Caring for Rabbits

Rabbit’s needs are basic but important, and just because you might be raising them as a meat source doesn’t mean you can skimp on their needs. Rabbits, like most animals, need a safe and clean environment with proper food and fresh water and without that, you won’t be caring for the rabbits and you will be short changing your entire operation. Once you have the initial needs addressed, I think you will find the general maintenance fairly easy and rewarding.

Below, I will address the basic needs of rabbits, every set up is different and there are slightly varying needs for rabbits raised in cages, however, most needs are the same.

Rabbit Behavior and Mating

Rabbits are social but can be territorial. In the wild, rabbits live in colonies, however, they mark their territories by rubbing their chin on surfaces and males will mark with urine. I have seen this in my colony as well, however, my rabbits only get a little edgy when a doe has young kits and that subsides after a week or so, and sometimes they don’t do it all. For the most part they love being near each other and they often lounge together, even the buck, however, does might attack other does kits if basic needs aren’t being met (space, nutrition and so on).

Bucks and does can be housed just fine together in a colony, however, the hardship of record keeping makes it an undesirable choice for many. I keep my buck with my does and keep a record, on a calendar, when kits are born. This helps me know approximately when a new litter can happen, which is as early as 31 days later, though that is rare because a doe often gives herself time to wean kits before having a new litter, however, knowing which doe a litter is from, is much harder, if not impossible. I will say that over time, you will know your does and see them feeding or protecting a litter, this is when I will mark the doe with a paint spot, others use permanent marker or tattoos, to identify which does are not only good mothers but also to help keep record of birthing cycles. Records are important for identifying does that do not produce and keeping track of blood lines, but if you plan on butchering all kits and are unconcerned if an unproductive does lives among the productive, records aren’t a concern for you.

If record keeping is important or if you want to have more control over when your rabbits breed, having a doe colony and an additional pen for your buck would be ideal. When breeding, never put the buck into the doe’s territory, always put the doe into the buck’s, otherwise, he risks castration by the doe(s). A successful mating, sounds like a lot of grunting and you will watch the buck literally fall, almost frozen, off of the doe. For those that separate the buck and does, a second breeding, sometimes a third, depending on whom you ask, is recommended to ensure success.

Don’t separate a doe from the colony for more than a day unless it is absolutely necessary. You risk the chance of the doe being rejected and/or harmed upon her return.

Pregnancy and Kits

Once matting takes place, which takes between 1-2 minutes, a doe’s gestation is about 31 days, though I have heard anywhere from 28-34, meaning on day 35, she wasn’t pregnant. Between mating and the birth, you will see a change in the doe’s mood, she’s going to get testy. The doe might move things around a lot and dig and just prior to labor, a doe will start to nest. Having fresh hay and a nesting box is a must and if you have a colony, leaving nesting boxes within the colony, at all times, allows the does to nest when and where they see fit. A doe will also pull fur to line her nest and will usually have their kits during the early morning or late night hours.

Nesting boxes can be commercial boxes, usually metal, homemade wood boxes and some use big totes, cat crates or cat litter boxes, almost anything will work, as long as the doe feels safe and the kits are able to stay in the nest. Another thing to consider prior to birth, is that kits need to stay warm, adding a heat lamp to the area of the nest during cold months, not directly on top of the kits, will aid in overall success.

Congrats, your kits have arrived, nearly hairless and with their eyes closed. Some inspect the nest right away to check for under developed kits or stillborns, to remove them, others leave the nest for a few days. If it is warm, I like to get the dead kits out so that they don’t decompose or attract bugs, in the winter I give the mom and babies a few days. Most times the stillborns are pushed out of the nest anyway, and you will have litters that have no deaths. I think it should be noted that unlike birds, rabbits DO NOT reject their babies once human hands have touched them.

Litters can be 1 kit, though survival is lower as kits need each other’s body heat to stay warm and survive, but you can usually expect litters to be between 4-12, though I have heard higher. After inspecting your kits and removing any dead ones, you want to take a look at how the kit’s tummies look. A kit always needs to have a round belly, this indicates being fed and a good way to check, is to lightly pinch/press some of the skin on the kits side, if it is hard to grasp and immediately goes back into place, then the kit most likely is being fed. If the pinch stays put and slowly goes back into place, then it most likely is not. It can take 24 hours for a mother’s milk to come in so don’t worry until at least after that point.

