RABBIT KEEPING: What you need to know to get started!



Ever thought of keeping rabbits?

Now that summer is here, you may be thinking of trying some homesteading projects! When it comes to keeping small livestock, for most of us, chickens have been the thing. But did you know rabbits can be a great choice for the small homestead? 

After all, a small hutch in your backyard’s corner won’t disturb anyone and rabbits will also, in a more selective way, participate in waste reduction. 


Whether you'll be keeping them for meat or as pets, rabbits are an enjoyable choice for the small homestead. They're extremely loving and easy-to-keep little creatures. Best of all, it doesn’t matter if you have no prerequisite knowledge on rabbit keeping. Nearly anyone can do it!

In this article, I’ll cover the main aspects of rabbit keeping, from breeds, to housing and care so that your rabbit keeping experience will be as successful and enjoyable as possible.

Rabbit Breeds


First, let's talk about breeds...

There are two main rabbit breed classifications. Either by size (Giant rabbits, standard rabbits and dwarf rabbits) or by raising purpose (pet, meat and ornamental).

Breed standards are detailed descriptions of physical characteristics (weight, color, body structure, and fur type) a particular breed has to satisfy. These standards give clear benchmarks to breeders in order to help them focus on specific characteristics in their selection works. 

Who sets these standards? In the US, The ARBA (American Rabbit Breeders Association) is the body in charge of issuing rabbit breed standards. 

Depending on your actual need, you may want to choose different variations of rabbits. For example, if your goal is to get abundant and good quality meat, you'll want to go for New Zealand whites, Californians or silver foxes.  

If you have enough space in your backyard, giant rabbit breeds like giant chinchillas and giant Flemish are two excellent options. 

Otherwise, dwarf rabbits like the Lionhead bunny, Holland lop and the polish rabbit make wonderful indoor pets.

Before making the purchase, make sure you clearly express your expectations to your breeders so he can provide you with the best suited rabbit breed for your needs.

Habitat


What about housing your rabbits?

An adequate home for your bunny is a must. For rabbits kept as indoor pets, a cage made of plastic and wire mesh does the job. On the other hand, outdoor hutches are generally made of wood, metal wires and plastic for flooring.

If kept outdoors, the hutch should be placed where it will stay dry and be protected from rain and weather. It's a good idea to position the hutch where the morning light can shine in, but where there will be some afternoon shade to avoid overheating.

Your rabbit's hutch should allow for approximately 2 ft X 3 ft of floor space per adult rabbit. For a great guide on how much space your rabbit needs, check out this Rabbit Hutch and Cage Size Guide.


Whatever option you choose, your rabbit’s home should be as spacious as possible. Shelter dimensions should allow for maximum freedom as rabbits love to jump around all the time. 

Most rabbits enclosures have a wire mesh floor with a tray underneath to catch droppings, or if outdoors, the droppings may simply fall to the ground. But sometimes, a litter box is used. One particular caution: be sure to carefully choose an adequate litter box. This is really important. When a bunny gets bored, he may turn his attention to the box at the back of the cage, and start nibbling and swallowing it, which may seriously affect its sensitive digestive system. Rabbit anorexia is generally the result of such bad materials’ being ingested. Make sure that the litter is always dust-free and clean. For that, fresh, dry and regularly replaced hay is the best option.

Activity Needs


Rabbits are intelligent and vivid creatures. They need to be constantly simulated, either mentally or physically. Supply them with balls to keep them busy. You might be surprised. Some rabbits like to roll and chase balls and it can be very entertaining to watch! You can also build an obstacle course for your rabbit out of cardboard boxes, tubes, newspapers, etc. 


It's recommended that you allow your rabbits four hours of free run play time per day. Allow them to have time out of their hutch. This can be done with supervision, or a small movable pen can be set up in the yard or garden. Rabbits also like to play games! For some game ideas, check out this article, Exercise and Playtime for Rabbits.

Dietary Needs


Your rabbit's diet is very important. Dietary errors are a major cause of many medical problems for rabbits. Establishing a nutritionally correct diet is crucial and actually very simple. By observing the eating habits of the wild rabbit, we can easily understand how to feed his domestic cousin. 

A wild rabbit only feeds on herbs, grass, roots, and even barks during lean periods. All of these foods have low nutritional content but are perfectly adapted to rabbits’ specific digestive system. They are rich in fiber (which is needed for for intestinal health) and require extended chewing, which is important to a rabbit's teeth.

For rabbit's teeth to stay in good health, rabbits need to gnaw on bulk foods, like fresh hay for many hours per day. A Rabbit's teeth grow continuously and chewing hay and herbs helps keep their teeth filed down so they don't get too large. 

