Rabbits are small mammals found in most parts of the world. Domesticated European Rabbits are what most people think of when they see rabbits in pet stores, in shows or on farms. Cuniculture is the practice of breeding and raising domestic rabbits, usually for their meat, fur, or wool.
Rabbits and Self-Sufficient Living
Rabbits are an excellent source of both lean protein, fiber, and pelts. They are easy and efficient to raise as well. Rabbit meat is so lean, however, that one will eventually starve if other food are not consumed. This has lead to the term "rabbit starvation" to describe what happens when you do not consume enough fat or carbohydrates while getting plenty of protein.
Breeds of Rabbit for Self-Sufficient Living
While virtually any breed of domesticated rabbits can be eaten, the person raising rabbits for food will want to choose a large breed that matures quickly. The following breeds are recommended:
- Flemish Giants - One of the oldest domestic breeds around examples can reach a mass of 13-14 lbs. at butchering time but can reach up to 22 lbs. fully grown. As personality goes they are very docile and can be used as house pets, with attitudes almost dog like. The disadvantage of Flemish Giants is that they are slower growing than other "meat" breeds.
- New Zealands - A breed that used to be commonly bred for meat they reach a mass of about 9-12 lbs. when mature. Unfortunately these are one of the more aggressive breeds which is why they were cross-bred with other breeds to produce strains such as the Californians.
- Californians - A fairly recent hybrid (1920's) developed for the meat market Californians can reach a mass of 8-10 lbs. at butchering time. The advantage of Californians is the short growth cycle, 14-16 weeks, like one of their parent breeds, the New Zealands. They are also less agressive than New Zealands.
Caring for Rabbits
Domesticated rabbits typically live for three to five years and can start breeding before reaching full maturity. Rabbits are prolific breeders and will interbreed if not separated. Also they will fight amongst themselves for dominance. While pet rabbits can be raised in your home and trained to use a litter box rabbits raised for meat should be housed separately in proper cages (hutches) either outdoors or in a rabbit house if in cold or wet climates.
Rabbit cages should be constructed of strong wire with reinforced frame and a resting platform or mat if the floor is fully wired. Rabbits, like rodents, have to gnaw continually so wooden frames, cross pieces and floors may be attacked if a gnawing block is not provided. Rabbit urine is quite strong smelling so the cages should be set well away from living quarters or neighbors to prevent complaints. Rabbit houses need to be well ventilated also so the ammonia smell is not overpowering when caring for the animals. Rabbit pellets are an excellent source of organic material and will support colonies of earth worms, turn the material regularly with a pitchfork and wet down to prevent hardening into a mortar like substance.
Domesticated rabbits require daily care to ensure they have sufficient food and fresh water to survive and grow in captivity. Rabbits are herbivores but to think they live on a diet of carrots and lettice is incorrect. Optimally they eat grasses, which in agricultural cuniculture means hay such as Timothy-grass (Phleum pratense), alfalfa (Medicago stiva) or Oat Grasses. The occassional carrot or other vegetable is fine but all they really need besides a salt lick (or block) are alfalfa pellets (rabbit feed) which can be purchased in bulk from a feed store. A gravity feeder attached to the side of the cage is best for pellets. If raising rabbits during a PAW then fresh or dried hay will do.
While rabbits are social animals they are also territorial and if housed together will try to dominate each other. Does (females) are typically larger than bucks (males) and when not breeding them they should be housed separately or they may fight. A doe can be bred at any time of the year as they are induced ovulators. However overweight does and older does are harder to breed successfully.
Bring the doe to the buck's cage during the day, they prefer daylight to artificial light or the dark to breed. The buck will attempt to mount the doe. If she does not cooperate but runs around and grunts remove the buck and try again another day. If the buck successfully mounts the doe he will copulate until exhausted at which time he will literally fall over panting. After he is rested he will continue. Some breeders have the buck mate three times to ensure successful impregnation. Do not allow rabbits to breed for more than 8 hours or you risk a doe carrying two litters in which case none of the young will survive.