Kits about 10 days old
Kits about 10 days old

This is where I let nature takes its course for a couple days. A kit can not go any longer than 3 days without being fed, however, if you suspect your kits aren’t being fed, or only some are, there is not much you can do about it. Rabbit milk does not have a supplement on the market today and the majority of hand reared rabbits die. The only thing you can do is, either wait it out a few days, or if you notice your litter has a couple that just aren’t getting much milk, while the other litter mates are well fed, you can move those 2 kits with another doe who maybe has a litter, but this will only work if you have 2 does with litters, and there is the chance that the new mom, won’t take them on. I have had both success and failure here. Some people will hold down a doe to force feeding but I have not personally found this to be successful.

 

I have one rockstar doe who had has had several week old kits and still will raise newborns in the same nest (both her own and from another doe), rabbits will raise or even help raise, another doe’s kits, but don’t expect it. If you do put kits with another doe and it doesn’t work out, don’t blame the doe, it just wasn’t meant to be and many, instead of going through the hassle and heartbreak, don’t meddle and let nature do its magic. That is up to you.

Does are private. In the wild they don’t hang around their nests to keep from attracting predators and you probably won’t see your doe just hanging around the nest either. In fact you may never see her feed her kits, rabbits usually only feed once maybe twice a day. So, don’t be alarmed or assume the kits aren’t being fed. If your kits have little bellies than your doe is feeding them.

Do check on your kits, there will be times a kit will manage to escape the nest, depending on nest type or will be latched onto the doe, nursing, when the doe jumps out of the nest and result in the kit being away from the nest. Does, unlike cats, do not carry their young, so these kits will not be fed and will die. Kits also need warmth, in cold months a heat lamp will aid in this, so long as it is not too close.

Around day 12 the kits open their eyes and you will begin to see them exploring a little bit on their own. Do not feed kits under 6 weeks grass clippings, fruits or veggies, it will upset their system and could result in death, unless it is and was in the mother’s diet regularly during pregnancy and during infancy and I will explain more about that below in the Food section. Kits are able to eat hay and pellets by 4 weeks, and though rare, you might see a death around this time. Their systems are fragile and still need mom’s milk to help digest, if mom weaned just a bit too early a death could still result. To be safe, I leave my kits with my does until week at least week 7 but usually until weeks 8-10, and then put them in the grow out pen.

A special note about first time moms and does that aren’t good moms. Most first litters of a new mom will die, she just doesn’t know what she is doing yet, some will surprise you but don’t be shocked by the loss. Most people that I know, give their doe 3 births, if by 3 births, knowing you are providing all of the needs properly, they aren’t successful, then that doe needs to be removed and replaced or kept as a unproductive colony member.

Food

Food can be as simple as purchasing pellets from your local feed store or farm supply, this is very economical and takes alot of the guess work out of the chore, however, much of the pellets on the market are sub par and go against many of the reasons I personally chose to raise rabbits.

The food you choose for your rabbit will depend on why you are raising rabbits. If you are doing it purely for economical reasons then pellets are probably for you, though after the initial set up, growing a garden for your rabbits might be cheaper than pellets in the long run, however, pellets are easier. The problem is that while some are better than others, the ingredients are just not what I want to feed my family. They are full of GMO corn, chemicals, soy and things that are hidden under the words “natural ingredients”, and while there are a few organic rabbit pellet brands, they are expensive and will probably need to be shipped to you, making it almost not worth raising your own meat. If you are choosing pellets a rabbit will eat about an ounce per pound a day. A 10 pound rabbit could quite possibly eat 10 ounces of pellets, though individual eating patterns will be different.

beyond the pelletLeaving the pellet behind and feeding from your garden, a rabbit’s diet should consist of 75% leafy greens and safe veggies, with 25% of fibrous material, which I will go over in a bit. Rabbits require about 1/2 cup of veggies per pound of weight, so with my rabbits weighing 10 pounds, they would each need 5 cups of leafy stuff and veggies a day…that’s alot, but with some planning it is possible.

