Good animal welfare depends on three components:
- Physical well-being
- Mental well-being
- Natural living.
Welfare issues for rabbits
Rabbits are the fourth most farmed animal in the world and most are kept in barren environments, usually in cages. In the European Union the majority are housed in tiny wire cages within large sheds containing 500 to 1000 breeding does (females) and 10 to 20 thousand rabbits reared for meat. Although farmed rabbits are domesticated, they have the behaviours and motivations of their wild counterparts, and many of these are thwarted in intensive systems.
Currently there is no species-specific legislation protecting the welfare of farmed rabbits in the EU. A few countries within the EU (Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands) have species-specific requirements for rabbit farming but they produce only a very small percentage of rabbit meat farmed in the EU.
Inadequate space and cage height
Young rabbits reared for meat (referred to as “fattening rabbits”) are typically caged in groups with 450 to 600cm² space each in the EU; this is less than the area of an ordinary A4 sheet of paper. Adult breeding does are typically housed singly, in cages that are just 60 to 65cm long, 40 to 48cm wide and 30 to 35cm high.
Cages are simply not acceptable. With barely any space, rabbits cannot adopt normal postures such as lying stretched out, sitting and standing with their ears erect (species typical “look out” posture) or rearing up to explore their surroundings. They cannot move normally or comfortably, and some don’t even have enough space to perform a single hop. This is bad for their mental well-being, and the lack of exercise can also lead to weakened bones.
The majority of farmed rabbits are reared in barren environments, with just a drinker and feeder and a wire mesh floor. This does not allow for natural behaviours such as digging, hiding and foraging, and leads to abnormal behaviours such as over grooming and repetitive gnawing on the bars of the cage.
In the wild rabbits spend much of their time feeding on grass and other plants, eating lots of high-fibre roughage. In contrast, most farmed rabbits are fed a pellet-only diet which is eaten in a fraction of the time. This leads to boredom and frustration.
Unsuitable social environments
Rabbits are social animals and usually live in stable groups in the wild. Serious aggression is rare once a stable hierarchy has been established.
Fattening rabbits are usually housed in pairs or groups, but they are kept in very close confinement so are unable to move away from each other. This may be particularly stressful for rabbits as they get larger and have even less space, and when they start to reach sexual maturity they can become more aggressive.
Breeding rabbits are usually kept in individual cages. This denies them opportunity for natural social behaviours, such as grooming. However, the rabbits are kept right next to each other in the cages, which also stops them from being able to move away from each other. In the wild, females keep their young in isolated nests, far away from the rest of the group, so this close proximity to other females is likely to be very stressful to them.
Singly housed rabbits show more abnormal stereotypical behaviour, such as over grooming and gnawing at the bars of their cage, than those housed in groups. Breeding rabbits can be housed successfully in groups if they are given sufficient space and adequate nesting facilities to avoid aggression problems.
Injuries and disease
The mortality rates for commercially farmed rabbits are very high. Typically, 100 - 120% of breeding does die or are culled and replaced each year, and 15 to 30% of fattening rabbits die before slaughter (which happens at 8-12 weeks old). Respiratory and intestinal diseases are the main reason for such high mortalities and cause acute pain.
Rabbit cages are made of wire and sometimes have metal sheet sides. The floor is often made entirely from bare wire, which is uncomfortable to stand on. Breeding male and females kept on bare wire often develop sores on their footpads and hocks. These sores can cause chronic pain and are a common reason for culling.
Does are commonly given hormone treatments to control their reproductive cycles and get them ready to breed at the same time. They are artificially inseminated within 11 days (on average) after giving birth to their last litter, and have been bred to produce larger litters. Their bodies are put under huge strain from this intensive reproduction cycle. It can lead to loss of body condition, metabolic diseases, and increase the risk of spinal deformities.
In the EU commercially slaughtered rabbits are usually electrically stunned before slaughter. Research has shown that rabbits may be frequently incorrectly stunned. Rabbits are hung individually upside down for the electrical stunning which is stressful and may cause pain and/or injury if their weight is not supported properly. This is a particular problem for larger rabbits.
There are alternatives to farming rabbits in cages, which can improve the welfare of farmed rabbits.
Higher welfare alternatives for rabbits
In some countries there are alternatives to barren-cage farming of rabbits, which can improve the welfare of farmed rabbits. However, there are still problems associated with these systems, as it is intensive production and research is ongoing.
There is national legislation setting minimum standards for rabbits in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In these countries, barren cages are banned for fattening rabbits and breeding does. In Belgium, ‘enriched’ cages are also banned for fattening rabbits and will be banned for breeding does from 2021, and pen systems are the minimum standard.
Pen systems for groups allow the rabbits more space, social interaction and tend to have enrichment such as hay and a gnawing stick. Giving the rabbits something to gnaw on can help reduce ear lesions caused by aggressive behaviour, and hay aids digestion and provides forage. These can help to occupy the rabbits and reduce stereotypical behaviour.
Growing rabbits and does (adult females) kept in pen systems get more space for movement, social interaction and play (typically 750cm²/ rabbit for growers and 800cm²/ rabbit for does) than those kept in cages. Platforms in pen systems allow rabbits to avoid aggressors by getting out of the way, and also provide a hiding place underneath. Does may be housed separately when they are nursing a litter. Male rabbits over 12 weeks are kept for breeding and are housed singly in all systems due to problems of aggression.
In organic production systems, rabbits are kept in group pens with access to a small area of pasture at the base of the pen. In France, where organic rabbit production is limited to a dozen farms, organic rabbits are kept free-range in a large outdoor enclosure or in outdoor mobile runs.