid production of protein has increased the number of industrialized production units just like in poultry. The most popular breeds used in the meat industry are the New Zealand White, Californian, Flemish Giant, French Ear lop, Chinchilla and Dutch. Other breeds include the Angora primarily kept for fur and as pets; most of the locally available breeds are crossbreeds.
Important facts about Rabbits and Rabbit meat
Rabbits grow fast especially if fed well reaching maturity at 5 months and slaughter weight at 3 months.
They require less land (space) with diminishing land size. Therefore, they can be kept at the backyard.
They can derive their feed requirement entirely on greens only.
They are prolific, with each doe capable of reproducing 4 times a year an average of 8 kits per kindling.
They have one of the highest feed conversion ratios at 4:1.
Rabbit meat is white meat of high quality, easily digestible with low fat, low cholesterol and high protein compared to most other meats.
The unsaturated fats (good fats) in rabbit meat make 63% of the total fatty acids.
Rabbit meat is lower in percentage fat than chicken, turkey, beef and pork.
Rabbit meat provides the lowest calories per kilogram of meat consumed compared to other sources of meat.
Rabbit meat is one of the cleanest kinds of meat as it is raised off the ground.
Other important products from rabbits include manure, skins and fur.
They can also be produced as lab animals.
The average life span of a rabbit is 6 years. Good care and a healthy environment can add 4+ years to your rabbits’ life.
First-time mothers should be monitored as they often have poor mothering instincts. This generally improves after their first litter.
Good air quality is important to the well-being of rabbits. Fresh air is a must. Ammonia build-up or high moisture content can lead to respiratory problems.
Water is their most important nutrient. Rabbits drink twice as much water as they eat. If they do not drink, they won’t eat.
Protect your rabbits from cold drafts and wet blowing winds.
Rabbits should be fed hay free-choice. They need the fibrous roughage in their diet in order to maintain a healthy digestive system.
Feeding programs should be designed based on breed, management, sex, environment and genetic potential.
The gestation period for rabbits range from 30-32 days.
Handling Your Rabbit
A rabbit should never be picked up by the ears.
Damage to the ear tissue can be caused this way and it is painful for the rabbit.
Pick up a rabbit by the fold of skin above the shoulders with one hand supporting the hindquarters. Or lift the animal from underneath, while providing support to the hindquarters, allowing the rabbit to rest on your stomach with all four feet against you.
Breeds of Rabbit
Rabbits come in an array of breeds in various colors, sizes, shapes, and coat types. The subtle differences between breeds are mostly of interest to those who show their bunnies while the average owner is focused mainly on the size and type of coat. Keep in mind that a pet store rabbit is not necessarily purebred or it may not meet ideal breed standards. This in no way reflects on their quality as a pet and should not deter you from adopting a rabbit that you like.
This guide is instead meant to help potential owners sort through the sometimes confusing array of rabbit breeds. Rabbits vary in size from the smaller dwarf breeds that weigh less than 2.5 pounds to some of the giant breeds that weigh in at a whopping 16 pounds. Coats can vary in colour, from white to browns, grays, and black and by fur length, from short to long. Note that the longer coated breeds require daily grooming so they are a little more maintenance than the shorter coated breeds.