The perfect diet for your bunny is composed of hay, herbs, fresh vegetables and some pellet food. Hay is the most important part of your rabbit's diet. Make hay available in unlimited quantity to your rabbit. Not only does chewing hay help keep a rabbit's teeth healthy, it also provides the majority of nutrients needed by your rabbit for good health. The best hay is going to be green in color and aromatic. Grass hay is better than alfalfa or clover hays. It's best to buy your hay at a local feed store, over what you can buy in a pet store, because the feed store hay will be most fresh and offer the most nutrients to your bunny. 

Your rabbits should also have access to pellets, but in limited amounts, because too much can cause obesity. Offer 1/8 to 1/4 cup pellets per five pounds of body weight. Feed half in the morning and half in the evening. Only feed your rabbits pellets that are packaged in sealed bags. Pellets that have been exposed to air and moisture could be less nutrient dense and run the risk of becoming contaminated with mold.

Be sure to offer fresh vegetables to your rabbits. The water content in celery and carrots is important to keeping bunnies guts hydrated, and these also give your rabbits something to chew on.

Finally, avoid all processed food such as crackers, bread and pasta, and of course all processed snacks. Your bunny doesn't need those! If you want to offer an occasional treat, slip your rabbit some fresh fruit like berries or apple.

Watering


Rabbits need to have constant access to water. The best option for watering your rabbits is a specific water bottle mounted to the wall of the cage or hutch. These bottles are generally equipped with sippy spouts on them. These are better than the standard bowl, because a bowl can become soiled with bedding and litter (which is just gross).

Breeding and mating


Seeing new adorable bunnies come to life and grow is a fantastic experience! However, before engaging in the breeding process, be sure you are ready to accommodate more guests. Providing for more food, cages and most importantly more attention and care, is not easy and requires planning.

Assuming you're ready for company, here's what you need to know about breeding. Rabbits attain sexual maturity at different ages depending on their size. That is, dwarf breeds are able to mate sooner than bigger breeds. 

Rabbits chosen for mating should be healthy, in excellent physical condition and free of any kind of genetic defects they could possibly pass on to their offspring. 

Another important characteristic that rabbit keepers should not neglect when thinking of breeding is the rabbit’s character and temperment. Character generally includes a genetic component, so the breeding rabbit should be docile and show a good temperament.


When a female is ready for mating, she is generally nervous and disturbed. She also will rub her chin against different objects. Her vulva turns red. These behaviors do not manifest simultaneously however, so you can decide to perform mating whenever you feel it is appropriate.

Place the female in the male’s cage as she is more possessive toward her own cage than he is. If you do the opposite, she may show clear signs of aggression. If mating is done in a neutral place, the male may get too busy exploring it and neglect the female's presence. After the intercourse, the male falls on one side and emits a little sound, and then it's over.

It's very important to record the mating date to be able to precisely calculate the expected date of parturition. This will allow you to quickly intervene in the case of any problems at the end of the pregnancy period.

On average, gestation lasts 30 days. A few days before parturition, make sure to put an easy opening, nesting box (for an average sized doe, a 15x10x10 inch box suits perfectly) with a raised lip. This will allow the doe to safely get in and out.

Health care precautions


When it comes to health issues, the majority of problems can be easily avoided if you take good care of your bunny. Some simple precautions will help you keep your pet in excellent heath.

As we said earlier, an appropriate diet can prevent the most common health problems such as constipation, enteritis, dental issues, and becoming overweight. Being overweight is the source of numerous problems. To stay healthy, rabbits need to be active. So do not let him just lay inside his cage for long hours per day. (See the section above for ideas on how to give your rabbit activity each day). If you notice that your rabbit puts on more and more weight, try to limit from his diet the most calorific foods, such as pellets.

In order to prevent a dangerous foot infection known as pododermatitis, the cage must be kept extremely clean, especially at the bottom which should be soft and dry. A filthy bottom predisposes the animal to pododermatitis.

Even if the bunny lives indoors, he should be regularly vaccinated against Myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic diseases (VHD). Vaccination is also a good opportunity to perform periodic complete medical checks.


If your bunny stops eating, or if he is sluggish, or if he is inactive or suffers from diarrhea, he is obviously ill. However, symptoms are not always that clear. Sometimes, they are difficult to notice and may need attentive observation. If you can notice them early, your veterinary can intervene quicker and chances of healing will be higher.

Conclusion


Pin this, please :-)


Whether you keep rabbits as pets or for meat, rabbits on the homestead can be a great first step in learning to keep small livestock. 


Let's chat: Why do you like to keep rabbits? I'd love to hear form you in the comments below!

About this guest author: Marvin Delany lives in Pennsylvania where animals are his lifelong passion. He's a veterinary medicine student and an author at FarmingStyle.


Joy--Fearless Farm Girl,


"Farm girl: it's a verb, because it's what you do."




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