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Code Development Process
Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Rabbits
| PDF |
ISBN 978-1-988793-12-2 (book)
ISBN 978-1-988793-13-9 (electronic book text)
Syndicat des producteurs de lapins du Québec
555, Roland-Terrien Blvd., suite 100, Longueuil, Québec J4H 3Y9
Telephone: 450-679-0540 ext. # 8957
Alberta Rabbit Producers Association
For information on the Code of Practice development process contact:
Also available in French
© Copyright is jointly held by the Syndicat des producteurs de lapins du Québec and the National Farm Animal Care Council (2018)
This publication may be reproduced for personal or internal use provided that its source is fully acknowledged. However, multiple copy reproduction of this publication in whole or in part for any purpose (including but not limited to resale or redistribution) requires the kind permission of the National Farm Animal Care Council (see www.nfacc.ca for contact information).
Funding for this project has been provided through the AgriMarketing Program under Growing Forward 2, a federal–provincial–territorial initiative.
Information contained in this publication is subject to periodic review in light of changing practices, government requirements and regulations. No subscriber or reader should act on the basis of any such information without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without seeking appropriate professional advice. Although every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, the authors shall not be held responsible for loss or damage caused by errors, omissions, misprints or misinterpretation of the contents hereof. Furthermore, the authors expressly disclaim all and any liability to any person, whether the purchaser of the publication or not, in respect of anything done or omitted, by any such person in reliance on the contents of this publication.
Table of Contents
|Section 1 Housing and Equipment|
|1.1.1||Facility Design and Maintenance|
|1.1.4||Reproductive Does and Nursing Kits|
|1.3||Flooring and Bedding|
|1.4||Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity|
|1.7||Additional Considerations for Outdoor Systems|
|Section 2 Feed and Water|
|2.1||Nutritional Needs of Rabbits and Feeding Behaviour|
|2.2.2||Does and Newborn Kits|
|2.4||Feeding and Watering Equipment|
|Section 3 Health Management|
|3.1||Rabbitry Health Planning|
|3.1.2||Cleaning, Sanitation, and Disinfection|
|3.2||Monitoring Rabbit Health and Welfare|
|3.3||Managing Sick or Injured Rabbits|
|Section 4 Reproductive Management|
|4.2||Evaluating Fitness for Breeding|
|4.4||Care of Kits|
|Section 5 Husbandry Practices|
|5.1||Stockmanship Skills Related to Animal Welfare|
|5.2||Handling and On-Farm Movement of Rabbits|
|5.2.1||Methods of Restraint|
|5.6||Grooming of Long-Haired Breeds|
|Section 6 Preparation for Transport|
|6.1||Evaluating Fitness for Transport|
|6.3||Feed and Water Pre-Loading|
|6.4||Loading for Transport|
|Section 7 Euthanasia|
|7.1||Decision-Making Around Euthanasia|
|7.2||Methods of Euthanasia|
|7.3||Confirmation of Insensibility and Death|
|Appendix A||- Sample Emergency Contact List|
|Appendix B||- Body Condition Scoring|
|Appendix C||- On-Farm Euthanasia Decision-Making for Commercial Meat Rabbits|
|Appendix D||- Humane Handling and Restraint of Commercial Meat Rabbits|
|Appendix E||- Should This Rabbit Be Loaded?|
|Appendix F||- Sample Euthanasia Decision Tree|
|Appendix G||- Methods of On-Farm Euthanasia|
|Appendix H||- Resources for Further Information|
|Appendix I||- Participants|
The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) Code development process was followed in the development of this Code of Practice. The Codes of Practice are nationally developed guidelines for the care and handling of farm animals. They serve as our national understanding of animal care requirements and recommended practices. Codes promote sound management and welfare practices for housing, care, transportation, and other animal husbandry practices.
Codes of Practice have been developed for virtually all farmed animal species in Canada. NFACC’s website provides access to all currently available Codes (www.nfacc.ca).
The NFACC Code development process aims to:
- link Codes with science
- ensure transparency in the process
- include broad representation from stakeholders
- contribute to improvements in farm animal care
- identify research priorities and encourage work in these priority areas
- write clearly to ensure ease of reading, understanding and implementation
- provide a document that is useful for all stakeholders.
The Codes of Practice are the result of a rigorous Code development process, taking into account the best science available for each species, compiled through an independent peer-reviewed process, along with stakeholder input. The Code Development process also takes into account the practical requirements for each species necessary to promote consistent application across Canada and ensure uptake by stakeholders resulting in beneficial animal outcomes. Given their broad use by numerous parties in Canada today, it is important for all to understand how they are intended to be interpreted.
Requirements - These refer to either a regulatory requirement or an industry imposed expectation outlining acceptable and unacceptable practices and are fundamental obligations relating to the care of animals. Requirements represent a consensus position that these measures, at minimum, are to be implemented by all persons responsible for farm animal care. When included as part of an assessment program, those who fail to implement Requirements may be compelled by industry associations to undertake corrective measures or risk a loss of market options. Requirements also may be enforceable under federal and provincial regulation.
Recommended Practices -Code Recommended Practices may complement a Code’s Requirements, promote producer education, and can encourage adoption of practices for continual improvement in animal welfare outcomes. Recommended Practices are those that are generally expected to enhance animal welfare outcomes, but failure to implement them does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not met.
Broad representation and expertise on each Code Development Committee ensures collaborative Code development. Stakeholder commitment is key to ensure quality animal care standards are established and implemented.
This Code represents a consensus amongst diverse stakeholder groups. Consensus results in a decision that everyone agrees advances animal welfare but does not imply unanimous endorsement of every aspect of the Code. Codes play a central role in Canada’s farm animal welfare system as part of a process of continual improvement. As a result, they need to be reviewed and updated regularly. Codes should be reviewed at least every five years following publication and updated at least every ten years.
A key feature of NFACC’s Code development process is the Scientific Committee. It is widely accepted that animal welfare codes, guidelines, standards, or legislation should take advantage of the best available research. A Scientific Committee review of priority animal welfare issues for the species being addressed provided valuable information to the Code Development Committee in developing this Code of Practice.
The Scientific Committee report is peer reviewed and publicly available, enhancing the transparency and credibility of the Code.
The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Rabbits: Review of scientific research on priority issues developed by the poultry Code of Practice Scientific Committee is available on NFACC’s website (www.nfacc.ca).
As a nationally developed standard for farmed rabbits, this Code of Practice is the first of its kind in Canada. The Code aims to provide feasible and scientifically informed approaches to meeting rabbit health and welfare needs contributing to a sustainable and internationally competitive Canadian rabbit industry.
The care and management provided by the person(s) responsible for the daily care of rabbits has a significant influence on their welfare. Those responsible for rabbits should consider the following key aspects of responsible rabbit care:
- shelter and comfort
- feed and water to maintain health and vigour
- social needs of rabbits
- humane handling
- disease prevention and control
- veterinary care, diagnosis, and treatment
- timely euthanasia of any rabbit that is not responding to treatment or that is experiencing unrelieved pain
- emergency preparedness.
Requirements in this Code are often outcome- or animal-based, as these are most directly linked to animal welfare, and can be applied in a wide range of production systems. Since Requirements often state the necessary outcomes, the producer has flexibility to determine how the outcomes can be achieved using individual management and husbandry practices. Recommended Practices encourage continuous improvement in animal care. However, failure to implement Recommended Practices does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not being met.
The scope of this Code is on-farm. It is focused on rabbits raised for meat and consideration has also been given to rabbits kept for show, breeding, and fibre. The rabbit Code includes important pre-transport considerations but does not address animal care during transport. Consult the Code of Practice – Transportation for information on animal care during transport.
The rabbit Code is not intended to describe all production and management practices relevant to each stage of production. Anyone building or modifying a facility or assuming management of an existing rabbitry will need to be familiar with local, provincial/territorial, and federal requirements for construction, land use, environmental management, deadstock disposal, and other areas outside the scope of this document. Individuals requiring further details than what can appropriately be included in this Code should refer to universities, agricultural ministries, and other resources (see Appendix H – Resources for Further Information).
Ad libitum: allowing rabbits to eat as much as they want when they want (free choice).
All-in/all-out: a production strategy whereby all rabbits are moved into and out of facilities or production phases at the same time.
Ambient temperature: the environmental temperature in the rabbit’s immediate surroundings.(Contrast with “Effective environmental temperature.”)
Ammonia: a noxious gas common in animal production that forms during the breakdown of nitrogenous wastes in manure and urine.
Analgesia: relief from pain typically provided by a medication.
Artificial insemination: mechanical means of inserting previously collected semen into sexually mature does.
Balanced diet: a diet or ration of feed that has all the known required nutrients in the proper amount.
Biofilm: a thin, impenetrable film of bacteria and mucus-like material that may adhere to a surface unless properly cleaned.
Breed-back schedule: the interval of time after kindling when the doe is re-bred.
Cages: housing systems that are typically made of wire mesh or plastic coated wire and raised off the ground.
Cecotrophs: a soft type of feces produced and consumed by rabbits and that are an important source of protein, micronutrients, and B vitamins. Cecotrophy in rabbits does not occur as a response to a nutritional imbalance; it represents a normal but specialized digestive strategy.
Clean: the process of removing visible debris, dirt, and dust. (Contrast with “Disinfect” and “Sanitize.”)
Competent: demonstrated skill or knowledge in a particular topic, practice, or process that has been developed through training, experience, and/or mentorship.
Compromised animal: in the context of transport, an animal with reduced capacity to withstand the stress of transportation but for which transportation with special provisions will not lead to undue suffering (1). (Contrast with “Fit animal” and “Unfit animal.”)
Continual: happening frequently with intervals in between.
Controlled feeding: a feeding strategy that involves managing when rabbits have access to feed in a day. (Contrast with “Restricted feeding.”)
Controlled nursing: a management strategythat involves restricting the doe’s access to the litter to manage when the doe nurses and how often she accesses the nest box.
Corrective action: action taken by a producer to eliminate the cause(s) of nonconformity or other undesirable situations and to prevent recurrence (2). Corrective actions relate to aspects of animal care or welfare that a producer can control; the action taken needs to be directed at effectively addressing a given issue. (Contrast with “Reasonable steps.”)
Culling: the process of removing rabbits from production based on specific criteria.
Disinfect: the process of cleaning equipment and facilities in ways that completely and effectively destroy disease-carrying microorganisms.(Contrast with “Clean” and “Sanitize.”)
Distress: stress beyond what would be deemed normal for a given situation. Some signs of distress may include difficulty breathing/open-mouth breathing or gasping, purple discolouration of the ears, high body temperature, reluctance to move (no other visible abnormalities), inability to rise, and trembling.
Effective environmental temperature: the temperature that rabbits actually feel. The effective environmental temperature may differ by several degrees from that measured in the overall barn. (Contrast with “Ambient temperature.”)
Enteritis: inflammation of the intestine, usually accompanied by diarrhea and reduced intake of feed and water.
Euthanasia: ending of the life of an individual animal in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress (3). It is characterized by rapid, irreversible unconsciousness (insensibility), followed by prompt death (4).
Fit animal: inthe context of transport, an animal that is able to withstand the stress of transportation without experiencing suffering and expected to arrive at its final destination in good condition. (Contrast with “Compromised animal” and “Unfit animal.”)
Growing rabbits: rabbits from weaning to finishing.
Herbivore: an animal that feeds on plants.
Incidence: the number of new cases of a disease or condition over a specific period of time. (Contrast with “Prevalence.”)
Ketosis: a condition characterized by increased levels of ketone bodies in the body associated with increased fat metabolism. Affected rabbits may be depressed and reluctant to move. In does, ketosis usually occurs in the last week of gestation.
Kindling: the act or process of giving birth to kits. Also referred to as “parturition.”
Kits: young rabbits from birth to weaning.
Lairage: holding animals for transport in containers.
Lux: a standardized unit of measurement for the intensity of light, as perceived by the human eye.
Metritis: inflammation of the uterus.
Milk spot: a white spot visible through the side of a neonatal kit that correlates with milk in their stomach.
Multiparous does: does that have experienced 1 or more previous kindling(s).
Natural breeding: allowing a doe and buck to mate naturally while still controlling the timing of breeding and providing supervision to minimize the risk of injury.