Pet Rabbit Breeds
The following is an alphabetical list of rabbit breeds that can be kept as pets:
Originated in Germany
Medium build, narrow head
American Checkered Giant
11 pounds or larger
White with black or blue markings (along spine, body spots, cheek spots, colored ears, eye circles, and butterfly mark on nose)
Dense, fine hair that is smooth and glossy (1¼ inch-long coat)
Relatively round body
American Fuzzy Lop
Variety of coat colors
Compact muscular body; dense, coarse coat; and of course, ears folded over to slightly below the jaw
Medium build with soft, dense fine coat with coarse guard hairs
Variety of sizes and colors
English angora: 5–7 pounds, long silky hair
French angora: 7.5–10.5 pounds
Giant Angora: 8.5 pounds and up, soft fine undercoat (wool), straight stiff guard hairs, and a wavy fluff with a guard tip in between
Satin Angora: 6.5–9.5 pounds, very fine wool
Black, blue, brown, or creamy white
6–9.5 pounds (2.7–4.3 kg)
Reddish tan or chestnut with slate blue undercoloring; slender build, fairly stiff coat
Under 2.5 pounds
Ruby eyed white, black otter, black, chestnut agouti
Slender, fine-boned build with a sleek, silky coat
One of the smallest breeds of rabbits
White, with black nose, ears, feet; tail
Rounded body, medium build, and short smooth coat
Bluish white with black hairs interspersed and slate blue undercolor
Black at birth with white hairs start showing at about 2 months
Over 11 pounds
White with black or blue markings (along spine, body spots, cheek spots, colored ears, eye circles and butterfly mark on nose)
Long, harelike body
Chinchilla grey colored
Rust or cinnamon color with grey ticking on back and grey on belly. Rust-colored spots inside hind legs as well as butterfly mark on nose and eye rings
May be referred to as a Conti
Recognized by the British Rabbit Counsel (BRC) but not the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA)
World record holder for the largest rabbit
12.4 pounds and up
White, black, grey, chestnut and varying shades
Live only 5-7 years
Have a variety of bloodlines based on their country of origin but originally bred from Flemish Giants
Creamy white with orange undercoat, and butterfly marking on nose
White with black, blue, or brown; chocolate; steel; or tortoise
The front of the face, body, and the back feet are white; the rest is colored
Under 3 pounds
White with black eye rings, rounded body
Over 9 pounds
Agouti, broken, self, shaded, ticked or wide-band color groups; very long lop ears
White with black, blue, chocolate, gold, grey, lilac, or tortoise. Markings include butterfly mark on nose, colored ears, eye rings, spine marking (herringboned), a spot on the cheek, and a chain of spots along the body
Long arched body like a hare
Flemish Giant (Patagonian)
13 pounds and over
Black, blue, fawn, light grey, sandy, steel grey, white
Long with heavy build (but shouldn’t be fat)
One of the largest breeds of rabbits
10 pounds and over
Agouti, broken, self, shaded, ticked, or wide-band groups
Muscular, heavy build
Heavy build, rounded body
One of the largest breeds of rabbits
White with markings; similar to English Spot, except for patches on sides instead of spots
Black, blue, chocolate, lilac
Striking patterns alternating bands of color and white; half the face white and the other half colored; the ear on the white side colored, and vice versa.
Black, blue, chocolate
Compact, rounded body
Black, blue, chocolate, lilac. Coloration develops on cooler extremities: ears, nose, tail, feet, and legs
Under 4 pounds
Agouti, broken, pointed white, self, shaded, ticked, or wide-band color groups
Muscular build, lop ears
White with black eye ring
Well rounded body
Under 3.5 pounds
Wide variety of colors, long wooly coat
5.5–8 pounds lbs
Compact body and dense coat
Agouti, broken, pointed white, self, shaded, ticked, or wide band color groups
Muscular and compact
Black, blue, broken group, castor, chinchilla, chocolate, himilayan, lilac, lynx, opal, red, seal tortoise, white
Under 2.5 pounds
Self group, shaded group, agouti group, tan pattern group, fawn, himalayan, orange, steel, tortoiseshell
Ears seem too short for head
Black, red, white
Long muscular body
Under 9.5 pounds
Under 3.5 pounds
Black, blue, chocolate, blue-eyed white, ruby-eyed white
Very short ears
Black, black otter, blue, broken group, californian, castor, chinchilla, chocolate, lilac, lynx, opal, red, sable, seal, white
White with black and bright golden orange markings: six to eight round markings on each side of the back part of the body, as well as a spine marking, butterfly mark on the nose, eye circles, colored ears, and round cheek spots
Black, blue, broken group, californian, chinchilla, chocolate, copper, red, siamese, white
Black, brown, fawn with silver or white guard hairs
Jet black with silvering
Black, blue, chocolate, sable with silver-tipped guard hairs
Black, blue, chocolate, or lilac with tan; eye circles, nostrils, jowls, ears, backs of legs, toes, chest, belly, tail and neck collar
Pet Rabbit Breed Sizes
While the breed of a rabbit, in most cases, has little impact on its quality as a pet, you may be interested in the size of the rabbit when it is adult or full-grown. Here are breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, grouped by size:
Small Sized Rabbit Breeds – 2 to 6 pounds
American Fuzzy Lop
Medium Sized Rabbit Breeds – 6 to 9 pounds
Large Sized Rabbit Breeds – 9 to 11 pounds
Giant Sized Rabbit Breeds – 11 pounds and more
Continental Giant (Conti)
Flemish Giant (Patagonian)
The record holder for the biggest rabbit is currently held by a continental giant.