Following successful breeding remove the doe to her cage again and mark the breeding calendar for that doe as "Day One." Gestation takes about 31 days. On "Day 29" prepare a nesting box for the pregnant doe, do not put it in earlier as the doe will soil it. The box may be made of a wooden crate (which may get gnawed) or a steel box. Fill it with clean, dry straw. The doe will pull her own fur from her abdomen to line the nest. This allows the newborn bunnies easier access to her teats as well as make the nest soft and warm for them. Rabbits, unlike hares, are born hairless and with their eyes closed so they need protection.
About day 30-32 the doe will "kindle" or deliver her kits (a kindle is a litter of rabbits, a kit is a baby rabbit while a baby hare, born with hair and eyes open is a leveret). With new mothers it is best to check on doe to see that there are no complications. You may have to assist a stuck kit pass through the womb. Or you may have to put a new kit into the nesting box from the wire of the hutch.
The doe will clean up the nest by eating the placentas. Remove any dead kits and dispose of them. Some does get overzealous in cleaning and may bite an ear or leg of a kit. Treat the kit if minor or euthanize it. If a doe turns on her newborn kits and kills them she may not be a proper mother. Try again by breeding her in five days and if she kills her next kindle then she should be treated as a stew rabbit and not a breeder.
Does nurse about twice a day and prefer not to be disturbed while caring for the kindle. Avoid handling the nest and the kits unless there are problems such as a dead kit. Monitor the doe and kindle for problems (see below for specifics). Kits eyes will open at about 10-12 days old. Check them to see if their eyes get stuck shut again, if so use eye wash or distilled water to flush them open again. If you do not and allow them to remain stuck for too long the kit may be blind. At 3 weeks old the kits will be ready to leave the nest. Remove the nesting box and clean it for the next batch of kits. Introduce solid food (pellet food at first, hay later) at this time, they will still nurse but want to eat as well. As they start to produce solid waste check their hind ends to make sure they don't have problems with excrement sticking to their ends or plugging them up. If necessary remove stuck waste and wash as needed. At 7 weeks start to wean the bunnies. Remove the males first and segregate them. This will allow the doe to dry up at a slower, more comfortable rate and prevent the kindle from in-breeding later. By 8 weeks all the kits should be housed separately from the doe and she will be ready to breed again within five days.
- Heat Prostration All rabbits are prone to this malady once the temperature reaches 90 degrees F or higher but pregnant does are especially prone to suffer and even die from it. Rabbits will pant (breath rapidly) and lie on their sides. They may even put their paws in water to try to cool themselves.
- Treatment is by providing proper ventilation and cooling to the hutch or rabbit house. Animals in distress may need first aid which is to provide them with a damp towel or burlap soaked in lukewarm water for them to lie on. In extreme cases a lukewarm bath may be used to lower the animal's body temperature. Be sure to change water often so it remains cool and fresh. Also provide a salt lick or salt block (spool) for them.
- Caked Mammary Glands Nursing does can overproduce milk, especially if the doe looses her litter or if suddenly weaned. If a doe has sore breasts and quits nursing the can also occur. The teats become congested and hard knots can form on the sides of the nipples. These knots can break open revealing the dried milk within the ducts.
- The best treatment is prevention. Stagger weaning as recommended to slow production. If a doe loses her litter breed her again. If the caking is only moderate than spirits of camphor rubbed on the teats twice a day will break up the dried milk and allow it to pass. Repeat for three to five days usually does the trick. Some does who overproduce may take longer. Watch for mastitis.
- Mastitis (Blue Breast) This is a more serious condition that is caused by a bacterial infection of the breast which may be swollen, inflammed and the doe feverish, may become as high as 105 degrees F. Watch for wounds or injury to the breast from a sharp wire or other source in the cage or nesting box and fix it. As the infection progresses the breast may become blue. The doe will drink plenty of water but will not eat or nurse.
- Start treatment early in order to save the doe and kindle. Reduce milk production by cutting back on feed. Clean and disinfect the nesting box and cage. Inject the doe with penicillin in her leg muscle, dose should be 75,000-100,000 units given twice daily for 3-5 days. In advanced cases the doe and kindle just may need to be culled.
