Rabbit welfare

Good animal welfare depends on three components:

  • Physical well-being
  • Mental well-being
  • Natural living.

In intensive rabbit farms, all three of these are compromised by periods of confinement in barren cages, deprivation of social interaction, injury and widespread disease and through rough handling at slaughter.

Welfare issues for rabbits

Rabbits are the fourth most farmed animal in the world and most are kept in barren environments, often in cages. In the EU the majority are housed in sheds containing 500 to 1000 breeding females (does) and 10,000 to 20,000 growing rabbits. The domesticated rabbit has kept most of their wild rabbit’s natural behaviour and intensive farming systems have severe negative implications for welfare.

Currently there is no species-specific legislation protecting the welfare of farmed rabbits in the EU. A few countries within the EU have species specific requirements for rabbit farming but they produce only a very small percentage of rabbit meat farmed in the EU.

Inadequate space and height

Rabbits squashed against the cage

Rabbits are cramped together in barren cages, with no ability to stretch, hop or sit up right..

Young rabbits reared for meat (growers) in the EU are typically caged in groups with 450 to 600cm² space each; this is less than the area of an ordinary A4 sheet of typing paper. The functional space available to growing rabbits housed in small groups in cages is insufficient to allow many normal activities, such as sequences of hops, running and play behaviour.

A typical cage for an adult doe in the EU is 60 to 65cm long, 40 to 48cm wide and 30 to 35cm high. This means that rabbits cannot move normally or adopt normal postures such as stretching out, sitting and standing with their ears erect (species typical “look out” posture), rearing up, turning around comfortably and hopping. Lack of exercise can also lead to weakened bones.

Barren environment

Rabbits are reared in a barren environment except for a drinker and feeder and are fed on pellets. The barren environment does not allow natural behaviours such as: digging, hiding and foraging which leads to abnormal behaviours such as over grooming and repetitive gnawing or nibbling of the cage. Females that are reared for breeding and not nursing may also suffer from hunger as they are often kept on a restricted diet.

Lack of social interaction

Rabbits are social animals living in stable groups. Serious aggression is rare once a stable hierarchy has been established.

Growers are often housed in pairs or groups, but breeding does and bucks are usually kept in individual cages, denying them the opportunity for social interaction. Rabbits caged singly may show more abnormal stereotypical behaviour such as over grooming and gnawing at the bars of their cage. Research has demonstrated that breeding rabbits can be housed successfully in groups if they are given sufficient space and adequate nesting facilities to avoid possible aggression problems.

Injuries and disease

The cages are made of wire and sometimes have metal sheet sides. Often the floor is entirely bare wire. Breeding male and females kept on bare wire often develop sores on their footpads and hocks. The sores can cause chronic pain and are a common reason for culling. By having a plastic platform or slatted footrest ulcerative lesions on the hock can be prevented and can help cure those affected.

Does are commonly given hormone treatment to get them ready to breed at the same time and then are artificially inseminated on average within 11 days after giving birth. Their bodies are put under huge strain from the constant reproduction cycle and this can lead to loss of body condition and metabolic disease.

Mortality of commercially farmed rabbits is very high, with commonly 100 - 120% of breeding does dying or being culled and replaced each year and losses of 15 to 30% of growers from birth to slaughter. Respiratory and intestinal diseases are the main reason for such high mortalities and cause acute pain. Rabbits are so susceptible to disease when kept in intensive conditions that in France in 2010 rabbit farming used over 7 times more antibiotics per kilogram of meat compared to poultry and over 5 times more than used in pig meat.

Slaughter

In the EU commercially slaughtered rabbits are usually electrically stunned before slaughter. Research has shown that rabbits may be frequently incorrectly stunned. Rabbits are hung individually upside down for the electrical stunning which is stressful and may cause pain and/or injury if their weight is not supported properly. This is a particular problem for larger rabbits

There are alternatives to barren-cage farming of rabbits, which can improve the welfare of farmed rabbits.

Higher welfare alternatives for rabbits

In some EU Member States there are alternatives to barren-cage farming of rabbits, which can improve the welfare of farmed rabbits. However, there are still problems associated with these systems, as it is intensive production and research is ongoing.

Pen systems for groups allow the rabbits more space, social interaction and tend to have enrichment such as a gnawing stick, which has been shown to reduce ear lesions caused by aggressive behaviour, and hay which aids digestion and provides forage. These can help to occupy the rabbits and reduce stereotypical behaviour. Growing rabbits and does (adult females) kept in pen systems get more space for movement, social interaction and play (typically 750cm²/ rabbit for growers and 800cm²/ rabbit for does). Platforms in pen systems allow rabbits to avoid aggressors by getting out of the way. Does may be housed separately when they are nursing a litter. Male rabbits over 12 weeks are kept for breeding and will always be housed separately in any system due to problems of aggression.

In organic production systems, rabbits are kept in group pens with access to a small area of pasture at the base of the pen.


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