Breeding rabbits is an emotional experience, and rightly so, for it’s taking on a lot of responsibility to bring new lives into the world. Also, part of dealing with new life is dealing with death. A significant percentage of baby rabbits do not survive past weaning age. The mother is also at risk of death. First-time rabbit mom’s also have a track record of losing their entire litter. They usually do fine the next time, but most breeders count on about 50% of first litters dying entirely. Here’s an article tracking some exact stats on this topic.
A rabbit breeder must be equipped with a few vital tools:
- A stated purpose for breeding rabbits. A clear objective will help you make good judgements in selecting breeding pairs and solving problems. Examples include meat production, improving a breed, and increasing the vitality and health of your herd.
- A reliable demand for the bunnies you produce. Let me tell you, the market for pets is shaky at best. The world just does not need more pet rabbits produced.
- Ample equipment to keep multiple animals. Three cages are not enough. Remember, there is usually no guarantee that you will sell any of the babies, and you need to be prepared to keep them all. Male and female baby rabbits must be separated from each other by about 10 weeks of age, and rabbits thrive the best if they are given their own private cage by 3 or 4 months. Overcrowding of young rabbits leads to fights, injury, and poor condition.
- Ample budget. Rabbits are relatively low-cost animals. Compared to horses or dogs, breeding rabbits is very inexpensive. But you just might be amazed at that feed bill.
- Sufficient knowledge. The adage, “read before you breed” is 100% good advice. Learn as much as you can about rabbit husbandry before you mate your first pair. This website is a great place to start! If you are new to rabbit ownership, I definitely recommend keeping them for several months to learn their habits before you breed them. A relationship with an experienced breeder is invaluable, because you will almost certainly run into questions!
- Flexible schedule. Bunny mothers may give birth any time during the day or night. In case she has difficulty in labour, or kindles on the wire, you need to be on hand to check her regularly. Once the babies are born, they must remain in the nest box to keep warm. Wandering kits under 10 days of age can easily die of exposure if not caught soon enough. Plus, you must have enough time to maintain good sanitation in your rabbitry. Growing kits can make a mess of their house as fast as growing kids!
Rabbits Don’t Need a Lot of Room
Adequate ventilation is a must regardless of what type housing you use. Respiratory diseases can arise without good air flow. Make sure at least a portion of the cage or hutch is constructed of wire mesh to allow for good air flow.
Size will vary according to the size of your rabbit.
Recommended size for 1 doe and her litter:
Small Breeds 2-4 lbs – 30 X 30 X 12 high
Medium Breeds 5-7 lbs – 30 X 36 X 12-14 high
Large Breeds 8+ – 30 x 40-48 x 14-16 high
Self-cleaning cages where faecal and urine matter drop through, have a floor made of wire mesh or grid that forms squares. It is important to provide some type of catch tray or method of collecting the rabbit’s waste. Trays can be lined with paper, wood shavings or other absorbent material. Adding a small amount of baking soda to the litter will help eliminate odours.
Some portion of the cage floor should be solid to help prevent the rabbit’s feet from becoming sore.