Neonates: kits that are less than 10 days of age.
Olfactory: of or relating to the sense of smell.
Parity: the number of times a doe has kindled.
Pasteurellosis: a bacterial infection caused by Pasteurella multocida that involves the respiratory and other body systems.
Pelleted diet: feed components that are processed and compressed into pellets of a standardized shape and size. A pelleted diet is a reliable way of providing a balanced and complete diet.
Pens: housing systems that are generally larger than cages and located on the floor.
Pododermatitis: a painful condition involving the lower hind limbs of rabbits. If untreated, pododermatitis may lead to deep-seated infection and compromise animal movement. (Also known as “sore hocks.”)
Prevalence: the number of cases of a disease or condition (new and ongoing) at one point in time. (Contrast with “Incidence.”)
Primiparous does: does that are kindling for the first time. (Also referred to as “first-parity does.”)
Quick: live tissue in the centre of rabbits’ nails that contains blood vessels and nerves.
Ration: the total amount of feed that is provided.
Reasonable steps: steps taken by a producer to try to mitigate an issue that is not fully under a producer’s control (e.g. weather, transport time). (Contrast with “Corrective action.”
Replacement rabbits: rabbitsthat arekept on the farm to replace rabbits in the breeding herd. Bucks between 12–16 weeks of age are referred to as replacement bucks. Does between 5–18 weeks of age are referred to as replacement does.
Restricted feeding: feeding a quantity of feed that is less than full feeding/ad libitum quantity to prevent over-conditioning and avoid digestive disorders. Certain conditions, such as obesity, may also warrant short-term restricted feeding in rabbits. (Contrast with “Controlled feeding.”)
Salinity: the saltiness or dissolved salt content of water, for example.
Sanitize: the process of making a surface sanitary or free of visible dirt contaminants that could affect rabbits. Sanitizing is typically done using hot water and/or soap and is meant to reduce (not eliminate) the occurrence and growth of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. (Contrast with “Clean” and “Disinfect.”
Stereotypies: abnormal behaviours that serve no apparent function and are performed by rabbits in a repetitive, invariant way (e.g. wire biting, pacing, weaving, excessive grooming).
Topical anesthesia: a substance that, applied directly on the rabbit’s skin, will induce a temporary loss of feeling or pain sensation on the area to which it is applied.
Unconsciousness: the point at which a rabbit no longer has the ability to feel pain or perceive and respond to its environment (e.g. light, sound).
Unfit animal: in the context of transport, an animal with reduced capacity to withstand transportation and for which there is a high risk that transportation will lead to undue suffering (1). Unfit animals must not be transported except for diagnosis or treatment on the advice of a veterinarian. (Contrast with “Compromised animal” and “Fit animal.”)
Veterinarian-client-patient relationship: the basis for interaction among veterinarians, their clients, and their clients’ animals. Generally, a veterinarian-client-patient relationship has been established when the veterinarian has examined the animals or visited the farm; the veterinarian has assumed responsibility for making clinical judgments related to the health of the animals; and the client has indicated a willingness to follow the veterinarian’s instructions. Although the specific regulations vary among provinces, in order for veterinarians to prescribe some classes of medications a veterinarian-client-patient relationship must first be established.
Vigour: describes a rabbit that has physical strength and liveliness and that is alert and thriving.
1.1 Housing Systems
1.1.1 Facility Design and Maintenance
Facility design and maintenance significantly impact rabbit health and welfare. Rabbits on most commercial farms are housed in cages that are raised off the ground and typically made of wire mesh. Pens are an alternative system that are generally larger than cages. All housing types should promote good handling, monitoring, and care of rabbits.
Housing systems need to provide a comfortable environment for rabbits through appropriate space allowance, ventilation, and temperature. Routine maintenance of facilities and timely replacement of cages/pens before their condition deteriorates help prevent rabbits from becoming injured.
Housing systems and their components must be designed, constructed, and maintained in a manner that minimizes the potential for injury and permits observation of all rabbits.
- develop and follow a schedule for facility maintenance
- consult an agricultural engineer or other qualified specialist when building a new facility or renovating an existing one.
1.1.2 Space Allowance
Rabbits’ use of space depends on ambient temperature, group size, and various characteristics of the enclosure (e.g. platform) (5). Space allowance affects a rabbit’s ability to perform behaviours important to the species (e.g. grooming, hopping, jumping), and to adopt normal resting postures (ventral and lateral) and sitting postures (sitting upright or with all 4 legs on the ground) (5,6).
Rabbits appear to prefer higher cage heights during their active period and will hop and stand fully upright when provided with sufficient cage height (6). Providing an area within the cage/pen with a minimum height of 40.6 cm (16 in) promotes the expression of natural behaviour and reduces the risk of ear lesions (6). Growing rabbits, at any stocking density, appear to prefer enclosures with a top (rather than no top) (6).
Increased floor space per rabbit results in improved bone quality by allowing more weight-bearing activity, such as walking and hopping (6). Overcrowding can result in reduced feed intake and increased aggression and associated injuries (e.g. scratches, leg injuries, tail injuries) (6). A stocking density at or below 40 kg/m² (8.2 lb/ft²)has been recommended (7).
The Canadian rabbit industry and other stakeholders understand the need for further research and innovation into feasible housing systems designed to accommodate rabbit behaviour and movement in all stages of production.
1. As of the publishing of this Code, all cages/pens that are newly built, substantially renovated, or brought into use for the first time must meet or exceed the Requirements in Table 1 and permit:
Table 1 a
a The minimum space allowances in Table 1 refer to medium-sized rabbits (e.g. New Zealand white). If raising larger or smaller rabbits, space allowances will need to be adjusted relative to body size while still ensuring compliance with all other relevant Requirements.
b Cages with sloped tops must provide an area of at least 20% of the total floor space that meets the minimum heights outlined in Table 1.
c The area that can be used by rabbits, including a platform (if applicable) but excluding the nest box. For doe enclosures with the nest box inside the cage, floor space depends on kit age because the nest box occupies space until it is removed when kits are approximately 21 days of age.
2(a). Existing cages/pens must meet or exceed the Requirements in Table 2 and permit
2(b). Existing cages/pens must also meet the following Requirements: d
Table 2 e
d The thresholds in 2(b) are based on data in reference 6.
e The minimum space allowances in Table 2 refer to medium-sized rabbits (e.g. New Zealand white). If raising larger or smaller rabbits, space allowances will need to be adjusted relative to body size while still ensuring compliance with all other relevant Requirements.
f Cages with sloped tops must provide an area of at least 20% of the total floor space that meets the minimum heights outlined in Table 2.
g The area that can be used by rabbits, including a platform (if applicable) but excluding the nest box. For doe enclosures with the nest box inside the cage, floor space depends on kit age because the nest box occupies space until it is removed when kits are approximately 21 days of age.
Effective August 1, 2018, cages/pens that do not meet or exceed the Requirements in 2(a) and (b) must be replaced or modified in accordance with the Requirements outlined in 1.
Effective January 1, 2023, stocking density for all growing rabbits must comply with Table 1.
Effective January 1, 2038, all cages/pens must meet or exceed the Requirements outlined in 1.
- ensure, at a minimum, a 10% reduction in stocking density in advance of periods of high ambient temperatures (7)
- for open-top enclosures (i.e. no top or roof), provide refinements that offer rabbits overhead cover (refer to Section 1.2 – Environmental Refinements)
- for enclosures with a platform, ensure the height of the platform enables rabbits to easily access the platform and retreat below the platform (e.g. 24 cm [9.4 in] above the enclosure floor).
Due to territorial aggression and associated injury and animal stress, group or pair housing of bucks is not appropriate. Bucks begin to demonstrate sexual behaviour and territoriality with related aggression at approximately 12–14 weeks of age and reach sexual maturity at approximately 20 weeks of age.
Bucks must be housed individually after 14 weeks of age or earlier if signs of aggression occur.
1.1.4 Reproductive Does and Nursing Kits
In commercial settings, managing territoriality and associated aggression in pair- or group-housed does is difficult. Rates of doe injuries and kit mortality are typically higher in pair and group systems (6).
Nest boxes and quality nesting material are important factors in kit survival and growth. Young kits, particularly those less than 2 weeks of age, have a very limited ability to thermoregulate. Properly sized and bedded nest boxes provide warmth and accommodate the litter while also allowing kits to stay in close contact with each other (to minimize chilling and mortality). Nest size should also be appropriate for the size of the doe and her litter, which varies by breed. Does tend to rest in oversized nest boxes increasing the risk of crushing kits.
Nest boxes must be sanitizable and are typically made of wood, metal, or plastic. Nesting material should be dust free. A variety of bedding materials may be used, including rabbit hair, hay, straw, shredded paper, and wood shavings.
Injuries inflicted to the kits by the doe can be minimized by enabling the doe to retreat from the kits once they begin leaving the nest box (e.g. increase the cage/pen size, provide a platform). Refer also to Section 4.4 – Care of Kits.
Does must have access to a nest box and nesting material at least 2 days before kindling to promote maternal and nesting behaviour.
The nest box and nesting material must provide dryness, comfort, warmth, and seclusion and promote kit survival.
Soiled nesting material must be promptly replaced.
Nest boxes must be made of sanitizable materials.
- use bedding material that promotes a bowl shaped nest to maintain a better nursing environment and assist with thermoregulation
- in cold ambient temperatures, provide extra nesting material and consider closing or covering the nest box to conserve body heat.
1.1.5 Growing Rabbits
Young rabbits are gregarious animals (7) and must be raised in groups. Strategies for successful mixing are provided in Section 5.3 – Grouping/Mixing Rabbits.
Bucks must be housed individually after 14 weeks of age or earlier if signs of aggression occur.
Environmental refinements are used to enhance a rabbit’s environment and encourage expression of normal species-specific behaviours. The broad types of refinements include social (e.g. direct, visual, or olfactory contact with other rabbits), structural (e.g. devices that promote movements or exercise), physical (e.g. addition of objects or substrates to chew or manipulate) and food-based (e.g. novel food supplements or methods of feed delivery) (8).
Refinements should achieve the following goals (8):
- increase the number and range of normal behaviours;
- prevent or minimize the development of abnormal behaviours;
- increase positive use of the environment (e.g. use of space); and
- increase the animal’s ability to cope with behavioural and physiological challenges.
Examples of refinements:
- hard wood gnawing blocks or sticks
- hay, straw, or litter (i.e. in addition to nesting material and intended for chewing or manipulation)
- grass or hay in any form
- raised platforms
- multi-level cages/pens
- plastic resting mats (see Section 1.3 – Flooring and Bedding).
Feeding practices that increase the time rabbits spend chewing (e.g. provision of hay or alfalfa/forage cubes) have been shown to reduce abnormal behaviour, including destructive chewing of cages and mats (6).
Rabbits perform fewer abnormal behaviours (e.g. oral stereotypies, cage biting or manipulation) when provided with refinements such as wooden objects, straw, hay, or grass or hay cubes (6). Growing rabbits provided with wooden gnawing sticks have improved weight gains, are more active, groom more, and perform fewer aggressive behaviours (6). The prevalence of injuries, including ear lesions, is significantly lower in growing rabbits housed with wooden gnawing sticks (6).
Platforms enable the expression of certain behaviours that rabbits are motivated to perform and can improve bone quality by enabling weight-bearing activity (e.g. jumping) (6). The space beneath the platform provides a sheltered area that rabbits may prefer for resting (6). In maternity cages or pens, platforms allow the doe to rest away from young kits, which may reduce kit injuries (6)
The safety of refinements is an important consideration. Soft wood objects may splinter and contain noxious volatile oils; some hard woods may contain toxicants (e.g. the bark of apple wood contains cyanide).
The cage/pen must be provisioned with at least 1 type of refinement on a continual basis.
Rabbits use of refinements must be monitored to ensure they are meeting the intended goals and adjusted or replaced, as needed.
Refinements must be monitored to ensure they are safe.
Refinements that become soiled must be replaced or sanitized.