Medical Attention & Issues
Disease and injury prevention is better than treatment.
General Health Issues
Practice good nutrition with your rabbits. Avoid giving them too much fruit or vegetables which are not part of their regular diet of hay grasses and commerical rabbit food (pellets). Too much fruit and vegetables will cause obesity which impacts breeding and longevity.
Maintain clean hutches and shelter the animals from the worst effects of the weather. They like sunlight but not when it is really hot. Good ventilation is important but do not allow updrafts to chill the animals. Solid walled hutches with wire floors allow such drafts. Make sure your hutches are in good repair, especially maintain wire that it doesn't threaten to scratch the stock. Also do not use chicken wire with hutches as it is not strong enough and it allows rabbit feet to push through the wire getting caught and causing injury.
Do not allow rabbit stock's teeth or toenails to overgrow. Wild rabbits gnaw to keep their teeth from overgrowing and are burrowers, wearing down their nails. Give them a block to gnaw on and trim their nails with a proper pet nail trimmer.
Rabbits prefer to be active at dawn and dusk. They rest during the day. Try not to disturb the stock too much during that time. Keep them safe from nocturnal predators which may attack them in their hutches. A predator may be able to grab a foot through the wire and bite it maiming or even killing your stock.
Segragate new rabbits or sick animals from your main stock. Care for them only after you feed and water your main stock. Wash your hands throughly before and after handling your livestock to prevent the transmission of disease. Humans can be carriers of animal diseases. Treat your animals with the appropriate veterinary medications.
- Conjunctivitis (Weepy or Pink Eye) Same as the human problem it is inflamation of the conjunctis or whites of the eyes due to bacterial infection (Pink Eye) or may be from dust, sprays, and fumes irritating the eyes (Weepy Eye). The eyes will be noticibly red and inflamed. The rabbit will rub its eyes with its front paws until the fur around the eyes becomes wet and matted.
- Treat first by clearing eyes with saline eye solution. If this doesn't solve the problem treat with antibiotics, specifically 5% sulfathiazole or an antibiotic eye ointment applied under the eyelids.
- Pasteurellosis (the Snuffles) This occurs most when rabbit stock live in damp, drafty or unsanitary conditions. This disease makes the infected rabbit appear as if it has a cold, it will cough and sneeze. Other signs are accute or chronic inflammation of the mucus membranes of the nose and in the lungs. Mucus is discharged from the nose and eyes. Fur on the face and paws becomes matted with dried mucus. However, unlike the virus which spreads the common cold among humans this is in fact caused by a bacteria. Pasteurellosis can move to the eyes and mimic conjunctivitis, make sure when treating the later you do not actually have a rabbit sick with the former disease.
- Treatment is with antibiotics, specifically sulfa drugs such as sulfaquinoxaline when in its early stages. In later stages of pasteurellosis cull the sick rabbit(s) and replace with clean healthy stock.
- After isolating and treating the infected rabbit(s) treat the remainder of your stock, especially the young ones, with a .025% sulfaquinoxaline in the feed for three or four weeks or sulfaquinoxaline in the water for two or three weeks. If using another sulfa drug follow directions on its use. Follow this up with a control program of tetracyclines with all animals to prevent a recurrance of the disease in your stock.
- Coccidiosis (the Trots) Diarrhea, a swollen abdomen, loss of appetite and an inability to gain weight are signs that your rabbit may be infected with the coccidia protozoa. This is an intestinal parasite that is picked up from rabbit fecal material. Rabbits do not chew the cud, normally they pass two forms of waste, a hard solid waste and a soft semi-digested pellet which they eat again to redigest (which comes out as the aforementioned hard pellet). This allows for the parasite to gain entrance to the intestines of the animal. To avoid this use a hutch or cage with a wire floor high enough above the waste that the rabbit does not come into contact with fecal material. Also keep the food and water containers clean.
