Impact of rearing mangement on health in domestic rabbits: a review

Wolfgang Schlolaut, Robyn Hudson, Heiko Rödel


High mortality in rabbit rearing is not only an economical problem but also an animal welfare issue.  Without doubt, certain common rearing practices are the main reasons for the high mortality rates.  In this review, we point out different and commonly used management practices, which neither represent adequate housing conditions for the animals’ behavioural requirements nor correspond to their nutritional needs, and discuss possibilities to reduce the risk of disease. (1)  Usually the doe is forced to build the nursery nest in the cage or in a box with a permanently open entrance, often not protected from the light.  This can lead to perinatal mortality due to disturbed maternal behaviour, such as failure to build a proper nest, depositing the kits outside the nest, or infanticide. (2)  Continuous housing of the doe with the kits does not conform to this species’ pattern of unusually limited maternal care. Stimulated by olfactory and acoustic signals emanating from the nest, the doe disturbs the inactivity of the kits by her frequent entries to the nest or attempts to close the entrance. Cooling of the kits caused by maladaptive maternal behaviour under such unnatural conditions is one of the most important causes of mortality and morbidity during the nursing period. (3)  When the doe is left to nurse the kits for longer than four weeks, which does not conform to the reproductive biology of the rabbit, kit morbidity is caused by the following factors: (a) Prolonged mother-offspring contact increases the risk of the kits becoming infected with pathogens such as coccidiosis, EPEC and pasteurellosis persisting in the doe. (b) Pre-disposition of the kits to bacterial enteropathies is encouraged by the retarded development of the enzymatic system, delayed establishment of a stable gut flora (due to the use of wood shavings or straw as nest material) and by consumption of the doe’s feed. (c) The increased energy demands of lactation as well as mastitis due to excessive and prolonged suckling by the kits decrease the fertility and the lifespan of the doe. (4)   Feed with a high non-fibre carbohydrate content (compared to green forage) promotes bacterial enteropathies when given before the development of the kits’ digestive functions is completed.  In addition, the risk of the outbreak of such diseases is enhanced by intestinal coccidiosis and unstable gut flora. (5)  In contrast to housing rabbits on perforated floors, the use of cages with deep litter increases the risk of enteropathies.


animal welfare; digestive disorders; maternal behaviour; early weaning; housing conditions;

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