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Chapter 8: The rabbit

Unit 66: Breeding and feeding rabbits
Unit 67: Health problems of rabbits

Unit 66: Breeding and feeding rabbits

Rabbits are easy to house, cheap to feed and produce a very good quality meat.

One male rabbit (buck) and two females (does) given care and good feeding, will produce more than 50 rabbits a year. This means you can sell or eat almost one rabbit every week of the year.

Learning objectives

After studying this unit you should know:

1 Breeding rabbits.
2 Care of young rabbits.
3 Housing (hutches) for rabbits.
4 Feed and water for rabbits.
5 Uses of rabbits.

Breeding rabbits

The female rabbit (doe) does not come into heat (oestrus) as do other animals. The doe will accept the male (buck) at any time of the year.

Does are mature and can breed at 5 to 6 months of age and can continue to have young for 4 years.

The length of pregnancy in the rabbit is 31 days and the doe can produce from 1 to 12 young each time she gives birth. She can become pregnant again within a few days of giving birth. However it is not good practice to allow the doe to become pregnant straight after giving birth. It is better to mate the doe when her young (litter) are 4 weeks old so that they are 8 weeks old when the next litter is born. In this way one doe can produce 6 litters a year.

Two weeks after mating you can feel the young through the side of the doe's belly.

Male rabbit (buck)

Traditionally people keep all their rabbits together. However it is advisable to keep the buck separate from the does and do not keep bucks together as they will fight. The doe must be taken to the buck for mating and then returned to her place. A buck can be used until he is 7 years old. If you have large numbers of rabbits together use one buck with every 15 does.

Giving birth and care of the young rabbit

The doe needs a nest in which to give birth. She will line the nest with her fur. Do not check the young until the day after birth and do not touch them with your hand. Use a stick to gently touch them when checking and remove any that are dead. They are blind until the eyes open at 10 days of age.

Leave the young rabbits with the mother. They can be killed for meat from 3 months of age.

Sexing rabbits (knowing the sex)

Knowing what sex the young rabbits are is important because you may want to keep the does and sell or kill the bucks. To sex young animals you look at the area below the anus. In old bucks the scrotum can clearly be seen.

Sexing rabbits (knowing the sex)

Feeding rabbits

You can buy ready-mixed rabbit feed (pellets) made from grain, plants, minerals and vitamins. However this may be expensive or not available. Rabbits can be fed the following:

· Vegetables such as carrots, sugar beet, manger beet, parsnip, swede, turnip, potato and other root vegetables

· Green leaves

· Grains such as oats, wheat, barley and maize

· Dry bread

· The waste skins or tops of vegetables from the kitchen

· Dry sunflower heads (the rabbit will eat the seed)

· Young branches from trees such as acacia

· Bran mash (bran is produced from the milling of wheat or rice)

Feeding during the dry season

As with other animals you must think about what to feed rabbits during the dry season. The following can provide for dry season feeding:

· Hay, preferably from green leafy plants. Bind the plants into bundles and hang them to dry in the wind but avoid putting them in the direct sun. This type of hay is preferable to that made from sun-dried grasses (see Unit 23).

· Carrots, beetroot, turnips and other root vegetables can be kept for a long time in dry sand in a bin, barrel or wooden box. Arrange the vegetables in layers separated by dry sand and cover the top with a layer of straw. Another way to keep root vegetables is to place the vegetables in layers with straw between them. The whole pile is covered with straw and then earth. Leave a small hole at the top for ventilation

Feeding during the dry season

Eating the droppings (faeces)

Rabbits produce both hard and soft droppings. It is natural for the rabbit to eat the soft droppings it produces because they contain nutrients and water. When the soft droppings pass through the gut for a second time the nutrients and water can be absorbed (taken into the body). The droppings produced then will be hard.

Water for rabbits

A supply of drinking water is necessary at all times. A suitable water drinker can be made from any plastic bottle. Make one or two holes in the bottom of the cleaned bottle, fill it with water and screw on the top. Place this in a shallow container. This could be used for water for chickens too.

