How should I house my rabbit?

There are a variety of ways to house your rabbit. We always suggest that when you are setting up your rabbits area, to give them as much space as possible. If considering free roaming your rabbit, consider still having a cage that you can lock them up in at night or when you are out, as rabbits like to get into mischief. When looking at cages, there are a few different styles: Grid panel cages, solid floor cage, or wire floor cages. We support the use of all of these types of cages, as we use a mixture of them in our rabbitry. It is important that whatever style you choose, it needs to be used in accordance with the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Rabbits (https://www.nfacc.ca/rabbit-code-of-practice).

In Canada, the Code of Practice is what sets the laws about how you care for your rabbits. I have copied the portion of the code that pertains to housing below.

Section 1  Housing and Equipment

1.1 Housing Systems

1.1.1 Facility Design and Maintenance

Facility design and maintenance significantly impact rabbit health and welfare. Rabbits on most commercial farms are housed in cages that are raised off the ground and typically made of wire mesh. Pens are an alternative system that are generally larger than cages. All housing types should promote good handling, monitoring, and care of rabbits. 

Housing systems need to provide a comfortable environment for rabbits through appropriate space allowance, ventilation, and temperature. Routine maintenance of facilities and timely replacement of cages/pens before their condition deteriorates help prevent rabbits from becoming injured. 

1.1.2 Space Allowance 

Rabbits’ use of space depends on ambient temperature, group size, and various characteristics of the enclosure (e.g. platform) (5). Space allowance affects a rabbit’s ability to perform behaviours important to the species (e.g. grooming, hopping, jumping), and to adopt normal resting postures (ventral and lateral) and sitting postures (sitting upright or with all 4 legs on the ground) (5,6).

Rabbits appear to prefer higher cage heights during their active period and will hop and stand fully upright when provided with sufficient cage height (6). Providing an area within the cage/pen with a minimum height of 40.6 cm (16 in) promotes the expression of natural behaviour and reduces the risk of ear lesions (6). Growing rabbits, at any stocking density, appear to prefer enclosures with a top (rather than no top) (6).

Increased floor space per rabbit results in improved bone quality by allowing more weight-bearing activity, such as walking and hopping (6). Overcrowding can result in reduced feed intake and increased aggression and associated injuries (e.g. scratches, leg injuries, tail injuries) (6). A stocking density at or below 40 kg/m² (8.2 lb/ft²)has been recommended (7).

The Canadian rabbit industry and other stakeholders understand the need for further research and innovation into feasible housing systems designed to accommodate rabbit behaviour and movement in all stages of production.

1.2 Environmental Refinements

Environmental refinements are used to enhance a rabbit’s environment and encourage expression of normal species-specific behaviours. The broad types of refinements include social (e.g. direct, visual, or olfactory contact with other rabbits), structural (e.g. devices that promote movements or exercise), physical (e.g. addition of objects or substrates to chew or manipulate) and food-based (e.g. novel food supplements or methods of feed delivery) (8).

Refinements should achieve the following goals (8):

  • increase the number and range of normal behaviours;
  • prevent or minimize the development of abnormal behaviours;
  • increase positive use of the environment (e.g. use of space); and
  • increase the animal’s ability to cope with behavioural and physiological challenges.

Examples of refinements:

  • hard wood gnawing blocks or sticks
  • hay, straw, or litter (i.e. in addition to nesting material and intended for chewing or manipulation)
  • grass or hay in any form
  • raised platforms
  • multi-level cages/pens
  • tubes/tunnels
  • plastic resting mats (see Section 1.3 – Flooring and Bedding).

Feeding practices that increase the time rabbits spend chewing (e.g. provision of hay or alfalfa/forage cubes) have been shown to reduce abnormal behaviour, including destructive chewing of cages and mats (6).

Rabbits perform fewer abnormal behaviours (e.g. oral stereotypies, cage biting or manipulation) when provided with refinements such as wooden objects, straw, hay, or grass or hay cubes (6). Growing rabbits provided with wooden gnawing sticks have improved weight gains, are more active, groom more, and perform fewer aggressive behaviours (6). The prevalence of injuries, including ear lesions, is significantly lower in growing rabbits housed with wooden gnawing sticks (6).

Platforms enable the expression of certain behaviours that rabbits are motivated to perform and can improve bone quality by enabling weight-bearing activity (e.g. jumping) (6). The space beneath the platform provides a sheltered area that rabbits may prefer for resting (6). In maternity cages or pens, platforms allow the doe to rest away from young kits, which may reduce kit injuries (6) 

The safety of refinements is an important consideration. Soft wood objects may splinter and contain noxious volatile oils; some hard woods may contain toxicants (e.g. the bark of apple wood contains cyanide).

1.3 Flooring and Bedding

Enclosure flooring has a significant impact on foot health. The material, mesh size or spacing between slats or holes (in the case of perforated floors), width and design of the mesh or slats (rounded or flat), and welding quality are all important components of flooring.  