My garden consists of raised beds and 3 weeks before the last frost, I plant all of them with carrots, beets and radishes, even the ones I use later for plants like tomatoes and watermelon that take longer to mature. I can get a whole crop rotation in before I have to plant the other plants, like tomatoes. Planting my raised beds with carrots, beets and radishes, I can grow 16 of the mentioned plants per square foot, per planting and assuming they all grow, that is almost a staggering 3,000 veggies, with tons of leafy greens, and all before regular planting season! These root veggies store well, they can even be thrown in the freezer (tops included) and the rabbits eat the whole plant (greens too), though if freezing I would recommend doing so individually and not as a clump. So, 3,000 probably sounds crazy, but in reality, a percentage won’t grow, some will end up eaten by us, others will be canned and the rest go to the rabbits. Last year, I used a chest freezer to store the veggies and the rabbits loved them during the hot months!

DaikonOnce that planting is done, I go about planting my usual garden but I also have a few boxes that I leave just for the rabbits and then replant those root veggies a couple times during the regular growing season. After the initial planting (before last frost), I plant them staggered so they don’t all mature at once. After my tomatoes and other plants are finished for the year, I use those beds to grow more carrots, beets and radishes well into fall. Last year we were pulling beautiful carrots from the ground in November, even though the ground was frosty, and to extend the growing season, I tent a few raised beds to make a semi-greenhouse, or what is known as a hoop house, to grow more root veggies throughout the winter, for more on hoop houses click here. Daikon, the white radishes seen to the right, are from Japan and grow better in cooler weather and are attributed to growing quickly, using them through the cooler months might be beneficial.

The rabbits get all of those veggies and leafy greens above, I also plant mini pumpkins for them, they get the garden rejects and spent plants, our veggie scraps (watermelon rinds and so on) and some half eaten bananas from the kids, peel and all, but that isn’t always going to be enough, so what to do? Adding a fodder system will be a lifesaver.

fodder systemWhat is a fodder system? That is a generic name of food given to animals versus them foraging themselves. There are many kinds of fodder systems but for rabbits most refer to sprouting grains, (alfalfa, wheat and so on), the scale is smaller for a lot farm (homestead), and is especially worthwhile during winter months or as a supplement to leafy greens throughout the year. It is possible to sprout organic grains and usually, after the initial cost of set up, fodder systems are less expensive and more nutritious than pellets, though I would not recommend feeding only sprouted grains to your rabbits, they need a variety. The book above Beyond the Pellet goes over many of the growing ideas above and fodder systems, though you will find some typos in the book, it is a helpful guide.

The basics of this type of fodder system are choosing what type of grain to be sprouted, barley, wheat, alfalfa… and again organic or no. Once chosen you will need containers and shallow trays to soak and grow the sprouts in. I would recommend growing the sprout is a plastic bottom of a seed starter, like the seed starter to the right. You will need to soak the grain for about 7-8 hours, drain, and then transfer to the shallow tray (there will need to be a couple drain holes), water a couple times a day, keeping the sprouts out of direct sunlight and in about 60-65 degree temps (this is important or mold will start), the grain will grow from seed to a 7 inch plant, in about 6 days. If you do this every day, you will have a continuous supply of fodder and with the veggies mentioned above, you won’t need a big operation, as the fodder will only be part of the food source.

Now you might remember that the above is only 75% of the diet, the rest can come from wood, bark, dried grasses and the like, all are covered in Beyond the Pellet. I even give my rabbits cardboard from the occasional pizza box, they love it and it recycles it!

One thing to consider is that rabbits are a little sensitive to quick food changes, so if you are growing veggies during the summer and fodder during the winter versus storing veggies throughout the year and doing fodder all year, then introduce the food change gradually over a week and never give to young kits. Rabbits gain their ability to digest certain foods from their mother, meaning if a mother is fed bananas during pregnancy and nursing periods, then the kit will be able to digest banana, however, if the mother wasn’t, the kit will more than likely bloat and quite possibly die, as they won’t be equipped to digest the banana.

I know that this is alot of information and sounds like a lot of work, but most of the people that are doing this or wanting to do this will find it well worth it. The garden will become a great experience for your family, the fodder will become second nature and before you know it, you will be feeding your rabbits organically and under the cost of pellets, after initial costs of course.

Water

In the wild, rabbits get a lot of their water from dew and the natural liquid in both fruits and veggies, though those are not what make up the average wild rabbit’s diet, but in captivity, rabbits need our assistance for water. There are a few different ways to provide water to your rabbits.

water bowlWater Bowl –

Rabbits aren’t quite like dogs and cats, putting a water dish in the colony, without consistent cleaning, can go from fresh and clean to sloppy and dirty, in a flash.