- provide 2 or more types of refinements
- monitor rabbits frequently to ensure that the refinements do not cause health problems (e.g. choking, poisoning, obstruction of the digestive tract, transmission of pathogens) (8)
- avoid unbalancing the ration when using food-based refinements (they should be a complement to a balanced diet not a supplement)
- ensure platforms allow for easy passage of urine and manure and are made from sanitizable material
- provide hay or straw in a rack rather than loose on the cage/pen floor to minimize soiling.
1.3 Flooring and Bedding
Enclosure flooring has a significant impact on foot health. The material, mesh size or spacing between slats or holes (in the case of perforated floors), width and design of the mesh or slats (rounded or flat), and welding quality are all important components of flooring.
Wire mesh or perforated flooring allows easy passage of manure and urine, is easily cleaned and sanitized, and is associated with lower rates of gastrointestinal disease and better air quality in commercial production systems. Certain types of wire mesh flooring may increase the prevalence of pododermatitis in adult rabbits, particularly for heavy rabbits or does in late gestation (6). Pododermatitis is painful and, if untreated, can lead to deep-seated infection and compromise animal movement (6). Refer also to Section 3.3.1 – Pododermatitis.
Plastic coated wire or plastic slatted flooring greatly reduces the prevalence and severity of foot injuries in adult rabbits (6). The routine provision of a slatted plastic resting mat on wire flooring improves animal comfort and reduces the occurrence of pododermatitis in adult rabbits (6) and the risk of leg injuries in pre-weaned rabbits as they first start leaving the nest. Providing a slatted plastic resting mat for rabbits with early-stage pododermatitis may aid recovery (6).
Cleanliness of flooring is also important for managing pododermatitis and disease. The mesh size or spacing between the slats or holes should allow for easy passage of urine and manure.
The use of wood or solid bottom flooring is discouraged because these flooring types are difficult to sanitize, and this can result in increased mortality rates in some circumstances.
Litter or straw may be appropriate in cool environments, provided it is replaced or topped up frequently to ensure a clean and dry surface (6).
A resting mat must be provided for rabbits upon the earliest signs of pododermatitis.
Effective January 1, 2021, a resting mat must be provided to all breeding does and bucks that is large enough to permit the rabbit to sit with all 4 feet in contact with the mat
Cage/pen flooring and resting mats must be designed and maintained to minimize the risk of injuries and buildup of manure and urine.
At a minimum, resting mats must be sanitized between uses.
Bedding and litter must be safe and managed to provide a clean and dry resting surface for rabbits.
Rabbits housed in tiered cages must be protected from urine and manure from the cages above.
Refer also to the Requirements in Section 3.3.1 – Pododermatitis.
- ensure flooring is made of high quality material and is appropriate for rabbits
- provide all rabbits with a resting mat
- sanitize resting mats whenever they become soiled.
1.4 Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity
Air flow, temperature, and relative humidity are 3 very closely linked environmental factors that, if well managed, can significantly promote good health and welfare in rabbits. An effective ventilation system is essential for rabbits because it removes excess heat, water vapour, noxious gases (e.g. ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide), and dust from the rabbitry while at the same time introducing fresh air. Good ventilation is critical to minimizing respiratory disease in rabbits.
Ammonia is released from manure and urine. Excessive ammonia concentrations in the environment can pose a health threat to humans and animals. The concentration of ammonia at the rabbit level should ideally be less than 5 ppm (9). Ammonia concentrations of 20 ppm or higher impair rabbit respiratory immunity and are strongly correlated with respiratory disease (9). When a human observer can smell ammonia, it is likely to be at a concentration of 10 ppm or higher. There are several tools for measuring ammonia concentration, including ammonia test strips, detection tubes, and electronic devices.
Temperature and Relative Humidity
The effective environmental temperature (i.e. the temperature that animals actually feel) depends on several factors such as air speed, temperature, relative humidity, flooring and cage/pen type, bedding, single or group housing, and the animal’s stage of production and health status. The effective environmental temperature may differ by several degrees from that measured in the overall barn.
When ambient temperatures exceed 25°C (77°F) rabbits are at risk of heat stress, which may be indicated by decreased feed intake, increased water intake, open-mouthed panting with the head extended backwards, salivation, and ears fully upright and expanded with prominent blood vessels (9). When ambient temperatures exceed 35°C (95°F), rabbits can no longer regulate body temperature and are at significant risk of hyperthermia and heat stroke (10). Heat stress negatively affects growth rates and several production traits (e.g. reduced daily milk production, increased pre- and post-weaning mortality) (10,11). Floor space impacts a rabbit’s ability to thermoregulate in high ambient temperatures (rabbits can cool themselves by stretching out) (5,6).
When ambient temperatures fall below 10°C (50°F), rabbits will increase their intake of feed and water and compact their bodies to limit heat loss (9). Rabbits are vulnerable to cold stress if the temperature is below 4°C (39°F) or they are wet or kept in drafty conditions. Newborn kits are particularly vulnerable to cold stress as they are unable to regulate their body temperature (9).
Pregnant does at term (i.e. within 2–3 days of kindling) are less able to cope with temperature extremes (hot or cold) (11).
High relative humidity favours pathogen survival in the environment whereas very low relative humidity increases respiratory problems by drying mucous membranes (9).
Air quality must be managed to provide fresh air, reduce the risk of thermal stress, and minimize the buildup of noxious gases, dust, and moisture in order to promote the health and welfare of rabbits.
Ventilation systems must be maintained in good working order.
Rabbits must not be exposed to direct drafts.
Prompt corrective action must be taken if ammonia concentrations exceed 10 ppm at the rabbit level.
Ammonia concentrations must not exceed 20 ppm.
Prompt corrective action must be taken if signs of thermal stress in rabbits are observed.
- use and regularly maintain equipment/tools that measure temperature, relative humidity, and ammonia
- equip heating and ventilation systems with alarms to alert personnel of a power failure or conditions outside of acceptable ranges
- design housing systems to limit emissions of ammonia in rabbits’ immediate environment (e.g. a 76 cm [30 in] vertical gap between manure handling systems and the cage floor)
- maintain environmental ammonia concentrations at the rabbit level below 5 ppm (9) through appropriate ventilation and frequent removal of manure and wet/soiled bedding
- strive to maintain ambient temperatures between 10–25°C (50–77°F)
- strive to maintain relative humidity between 30–70%
- monitor rabbits frequently for signs of thermal discomfort during extreme temperatures (hot or cold)
- ensure a 10% reduction in stocking density in advance of periods of high ambient temperatures (7)
- avoid handling or causing any additional stress to rabbits during periods of high ambient temperatures
- in mechanically ventilated barns, maintain adequate air flow during cold weather (i.e. ventilation systems should not shut off at a low temperature threshold).
Lighting should provide uniform illumination at consistent times and permit effective observation of rabbits. At the rabbit level, light intensity in the range of 5–10 lux (equivalent to a very dark day) is generally appropriate for young rabbits (9). As a general guide, light at which a newspaper can be read is considered sufficient during the grow-out period. A light intensity of 30–50 lux (fully overcast, sunset/sunrise) at the rabbit level is necessary to enable mature rabbits to investigate their surroundings, have visual contact with other rabbits, and show active behaviours (7).
Continuous lighting (i.e. no dark period in a 24-hour cycle) negatively impacts welfare and health. Feed consumption is typically high during the night and declines at the beginning of the light period (12). Does tend to nurse during the dark period (12).
Irregular changes in the light cycle may be disruptive to rabbits.
Be aware that noise, including ultrasonic sound, can be emitted from light ballasts. Potential effects on rabbit welfare are unclear, and further research is encouraged.
In barns without natural light, supplemental artificial lighting must be provided daily.
Rabbits must receive a light and dark period every day. The light period must not exceed 16 hours when using supplemental artificial lighting.
- match the intensity/location of the lighting to the purpose for which the area is used
- have artificial lighting set to a timer to offer rabbits a consistent lighting schedule
- consider the use of a lighting program that transitions into light and dark periods gradually.
1.6 Emergency Planning
Emergencies (e.g. power failure, barn fire, flooding, disruption of supplies or services) can compromise rabbit welfare. Pre-planning will assist producers to respond in a timely and effective manner, better providing for the welfare of rabbits in the event of an emergency. Resources to support emergency planning are provided in Appendix A – Sample Emergency Contact List and Appendix H – Resources for Further Information.
A contingency plan for emergencies must be developed and communicated to farm personnel, including provision of feed and water.
Emergency contact information must be readily available.
- develop a written emergency action plan and ensure it includes emergency contacts, farm location, and evacuation procedures for the herd and personnel
- consider emergency management protocols when designing or renovating facilities and get advice on housing design as it relates to emergencies
- consult a local fire department for specific advice on fire prevention
- have a fire extinguisher available at various points in the rabbitry and ensure that personnel know where they are located
- ensure fire extinguishers are maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions
- have a backup power supply or alternative plan for emergency power failures (e.g. on-site generator or rental)
- test alarms and backup systems regularly.
1.7 Additional Considerations for Outdoor Systems
Due to the Canadian climate, outdoor facilities must be built in a way that ensures the rabbits are adequately protected from harsh weather. Outdoor enclosures (e.g. outdoor runs, mobile pasture pens) offer rabbits more freedom of movement and environmental enrichment. Challenges associated with raising rabbits in outdoor systems include pests, parasites, predators, and the difficulty of sanitizing the environment.
Consult other sections of this Code, which provide important information applicable to outdoor systems.
Outdoor enclosures must protect rabbits from predators, rain and snow, and extremes of temperature, particularly wind in cold ambient temperatures and direct sun in hot ambient temperatures.
Rabbits housed on the ground in outdoor pens must have access to a mud-free, well-drained area in the pasture/yard in which they can rest and access feed and water.
Outdoor enclosures must provide rabbits an opportunity to shelter from actual and perceived threats.
- choose outdoor sites carefully, avoiding flood prone or poorly drained land
- locate outdoor enclosures to take advantage of natural windbreaks or shaded areas
- rotate range areas to allow vegetation to regrow between herds. This may also help to reduce the risk of disease
- keep the range area free of debris and toxic plants or products.
It is essential that rabbits receive high quality feed in correct quantities. Nutrient requirements may vary by breed (13). A pelleted diet is a reliable way of providing a balanced and complete diet, including an appropriate quantity and type of fibre. Producers are strongly encouraged to purchase feeds from a supplier who is knowledgeable about meat rabbit nutrition. If it is not possible to buy from a commercial supplier, a nutritionist knowledgeable in rabbit nutrition should be consulted.
2.1 Nutritional Needs of Rabbits and Feeding Behaviour
Rabbits are strict herbivores and require a diet high in fibre to maintain digestive health (6). Refer also to Section 1.2 – Environmental Refinements.
When fed ad libitum, growing and adult rabbits feed frequently with the majority of feed intake occurring in the dark period (6). The impacts of different feeding strategies (i.e. ad libitum, controlled feeding, restricted feeding) on rabbits are not fully understood. Conditions that may warrant short-term energy restriction include excessive weight gain in breeding rabbits, outbreaks of digestive disorders (6), and transportation of breeding rabbits. However, feeding strategies need to be carefully considered in the context of genetics, diet composition, and overall farm management.
Rabbits produce and consume cecotrophs, which are an important source of protein, micronutrients, and B vitamins (6). The pattern of cecotroph production is affected by rabbit age, lactation, length of the light period, and changes to the feed schedule (12,14).
Changes to the diet should be accomplished gradually because rabbits may experience digestive upset or refuse to feed when the diet is changed abruptly.
Rabbits must have daily access to quality, nutritionally balanced feed in quantities that meet their physiologic needs at each stage of production.
- select a reputable feed supplier knowledgeable about meat rabbits and develop a balanced ration and appropriate feeding program for all stages of production
- if mixing your own ration, consult a nutritionist knowledgeable in rabbit nutrition and have feeds, including forage, analyzed periodically to obtain accurate nutrient information
- maintain a consistent daily feeding schedule
- ensure any changes to the diet are accomplished gradually.
2.2 Feed Management
Proper feed storage helps prevent contamination, which can negatively impact rabbit health and performance. The freshness of feed (time in storage) can affect the quality of feed, including its vitamin content.
Rabbits’ access to feed is affected by several factors. Strategies to improve feed access include:
- reduce group size within each cage/pen
- increase the quantity of feed offered
- increase feeding frequency
- provide feed ad libitum
- increase feeder space.