Cages must be cleaned frequently to prevent odours and disease. A good cleaning/disinfecting solution for utensils, equipment and cages is 1 tablespoon of household bleach mixed in 1 quart of water. Scrub and rinse well.
Droppings should not be allowed to accumulate under the cage. They should be raked up weekly.
Hot and Cold
Rabbits are better able to withstand the cold than summer’s heat. Protected from drafts, rabbits can withstand temperatures below zero. Enclose both sides and the back of the cage or hutch with clear plastic draped from the top of the hutch to three inches off the ground. A burlap flap should be placed along the front of the cage; this will keep drafts out while allowing for a mild exchange of fresh air.
Rabbits do not do well in high temperatures. A rabbit’s optimal air temperature ranges from 50 to 70 degrees F. Rabbits can over-heat rather quickly, and are uncomfortable at temperatures above 83 degrees F. Even rabbits who are kept inside can be susceptible to heat-related stress if air conditioning is not available.
Outdoors – Be sure your hutch has plenty of shade. Freeze a gallon milk jug full of water and place inside a large bowl (this keeps the condensation away from the rabbit) in the rabbit’s cage. Most rabbits will lie down next to the cool bowl. Large ceramic tiles also work … place them in the freezer and place in the cage for the rabbits to lie down on.
Indoors – Use a fan to help cool the rabbit. Be sure it is placed so that the rabbit can’t chew the cord. You can also immerse a light cloth in cool water and hang it over the side of the cage or pen and allow the fan to blow on the cloth. The frozen milk jug and tiles will also work for indoor rabbits.
Overheating in rabbits should be considered an emergency and immediate steps must be taken to prevent death. The normal rectal temperature for a rabbit is 100-103 F. Watch your rabbit for panting, lethargy or warm to the touch. Consult your veterinarian if your rabbit’s temperature is above normal or it shows signs of heat stress.
Water Is Your Rabbit’s Best Friend
Fresh water should be available to your rabbit at all times. Water can be provided in a spill-proof dish or preferably a water bottle specially designed for rabbits. Whichever method is used, routine cleaning of the utensil is important to insure you maintain quality water.
Feed should be placed in spill-proof bowls or self-feeders.
Rabbits will not eat pelleted feed containing a lot of dust.
Grass hay should be available to your rabbits at all times. The fibre in hay promotes normal digestion and prevents hairballs.
Pelleted feed should contain at least 16% fibre. Always store pellets in an air tight container to preserve freshness and keep out rodents, etc. Old, rancid feed can cause a rabbit to stop eating.
Limited treats may be given. When fed as directed, many rabbit feeds are complete and balanced. Therefore, feeding additional treats and/or vitamin or mineral supplements is not recommended as this can create an imbalance in the rabbit’s nutrition. Additional salt may also be unnecessary as the feed may contain all the salt required for normal health.
Small Breeds – 2-3 ounces per day.
Medium Breeds – 3-5 ounces per day
Large Breeds – 5-8 ounces per day
The amount of feed required depends upon many factors such as stage of reproduction, activity levels and environment. Feeding rates should be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition.
Like all species, rabbits have nutrient requirements that can be met by consuming certain ingredients. A rabbit’s basic nutrients are protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water, which is the most important.
The crude protein requirement for rabbits is 12% to 18% dry matter (DM). The protein requirements of rabbits vary with life stage. Gestation and lactation require 18% DM protein, growth requires 15% to 16% DM protein, and maintenance requires 13% DM protein. Pet rabbits need 12% to 16% protein; higher levels may be excessive and may be detrimental to long-term health.
