group of rabbits

 

Farmed rabbits

In this fact sheet: Farmed rabbit production & welfare, Wool, Disease, Transport & Slaughter, References


Farmed rabbits are primarily kept for their meat with Angora rabbits bred for their wool.

In 2009, 4 million farmed rabbits and game birds were slaughtered (the figures for these are combined under the charging regulations and are not collected separately) (1).   Between 50-60% of the world’s rabbit meat supply is produced on commercial rabbit farms (2). The UK produces 2-3 thousand tonnes of rabbit meat per year, and it imports 5 thousand tonnes (mostly from China, Hungary and Poland) (3).  

Farmed rabbit production & welfare

The wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is a social, colony animal which lives in burrows. As herbivores, their digestive systems are adapted for digestion of large quantities of forage. The breeds of rabbits most commonly used for meat production are New Zealand Whites, The California, Commercial White and hybrids. Rabbit meat has a high protein and low fat content.

Commercial rabbit farms vary in size from small farms with 200 breeding does, to large farms holding up to 12,000 breeding does (2). Most farms usually breed and fatten their own rabbits and send them to specialist packing centres, where they are killed and sold (4). Males are sexually mature around 4 months of age and females 5 months depending upon the breed of rabbit. Commercially, most breeding occurs by placing the Rescued rabbitfemale (doe) in with the male (buck). Artificial Insemination (AI) is not regularly used due to the high labour requirements involved. Females gestate for around 1 month and can produce 4 to 6 litters each year which comprise of 4 to 7 young (kits). Naturally, rabbits would give birth in nests which they have lined with fur plucked from their chests. Commercially, nursing mothers are provided with a nesting box which should be large enough for the doe to get in and out of to feed her young without injuring them (5). The nest boxes used in farms do not allow nest site protection in the same way as in nature. The doe needs to visit the nest more than once a day due to the confined space which is different to how the doe would naturally feed the kits. Repeated visits to the nest increase the risk of the kits being stood on and crushed by the doe (2).  

Natural weaning of kits is between 6 to 8 weeks, but young are removed from their mothers at 4 weeks old in commercial units. The normal profitable breeding life of does is around 3 years of age and rabbits can breed all year round (4). Does are usually re-mated when their young are 3 weeks old, however some farmers re-mate when kits are 2 weeks old allowing them to produce a greater number of litters (7 to 8) each year. Farms usually feed rabbits on pellets made up of cereal, grass and high protein such as fishmeal or soya bean meal, with a mineral and vitamin supplement (4). Farmers are required to provide an environment for rabbits which avoids heat stress and draughts, whilst allowing adequate ventilation with sufficient fresh air to prevent the accumulation of gases (such as ammonia) and dust (5). Their environment should be well lit utilizing natural light (lighting is used to control sexual activity), and all rabbits should be able to be clearly seen during hours of daylight. There should be a period of darkness in each 24 hour cycle (5). Accommodation should be designed and maintained so as to avoid injury or distress to the rabbits. Most farmed rabbits are kept in mesh cages with automatic food and water feeders, and the cages are stacked in 2 or 3 tiers to utilise building space. The floor area of these cages must be large enough to allow rabbits to lie down comfortably, move around and eat and drink without any difficulty. The height should be enough to allow the rabbits to sit upright on all four feet without having their ears touching the top of the cage (5, 6).   

Recommended space allowances for farmed rabbits (5)

SYSTEM and MINIMUM FLOOR SPACE

In cages

Doe and litter to 5 weeks of age / 0.56 m2 total area

Doe and litter to 8 weeks of age /0.74 m2 total area

Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks of age / 0.07 m2 per rabbit

Rabbits 12 weeks and over / 0.18 m2 per rabbit
(other than those used for breeding) (multiple occupation cages)

Adult does and bucks for breeding / 0.56 m2 per rabbit

 

In hutches

Doe and litter to 5 weeks of age / 0.75 m2 total area

Doe and litter to 8 weeks of age / 0.93 m2 total area

Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks of age / 0.009 m2 per rabbit

Adults does and bucks for breeding / 0.75 m2 per rabbit

 

The most common method for identification of farmed rabbits is to tattoo an individual number in the ear. Marking should only be carried out by competent operators and care should be taken to avoid unnecessary pain or distress to the rabbits (5). Stockpersons are required to periodically shorten the toenails of adult rabbits to avoid overgrown nails catching on cage floors. As rabbits’ teeth grow constantly, if they are unable to wear them down, their incisors (front teeth) become overgrown. This can seriously interfere with feeding and drinking and cause damage to their lips/mouth. Where tooth-trimming is necessary it should be performed by a veterinary surgeon or trained operator (5). The clipping of front teeth is no longer recommended as it places extreme forces on the tooth which compresses the sensitive pulp further up the tooth and sends a shock wave through the skull. Alongside causing pain, it can also shatter the tooth roots leading to infection (7).

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The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom Limited, Parkdale, Dunham Road, Altrincham WA14 4QG
Registered Charity No. 259358, Registered Company No. 959115 (England and Wales)

Fundraising Regulations

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