Wire mesh or perforated flooring allows easy passage of manure and urine, is easily cleaned and sanitized, and is associated with lower rates of gastrointestinal disease and better air quality in commercial production systems. Certain types of wire mesh flooring may increase the prevalence of pododermatitis in adult rabbits, particularly for heavy rabbits or does in late gestation (6). Pododermatitis is painful and, if untreated, can lead to deep-seated infection and compromise animal movement (6). Refer also to Section 3.3.1 – Pododermatitis

Plastic coated wire or plastic slatted flooring greatly reduces the prevalence and severity of foot injuries in adult rabbits (6). The routine provision of a slatted plastic resting mat on wire flooring improves animal comfort and reduces the occurrence of pododermatitis in adult rabbits (6) and the risk of leg injuries in pre-weaned rabbits as they first start leaving the nest. Providing a slatted plastic resting mat for rabbits with early-stage pododermatitis may aid recovery (6).

Cleanliness of flooring is also important for managing pododermatitis and disease. The mesh size or spacing between the slats or holes should allow for easy passage of urine and manure.

The use of wood or solid bottom flooring is discouraged because these flooring types are difficult to sanitize, and this can result in increased mortality rates in some circumstances.

Litter or straw may be appropriate in cool environments, provided it is replaced or topped up frequently to ensure a clean and dry surface (6).

1.4 Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity

Air flow, temperature, and relative humidity are 3 very closely linked environmental factors that, if well managed, can significantly promote good health and welfare in rabbits. An effective ventilation system is essential for rabbits because it removes excess heat, water vapour, noxious gases (e.g. ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide), and dust from the rabbitry while at the same time introducing fresh air. Good ventilation is critical to minimizing respiratory disease in rabbits.

Ammonia

Ammonia is released from manure and urine. Excessive ammonia concentrations in the environment can pose a health threat to humans and animals. The concentration of ammonia at the rabbit level should ideally be less than 5 ppm (9). Ammonia concentrations of 20 ppm or higher impair rabbit respiratory immunity and are strongly correlated with respiratory disease (9). When a human observer can smell ammonia, it is likely to be at a concentration of 10 ppm or higher. There are several tools for measuring ammonia concentration, including ammonia test strips, detection tubes, and electronic devices.

Temperature and Relative Humidity

The effective environmental temperature (i.e. the temperature that animals actually feel) depends on several factors such as air speed, temperature, relative humidity, flooring and cage/pen type, bedding, single or group housing, and the animal’s stage of production and health status. The effective environmental temperature may differ by several degrees from that measured in the overall barn.

When ambient temperatures exceed 25°C (77°F) rabbits are at risk of heat stress, which may be indicated by decreased feed intake, increased water intake, open-mouthed panting with the head extended backwards, salivation, and ears fully upright and expanded with prominent blood vessels (9). When ambient temperatures exceed 35°C (95°F), rabbits can no longer regulate body temperature and are at significant risk of hyperthermia and heat stroke (10). Heat stress negatively affects growth rates and several production traits (e.g. reduced daily milk production, increased pre- and post-weaning mortality) (10,11). Floor space impacts a rabbit’s ability to thermoregulate in high ambient temperatures (rabbits can cool themselves by stretching out) (5,6). 

When ambient temperatures fall below 10°C (50°F), rabbits will increase their intake of feed and water and compact their bodies to limit heat loss (9). Rabbits are vulnerable to cold stress if the temperature is below 4°C (39°F) or they are wet or kept in drafty conditions. Newborn kits are particularly vulnerable to cold stress as they are unable to regulate their body temperature (9).

Pregnant does at term (i.e. within 2–3 days of kindling) are less able to cope with temperature extremes (hot or cold) (11).

High relative humidity favours pathogen survival in the environment whereas very low relative humidity increases respiratory problems by drying mucous membranes (9).

1.5 Lighting

Lighting should provide uniform illumination at consistent times and permit effective observation of rabbits. At the rabbit level, light intensity in the range of 5–10 lux (equivalent to a very dark day) is generally appropriate for young rabbits (9). As a general guide, light at which a newspaper can be read is considered sufficient during the grow-out period. A light intensity of 30–50 lux (fully overcast, sunset/sunrise) at the rabbit level is necessary to enable mature rabbits to investigate their surroundings, have visual contact with other rabbits, and show active behaviours (7).

Continuous lighting (i.e. no dark period in a 24-hour cycle) negatively impacts welfare and health. Feed consumption is typically high during the night and declines at the beginning of the light period (12). Does tend to nurse during the dark period (12).

Irregular changes in the light cycle may be disruptive to rabbits.

Be aware that noise, including ultrasonic sound, can be emitted from light ballasts. Potential effects on rabbit welfare are unclear, and further research is encouraged.

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