Good feed management results in more uniform weight gain in group-housed rabbits.
Rabbits’ access to feed must be managed in a manner that minimizes aggression between rabbits.
Feed must be protected from pests and moisture.
Feed containers must only be used for feed.
Containers with medicated feed must be identified and stored separately from other feeds.
Records must be kept when medications are used in feed and must include the rabbits being treated, date, product, mixing rate, duration, and withdrawal time.
Feeds must be free from visible mold.
- purchase feed in quantities to maintain freshness (e.g. less than 6 months’ supply at a time).
Bucks are typically present on the farm the longest of all breeding rabbits in the herd. Maintaining bucks at an appropriate body condition is important for buck health and fertility. A metabolic form of ketosis can occur in obese bucks (15). Obesity is also associated with an increased risk of foot lesions. Bucks are also susceptible to enteritis (6) (refer to Section 3.3.3 – Enteritis).
Bucks must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health, vigour, and body condition.
Body condition of individual bucks must be monitored and corrective action taken for bucks that are over- or under-conditioned. Refer to Appendix B – Body Condition Scoring.
2.2.2 Does and Newborn Kits
The doe’s feed requirements vary considerably over the reproductive cycle (e.g. from 150 g/day during early gestation to 450 g/day at peak lactation) (16).
Assessing body condition of does using a body condition scoring tool helps evaluate health and nutritional status and optimize production (see Appendix B – Body Condition Scoring). Lactating does are at risk of losing body condition due to the simultaneous energy requirements for lactation and pregnancy and, in young breeding does, the additional demands for growth (16). Young primiparous does are especially vulnerable to loss of body condition during lactation (6). Obese does are at increased risk of ketosis (pregnancy toxemia) in the last week of gestation (15).
Survival and growth of newborn kits depends on the quality and quantity of the doe’s milk. Therefore, the doe’s nutritional status is important for the welfare of the doe and her kits. Kits gradually begin eating solid feed around 16–18 days of age, but the majority of their intake is in the form of milk until 25 days of age (6).
It is important to feed does relative to the size of their litter to ensure kits have enough milk. A good feeding program also takes into account the average litter size in the herd. Strategies for does that begin losing body condition or that are not producing sufficient milk for the litter include fostering kits to other does, increasing the quantity of feed offered, providing feed of higher nutrient density, or lengthening the breed-back schedule.
Visually assessing kits for a milk spot in the first 5 days is a practical and effective way of confirming milk intake. Kits that appear small relative to litter-mates should be fostered. Refer also to Section 4.4 – Care of Kits.
Does must receive a diet that is adequate for maintaining health, vigour, and body condition and that allows the doe to provide sufficient milk for the litter.
Body condition of individual does must be monitored throughout the reproductive cycle and corrective action taken for does that are over- or under-conditioned. Refer to Appendix B – Body Condition Scoring.
Kit health and vigour must be visually assessed at least daily and prompt action taken for kits showing signs of inadequate milk intake.
Refer also to the Requirements in Section 4.2 – Evaluating Fitness for Breeding.
2.2.3 Growing Rabbits
The immediate post-weaning period is stressful to rabbits and, without attentive management, there is an increased risk of digestive disorders and mortality in this period. Refer to Section 3.3.3 – Enteritis for additional information.
Competition for feed can be an issue when growing rabbits are not fed according to their needs. Strategies for ensuring feed access are provided in Section 2.2 – Feed Management.
The health and vigour of growing rabbits must be assessed at least daily and prompt action taken for growing rabbits showing signs of inadequate feed intake.
Rabbits have high water requirements and consume approximately twice as much water as feed (15). Water intake increases due to:
- increased humidity
- increased ambient temperature
- certain health conditions (e.g. diarrhea).
Water plays an important role in the digestive process. Rabbits with an insufficient supply of water will limit their feed intake (6).
Water treatment (medications and purification) can affect the palatability of water and therefore intake. Testing water quality can help ensure it is safe and palatable for rabbits.
Rabbits must have unrestricted access to safe, clean drinking water.
Records must be kept when medications are used in water and must include the date, product, mixing rate, duration, and withdrawal time.
- test water quality at least annually and whenever problems such as reluctance to drink or reduced feed consumption are observed and during seasonal high risk periods (i.e. spring, fall)
- arrange for bacterial and chemical analysis of water (rabbits can be sensitive to high salinity and chlorine, for example)
- keep records of water purification products that include the date, product, mixing rate, and duration.
2.4 Feeding and Watering Equipment
Feeding and watering equipment must be well maintained, free from sharp edges that might injure rabbits, and should be constructed from materials that can be readily sanitized. Open water drinkers bring an increased risk of contamination (and therefore disease) and are not recommended. Water quality is affected by how often watering systems are cleaned and flushed.
The respiratory tract of rabbits is irritated by fine dust in the air (9). Feeds and feeder designs that limit airborne dust can reduce respiratory problems.
Feeding and watering equipment must be checked daily, maintained in good working order and defective systems must be attended to without delay.
Feeders and waterers must be positioned so that rabbits can easily access them while ensuring the feed and water are not contaminated by manure or urine.
Feeders must be cleaned after rabbits are removed from the cage/pen and whenever contamination is observed in the feeders.
- inspect, clean, sanitize, and flush watering equipment to minimize contamination, biofilms, and scale
- choose feeding equipment that minimizes fine dust in the feed
- handle feeds in a way that minimizes pellet breakage and associated fine dust.
There is a critical relationship between animal health and welfare. Health issues can cause pain and discomfort, which negatively impact an animal’s well-being. Good animal welfare, therefore, requires good animal health, and prevention of disease is always preferred to treatment.
3.1 Rabbitry Health Planning
Good herd health management incorporates practices that are designed to optimize the health and welfare of rabbits through nutrition, housing, and management. Many issues can effectively be addressed through preventive strategies such as biosecurity and sanitation.
Producers can continuously improve herd health outcomes by taking the following steps in response to any illness, particularly a disease outbreak (adapted from 17):
- obtain a veterinary diagnosis and provide specific, timely treatment, where possible
- analyze the health and treatment records and investigate the risk factors (e.g. hygiene, biosecurity, nutrition, management, environment)
- develop a manageable, effective action plan to reduce the risk of disease recurrence
- communicate the action plan to relevant personnel
- evaluate the effectiveness of the action plan and refine if needed.
Veterinarians and other experts play a key role in helping producers attain herd health objectives. While veterinarians are often called after animals are sick or injured, they can play a valuable role on a proactive basis by helping with the development of herd health plans and prevention practices. Having an ongoing working relationship with a veterinarian (i.e. a veterinarian-client-patient relationship) helps ensure that the veterinarian will be familiar with the herd and farm management practices to assist proactively and in the event that a problem occurs. Maintaining a working relationship with a veterinarian also facilitates collaborative decision making between the producer and veterinarian.
Record keeping is an important aspect of herd health planning. Without records, producers tend to underestimate the incidence of disease on their farms (18). Research has also shown that producers who keep accurate and detailed health records achieve a lower incidence of disease (19).
The risk of antimicrobial resistance increases if antimicrobials are used inappropriately (20). Use of antimicrobials should be limited to situations in which they are deemed necessary by a veterinarian (20). In these cases, antimicrobials should be used as targeted treatment and according to best practices. The ultimate objective is to reduce the need for antimicrobials by preventing disease (20).
A working relationship with a veterinarian must be established.
- develop a written herd health plan in consultation with the herd veterinarian (e.g. protocols for sourcing rabbits, protocols for the prevention, detection, and treatment of disease)
- strive to prevent disease by maintaining optimal environmental conditions in the rabbitry at all times (refer to Section 1.4 – Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity)
- track rabbit health and consult a veterinarian when disease is suspected
- keep accurate and detailed animal health records
- use and store antimicrobials as directed by the prescribing veterinarian
- consider, where appropriate, alternatives to antimicrobials (e.g. management or housing changes, alternative dietary supplements with accepted efficacy).
Biosecurity refers to measures used to protect against the introduction and spread of diseases. Biosecurity is based on 2 main concepts: keeping disease out of the herd (exclusion) and preventing disease from spreading within the herd or to other herds (containment).
Elements of a comprehensive biosecurity protocol include:
- ensuring strict hygiene and sanitation procedures for all individuals who are in contact with rabbits
- wearing clean gloves or washing hands before handling rabbits
- changing, covering, or disinfecting footwear upon entering any facility housing rabbits
- allowing only necessary personnel in the rabbitry
- work flow and handling from the youngest to the oldest rabbits, and from the healthiest to the least healthy rabbits
- changing clothing when moving between sick and healthy animals
- minimizing movement of equipment between buildings
- avoiding contact with rabbits and personnel on other farms
- proper manure handling and storage
- excluding pets and pests from the barn
- separating rabbits from other farm animals on the farm
- sourcing rabbits from suppliers with herds of known health status
- separating newly arrived or returning rabbits from the herd (to confirm the health of new arrivals prior to their introduction).
Purchasing breeding rabbits from another farm brings a risk of introducing disease into the home herd.
Rabbits must not be introduced to the herd unless they are free of obvious signs of disease.
develop and follow a biosecurity protocol in consultation with a veterinarian or other biosecurity expert
When acquiring replacement rabbits from another farm:
b. source from a limited number of reputable farms
c. source from farms that adhere to strict biosecurity and sanitation protocols and that have a similar health status as your farm (e.g. discuss health records, diseases present on the farm, and overall health management)
d. separate newly acquired rabbits from the herd for at least 14 days.
3.1.2 Cleaning, Sanitation, and Disinfection
Effective sanitation measures help to minimize disease. Research in several farm animal species shows that sanitation measures account for much of the variation in disease burden observed between farms. Clean cages/pens are particularly important during gestation, lactation, and weaning; after the removal of sick animals; and preceding the introduction of new animals (15).
Disinfectants are only effective when used on clean surfaces free of hair, manure, bedding/litter, and other organic debris. Wet washing, while important, can increase relative humidity in the rabbits’ environment, which can exacerbate respiratory disease.
Cages/pens, including the equipment within, must be sanitized between uses or at least annually.
Cages/pens, including the equipment within, must be free of accumulated manure.
Nest boxes that become soiled must be cleaned or, if the kits are at a suitable maturity, soiled nest boxes must be closed or removed.
Nest boxes must be sanitized between uses.
- develop and follow a cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection plan in consultation with a veterinarian
- manage growing rabbits in an “all-in/all-out” system to permit effective sanitation
- use disinfectants in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions to ensure efficacy and safety
- sanitize equipment, cages/pens, and all areas of the rabbitry whenever manure, urine sediment, hair, or other organic debris begins to accumulate
- sanitize and disinfect equipment and cages/pens after a disease outbreak
- allow recently washed cages/pens to dry before they are populated with rabbits.
3.1.3 Pest Control
Rodents and insects are recognized as carriers of many diseases. Given the difficulty of eliminating rodents, prevention should be the primary objective. Appendix H – Resources for Further Information provides resources on pest control.
Measures must be taken to control pests including rodents, small animals, wild birds, insects, and predators in the rabbit facility and feed and bedding storage areas.
Poisons used for rodent control must be stored away from rabbits, feeds, and bedding.
- eliminate or reduce the number of places rodents can use for shelter (e.g. clutter, garbage, heavy vegetation around buildings)
- store feed in rodent-proof facilities and containers
- remove any spilled feed (which attracts rodents) promptly
- locate and minimize insect breeding areas (e.g. standing water, manure and other refuse)
- incorporate design features that will prevent the entry of pests when building or redesigning a rabbitry.
3.2 Monitoring Rabbit Health and Welfare
Regular monitoring of rabbits facilitates early identification of health and welfare problems. Daily assessment is an important management tool to enhance overall rabbit health and welfare by minimizing disease transmission and making early care or treatment decisions for rabbits with conditions known to cause pain or discomfort (21).
When assessing rabbits, look for
- signs of illness (e.g. diarrhea, sneezing, coughing, discharge, reduced fecal output)
- injuries (e.g. ear lesions, pododermatitis)
- signs of thermal discomfort (described in Section 1.4 – Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity)
- lameness or inability to rise or move
- abnormal posture
- change in behaviour
- poor body condition or weight loss
- poor hair condition
- signs of dental problems (described in Section 3.3.4 – Dental Conditions)
- reduced feed and/or water intake.