- Treatment of an infected rabbit is by feeding a .025% level of sulfaquinoxaline in the feed for three or four weeks, or in the water for two or three weeks. Alternate sulfa treatments such as sulfadimethoxine, triple sulfa, etc. may also be effective and avoid some of the side effects (i.e. toxicity) of sulfaquinoxaline. Amprolium is a widely used coccidiostat for chickens, it may also be effective for rabbits.
- Enteritis Complex (Bloat, Scours) Another intestinal problem is enteritis which is an inflamed intestine. Signs include all those for coccidiosis plus bloating due to excessive gas, a drop in body temperature and a rough hair coat. Cause for this complex is unknown.
- Treatment for enteritis is by mixing water soluble chlortetracycline or oxytetracycline at a concentration of 4 grams per gallon in the sick rabbit's drinking water.
- Ear Mites (Ear Mange, Canker) This is caused by an ear parasite and may infect more animals than merely rabbits. An infected rabbit will shake its head and flop or scratch its head trying to get rid of the mites. Check the ears to see if there are crusts with mites in it or serum leaking from the inner ear. In severe cases the mites are infecting the inner ear and may cause blindess, paralysis from nerve damage and secondary infections.
- Treatment for ear mites are cleaning the ear of the crust with mineral oil. Massage the oil into the ear to loosen and break up the crust for removal. Leave a coating of oil to smother the remaining mites and their eggs. Repeat until condition clears. In severe cases clean the ear as before but then swab the ear with a mixture of 25-30% emulsion of benzyl benzoate in either mineral or vegetable oil. Repeat this treatment 6-10 days afterwards to be sure you have killed all the mites. Since mites are very mobile treat all animals that have been near the infected rabbit.
- Ulcerative Pododermatitis (Sore Hocks) Rabbits who are in unsanitary or unsafe wire hutches are most prone to this condition which comes from wet or wounded paws. The hocks (paws) have sores on them. This is bad for all breeding stock but especially nursing does which do not like standing still with sore feet while their kits nurse.
- Treatment for sore hocks is to place animals on a lath or solid flooring or on the ground until the condition clears. A rest board and soft, dry bedding material may help. Cull and eliminate rabbits with severe or advanced cases. Medication works only temporarily if the rabbit is prone to ulcers due to living on wire. Zinc or iodine ointments may help prevent secondary infections on the paws.
Rabbit products are generally labeled in three ways, the first being Fryer. This is a young rabbit between 1½ and 3½ pounds and up to 12 weeks in age. This type of meat is tender and fine grained. The next product is a Roaster. These are usually over 4 pounds and up to 8 months in age. Their meat is more firm and coarse. Fully mature rabbits (over 8 months old) are Stewers as they produce the toughest meat and should be cooked in a crock pot or stewed. Rabbit meat can be prepared in any recipe that calls for chicken as it is a mild or blank paletted white meat that can take many seasonings and flavors added to it.
Rabbits can be killed by hitting them back of their heads at the base of the skull, a practice from which the term rabbit punch is derived. Skinning is best done while hanging the rabbit from a prepared frame similar to a coat hanger. Hang the rabbit by the hind legs. Cut around the ankles and down the legs to the gut in a "Y" shape careful not to cut into the gut just yet. Continue the cut downward to the neck and circle the head. The skin should be easy to peel from the body, unlike larger animals. It can be discarded or treated (tanned) for its value as fur.
When gutting the rabbit care must be taken not to contaminate the carcass with fecal material from the intestines or urine from the bladder. The lower gut from the diaphram to the tail can be discarded. Examine the liver and kidneys, they should be free from parasites or spots. Above the diaphram (or below since the animal is upside down) are the heart and lungs. Removing them can be done by hand.
Butchering the rabbit from here requires the removal of the head, tail and feet. If a bone saw is not used for the feet then be careful of bone splinters when preparing the legs. The rabbit can be further cut up by first removing the fore legs, the hind legs and thighs should be kept together and removed at the hip. The breast can be separated from the lower back yielding six pieces per rabbit. Obviously only the hind legs are very meaty but the rest of the rabbit is worth preparing.