Housing of Rabbits
A rabbit hutch placed in the back yard, basement, or garage has been and continues to be traditional housing for rabbits. The hutch should be conveniently accessed for proper care of the rabbit, because diseases of neglect are common in rabbits abandoned in a hutch at the back of the yard. Care must be taken to prevent the hutch from being exposed to severe heat, because rabbits are prone to heat stroke. The flooring of the hutch should be covered with some type of soft padding to provide a comfortable resting spot. Sore hocks can lead to more problems if the rabbits are housed on wire or wooden flooring for long periods. Keeping the area around the hutch clean is important to avoid a large population of flies, which often lead to fly strike (myiasis) that is often fatal. There should be adequate ventilation and protection from dogs or other predators such as raccoons.
In the natural setting, rabbits use a latrine system. This behavior can easily be exploited by providing a litter box. Rabbits usually readily accept a litterbox with little training. Rabbits have continuously growing teeth and need to chew on things to appropriately wear down the teeth. If no appropriate food material that requires significant chewing efforts (eg, hay) is offered, rabbits are likely to gnaw on various objects in the environment, such as furniture, curtains, carpeting, or electrical wiring, which is dangerous for the rabbit and creates a fire hazard. Rabbits should be confined to safe quarters when unsupervised.
Rabbits can gnaw, and caging should be constructed of durable materials. Cages should be easily sanitized and allow easy cleaning. All-wire cages with a minimum of 12-gauge wire (16-gauge recommended for cage floor to support the weight of the rabbit) are preferred. Aquariums are not appropriate housing for rabbits (or other small mammals) because of inadequate air circulation. The size of the cage depends on the size of the rabbit. Giant breeds (>12 lb) require a minimum of 30 × 36 in. to 36 × 48 in. Medium breeds (7–12 lb) require 24 × 30 in. to 30 × 36 in. Smaller breeds can be accommodated by 18 × 24 in. The cage should be tall enough to allow the rabbit to stand on its hindlimbs. The cage should be equipped with a feed hopper and a watering system. Feed hoppers are best constructed of sheet metal with holes or a screen in the bottom for removal of “fines” (small, broken feed particles). Rabbits drink more than other animals of similar size, and they should be offered ad lib potable water. Rabbits will consume significantly more water when water is offered from a dish versus a sipper bottle. Rabbits often chew on the watering valve and may eventually destroy it unless it is made of stainless steel or has a stainless centerpiece. If a water dish cannot be offered, water bottles with sipper tubes are a good alternative. However, food dishes are easily contaminated and should be washed and disinfected daily. A barren cage is inadequate; the cage environment should be enriched (eg, cage furniture, toys) to provide stimulation. Optimally, rabbits should be given run time outside of the cage daily.
Nest boxes should be constructed so that they can be easily placed in the cage and later removed for cleaning and disinfecting between litters. Disinfecting the nest box after cleaning and again just before placing it in the cage helps reduce incidence of disease. The box should be large enough to prevent crowding but small enough to keep the kits warm. A standard size nest box for medium-sized rabbits is 16 × 10 × 8 in. Wooden, metal, or plastic nest boxes with nesting material (eg, straw, hardwood shavings, CareFresh® bedding) serve well in either warm or cold weather. Rough edges such as splintering wood should be avoided, because they contribute to mastitis when does hop in and out of the nest box.
Pens should have a nonslip floor and may be bedded with straw or shredded paper covered with straw or hay to increase absorbency. Shavings or sawdust are not the best, because the scent is too powerful. Pen sides should be at least 4 ft high or high enough to allow the rabbit to stand erect on the hindlimbs.
When setting up group housing, compatibility is a major factor. Personalities should be evaluated for docility and aggressiveness. Strain influences personality. Rabbits that have grown up together are best, although adults may be so aggressive toward each other that serious fights occur. Neutering will improve compatibility. A period of adjacent proximity is prudent before group housing rabbits. Another factor to consider is stocking density. Floor space recommendations vary from 3.5 to 10 sq ft/rabbit to allow territory establishment. Others recommend 3.5 hop lengths per rabbit as a general rule. Regardless, group-housed rabbits should be provided escape and hiding places and should be frequently monitored.
Housing requirements for rabbits depend on climate. Minimal housing (an A-frame roof without sides) can be used in moderate climates, whereas a climate-controlled rabbitry may be necessary in hot or cold climates. Rabbitries should be located on nearly level ground and use well-drained soil or tile-drained pits for manure. Shade should be provided over as much of the rabbitry as possible. Rabbits are prone to heat stress. Although rabbits tolerate subzero temperatures when provided proper shelter, the optimal rabbit environment is 61°–72°F. Increased humidity levels should also be avoided, because they will increase the likelihood of heat stress and potentially dermatopathies. Good ventilation at all times is imperative.
Cleaning frequency depends of the type of facility or caging system. Rabbits typically choose a preferred latrine site, such as a corner of the cage. This normal behavior can be exploited during litterbox training. A strategically placed litterbox is readily accepted by most pet rabbits. Sanitation is especially important in rabbit production. Poor sanitation leads to disease and deaths; therefore, cleaning and sanitizing must be constant. Nest boxes must be disinfected between uses. Cages, feeders, and watering equipment should be sanitized periodically with an effective and inexpensive sanitizing solution such as diluted household chlorine bleach (1 oz/1 quart water) or other less corrosive disinfectants. Complete cleaning should be performed before housing new stock.
An active rabbitry constantly experiences a loose hair problem. Does pull hair from their bodies to make nests, and some of this hair becomes airborne. It sticks to almost any surface, including cages, ceilings, and lights, and must be removed periodically. The most effective ways to remove hair from cages are washing or using a propane torch or flame. Washing, brushing, sweeping, and vacuuming also are effective in other parts of the rabbitry. Pens or wire-floored cages should be brushed or hosed every 2 wk. An acid wash may be required to descale rabbit urine from solid floor pans.
Frequent manure removal is essential. Excess manure leads to unacceptable levels of ammonia in the air, which predisposes to respiratory disease. The manure can be composted in an efficient pit system.