Carbohydrate and Fiber
Carbohydrate is a major source of energy for rabbits. Most of the carbohydrate requirement for rabbits is in the form of fiber. A diet too high in grain or fermentable fiber, such as oats and corn, can cause enteritis. High levels of nondigestible fiber, such as timothy grass hay and alfalfa hay, may help prevent enteritis and obesity. Nondigestible fiber is not fermented in the cecum, whereas digestible fiber is fermented by passing though the cecum. Nondigestible fiber is important for dental health because it helps wear rabbits’ teeth. Nondigestible fiber also helps stimulate gut motility. Fermentable fiber helps rabbits digest cecotrophs as well as prevents colonization of the cecum by pathogenic bacteria, helping to prevent bacterial overgrowth and decreasing the likelihood of enteritis.
Volatile fatty acids (i.e., propionate, butyrate, acetate) are produced by bacteria in the cecum, absorbed into the bloodstream, and used as energy. To produce volatile fatty acids, rabbits require crude fiber of at least 12% to 16% DM, depending on life stage: 12% DM for lactation, 14% DM for gestation, and 15% to 16% DM for growth and maintenance. Pet rabbits need higher levels of fiber to help prevent obesity and hair chewing and to maintain GI health. A desirable amount of fiber for pet rabbits is 18% to 25% DM. Low-fiber diets can decrease GI motility, possibly leading to retention of food and hair and to formation of hairballs (trichobezoars). Rabbits cannot vomit hairballs like some animals can; therefore, blockages can be life-threatening.
Rabbits use fat for energy and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Most foods contain 2% to 5% DM fat, which rabbits can get from a vegetable diet. Rabbits do not need fat added to their feed. Fat can increase palatability, but an excess amount can increase the risk of obesity, hepatic lipidosis, and atherosclerosis in the aorta.
The water-soluble vitamins comprise the vitamin B complex and vitamin C. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. B vitamins are synthesized by bacteria in the cecum and colon and are absorbed by eating cecotrophs. Obesity can prevent a rabbit from reaching its anus to eat its cecotrophs, resulting in a vitamin deficiency. Pelleted feed is usually fortified with vitamins and minerals. To prevent destruction of vitamins A and E due to oxidization, rabbit feed should be fed within 90 days of milling.
Rabbits absorb all the calcium in their diet; the kidneys excrete excess calcium as calcium carbonate in the urine, which appears milky as a result. Excess calcium carbonate can cause crystals and uroliths to form in the kidneys, ureters, and bladder. Therefore, rabbits require a calcium level limited to 0.5% to 1% DM.
Alfalfa is a legume with a high calcium content, and grains have a high phosphorus content; therefore, a diet high in alfalfa and grains has adequate calcium and phosphorus for growing rabbit kits but excessive levels for full-grown rabbits. Deficiencies in phosphorus, calcium, or vitamin D can result in rickets, which causes a crooked, unnaturally arched back and enlarged joints in young rabbits. These deficiencies in adult rabbits may cause bone demineralization, increasing the risk of a broken back. Commercial rabbit feed is supplemented with minerals. Mineral salt blocks are available for rabbits but may not be necessary if a commercial diet is fed. Pet rabbits do well when fed grass hay, such as timothy hay, which has a low calcium content.
Water is the most important nutrient for rabbits and should be fresh and readily available. Rabbits consume approximately 10% of their body weight in water per day.
Diseases and Treatments
Rabbits are subject to a wide variety of diseases that cause death or decrease the quality of life for survivors. Most diseases can be avoided through good breeding and management practices. A healthy animal is alert and active and has a good, smooth coat. Its droppings are round and firm. Daily observation of the animals will allow you to note the first signs of disease. Remove and isolate the sick animals from the rest of your rabbits. The following is a brief list of common rabbit disease or conditions and treatments:
These are swelling under the skin caused by bacteria. Drain, clean and apply an antiseptic.
Eimeria, an internal parasite, causes a range of problems including diarrhea, dehydration and listlessness. It frequently results in death. Sulfaquinoxaline in drinking water is a common treatment.
Ear Canker or Ear Mange
A mite chews the skin on the side of the ear, causing irritation, redness and soreness. A whitish to tan crusty material develops in the ear. Treatment consists of swabbing the ears (inside and out) as well as the head and neck area with mineral oil or ear mite medication.