Producers may find value in benchmarking health outcomes as a percentage of the total herd to establish
targets and monitor progress. For example, mortality is an important indicator of herd health to monitor on farm (6,22,23). In growing and breeding rabbits, mortality is often due to infectious causes (6). A reduction in mortality rate in growing and adult rabbits represents an improvement in animal health (23). Consistent time intervals should be used to track mortality so that it can be compared over time. Mortality records should also be interpreted in conjunction with culling records.
Common causes of mortality in pre-weaned kits are non-infectious and include chilling, inadequate nest, poor maternal care, insufficient milk, and cannibalism (6).
Infectious diseases are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality on rabbit farms (6). Animal density, hygiene, and biosecurity practices all play a role in spreading disease-inducing agents within a herd (24). When infectious diseases occur, it is essential to take prompt steps to limit transmission within the herd, which may include euthanizing or culling affected rabbits to limit the environmental burden of disease (6).
Rabbits must be assessed at least daily for overall health and well-being.
Dead rabbits must be removed from the cage/pen and separated from production areas at least daily.
- increase the frequency of monitoring for animals identified with an injury or possible health issue
- increase the frequency of monitoring during high risk conditions (e.g. poor ventilation, high ambient temperature, high relative humidity, recent transport or relocation)
- keep accurate and detailed records of mortality (i.e. rabbits found dead) and culling, including age and cause of death (if known) and reason for culling
- consult a veterinarian if unexplained mortality significantly increases in a 24-hour period and if mortalities exceed the following thresholds (based on data in reference 6):
- average pre-weaning kit mortality exceeds 25%
- average annual mortality exceeds 15% in growing rabbits
- monthly mortality in breeding does and bucks due to adverse health issues and injury exceeds 5%.
3.3 Managing Sick or Injured Rabbits
For all conditions affecting rabbit health and welfare, early recognition and prompt care or treatment or euthanasia are essential to minimize animal pain and distress (6). As prey animals, rabbits have evolved to mask signs of sickness, weakness, and pain (6). This can make assessment of their well-being difficult, and illness may not be apparent until disease is in its final stages (6).
Rabbits affected with conditions from which they are likely to recover may benefit from being segregated so they can recuperate with easier access to feed, water, and a comfortable resting area.
Technical advisors may be available through the provincial government or a university to provide important supports to producers dealing with a disease outbreak. Consulting these advisors can facilitate timely access to laboratories (for testing or diagnostics).
Farm personnel must be familiar with normal rabbit behaviour and must be able to identify signs of illness, injury, and adverse stress.
Sick or injured rabbits and rabbits that exhibit obvious signs of pain or distress must be promptly treated or euthanized.
Records must be kept when medications are used and must include the rabbits being treated, date, product, dosage, duration, and withdrawal time.
The condition of sick or injured rabbits must be monitored and, if they fail to respond to treatment(s), the treatment(s) must be reassessed or the rabbits must be euthanized.
- consult a veterinarian on appropriate treatments for sick or injured rabbits
- ensure recovery cages/pens for injured rabbits provide enhanced comfort conducive to recovery (e.g. bedding, resting mat, draft-free environment, easy access to feed and water).
Pododermatitis is a painful condition and major risk factor for culling (6). The condition begins with localized hair loss and callus formation on the footpad(s) and the hind feet. It progresses to cracked and open calluses, and is most severe when open wounds or ulcers have formed (6).
Strategies to reduce the incidence of pododermatitis include:
- provide slatted plastic resting mats preventatively
- review cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection protocols
- modify the cage/pen floor
- select breeding animals with good leg conformation.
Refer also to Section 1.3 – Flooring and Bedding.
The feet of breeding rabbits must be assessed for pododermatitis at least monthly.
If the condition of rabbits with early-stage pododermatitis does not improve, the rabbit must be treated or culled.
Rabbits with severe pododermatitis must be euthanized.
Refer also to the Requirements in Section 1.3 – Flooring and Bedding.
- record the prevalence and severity of pododermatitis as part of keeping accurate and detailed animal health records.
Pasteurellosis (“snuffles”) is the most common respiratory disease in farmed rabbits and a significant cause of illness and culling (6). Producers who are vigilant in their management of pasteurellosis can reduce its occurrence on their farms.
Signs of pasteurellosis can include discharge (from the eyes and nose), matted forepaws, sneezing, respiratory distress, and head tilt (6). However, infected rabbits may show no signs and may act as carriers of the disease (15). Pasteurellosis is associated with other adverse health issues, including conjunctivitis, pneumonia, abscesses, and metritis (6).
Pasteurellosis is transmitted by direct contact between group-housed rabbits, an infected doe and her litter, or between breeding pairs (15). Transmission may also occur by respiratory aerosol between neighboring cages/pens and contaminated equipment or materials (15).
Risk factors for pasteurellosis include (6):
- inappropriate ventilation
- high stocking density
- lack of biosecurity protocols
- poor cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection measures
- lack of routine disinfection or the inability to disinfect due to cage/pen material.
Rabbits with pasteurellosis that are showing signs of respiratory distress must be promptly euthanized.
- implement strict biosecurity and cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection protocols to reduce the occurrence and spread of pasteurellosis (see Section 3.1.1 – Biosecurity and Section 3.1.2 – Cleaning, Sanitation, and Disinfection)
- strive to maintain good indoor air quality in the rabbitry at all times (refer to Section 1.4 – Ventilation, Temperature, and Relative Humidity)
- avoid exposing rabbits to stressors that can trigger a latent infection (e.g. heat and cold stress, overcrowding, poor nutrition, improper handling)
- cull breeding rabbits on a regular basis to reduce transmission of pasteurellosis.
Although enteritis can affect rabbits in all stages of production, it is most common as young rabbits transition from a milk-based diet to solid feed, and their gut acquires new flora (6). Inappropriate diets may exacerbate enteric conditions (6). Multiple bacterial, viral, and parasitic agents contribute to enteritis (e.g. E. coli, rotavirus, coccidia) (6). Use of antimicrobials can further upset rabbits’ delicate balance of gastrointestinal flora leading to further cycles of disease (6).
Strategies that reduce adverse stress in rabbits are likely to reduce the occurrence of enteritis (e.g. provide an appropriate diet; implement strict cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection protocols; avoid overcrowding). Some research has shown an association between later weaning (≥35 days) and increased risk of enteritis, possibly because of increased stress (6).
Signs of enteritis include (6):
- diarrhea or soiling of the hocks with fecal material
- distended or bloated abdomen
- reduced feed and water intake
- reduced growth rate
- signs of discomfort (see Appendix C – On-Farm Euthanasia Decision-Making for Commercial Meat Rabbits).
Rabbits with severe enteritis (i.e. dehydrated, severely soiled, or inactive) must be promptly euthanized.
- provide rabbits a high quality diet with a sufficient level and correct types of fibre to maintain rabbits’ gastrointestinal health (6) (see Section 2 – Feed and Water)
- avoid sudden changes in diet composition
- implement strict biosecurity and cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection protocols to reduce the occurrence of enteritis (see Section 3.1.1 – Biosecurity and Section 3.1.2 – Cleaning, Sanitation, and Disinfection)
- consider weaning kits before they reach 35 days of age.
3.3.4 Dental Conditions
In rabbits, dental conditions may develop as a result of genetic abnormalities, insufficient tooth wear (caused by misaligned teeth or a diet with insufficient fibre), injury to the mouth or teeth, or infection (which can lead to abnormal tooth growth). Most dental conditions are painful and lead to other adverse welfare issues, such as loss of body condition, infection, and even death. Because many dental conditions are highly heritable, rabbits with known dental problems should not be used for breeding.
Replacement rabbits should be inspected at a young age for incisor (front teeth) problems. The top incisors should overlap the bottom incisors slightly. Problems with cheek teeth can be more difficult to identify. A jaw that appears pushed forward may indicate a discrepancy in jaw length that will prevent normal teeth alignment.
Signs of dental problems in rabbits include:
- reduced feed intake
- dropping feed while chewing
- reduced fecal output
- loss of body condition
- asymmetrical swelling of the face or jaw
- runny eyes
- drooling or moisture around the mouth, chin, or dewlap
- foul odour from the mouth
- pawing at the mouth and/or seeking isolation.
The use of nail trimmers, side-cutters, or other types of clippers is not appropriate as they may crack or split the teeth leading to pulp exposure, pain, and abscess development.
Rabbits with signs of dental problems must be promptly culled or euthanized.
Teeth trimming is not an acceptable on-farm practice.
- provide rabbits with gnawing material (e.g. hardwood objects, hay) to help reduce dental problems associated with bar biting or insufficient tooth wear
- ensure rabbits with dental abnormalities are not used for breeding
- inspect rabbits at a young age for incisor abnormalities.
4.1 Breeding Methods
Natural breeding and artificial insemination are used for reproductive management of does. All methods of breeding must be overseen by competent personnel to minimize the risk of animal injury and reproductive disorders. Aspects to consider include rabbit age, selection of breeding rabbits, and body condition of individual rabbits.
Artificial insemination is a highly skilled procedure. Improper technique and use of contaminated semen may result in abdominal pregnancies and metritis (6).
Natural breeding brings a risk of injury to the doe and buck. The doe must be brought to the buck’s cage to avoid triggering territoriality and associated aggression in the doe. Injuries can be prevented by observing the pair at breeding and promptly removing the doe if physical aggression is noted or if breeding does not occur rapidly, often within 3 minutes.
Rabbits may be unwilling to breed when stressed (due to a new handler or high ambient temperatures, as examples). Does that are unwilling to breed or that appear stressed at breeding must be returned to their home cage/pen promptly to settle before breeding is attempted again.
Appendix H – Resources for Further Information provides references on breeding methods.
Personnel overseeing breeding activities must be competent in the proper techniques and hygiene.
For natural breeding, the doe must be brought to the buck and removed promptly after breeding.
Breeding pairs must not be left unattended if aggression is noted at pairing.
If physical aggression occurs or the doe is unwilling to breed or appears stressed, the doe must be promptly returned to the home cage/pen to settle before breeding is attempted again.
4.2 Evaluating Fitness for Breeding
Does require attentive management to ensure they are maintained in optimal health and body condition over successive reproductive cycles.
Young female rabbits are still developing when they reach puberty, and the first 4 breeding cycles are a critical period for the development of energy and protein reserves (6). These rabbits are at the highest risk for loss of body condition, early culling, and mortality (6). It is generally appropriate to begin breeding replacement does when they reach 16 weeks of age and 75–80% of their expected mature weight. However, multiple variables affect doe development during rearing, including birth weight, the feeding strategy used, and weaning weight (6).
Bucks can generally begin breeding at approximately 5 months of age.
With good management, multiparous does that are re-bred 11 or more days after kindling are able to maintain body condition (6). Shorter breed-back schedules require careful selection of breeding rabbits and attentive feed and health management to ensure does are fit for re-breeding.
When selecting breeding rabbits from another farm, ensure the rabbits are healthy and have good body and leg conformation. Other considerations for purchasing breeding rabbits are outlined in Section 3.1.1 – Biosecurity.
Replacement does must not be bred until they are at least 16 weeks of age and reach at least 75–80% of their expected mature body weight.
Does must not be bred or re-bred unless they are at an appropriate body condition and in good health. Refer to Appendix B – Body Condition Scoring.
- keep accurate and detailed records of individual breeding bucks (e.g. does bred, date of breeding) and does (e.g. parity of doe, number of live and stillborn kits, number of kits fostered, weaning date, number of kits weaned, injuries) and use these records as the basis for management decisions for individual bucks and does
- if selecting breeding rabbits from another farm, purchase directly (i.e. not from a market) from a reputable source.
Gestation lasts 30–33 days, and kindling is a relatively rapid process (15–30 minutes, depending on litter size) (6). If kindling is prolonged, the doe may be experiencing a problem that requires immediate attention, such as treatment to promote kit survival, or euthanasia to reduce doe suffering. Signs of kindling difficulty include excessive panting, abnormal posture, and more frequent movements (e.g. circular pacing).