Rabbits love to dig and all of that “stuff” ends up in the water dish. This is ok for a couple hours but not for long periods of time as rabbits require lots of fresh, clean water for production, so a hindrance to the bowl method, is cleaning them out several times a day. Not to mention that bowls can lead to kit death, by drowning, and depending on the type of bowl, the little guys can and will, tip them over. However, I have had  the above type of dishes in my colony for 2 years and they do work as long as they are kept filled and cleaned.

 

water bottle Water bottle-

This is probably what most people think of when they think of rabbits. They stay clean and eliminate worry of kit drowning, however, some colonies won’t be suited for these, either from sheer volume of rabbits, each needing a bottle or because there is nothing secure to attach the bottles to. Another question to consider, much like the above water bowls, is where is your water coming from? If your colony is some distance from your home or a water source, filling 1, let alone several, water dishes or bottles will become tiresome.

 

AutomaticRabbitWateringSystem8Automatic or Manual Water system-

With a water system, usually, the water is always available to the rabbits or at least for much longer times, giving you the opportunity to not have to re-fill the water dish or bowl for many days. The system is usually set up with tubes, buckets and a water source and can be made fairly inexpensively.

Here are 2 examples that were sent to me, both show them in cages, however, as long as you have some structure to attach the nozzle to, this will work in a colony, in fact, we are switching over this winter/spring.

The basic concept is to attach tubes/hoses to a reservoir of water and through gravity, water flows to nozzles allowing the rabbits to drink. This method is a manual water system, as you fill the reservoir. An automatic system has a reservoir too, but it is also attached to a water source, like a hose spicket, and through propulsion and gravity, the water finds its way to the nozzles. The former is cheaper but involves more work, the latter is a bit more expensive but is automatic. Browse your search engine for rabbit watering system and see what will work for you.

One more thing about water… It freezes! If you live in cold climates this is especially important and even the tubes can freeze, so they do need checking too! Flushing with warm-hot water will help, having a heat lamp on certain spots or looking into certain water heaters, typically used for chickens, might be helpful.

Cleaning and Safe Environment

Rabbits are fairly clean creatures but do require certain things to stay that way. If your colony is on a grass area, then cleaning up poop and urine isn’t much of an issue, however, if you have an indoor operation, even partially, then it needs tending to.

My colony rests on a concrete slab. During summer or warm months, I lay wood shavings down, several inches deep. Every day I spread a little more shavings on the areas that have been heavily used and every 2 weeks, I completely clean out my colony and start over. Those used shavings become mulch for the garden or go into a compost pit. During summer months, flies and bugs can be a problem and there are a couple ways to stop that. Having a few chickens in with your colony would help, they love to eat flies and maggots. Cleaning every week instead of every other, should there be a big bug problem, would most definitely help. On a whole though, regular cleaning will keep the bug issue to a minimum. During warm months, the ammonia smell of urine is harmful to everyone, in cooler months this problem is all but nil. There are products that can be spread or sprayed on the areas to eliminate the odor, another thing to consider is ventilation. Having fans, open windows and so on, for those with enclosed areas, is a must.

During fall-spring or cooler/cold months, I do not change my shavings, I just continue to add to them, creating a deep litter. The used shavings begin to compost and create a warm environment and allow the rabbits to dig like they naturally would, they love it. It does not smell and because it is cold there is zero fly/bug issue. Come spring, I completely clean out my colony and use the deep litter as the compost mixture that, along with vermiculite and peat moss, make up my garden soil.

As a side note here, as far as shavings go, I use pine shavings but I also bought a shredder and use the clippings of mail and other papers that I run through the shredder, even the envelopes once any plastic or glue has been removed. I also used old newspapers torn into small pieces and cardboard.

Diseases

Keeping your colony clean will lead to happier and healthier rabbits. I have not any any illness in my colony, however, there are a few illnesses to look for, here is a comprehensive booklet about rabbit disease, it contains other information on rabbits as well, some of it I agree with and some I don’t, but it covers alot of issues.

