Some of these mistakes are deadly. In fact, the top 5 are all life threatening mistakes that folks I have chatted with or sold rabbits to have experienced. I hope this post will help save some rabbit lives and prevent heartaches.
Caveat: I have only been raising rabbits for 6 years, but these are all COMMON mistakes that I have heard first hand stories about from folks we sell rabbits to, talk to at shows, or interact with at 4H.
1. Under watering
Rabbits need access to clean water all the time. I sold a sweet buck to a family that said that they had some experience with rabbits. A week later I was getting angry messages about how quickly the rabbit had declined and died. After a little discussion we figured out that the most likely scenario was a water bottle failure.
Standard cage water bottles, the kind with the little metal ball nipple, are not very reliable. We still use them. We check them every night to make sure they are not just “full” but that the ball is rolling loosely and water drips out when you press the ball. Sometimes they drip and don’t stop until they are empty. At least then you know to refill the bottle. Other times the ball does not spring into place and gets stuck in the tube (pressurized) so the rabbit has a full water bottle, but cannot get anything out of it.
Biggest giveaway that there is something amiss with a rabbit’s waterer? They haven’t touched their food for a day or two.
2. Over feeding and dangerous treats
The first thing I tell anyone buying a young (8-12 week old) rabbit from me is not to feed it ANY greens or veggies. Rabbits under 4 months old should not be given any treats other than rolled oats, in my opinion. Just hay and pellets. I know some folks put grow-outs in rabbit tractors on grass starting at 8 weeks old. I don’t have any experience with that, but the Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits does not recommend feeding greens before 4 months.
Diarrheal diseases are extremely dangerous for rabbits. They have a fragile digestive system, especially compared with chickens (aka. farm composters). In case your rabbit currently has diarrhea, remove all food except hay (regular timothy hay). Rabbits usually recover quickly when given good hay and plenty of clean water for several days.
Over feeding is something that I am frequently guilty of myself. It’s hard to limit a rabbit to the proper 1/2-3/4 of a cup (for a 10 lbs Silver Fox) when you see them diving into their feeder each evening. The recipe and composition of rabbit pellets has been developed over a long time and provides rabbits with a wonderfully balanced diet.
Breeding is much more difficult with overweight bunnies. In general, a chubby doe will just refuse to mate.
3. Putting a buck into a doe’s cage for breeding
A seemingly kind and caring lady came to me recently for a new buck. We got to talking about what happened to her old buck. She told me that her doe was extremely feisty and had scratched him up pretty badly. She did not see the wounds on his belly until they were infected and he had to be put down. I asked her whether she might have accidentally put him in the doe’s cage. She was unaware that it mattered!! Poor buck.
Rabbits, especially does, are quite territorial in a small space. ALWAYS bring the doe to the buck’s cage for mating. Or put them both in neutral, new to them territory. I call one of our hoop houses “the honeymoon suite”. It’s neutral territory and there is room to run around and some boxes for hiding in. It helps with breeding uninterested does (bucks are always interested) to leave them together in a large space for a few days.
4. Exposure to heat or drafts
Our rabbit hoop houses were meant to be temporary… Anyone reading this probably knows how farm projects are never ending and we have yet to build our formal rabbitry.
Temporary though they be, they meet all of the most essential rabbit housing needs. We can close up the back like a covered wagon when conditions are windy or especially cold. They keep the rabbits out of drafts, but allow air to circulate freely. They also provide essential shade in the heat of summer. We set them up just inside the tree line so that the rabbits also have natural shade. I always tell new rabbit owners not to worry much about cold, but be vigilant if temperatures are hot, 85F or hotter. In addition to shade, we provide our bunnies with ice blocks (made with freezer jam containers filled with tap water) to lick and lay next to when the weather is hot.
5. Failure to Revive Cold Coma Kits
As our dear 4H veterinarian said, “only warm kits can be pronounced dead”. Meaning that rabbit kits, who for various reasons become chilled at birth, go into a coma. If they are found and warmed up soon enough they will awaken and be fine healthy kits. I try to pass on this information to anyone and everyone that visits our rabbitry. New rabbit mamas sometimes have trouble knowing where and how to build a nest. Newborn kits need to be together in a warm furry nest to keep warm. Otherwise, they will blindly crawl forward until they exhaust themselves or get too cold trying to find the nest.
I try to check on first time mama rabbits every couple hours on their due dates –especially if it’s cold outside. Silver Fox are very good mamas, but about 30% of the time a new mama will get confused or not like the nest box and pull fur and deliver her kits in another corner of the cage. If you catch that in time, you can just scoop them up and put them right in the nest box without any cold coma babies. Otherwise, they can fall through the wires and then I have to search around the floor of the hoop house or barn for them.
If you find cold rabbit kits there are several ways to warm them up. My rabbit mentor told me to “pop ’em in my bra” for rewarming. Hehehe. An incubator, warming lamp, chick warmer plate, and warm lap have also all worked for us.
6. Damp conditions and wooden enclosures
I am always distraught by the types of housing that come up as “rabbit hutches” in a Google search. Many of them are sold by reputable stores, like Tractor Supply. Most of them are constructed of wood and lack ventilation to boot. Rabbit urine is potent and will quickly rot anything made of wood. Does tend to choose a favorite corner and pee in the same spot over and over again. It’s enough to rust and make holes in galvanized metal eventually. Wood disintegrates even faster. Bucks tend to spray urine every which way. Damp wood breeds bacteria, can harbor diseases, and is extremely difficult to clean. Rabbits need to chew to keep their teeth healthy. They’ll chew anything wooden that they can sink their teeth into. Here’s an example of how rabbit urine effects a mixed wood and hardware cloth enclosure:
Galvanized metal cages are best for rabbits. They allow good ventilation. Droppings and urine fall through the floor so that they rabbits are never standing on piles of their own manure. Rabbits have a lot of foot padding and do well in properly sized metal cages. You can also buy “foot saver” mats for a small resting area within the cage.
Rabbit tractors can also work well if they are carefully moved to fresh grass each day. Otherwise, rabbits on grass are more likely to have high parasite loads.
Reputable places to shop for rabbit cages include:
These are expensive cages that are built to last. Look for “galvanized after welding” to ensure maximum rust resistance.
I frequently buy inexpensive 24 inch cage kits from Dumor at Tractor Supply. They are a great quick solution and can be stacked. They do not last very long though, and I have replaced the bottoms and done rust proofing/repainting work on them after only 3 years. If you need a versatile set-up or are not sure that you’ll continue raising rabbits long term, those are a good starting place.
7. Buying mutts or low quality brood stock
The first farm that we visited when exploring the idea of raising meat rabbits had high quality pedigreed Silver Fox rabbits. I asked them about this since their main focus was on raising rabbits for meat. It seemed a silly thing to worry about when mixed breed rabbits might produce just as well. The answer that farmer gave has been repeated to me by many others since then. Good breeding stock saves a lot of time, heart ache, and headache. Starting with good genes means that you know what to expect. Hundreds of generations have been bred to achieve mostly consistent results and mostly excellent traits. One of those traits in meat rabbits is excellent mothering skills, another is ability to gain weight. Both key traits for breeding meat rabbits. Good Silver Fox rabbit stock excels at both of these and those that occasionally don’t meet this breed standard are (or should be) culled. Gratefully, someone told me this before I started rabbit raising and I do not have any personal experience with mixing breeds or starting with poor genes.