The nest box should be removed approximately 3 weeks after kindling to promote good hygiene in the cage/pen. Refer to Section 1.1.4 – Reproductive Does and Nursing Kits for further details on nest box design and management.
Does that are expected to kindle must be monitored first as part of daily assessments of rabbit health and well-being.
Does experiencing a prolonged or difficult kindling (e.g. excessive panting, abnormal posture, and more frequent movements or circular pacing once kindling has started) must be euthanized, or treated promptly and not re-bred. If treatment fails, the doe must be promptly euthanized.
- palpate does that experienced a difficult kindling to check for unborn kits.
4.4 Care of Kits
Does generally nurse their kits at least once a day (6). Controlled nursing can reduce kit mortality due to crushing and helps confirm that nursing is occurring. Refer to Section 2.2.2 – Does and Newborn Kits for details on confirming milk intake in neonates.
Survival of neonates depends greatly on the nourishment and warmth they attain in the nest box. As does will not retrieve neonates outside the nest box, it is imperative that personnel promptly return these neonates to the nest. Kits that are hypothermic when found outside the nest box may not survive unless rewarmed prior to returning them to the nest. Refer to Section 1.1.4 – Reproductive Does and Nursing Kits for details on nest box design and management.
Cross fostering (based on litter size, kit size, and doe milk production) may be used to enhance kit survivability and doe and kit health. Cross fostering is generally more successful when done within 3 days of kindling.
Neonates found outside the nest box must be promptly assessed and either returned to the litter (with prior rewarming, when necessary) or euthanized.
Nest boxes must be managed to prevent neonates from exiting prematurely.
Kits are generally weaned at 4–6 weeks of age. After the third week of lactation, the doe’s milk becomes markedly richer in proteins and fats (9). While milk production varies between does, daily milk production typically peaks towards the end of the third week of lactation and then drops rapidly (9), coinciding with the period in which kits’ intake of solid feed increases.
Weaning is a stressful time for kits due to separation from the doe and possible mixing with kits from other litters. During weaning, the kits’ gut flora changes and they have enhanced susceptibility to disease (refer to Section 3.3.3 – Enteritis).
Kits must only be weaned if they are able to feed and drink independently and maintain normal growth.
- manage breeding and weaning according to an “all-in/all-out” system.
5.1 Stockmanship Skills Related to Animal Welfare
Management practices have a significant impact on animal health, welfare, and productivity (25). Training and knowledge development about rabbit welfare and care should be an ongoing process.
Personnel must be competent in rabbit care through training, experience, and/or mentorship.
Personnel must be monitored and receive additional training as necessary.
- establish relationships with knowledgeable and experienced producers or other experts for ongoing advice on rabbit care.
5.2 Handling and On-Farm Movement of Rabbits
Positive human contact is an important factor in animal well-being and productivity. With proper handling, rabbits experience less stress and fear, and the risk of injury to the animals and handlers is greatly reduced. Improper handling of rabbits increases the risk of injury to the animal, such as fractured backs and legs. Gentle handling of rabbits at a young age may habituate them to human contact (making later handling less stressful) provided that rabbits are always handled in a calm and gentle manner (7).
Low-stress handling of rabbits is an important consideration in all housing systems, particularly pens.
Rabbits must be handled in a way that minimizes stress and the risk of injury.
Rabbits must not be lifted or carried by the ears or legs.
Mature rabbits must have their body supported when they are lifted and carried.
- work quietly and calmly in the rabbitry
- avoid loud noises or sudden actions that may startle rabbits
- use low-stress handling aids (e.g. temporary partitions that prevent rabbits from escaping from catchers) when catching rabbits in pens
- minimize the distance rabbits are carried by hand
- use a carrying crate or container if moving multiple rabbits or moving rabbits over a long distance on the farm
- place rabbits into cages/pens by setting them down on their feet first.
5.2.1 Methods of Restraint
Equipment used for restraint should be designed for maximum safety of the rabbit and handler. The method selected should be the most gentle and effective method available and should be applied for the minimum amount of time necessary to carry out the task. For some procedures, it may be ideal to have 2 handlers working together (i.e. one to restrain the rabbit and the other to perform the procedure).
Corrective action must be taken if the equipment or method of restraint causes pain or injury.
Rabbits outside the cage/pen must never be left loose and unattended.
Rabbits must not be restrained on their backs other than for very brief specific procedures such as artificial insemination.
- minimize the time that rabbits are restrained (e.g. have sufficient personnel to perform procedures in a timely manner and any necessary tools ready before the rabbit is restrained).
5.3 Grouping/Mixing Rabbits
Rabbits to be group housed should be mixed at weaning, with litter-mates ideally grouped together (26). It can be difficult to successfully mix rabbits previously housed individually or sexually mature rabbits (26). Aggressive or subordinate animals may ultimately need to be removed from the group. Singly housed rabbits may show incompatibility with nearby rabbits (e.g. squealing, lunging, cage biting), and it may be necessary to relocate individual rabbits or place a visual barrier between their cages/pens.
Strategies for successful mixing include (26):
- group rabbits of the same litter together
- keep groups stable from weaning
- group rabbits of similar age and weight together
- avoid overcrowding
- provide environmental refinements (see Section 1.2 – Environmental Refinements).
Group-housed rabbits should be monitored for vocalizations, chasing, and mounting. Rabbits must be promptly separated if fighting results in biting or lacerations.
Rabbits must be promptly separated if biting, lacerations, or recurrent fighting occurs.
Bucks must be housed individually after 14 weeks of age or earlier if signs of aggression occur.
- seek advice from an experienced breeder/producer on how to establish groups
- monitor newly established groups frequently until their compatibility is confirmed
- relocate or add a visual barrier between rabbits in nearby cages showing signs of incompatibility.
Doe and buck cards (typically fixed to the cage/pen) are a common and suitable method of record keeping. Leg bands and ear tags are also used to identify rabbits. Ear tattoos are used on show rabbits and may be used to identify individual bucks and does. Ear tattooing is an acutely painful procedure for rabbits (27). Topical anesthesia has been shown to mitigate the pain caused by ear tattooing (27).
Analgesia must be used when tattooing and tagging rabbits’ ears (28).
Identification bands and tags must be safe, lightweight, and suitable for rabbits.
- keep records of individual breeders and use the records to monitor reproductive difficulties and health (see Section 3 – Health Management and 4 – Reproductive Management)
- discuss pain control options and correct use of pain control with a veterinarian
- ensure that ear tags and tattoos are applied correctly, taking care to avoid the main blood vessels and ridges of cartilage in the ear
- monitor ear tags and leg bands (as part of daily assessments or other handling procedures) for signs of problems (e.g. tight leg bands)
- reconsider identification methods if problems routinely occur (e.g. ear tags catching on equipment).
5.5 Nail Clipping
Nail clipping is necessary when nails become overgrown. Torn nails, inter-animal injuries, and infection may result from overgrown nails. Care should be taken not to cut the quick, which causes pain and bleeding. If the quick is cut, ensure bleeding is stopped before leaving the animal. Proper restraint is also important to prevent the rabbit from struggling and being injured (see Section 5.2.1 – Methods of Restraint)
Nails must not be allowed to grow to excessive lengths causing injury or discomfort to rabbits.
Nail clipping must be done in a well-lit area.
5.6 Grooming of Long-Haired Breeds
Long-haired breeds of rabbits (typically raised for show and/or fibre) require regular grooming to promote health and welfare. The frequency of grooming depends on the breed.
Regular grooming prevents hair from becoming matted and soiled (29). Matted hair causes discomfort, and the skin underneath can become infected (29). Severe matting can impede a rabbit’s ability to move about and feed (26). In Angora rabbits, matting can occur rapidly without regular grooming (30).
Grooming can be stressful to rabbits due, in part, to the associated handling and restraint. It should therefore be done in advance of periods of high ambient temperatures in order to avoid exposing rabbits to the stresses of heat and handling concurrently. Refer also to Section 5.2 – Handling and On-Farm Movement of Rabbits and Section 5.2.1 – Methods of Restraint.
Long-haired breeds of rabbits must be groomed at a frequency sufficient to mitigate heat stress and to prevent matting and soiling of the hair and associated skin infections.
Sheared rabbits must be provided with sufficient bedding to ensure thermoregulation and comfort.
If raising a long-haired breed:
- avoid grooming pregnant does that are expected to kindle
- groom rabbits in advance of periods of high ambient temperatures
- groom rabbits on a non-slip surface
- increase the frequency of brushing when rabbits are shedding or molting
- inspect the condition of individual rabbits during grooming for problems such as poor body condition, pododermatitis and other injuries
- remove loose tufts of hair from rabbits and the enclosures daily to prevent rabbits from consuming excessive hair
- clean, sanitize, and disinfect grooming tools after use.
Each person responsible for transporting animals in Canada, or arranging their transport, must ensure that the entire process (i.e. loading, lairage, transport, and unloading) does not cause injury or suffering to the animals.
The federal regulations for animal transport are covered under the Health of Animals Regulations, Part XII. Some provinces have additional regulations related to animal transport.
The scope of the rabbit Code of Practice ends at the farm gate but includes Requirements and Recommended Practices for pre-transport and on-farm lairage. Refer to the Code of Practice – Transportation for the actual transportation process.
6.1 Evaluating Fitness for Transport
Rabbit producers often manage large numbers of rabbits, which can make assessment of individual rabbits difficult. However, every effort should be made to ensure that only fit rabbits are loaded for transport, and the welfare of the rabbits must be the first consideration.
Fit rabbits are those that are in good health and physical condition prior to transport. A rabbit’s fitness for transport may be affected by illness, injury, fatigue, or any other condition likely to cause suffering during handling, loading, lairage, transport, or unloading. Rabbits that are unfit must not be transported. Compromised rabbits can only be transported locally and directly to their final destination (not through an auction, depot, or assembly point). Special provisions, such as reduced loading density, are also required if transporting compromised rabbits.
Prior to loading, rabbits must be assessed as being fit for transport.
Unfit rabbits must not be transported except for diagnosis or treatment on the advice of a veterinarian (refer to Appendix E – Should this Rabbit Be Loaded? for a list of conditions).
Rabbits deemed unfit for transport must receive appropriate and timely care or treatment or be euthanized.
Compromised rabbits, if transported, may only be transported with special provisions and directly to their final destination (not through an auction, depot, or assembly point) (refer to Appendix E – Should this Rabbit Be Loaded? for a list of conditions).
6.2 Arranging Transport
Producers are responsible for ensuring that personnel involved in animal handling and transport are trained and knowledgeable. Those responsible for arranging transportation services need to be aware of how long the rabbits may be in transit (including intermediate stops such as auction markets, depots, or lairage) and whether the transporter needs to provide additional services (e.g. feed, water, rest) during transit. When in doubt, assume the longest possible trip.
Trip planning should also include consideration of expected weather conditions and emergency procedures (e.g. contingency plans) should problems be encountered.
Time in transit is calculated from the time a rabbit is last provided feed and water until after unloading from the container at the final destination and when they are provided with subsequent feed and water or slaughtered.
Personnel responsible for rabbit transport must be knowledgeable of and comply with federal and provincial animal transport regulations.
All reasonable steps must be taken, in consultation with relevant parties (e.g. transporter, assembly point, processor), to ensure that rabbits are not without feed and water for more than 24 hours.
- ensure loading facilities are compatible with the type of vehicle used
- schedule loading and transport to avoid delays in transit (due to intense traffic congestion, road closures, or construction)
- ensure all documentation is completed in advance to avoid unnecessary delays at inspection stations or other checkpoints. This is especially important for rabbits leaving the province or country
- in hot or humid weather, avoid transport during the hottest part of the day
If arranging for transport by a company or other carrier, in addition to the above Recommended Practices:
- select reputable transporters by following these guidelines:
- if you have never used a particular transporter before, ask for references from other shippers and receivers that have used that carrier for transporting rabbits
- ensure the carrier has appropriate experience relative to your transport needs (e.g. short vs. long distance hauls)
- strive to use drivers that are professionally trained in animal handling and transport
- number of animals to be shipped
- estimated weight (to properly determine loading density)
- time and point of loading (especially during very hot and/or humid conditions to avoid loading during the hottest hours of the day)
- special requirements, if any, of the animals being transported (e.g. when the rabbits were last fed)
- special protection from temperature extremes (cold or hot).
