group of rabbits

 

Farmed rabbits

Wool production

Rabbits are primarily kept for their meat due to the low value of their skins. Pelt production alone is uneconomic (4). There are only a small number of wool producers in the UK as Angora rabbit management is labour intensive. Farmers are required to cage animals individually to avoid damage to their coat and the does are not very productive, producing an average of 24 young per year. The average wool yield of English Angora is 200-400 grams/year. Wool is harvested 4 times a year by shearing and provides a fibre of 5-6cm. The largest Angora fibre producer is China (4,3).  

Disease 

Rabbits can suffer from a large range of welfare problems and disease, including fatal viruses, snuffles and sore hocks from sitting on wire mesh cage floors. 

Myxomatosis

This serious viral disease affects only rabbits and is caused by the myxoma virus. The virus is spread by biting insects but can be passed on directly to other rabbits which are in close proximity. The first clinical sign is conjunctivitis (‘red eye’) with a runny discharge, alongside swollen lips, nose, ears and eyes/eyelids causing blindness. The rabbit may appear listless with a loss of appetite and developing a high fever. It can take up to a fortnight for an infected rabbit to die and as treatment does not always work euthanasia is usually recommended. This disease is present in the UK and throughout Europe and Australia. There is a vaccine to protect against myxomatosis (4, 5, 7).   
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)

This virus, caused by calicivirus, affects only rabbits and was first reported in the UK in 1992. The disease appears mostly in adults but may affect rabbits over 8 weeks of age. The clinical symptoms are depression, loss of appetite, respiratory distress, lack of coordination, a blood-stained mucus discharge and death occurring within one to two days. The virus is spread through a variety of pathways such as direct contact with food (e.g. hay) or water contaminated by infected wild rabbits, bird droppings or direct contact from another rabbit. There is a vaccine to protect against VHD (4, 7).  
Coccidiosis

This is a protozoal parasitic infection from the intestinal tract of animals. The species of coccidia found in rabbits are species-specific and should not infect humans. In young rabbits it causes diarrhoea and sudden death (7,4).                     
Hyperthermia

During warm weather rabbits naturally move into their burrows to keep cool. However, this is not possible on rabbit farms which makes them more susceptiable to hyperthermia. The stockperson should keep a close watch for any signs of heat stress (2).

Transport and slaughter

 

Rabbits are transported in batches of 10 and should not be confined for more than 8 hours as there is no access to food and water. Rabbits naturally live for 9 years but are slaughtered for their meat from 3 to 4 months of age. Breeding rabbits are culled at 3 years of age when their ability to produce offspring deteriorates.


In 2010, 4 million farmed rabbits and game birds were slaughtered (the figures for these are combined under the charging regulations and are not collected separately). 3.5 million were slaughtered in 2009 (1). 

Rabbits can be killed by dislocation of the neck or a heavy blow to the back of their head followed by decapitation. Operators should ensure that the blow kills the rabbit outright, not just stunning it. Rabbits can also be killed by electrical stunning before having their throat cut (4). Rabbits are usually stunned by applying an electric current to their heads via a wall mounted ‘V’ shaped electrode. Studies by Anil et al (8, 9) found that for electrical stunning in rabbits to be effective a minimum voltage of 100 volts must be applied to provide instantaneous stunning. Stunning should provide a long enough period of insensibility for operators to ‘stick’ (cut the throat) the animal before they regain consciousness.  

References

1. Meat Hygiene Service.

2. Gregory, N.G. 2007 (2nd Edition). Animal Welfare & Meat Production.

3. Scottish Agricultural College 

4. Ewbank, R., Kim-Madslien, F. and Hart, C.B. (Editors). 1999. 4th Edition. Management and Welfare of Farm Animals. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW).  

5. Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

6. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000  

7. Owen Davies BVSc MRCVS and Dr Linda Dykes. 1998. Revised March 2002 by Linda Dykes. Dental Problems in Rabbits. Rabbit Welfare Association Fund.  

8. Anil, M.H., Raj, A.B.M. and McKinstry, J.L. 1998. Electrical Stunning in Commercial Rabbits: Effective Currents, Spontaneous Physical Activity and Reflex Behaviour. Meat Science. Vol 48: p21-28.  

9. Anil, M.H., Raj, A.B.M. and McKinstry, J.L. 2000. Evaluation of electrical stunning in commercial rabbits: effect on brain function. Meat Science. Vol 54: p217-220.

Last updated September 2013

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