Severe diarrhea, dehydration, reduced appetite and rough fur are symptoms of this condition. Usually seen in 4 to 8 weeks of age. Cause is unknown. Antibiotics in the water, higher fiber diets, reducing stress in the rabbitry and strict sanitation reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.
This illness may develop in nursing does that are heavy milk producers. Mammary glands become swollen, red and hot. Does refuse to nurse the young, go off feed, develop a fever and become depressed. Early antibiotic treatment may save the doe and the litter.
A disease common in young fryer rabbits, described as bloat, scours or diarrhea. Symptoms are intense thirst, lack of appetite, rough fur coat, bloated abdomen and either jelly like droppings or constipation. Animals often grind their teeth. Antibiotics are commonly used as treatment. The use of probiotics in feed such as Primalac in Southern States Premium and Southern States Traditions Rabbit Feeds has been helpful in reducing enteritis and improving feed conversion.
Nearly all rabbitries are infected with the bacteria Pasteurella multocida which causes a variety of infections (snuffles, pneumonia, abscesses, weepy eyes, uterine infections, genital infections and wry neck). First signs of infection are sneezing and a discharge from the nose and eyes. If sneezing persists and if fur begins to mat on front feet (from rabbit wiping its nose with its front paws) one can be reasonably sure of snuffles. Snuffles is very contagious. Infected rabbits go off feed, lose weight and become listless. Rabbits with snuffles should be culled. The best prevention for snuffles is excellent ventilation, good nutrition, minimum stress, proper sanitation and strict culling. High ammonia levels in the air can lead to increased incidence of snuffles but can occur from exposure to drafts, sudden temperature changes or dampness.
A common condition in medium-sized and large breeds. Round sores are discovered by hard scabs on rear and sometimes front feet. Rabbits should be removed from wire cage and put on solid floor with dry bedding. Clip hair around sore, wash, and apply iodine.
Severe diarrhea, animals off feed, dehydration and rapid death are symptoms seen in fryer rabbits. No effective treatment exists.
Vent Disease (Rabbit Syphilis)
Small reddish sore or blisters develop around the genital area. These progress to crusty scabs, which may spread to face and feet. Animals should be isolated, and a veterinarian contacted for proper diagnosis and treatment.
The most important factors for maintaining a healthy rabbit herd are cleanliness, good ventilation, close observation, and protection from sun and rain. Rabbits are susceptible to several diseases that can reduce production to unprofitable levels. The respiratory disease caused by Pasturella multocidais responsible for decreased productivity and a high mortality rate in does. Pasturella-free animals can be purchased and may be a good investment.
To help prevent disease problems, do not permit casual visitors inside the rabbitry. They may introduce disease and cause additional stress to the animals. Isolate any sick or injured rabbits immediately. Disinfect the isolation cage and the rabbit’s regular cage to avoid spreading diseases. For a good health program, you should keep accurate records on each animal. Provide each rabbit with a tattoo identification number or ear tag and attach an identification card with health and breeding information to its hutch.
All agricultural producers in Pennsylvania, including small and part-time farms, operate under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law. A specific part of this law is the Nutrient Management Act. There are portions of the Nutrient Management Act (Act 38) that may pertain to you depending on the mix of enterprises you have on your farm (in particular, animal operations). Because all farms are a potential source of surface or groundwater pollution, you should contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District to determine what regulations may pertain to your operation.
You should also check your local zoning regulations to make sure that your intended business activities are permitted in your location.
There are several risk management strategies you may want to employ for your farm. You should insure your buildings and equipment and you may also want to insure your income. Insuring your farm buildings and equipment and obtaining adequate liability coverage may be accomplished by consulting your insurance agent or broker. You can also insure income from livestock enterprises through a whole-farm protection program called AGR-Lite. To obtain AGR-Lite insurance you will need your last five years of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Schedule F forms. AGR-Lite insurance is federally subsidized and is available from private crop insurance agents. Contact a crop insurance agent to see if this type of coverage makes sense for you.