Introducing New Rabbits

I would like to say I have had great success on this subject but I haven’t, at least for the does. Others have, and I have tried their methods, but they were not successful for me. What is suggested is to put the new member in a cage, in the colony, for a few days, obviously feeding and watering her in the cage. Then after a few days the rabbits are supposed to be used to one another and the one in the cage should be ready for release. I should point out I have only had to try this once to date and it did not work. I have released does into pens with just a buck several times with great success. The truth of the matter is, rabbits sometimes fight to set a dominance order and while usually it just amounts to hair pulling and chasing for 30 minutes, in my only case, in amounted to injury. I would suggest the above method for does, count on some tussle but keep a good eye out. Remember, never release a buck into a pen with a doe, they might try to castrate him.

Handling rabbits

Rabbits aren’t hard to handle, once you have got it down. They have very powerful hind legs and sharp claws, so be careful. Below are the easiest methods, of course, they are fast, but of course the more you handle them, the more accustomed they will being  handled

Grooming

Rabbits will groom themselves but there are a few things you need to look out for in general. Rabbit teeth are open-rooted, which means they grow continuously throughout their lives. They need to have wood for their teeth, if this isn’t met, problems will occur, perhaps death. I have read horror stories about teeth growing into the cheek and into the brain, not to mention eating would be challenging or impossible. As long as wood is available, this should be a non-issue, but looking at the teeth once in awhile wouldn’t hurt.

Rabbits ears are very important to them beyond obvious reasons, they also help cool them off in hot temperatures. Taking a look at them once in a while is important. My colony is indoors and so mite aren’t an issue but if you have any type of outdoor area, this could become a problem, however, there is a fix. For more on mites click here.

Rabbits claws are sharp and need looked at once in a while. In my colony, I never had to clip them because the “filed” their claws themselves on wood and the concrete slab, but I checked anyway. Sharp claws can be a problem should a small tussle break out or during times you try to handle them.

Obviously, long haired breeds will need more grooming and rabbits with droopy ears will need more attention, but overall they are clean animals and with a clean environment you should see minimal issues.

Slaughter/Butchering

If you are raising your rabbits for meat, than this step is the ultimate goal, but know that even going in with that in mind, this step can be a hard one. My husband has gotten teary doing this and that was totally unexpected. Raising rabbits has hardened me up a bit and softened him!

Before any slaughtering happens though, I would figure out what method you would like to use. Some people shoot their rabbits, others drown them and I think the former is a waste of bullet and is a bloody mess (I also can’t shoot in town) and the latter is inhumane. There are a few other methods but they aren’t even worth mentioning. Breaking the neck of the rabbit is the most humane way there is to butcher a rabbit, they really only feel a bit of pressure and then are dead, without any issue. We have slaughtered well over 100 rabbits and have not had any squeal or pain from a single rabbit done this way. There is a method called the broomstick method, which is essentially having one person step or hold the broomstick handle to the back of the neck, with force, while another person pulls the rabbit, popping the neck. This works, but it is awkward and requires 2 people. I would recommend the Rabbit Wringer.

The Rabbit Wringer is an invention by Sal Pizzurro, and before I go on, please know that I do not know him and I am not being reimbursed for my endorsement. It is an easy to use, high quality, made in the USA gadget, making the slaughtering of rabbits easy for one person and super humane for the rabbit. There is no other way to do this, in my opinion. Below is an example of how quick and humane the Rabbit Wringer is followed by a butchering. It obviously is graphic but necessary for those raising meat rabbits.

As you can see from this video, the rabbit doesn’t even know what hit him, the butchering is done in a few minutes, and you are well on your way to putting meat in the freezer.

After butchering your rabbit, clean the rabbit by running it under water and then the meat will need to be aged. I strongly advise you NOT to eat the meat or freeze the meat immediately. I simply put the rabbit in my meat drawer of my refrigerator, which held 4-5 at a time, filled it with water and allowed it to sit for 3 days, this allows the meat to age and if this is not done, the rabbit meat will be tough, chewy and almost inedible. After the aging process the meat will be ready to cook or to freeze.

Cooking Rabbit Meat

Cooking the meat is very similar to cooking other white meats. The legs can be fried, baked and put on the grill, the meat can be shredded and used like chicken for a “chicken” salad or even with BBQ like pulled pork and I have used the meat shredded in tacos and enchiladas. There are many recipes out there but I would just try out your own chicken and pork recipes using rabbit and see how it goes.

For more information on rabbits see the previous page Raising Rabbits or visit the next page Building a Rabbit Colony and if you have any questions, please ask!

Bet  Fam 🙂

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