Water for rabbits

Housing rabbits

A small wooden house (hutch) will be sufficient for a buck. You can make hutches to contain more than one rabbit. The hutch must be clean, dry and well ventilated.

Remember that rabbits can be difficult to keep in runs (fenced areas) as they will burrow down and under a fence and escape. They can be kept in enclosed areas if the fencing material is partly buried to stop them burrowing under it.

Housing rabbits

Nesting box

This is nothing more than a cardboard or wooden box or even a basket. It is open only at the top so the mother cannot take the young out of the nest. The nest box should be lined with hay. By the time they are 3 weeks old the young will come out of the nest themselves.

Nesting box

Uses of rabbits

Rabbit meat contains little fat. It is white in colour and is very nutritious as it contains a lot of protein. Like a chicken, one rabbit will provide enough meat for a family meal.

Some breeds of rabbit have long hair which is collected and spun to give wool for clothing. Rabbit skins can be dried and treated to give good pelts (skins with fur) to be used in clothing and other uses.

Rabbit droppings make excellent fertiliser. They contain more nutrients for plants than droppings from other animals and are useful fertiliser for growing vegetables.

Unit 67: Health problems of rabbits

It is better to prevent disease in rabbits rather than to have to cure disease. Good feeding and clean housing will guarantee disease free rabbits.

It is easy to recognise a sick rabbit as:

· the eye will be dull
· the coat is rough
· there will be diarrhoea
· it sits in a comer grinding its teeth

Taking the body temperature will show if the rabbit is sick. The normal temperature of a rabbit is 39.3° C.

Learning objectives

After studying this unit you should know:

1 How to handle rabbits.
2 Ear problems in rabbits.
3 Problems with the teeth and toes in rabbits.
4 Problems caused by parasites.

Handling rabbits

To pick up a rabbit put one hand around the bottom of the ears to control the animal and hold the loose skin on the back of the neck. Use the other hand to take the whole weight of the rabbit.

Handling rabbits

Ear mange (ear canker)

This is a very common disease of the ear. It is caused by mites, small parasites which burrow into the skin of the ear canal (inside ear).

The rabbit shakes its head from side to side and rubs its ears against the cage and walls. A yellowish white crust (thick layer) covers the ear canal.

The easiest way to treat this infection is to put a few drops of oil (olive, sesame or sunflower) inside the ear and massage it. Repeat this every day until the condition improves. If you have any powder for ticks and mites you can mix a little with the oil and use it (see R24 Annex 1). See your veterinary officer if the disease continues.

Cages and houses should be kept clean. Wash your hands when you treat a rabbit and before you touch other animals.

Overgrown nails and teeth

The rabbit's nails grow continuously and can sometimes become overgrown. They can be clipped back using nail clippers or pliers. Do not cut too close to the foot.

Rabbits have four front teeth in the upper jaw and two in the lower jaw. The teeth grow continuously but as the animal eats they are worn down. Sometimes the lower and upper teeth do not meet when the mouth is shut. The teeth in this case do not wear down. You will need to cut them with a wire cutter or a pair of pliers.

Overgrown nails and teeth

Problems caused by parasites

Rabbits suffer from fleas which suck the blood and carry disease. Fleas lay their eggs in the cracks and holes in the walls of the housing. Rabbits can be treated with a dusting powder (see R 15 Annex 1) against fleas and the housing should also be thoroughly cleaned and dusted.

Coccidia (very small parasites) in the liver and gut can be a problem especially in animals under 4 months old. They cause diarrhoea which may contain blood and animals lose weight and are pot-bellied. Coccidia can kill many rabbits.

The parasites live in the droppings so hutches and cages should always be kept clean. One teaspoon (5 ml) of iodine in 5 litres of drinking water can be used to help prevent this disease. It should be given to the female rabbit before her young are born.

Rabbits can also suffer from diarrhoea, constipation, abscesses, mastitis and eye infections. Your veterinary officer can advise you about these problems in your rabbits.

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