In Australia, rabbit farming is essentially ungoverned and unregulated. The “Code of Practice for the Intensive Husbandry of Rabbits” is a voluntary guideline- meaning that farmers may choose to follow it, but that they are in no way required to meet even the most basic standards of animal welfare.
Code of practice for the intensive husbandry of rabbits, Bureau of Animal Welfare, Attwood, October, 1991.
This Code of Practice is intended as a guide for all persons responsible for the intensive husbandry of domestic-type rabbits for commercial production. It recognises that the basic requirement for the welfare of rabbits is a husbandry system appropriate to their physiological and behavioural need.
The basic needs are:
accommodation which provides protection from the elements and does not harm or cause undue discomfort,
freedom of movement to stand, stretch, turn around and lie down,
readily accessible food and water,
rapid recognition and treatment of injury and disease,
protection from predators and insect-borne diseases,
an environment which permits a level of social interaction so that individually housed rabbits can see and are aware of other rabbits.
Rabbits are animals which need individual and frequent attention. Responsibility and competent supervision is an essential prerequisite for the day to day management of rabbits and to ensure their welfare. It should be supplemented by expert opinion and veterinary care if the rabbits are in ill-health.
The building in which the rabbits are housed should be constructed to allow for controlling the extremes of temperature. It is recommended that temperature be maintained within the optimum range of 10C – 25C. If the building is enclosed, it should be adequately ventilated; if necessary force-ventilation should be installed to prevent excessive build-up of heat, moisture and ammonia. A force-ventilation system should have an automatic alarm system to warn of power failure. A back-up alarm system to warn of temperature increase is also essential and should operate through an alternative circuit to the power failure alarm system. In force-ventilated buildings, emergency ventilation systems should be provided. All electrical switching should be of a non-sparking design or installed outside the animal holding area. Internal surfaces of the animal holding area should be smooth to limit the accumulation of dust and fluff.
In any situation in which rabbits are housed intensively for commercial production avoidance of ammonia build-up is essential. In addition to adequate ventilation, means of urine disposal from housing areas must be effective to reduce accumulation of ammonia. Should ammonia levels reach the point of being detectable by human sense of smell remedial action needs to be taken to reduce the level. Faeces should be removed from both the immediate environment of the rabbits and from the confines of the shed on a regular basis.
During the hours of daylight the level of indoor lighting, natural or artificial should be such that all rabbits can be seen clearly. In addition adequate lighting should be available for satisfactory inspection at any time.
A standard 15 hour daylight period should be maintained by the facility, with shade provided to the bucks after 8 hours.
2. Space requirements
The floor area provided for the rabbits should be sufficient to allow the rabbits to move around, to feed and drink without difficulty, and to lie on their sides.
Minimum allowances for space are:
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 5-12 weeks 0.07 m2 per rabbit
Rabbits 12 weeks and over (other than those used for breeding) in cages or other areas inwhich several rabbits are kept 0.18 m2 per rabbit
Adult does and bucks for breeding 0.56 m2 per rabbit
The above minimum space allowances refer to medium-sized rabbits, e.g. NZ white. Where larger or smaller sized rabbits are involved, space allowances should be adjusted appropriate to relative body size. Cages for rabbits over 12 weeks old should be not less than 45 cm high and should be of sufficient height to allow rabbits to sit upright with ears fully erect. No more than 40 young rabbits should be maintained in colony pens. These rabbits should be fed by hoppers suspended just above the floor.
Floors on which rabbits are kept should be designed, constructed and maintained so that injury or distress is not caused to rabbits. Floors should be smooth and well- supported. The provision of a solid non-absorbent board may assist to minimise injury. Such board should be of not less than 0.1 m2 to occupy up to one third of the total floor area of each cage. Such boards should be replaced or cleaned and disinfected regularly. Wooden or other absorbent surfaces are not recommended. Boards may increase urine staining.
If the floor is of wire mesh material it should be of welded or flat construction. Flat mesh is preferable as it is more easily cleaned. Sufficient support must be provided to the housed rabbits feet. Square mesh should not exceed 19 mm x 19 mm and rectangular mesh should not exceed 50 mm x 13 mm. The wire of the mesh should be not less than 2.5 mm diameter (12 gauge).
A special space with nesting material is required for does. Nesting material, e.g. untreated wood shavings or shredded paper should be provided. Where used, nest boxes should be introduced at least 2 days before the litter is due. The boxes should be built of non-absorbable material to facilitate cleaning between batches.
4. Food and water
The diet should be nutritionally adequate to maintain health and vitality and should take account of the requirements for growth, pregnancy and lactation and the rabbits’ special need for adequate fibre-content. A new type of feed should be introduced over a period of a few days. Feeding and watering equipment should be designed, installed and maintained so as to avoid causing discomfort, distress or injury to the rabbits. Food and water facilities must be readily accessible by rabbits. Food hoppers with insufficiently large openings may discourage rabbits from eating and may cause injury to their faces. If the openings are too large, kitten rabbits may enter them and defecate on the food. Hoppers that are placed too high may be out of reach of young kittens. Hoppers that are positioned too low may become contaminated with faeces and urine.
When there are several rabbits in one cage being fed on a system which restricts the supply of feed, the feed containers should be of such a size that all rabbits in the group can feed at the same time. Otherwise the dominant rabbits will eat more than their share of feed. Clean water must be readily available to the rabbits at all times. An automated watering system reduces the risk of contamination by urine, faeces, fur and airborne disease organisms. Drinking nipples should not be positioned too high or too low, but at about 10 cm from the floor of the cage, they should not project more than 2.5 cm into the cage. Food hoppers and waterers should be checked each day to ensure that they are operating effectively. There should be a back-up system to ensure that the rabbits continue to have access to water if an automated system should break down.
When pellets are fed steps to prevent or dispose of reservoirs of dust must be used. This may be done by using mesh flooring in the base of feed hoppers.
Mixing established groups of unfamiliar rabbits should be avoided. Where several rabbits are kept in one large cage or other enclosure, the social stability of these groups will be seriously upset if other rabbits are introduced into the system. Such introductions will lead to savage fighting until a new hierarchical structure is established in the group. A rabbit should never be lifted by the ears alone. It may be lifted by grasping with one hand the loose skin over the shoulders, and placing the other hand under the rabbit’s rump to support its weight. Toe nails of adult rabbits should be trimmed periodically to prevent toe damage from overgrown nails catching on cage or equipment surfaces. Care is needed when trimming to avoid damage to sensitive tissue.
In adult rabbits regular teeth checks for overgrowing incisors are necessary and trimming implemented to avoid interference with feeding or damage to the rabbits lips. Access to hard, chewable items may reduce the problem of overgrowing incisors.
Replacement bucks should be housed individually after 10-12 weeks of age. For mating purposes does should be taken to the buck rather than the reverse.
Removal of rabbits from the housing area for slaughter should be carried out quietly and with care exercised to avoid stress and unnecessary struggling which may otherwise bruise or injure the animal. Relocation of rabbits from individual cages to transport cages needs to be done by imposing a minimum of stress to the rabbits with consideration given to the orderly movement from one cage to the next.