Rabbits – environment
Housing requirements for rabbits.
Cages, fences, enclosures and all facilities used to secure rabbits must be constructed and maintained to reduce the risk of injury and attack by predators.
Rabbits may be housed or kept in intensive conditions provided the following conditions are met:
- A minimum clear area of 2.0m2 should be provided with a minimum length in one direction of 2 metres per rabbit
- The floor must be a combination of wire mesh and a solid area
- An area for sleeping and eating needs to be provided
- Environmental enrichment must be provided to enable natural behaviours
- Faeces and urine accumulations must be removed every second day except when a new litter is born
- Normal diurnal pattern of lighting must be provided
- Air must be of acceptable quality with respect to dust, chemicals and smells
- All rabbits must be observed standing and moving during daily inspections.
Rabbits can be housed in an intensive indoor system as well as a less intensive outdoor area with access to grazing. Where possible, providing animals with access to fresh air, plenty of space and environmental enrichment in an outdoor setup is always preferable to provide an area as close to the animal’s natural habitat as possible.
The design of many rabbit hutches is based on the Morant system, providing a mix of grazing area and a solid floor for sleeping. These systems can be moved regularly to provide the rabbits with fresh grazing material and an area clean of droppings.
Regardless of whether rabbits are kept inside or outside, their enclosure must always be kept very clean. Rabbits will become agitated if their area is not clean.
Rabbits kept indoors should be housed in a well lit and ventilated area, away from draughts, fumes and noise, and at a temperature between 10 and 25°C. For optimum health and wellbeing, however, the average temperature should be kept between 15 and 21°C. Rabbits are extremely susceptible to excess humidity. They should not be placed in the following positions:
- Near windows, especially during winter or midsummer
- In direct sunlight
- In draughts from ventilators, windows or doors
- In fumes of any kind, over or near heaters
- Where access is difficult.
Rabbits require a floor area according to the animals’ age and activity level. In general, young rabbits need more space than adults for play and behaviour. A minimum clear area of 2.0m2 should be provided with a minimum length in one direction of 2 metres. This allows space for the animal to hop and have some exercise.
The Guidelines for the housing of rabbits in scientific institutions describes the minimum space requirements for rabbits as follows:
|Number of rabbits||Minimum space (m2)|
Cages for rabbits over 12 weeks of age should not be less than 45 cm high and should be of sufficient height to allow rabbits to sit upright with their ears fully erect.
Overcrowding must be avoided at all times, as aggression will begin after three months of age. Overcrowding also causes large losses in body weight and problems with liver, spleen and kidney. In crowded situations, the young tend to be born stunted.
Movement and exercise
The minimum space provided should allow each rabbit to carry out its normal behaviour, including a wide range of locomotory behaviours, such as hopping, leaping, playing, exploring and stretching out. The minimum space that must be provided should allow rabbits to complete three hops in one direction.
In addition to meeting minimum space requirements for movement, space should be provided to allow the provision of structural complexity and environmental enrichment in pens. This may be done by providing boxes and pipes, which provide rabbits with retreat or hiding areas.
The height of pens should be great enough to allow the rabbits to rear up on their hind legs and sit up erect with ears pricked. Rabbits commonly sit on top of nest boxes and ledges and again the pen height should be great enough to allow this without risking the chance of the rabbit jumping from the pen.
Avoid moving rabbits frequently from indoors to outdoors, particularly if this results in extreme changes of temperature.
If rabbits are housed outdoors, hutches provide protection from adverse weather. These may be wooden or metallic. Aluminum is preferable to galvanized iron as it is more resistant to urine and has a longer life. Extreme care must be taken so that predators such as dogs, cats, owls and goannas do not frighten the rabbits and cause stress.
The floor of the rabbit’s housing should be a combination of wire mesh and a solid area such as a sheet of wood or rubber mat. Mesh wiring is used to prevent the rabbit burrowing and being released into the environment. To assist with myxomatosis control, mosquito screening is advisable. In intensive housing systems, hepatic coccidiosis may occur if rabbits are kept on a total solid floor. Cage floors must have mesh wire for ease of cleaning and portability. To minimise problems with rabbits catching hocks in the mesh, suggested mesh sizes are 19 by 19 mm for adults and 13 by 13 mm for kittens. The mesh wire should be woven or flat. An area of solid floor should also be provided for the rabbit to sit upon. This may be a sheet of wood or a rubber mat.
As rabbits eliminate large amounts of faeces and urine, cleanliness is imperative at all times. Cages must be cleaned every second day except when a new litter is born. The litter must not be disturbed for approximately one week to prevent the doe from eating her young. Shortly after weaning, separate the young does and bucks as they are capable of reproducing at an early age.
Straw, coarse sawdust or softwood shavings are suitable. If metal hutches are used, a wooden nesting box with straw is required for breeding. Do not use wicker baskets as they are gnawed easily. Approximately one week before parturition (birth), the doe will pull fur from her body to line the nesting area. Bedding and refuse must not be composted but should be either burnt or wrapped in newspaper and disposed of properly. Hutches should be disinfected weekly, and then rinsed thoroughly.
Fencing and security
Fencing and security is a very important aspect of keeping rabbits. Rabbits are extremely vulnerable animals and need to be protected at all times from dogs, cats, foxes, large birds, goannas, snakes and other predators. When keeping rabbits in small cages outside, ensure that predators cannot break into the cage or move the rabbit cage indoors each afternoon.
Mesh should be strong and well maintained. It should also be noted that a predator attempting to break into the cage will cause stress to the rabbits. Hence predators should not be able to get anywhere near to the cage. If rabbits are kept in a large enclosure, care should be taken to prevent predators from digging under or jumping over fences. It should also be noted that large birds like eagles and hawks will swoop and attack small rabbits if they do not have sufficient shelter.
Pen rotation and movement
Rabbits have a large food intake and are very efficient grazing animals. They can strip an area of grass very quickly. For this reason, it is very important when using portable pens on grassy areas to move the pens regularly. This prevents the grass from being completely eaten away and reduces build up of faeces, reducing the risk of internal parasites.