6.3 Feed and Water Pre-Loading
In rabbits, for human food safety reasons, withdrawal of feed at the farm generally occurs 4–6 hours prior to loading. However, the total time in transport needs to be taken into consideration to ensure that rabbits will not be without feed and water for more than 24 hours.
Rabbits must have access to water until loading into transport containers begins.
6.4 Loading for Transport
Proper handling and calm, careful loading reduces the risk of stress and injury to rabbits. Injuries incurred at the time of loading can compromise the rabbit’s ability to handle the stress of transportation potentially making the rabbit unfit for transport or requiring transport with special provisions. Refer also to Section 5.2 – Handling and On-Farm Movement of Rabbits and Appendix D – Humane Handling and Restraint of Commercial Meat Rabbits.
Transport containers should meet the following characteristics:
- designed to ensure good airflow
- suitable height (i.e. allow the rabbit to lay sternally without the ears touching the top of the container)
- allow for drainage, collection, or absorption of wastes
- constructed of readily sanitizable material
- provide non-slip flooring
- permit inspection of rabbits
- fitted with openings that are large enough for safe loading and unloading of rabbits
- fitted with a locking device to prevent rabbits from escaping
- well-constructed and free of protrusions to prevent injury.
Provision of bedding or litter can help ensure that rabbits in solid-bottom containers have proper footing and do not come in direct contact with accumulated wastes, water, or snow.
Container design, material, and state of repair must minimize the risk of injury to rabbits.
Containers must have sides, a bottom, and a top of sufficient strength to protect rabbits during loading and transport. The use of burlap or any type of bag is unacceptable.
The time that rabbits are held in containers on farm must be minimized.
All reasonable steps must be taken to ensure rabbits do not become wet during loading in cold temperatures. Wet rabbits must not be transported in cold temperatures.
Containers loaded with rabbits must be checked to ensure no part of the rabbit is protruding, and containers must be kept level and never thrown or dropped.
Rabbits being transported must not be in direct contact with accumulated wastes, water, or snow.
Load rabbits in clean transport containers.
Refer also to the Requirements in Section 5.2 – Handling and On-Farm Movement of Rabbits.
- minimize the time rabbits are carried by hand by using a carrying crate when moving rabbits from the cages/pens to the loading area to reduce the risk of injury and stress
- clean, sanitize, and disinfect containers after each use.
6.4.1 Loading Density
The appropriate number of rabbits per container depends on the available floor space, size of the rabbits, and environmental conditions at the time of transport.
In hot or humid weather, the loading density in the containers should be reduced to minimize environmental heat and relative humidity (31) and allow rabbits to adopt postures that help them dissipate heat (32). In the winter, increasing loading densities, resulting in the animal’s inability to reposition themselves within the container to avoid direct exposure to colder areas, can lead to cold stress (31). Refer to Appendix E – Should this Rabbit Be Loaded?
The number of rabbits per container must be determined prior to loading, taking into consideration the available floor space, body size/weight, environmental conditions, and time of transport.
Rabbits must be loaded in containers in such a way that permits each of them to rest on the container floor at the same time when evenly distributed, while preventing excessive movement within the container.
6.5 On-Farm Lairage
This section applies to lairage on the farm of origin or depots where rabbits are held for later pickup. In all cases, lairage time should be minimized as much as possible. Both weight loss and mortality rates increase with increasing lairage and transport times (6). On-farm management must account for the fact that feed and water is rarely provided in lairage.
Refer also to Section 6.4 – Loading for Transport.
Rabbits in lairage must be protected from rain and extremes of temperature, particularly wind in cold ambient temperatures and direct sun in hot ambient temperatures.
While in lairage, containers must be arranged to ensure rabbits get appropriate air flow relative to environmental conditions.
Euthanasia is defined as the “ending of the life of an individual animal in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress” (3). It is characterized by rapid, irreversible unconsciousness (insensibility), followed by prompt death (4).
7.1 Decision-Making Around Euthanasia
Euthanasia is an important aspect of animal welfare. Allowing a sick or injured rabbit to linger unnecessarily (sometimes informally referred to as “letting nature take its course”) is unacceptable.
It is important to euthanize rabbits without delay that:
- are unlikely to recover;
- fail to respond to treatment and recovery protocols;
- show signs of chronic, severe or debilitating pain and distress;
- are unable to access feed and water;
- are unable to stand or walk; or
- show marked weight loss/loss of body condition.
Training, attitude, and behaviour of personnel responsible for euthanasia can greatly influence the timeliness, effectiveness, and humaneness of the procedure. Personnel who have received training on all aspects of euthanasia have greater confidence in making timely euthanasia decisions and have the skills necessary to perform the procedure competently.
Having an on-farm euthanasia plan can improve confidence when making decisions about euthanasia and help ensure the procedure is carried out in a timely and consistent manner. Euthanasia plans should be developed in consultation with a veterinarian and include procedures to recognize sick animals, criteria for euthanasia, and appropriate euthanasia techniques (4).
Rabbits must be euthanized without delay if they are experiencing unrelieved pain or distress and do not have a reasonable prospect of improvement or fail to respond to treatment or convalescence.
- develop a written on-farm euthanasia plan in consultation with a veterinarian
- establish and follow clear criteria for euthanasia of individual rabbits (see Appendix F – Sample Euthanasia Decision Tree).
7.2 Methods of Euthanasia
Any euthanasia method must result in rapid loss of consciousness followed by death without the animal regaining consciousness (4). Different methods are required depending on rabbit age and weight (see Appendix G – Methods of On-Farm Euthanasia). Further peer-reviewed research may result in new, acceptable equipment and/or euthanasia methods, or the elimination of some currently accepted practices.
When choosing a euthanasia method, consider (33,34):
- ability to restrain the rabbit for proper application of the procedure
- size and weight of the rabbit
- emotional comfort of the personnel performing the procedure and any bystanders
- skill of the personnel performing the procedure
- biosecurity and potential spread of disease
- carcass use and disposal.
Every effort should be made to minimize animal distress prior to euthanasia. Humane handling and restraint are important factors for euthanasia to be carried out with minimal pain and distress.
The successful application of any euthanasia method depends on many factors, including the competence and commitment of the personnel carrying out the procedure (3). Personnel who are tasked with euthanizing rabbits need to be trained and monitored periodically to ensure continued competence.
Not all personnel are suited to perform euthanasia, nor do all personnel have the required physical strength and abilities to perform certain euthanasia methods. These factors may impact the efficacy of the euthanasia method. Operator fatigue may also impact animal welfare (3). Attitudes towards euthanasia should be monitored to ensure that personnel are comfortable with the methods being used.
The method of euthanasia must be quick, cause minimal stress and pain, and result in rapid loss of consciousness followed by death without the rabbit regaining consciousness.
Personnel performing euthanasia must be competent in the euthanasia methods used on the farm.
Equipment used for euthanasia must be cleaned between uses and used and maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper function.
- when restraint is necessary, choose the safest, least stressful method sufficient to facilitate effective euthanasia and ensure euthanasia is performed with minimal delay following restraint (4)
- have a backup euthanasia method readily available.
7.3 Confirmation of Insensibility and Death
It is essential that rabbits be swiftly rendered insensible and remain so until death. For this reason, euthanasia methods that affect the brain first are preferred (4).
Signs of sensibility (i.e. that the rabbit is still conscious) include (6):
- rabbit blinks when the surface of the eye is touched (corneal reflex)
- rabbit attempts to raise its head or body (righting reflex)
- rhythmic breathing is observed (nostrils moving in and out regularly)
- rabbit responds to painful stimuli (e.g. a pinch of the ear or folds of skin between the toes).
Absence of these signs indicates that the rabbit is insensible. Convulsions (e.g. uncoordinated kicking of the legs, body rigidity) following the application of the euthanasia method are not a sign of sensibility.
Regardless of the euthanasia method, death must be confirmed prior to carcass disposal (3). Lack of heartbeat is the most important indicator of death; however, because this can be difficult to confirm, lack of movement and breathing should also be used to confirm death (3).
Rabbits must be evaluated for signs of sensibility immediately after the euthanasia method has been applied and until death is confirmed.
If signs of sensibility are observed after the application of the euthanasia method, a second application of the euthanasia method (or an alternate method) must be immediately administered.
Death must be confirmed before moving or leaving the rabbit or disposing the carcass.
1. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2013) Compromised Animals Policy. Available at: www.inspection.gc.ca/animals/terrestrial-animals/humane-transport/compromised-animals-policy/eng/1360016317589/1360016435110
2. International Organization for Standardization (2012) Directives, Part 1 Consolidated ISO supplement: procedures specific to ISO, 3rd edition.
3. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (2013) AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013 Edition. Schaumburg, IL: American Veterinary Medical Association.
4. Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) (2014) Euthanasia - Position Statement. Available at: www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/euthanasia.
5. Giersberg M.F., Kemper N. & Fels M. (2015) Planimetric measures of floor space covered by fattening rabbits and breeding does in different body postures and weight classes. Livestock Science 177:142–150.
6. Rabbit Code of Practice Scientific Committee (2017) Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Rabbits: Review of Scientific Research on Priority Issues. Lacombe, AB: National Farm Animal Care Council.
7. European Food Safety Authority (2005) Scientific opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on the impact of the current housing and husbandry systems on the health and welfare of farmed domestic rabbits. The EFSA Journal 267:1–31.
8. Mench J., Newberry R., Millman S., Tucker C. & Katz L. (2010) Chapter 4: Environmental Enrichment. In: Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching. Champaign, IL: Federation of Animal Science Societies. ISBN 978-1-884706-11-0.
9. Lebas F., Coudert P., de Rochambeau H. & Thébault R.G. (1997) The Rabbit – Husbandry, health and production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: www.fao.org/docrep/t1690e/t1690e00.htm#Contents.
10. Marai I.F.M., Habeeb A.A.M. & Gad A.E. (2002) Rabbits’ productive, reproductive and physiological traits as affected by heat stress: a review. Livestock Production Science 78:71–90.
11. Vaughn L.K., Veale W.L. & Cooper K.E. (1978) Impaired thermoregulation in pregnant rabbits at term. Pflügers Archiv 378:185–187.
12. Szedrő Zs., Gerencsér Zs., McNitt J.I. & Matics Zs. (2016) Effect of lighting on rabbits and its role in rabbit production: a review. Livestock Science 183:12–18.
13. National Research Council (1977) Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits, 2nd Revised Edition. National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C.
14. Carabaño R., Piquer J., Menoyo D. & Badiola I. (2010) The digestive system of rabbits. In: The Nutrition of the Rabbit, 2nd edition. Eds. C. de Blas & J. Wiseman. Cambridge, MA: CAB International. pp. 7–18.
15. Harkness J.E., Turner P.V., VandeWoude S. & Wheler C.L. (2010) Biology and husbandry. In: Harkness and Wagner’s Biology and Medicine of Rabbits and Rodents, 5th ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
16. Gidenne T., ed. (2006) Nutritional and feeding strategies for improving the health of the doe and the young rabbit. In: Recent Advances in Rabbit Sciences. Eds. L. Maertens and P. Coudert. pp. 199–259.
17. Smith D.R. (2012) Field disease diagnostic investigation of neonatal calf diarrhea. Veterinary Clinics: Food Animal Practice 28:465–481.
18. Gulliksen S.M., Lie K.I. & Østerås O. (2009). Calf health monitoring in Norwegian dairy herds. Journal of Dairy Science 92(4):1660–1669.
19. Lundborg G.K., Svensson E.C. & Oltenacu P.A. (2005) Herd-level risk factors for infectious diseases in Swedish dairy calves aged 0–90 days. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 68:123–143.
20. European Commission (2015) Guidelines for prudent use of antimicrobials in veterinary medicine. Available at: ec.europa.eu/health/antimicrobial_resistance/docs/2015_prudent_use_guidelines_en.pdf.
21. Rosell J.M. & de la Fuenta L.F. (2016) Causes of mortality in breeding rabbits. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 127:56–63.
22. Rosell J.M. & de la Fuenta L.F. On-farm causes of mortality in female rabbits. Proceedings of the 10th World Rabbit Congress, September 3-6, 2012 (Egypt). 1147–1150.
23. Depoorter P., Van Huffel X., Diricks H., Imberechts H., Dewulf J., Berkvens D. & Uyttendaelle M. (2015) Measuring general animal health status. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 118:341–350.
24. Agnoletti F. (2012) Update on rabbit enteric diseases: despite improved diagnostic capacity, where does disease control and prevention stand? Proceedings of the 10th World Rabbit Congress, September 3-6, 2012 (Egypt). 1113–1127.
25. Rushen J. & Passillé A.M. (2010) The importance of good stockmanship and its benefits for the animals. In Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach. Ed. T. Grandin. Cambridge, MA: CAB International. pp. 50–63.
26. BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Working Group (1993) Refinements in rabbit husbandry. 2nd report of the BVAAWF/FRAME/RSPCA/UFAW Joint Working Group on Refinement. Laboratory Animals 27:301–329.
27. Keating S.C.J., Thomas A.A., Flecknell P.A. & Leach M.C. (2012) Evaluation of EMLA cream for preventing pain during tattooing of rabbits: changes in physiological, behavioural, and facial expression. PLOS ONE 7(9), e44437.
28. Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (2014) Pain Control in Animals – Position Statement. Available at: www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/pain-control-in-animals. Accessed September 5, 2017.
29. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (n.d.) Genetic welfare problems of companion animals: rabbits. Available at: www.ufaw.org.uk/rabbits/angora-long-hair.
30. Meredith A. (2000) General biology and husbandry. In: Manual of Rabbit Medicine and Surgery. Ed. P. Flecknell. BSAVA: Cheltenham, UK.. pp 13–25.
31. Canadian Agri-Food Research Council (2001) Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals – Transportation. Available at: www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/transport/code#
32. EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) (2011) Scientific Opinion concerning the welfare of animals during transport. EFSA Journal 9(1):1966.
33. Woods J., Shearer J.K. & Hill J. (2010) Recommended On-farm Euthanasia Practices. In: Improving Animal Welfare - A Practical Approach. Ed. T. Grandin. Cambridge, MA: CAB International. pp. 186–213.
34. Shearer J.K. & Ramirez A. (last updated January 28, 2013) Procedures for Humane Euthanasia – Euthanasia of Sick, Injured and/or Debilitated Livestock. Available at: vetmed.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/vdpam/Extension/Dairy/Programs/Humane%20Euthanasia/Download%20Files/EuthanasiaBrochure20130128.pdf
Body condition scoring (BCS) is a hands-on method of assessing the amount of fat and muscle cover on an animal. Proper scoring involves both physical palpation and visual assessment of specific anatomical sites.
Body condition score
1 Very thin
- Hip bones, ribs, and spine project prominently
- Loss of muscle and no fat cover
- Rump area curves in
- Hip bones, ribs, and spine are easily felt
- Loss of muscle and very little fat cover
- Rump area is flat
- Hip bones, ribs, and spine are easily felt but are rounded, not sharp
- No abdominal bulge
- Rump area is flat
- Pressure is needed to feel the ribs, spine, and hip bones
- Some fat layers
- The rump is rounded
- Very hard to feel the spine and hip bones; ribs cannot be felt
- Abdomen sags with obvious fat padding
- Rump bulges out
The following is a list of methods of euthanasia that are considered either acceptable or acceptable with the noted conditions. The chart is based on peer-reviewed research available as of the publishing of this Code.a,b Further peer-reviewed research may result in new, acceptable equipment and/or euthanasia methods, or the elimination of some currently accepted practices. For a method to be considered acceptable, it must rapidly render the rabbit insensible and the rabbit must not return to sensibility prior to death.
Additional resources on euthanasia are provided in Appendix H.
|Euthanasia Method||Acceptability by Rabbit Age and Weight||Conditions||Comments|
Acceptable for all rabbits
|IV barbiturate (for example) administered under the direction of a licensed veterinarian only.||Carcasses may be dangerous to scavengers. Safe disposal of the carcass is necessary.|
Acceptable for:- Pre-weaned kits <150 g (<0.3 lb)
Complete separation of the head from the body can be accomplished with the use of appropriate equipment such as heavy scissors or garden shears.
|Assisted manual cervical dislocation|
Acceptable with conditions for:
- Pre-weaned kits 150 g – 1 kg (0.3 – 2.2 lb)
- Weaned and growing rabbits 1 – 1.5 kg (2.2 – 3.3 lb)
- Adult rabbits >1.5 kg (>3.3lb)
A purpose-designed device that results in separation (never crushing) of the cervical vertebrae must be used.
Blunt force trauma
Only as a method of stunning pre-weaned kits <150 g (<0.3 lb).
A secondary step to cause death is required.
Appropriate physical force must be used and the object must be brought to the rabbit’s head, once the rabbit has been restrained.
Blunt force trauma must be immediately followed by a suitable secondary step (decapitation or manual cervical dislocation) to cause death.
Manual cervical dislocation
Acceptable with conditions for:
- Pre-weaned kits <150 g (<0.3 lb)
Must result in separation (never crushing) of the cervical vertebrae.
|Non-penetrating captive bolt|
Acceptable with conditions for:
- Pre-weaned kits (150 g - 1 kg (0.3 - 2.2 lb)
- Weaned and growing rabbits 1 - 1.5 kg (2.2 - 3.3 lb)
- Adult rabbits >1.5 kg (<3.3 lb)
Proper restraint of the rabbit.
Correct placement and aim of the device.
Devices must be cleaned and maintained according to manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper function.
Gas Inhalation: Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Acceptable with conditions for:
- Pre-weaned kits at least 2 weeks of age (150 g - 1 kg [0.3 - 2.2 lb])
- Weaned and growing rabbits 1 - 1.5 kg (2.2 - 3.3 lb)
- Adult rabbits >1.5 kg (>3.3 lb)
Requires specialized equipment (pressure-reducing regulator, flow meter, CO2 cylinder or tank) and a closed chamber to contain gas.
Gradual fill chambers must be used, and the gas must be supplied in a precisely regulated and purified form without contaminants or adulterants.
Rabbits must be placed in the chamber in a single layer and never overcrowded.
Use in a well-ventilated area for operator safety.
a American Veterinary Medical Association (2013) AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals. Schaumburg, IL: American Veterinary Medical Association.
b Rabbit Code of Practice Scientific Committee (2017) Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Rabbits: Review of Scientific Research on Priority Issues. Lacombe, AB: National Farm Animal Care Council.
HOUSING AND EQUIPMENT
Emergency planning and safety
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (2011) Reducing the risk of fire on your farm. Publication 837. Available at: www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/barnfire/toc.htm.
The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Company (2008) Rural Emergency Plan. Online: www.ruralemergencyplan.com/
Facility design and construction
Canada Plan Service. Series 8000 – Special structures, Plan 8248 – 240 Doe rabbitry. Available at: www.cps.gov.on.ca/english/ss8000/ss8248.htm.
Canada Plan Service. Series 9000 – Building Engineering, Plan 9700 Fan ventilation principles and rates. Available at: www.cps.gov.on.ca/english/frameindex.htm.
Lang, B. (last reviewed 2012) Rodent Control in Livestock and Poultry Facilities. Agdex 400/680. Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Available at: www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/dairy/facts/10-077.htm.
Turnbull J.E., Huffman H.E. Fan ventilation principles and rates. Plan M-9700. Canada Plan Service. Available at: www.cps.gov.on.ca/english/plans/E9000/9700/M-9700L.pdf.
Estellés F., Bustamante E., Torres A.G. & Calvet S. Evaluation of climate control strategies in rabbit houses. World Rabbit Science Association, Proceedings of the 10th World Rabbit Congress, September 3-6, 2012. Available at: www.world-rabbit-science.com/WRSA-Proceedings/Congress-2012-Egypt/Papers/04-Management/M-Estelles.pdf.
Mousa-Balabel, T.M. (2004) Effect of heat stress on New Zealand white rabbits’ behaviour and performance. Minufiya Veterinary Journal, 3(1):125-134. Available at: www.publicationslist.org.s3.amazonaws.com/data/tarek.mousa-balabel/ref-6/paper_5%20heat%20stress%20on%20rabbit.pdf.
Cheeke P.R. (1987) Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. Orlando, Fl: Academic Press Inc.
de Blas C. & Wiseman J. (2010) The Nutrition of the Rabbit, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: CAB International.
Government of Alberta (2006) Know your feed terms. AgDex 400/60-2. Available at: www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex4521/$file/400_60-2.pdf?OpenElement.
National Research Council. (1977) Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits, 2nd Revised Edition. Washington, D.C: National Academy of Sciences.
Lang B., Dam A. & Taylor K. (2013) Rodent Control in Livestock and Poultry Facilities. Agdex # 400/680. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Available at: www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/dairy/facts/13-057.htm.
Ontario Rabbit. Rabbit Artificial Insemination Resource Guide. Available at: www.ontariorabbit.ca/?page_id=74.
Farm and Food Care Ontario (2016) Euthanasia Guide for Ontario Meat Rabbit Producers. Available at: www.ovc.uoguelph.ca/sites/default/files/users/n.lemieux/files/Ontario%20Rabbit%20Handbook%281%29.pdf.
Farm and Food Care Ontario (2016) Rabbit Handling and Euthanasia [Video]. Available at: www.ovc.uoguelph.ca/pathobiology/impact.
Lebas F., Coudert P., de Rochambeau H. & Thébault R.G. (1997) The Rabbit – Husbandry, health and production. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: www.fao.org/docrep/t1690e/t1690e00.htm#Contents.
McNitt J.I, Lukefahr S.D., Cheeke P.R. & Patton N.M. (2013) Rabbit Production, 9th Edition. Boston, MA: CABI.
Ontario Rabbit (2013) Best Management Practices for Commercial Rabbit Production. Available to order through: www.ontariorabbit.ca/?page_id=451.
RESOURCES AVAILABLE IN FRENCH
Centre de référence en agriculture et agroalimentaire du Québec (2013) Fiches techniques : L'élevage du lapin. Available at:www.craaq.qc.ca/Publications-du-CRAAQ/fiches-techniques-l_elevage-du-lapin/p/PCUN0101.
Centre de référence en agriculture et agroalimentaire du Québec (2009) L'élevage commercial du lapin. Available at:
Boucher S. & Nouaille L. (2013) Maladies des lapins, 3e édition. Éditions France Agricole. Available at: www.craaq.qc.ca/Publications-du-CRAAQ/maladies-des-lapins-3e-edition/p/PAUT0141.
Code Development Committee Members
|Producer||Maxime Tessier (Chair)||Syndicat des producteurs de lapins du Québec|
|Michel Dignard||Ontario Rabbit|
|Marion Popkin||Alberta Rabbit Producers Association|
|Michelle Sanders||Ontario Rabbit|
|Yan Turmine||Syndicat des producteurs de lapins du Québec|
|Veterinarian||Terry Fisk D.V.M.||Canadian Veterinary Medical Association|
|Animal Welfare||Meghann Cant M.Sc.||Canadian Federation of Humane Societies|
|Animal Welfare Enforcement||Erika Paul||BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals|
|Research/Academic||Patricia V. Turner M.S., D.V.M., D.VSc.||Scientific Committee Chair|
|Technical Expertise||Brian Tapscott||Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs|
|Federal Government||Geneviève Bénard||Canadian Food Inspection Agency|
|Virginie Rochet, agr.||Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada|
Scientific Committee Members
|Canadian Veterinary Medical Association||Patricia V. Turner M.S., D.V.M., D.VSc. (Chair)|
|International Society for Applied Ethology||Stephanie Buijs Ph.D.|
|International Society for Applied Ethology||Jorine Rommers B.Sc., Ph.D.|
The Code Development Committee would like to thank Caroline Ramsay, who served as Code Manager; the members of the Scientific Committee; and Stephanie Torrey for her role as Research Writer. The Committee also wishes to recognize Joe Abate who served as a special advisor on transport as well as Karen Potvin, Jean-Philippe Blouin, and Armand Plourde who served at different times as Industry Liaisons.
The Committee appreciates the valuable input from the public comment period and all those who provided comments and advice throughout the process.