Getting Started with Rabbits

So you’ve decided to raise rabbits! Congratulations. You have made an excellent choice. Rabbits are a great livestock choice for any homesteader, for a number of reasons.

They take up very little space, eat next to nothing, and provide you with a great return on investment in terms of their meat, companionship, and free fertilizer.

However, if you are a first-time rabbit farmer, you may be curious about the best way to take care of these adorable animals. Luckily, with a few tweaks and a little bit of background knowledge you will soon find that rabbits are the perfect animal to raise on any homestead.

Choosing the Breed

It’s important that you choose your rabbit breed wisely when you are starting out with raising rabbits. This is because some rabbits are designed to be domestic species, or pets, instead of meat breeds, and won’t yield as much meat as others.

There are forty-eight different breeds of rabbits available in the United States alone, making it tough to choose between all of these species.

The important thing to keep in mind when selecting your breed is that you want to find one that will give you the most meat (or fiber, if you’re interested in that) for your money.

Don’t waste your money on a “show” rabbit, or one that is bred solely for its appearance. Find a rabbit with a high meat-to-cost ratio instead.

Rabbits are classified based on their weight or their hair. Which factor you place more emphasis on will depend on your ultimate goals in raising your rabbits.

Small rabbits are those that are less than four pounds, while medium rabbits are nine to twelve pounds. Large rabbits are fourteen to sixteen pounds when mature.

Some of the most popular rabbit breeds for homesteaders include:

  • Angora
  • American Chinchilla
  • Checkered Giants
  • English Spot
  • Himalayan
  • Polish
  • Silver Martens
  • Rex
  • New Zealand
  • Flemish Giants
  • Dutch
  • Champagne d’Argent
  • Cailfornian
new zealand red rabbit
New Zealand red rabbit. No machine-readable author provided. Hagen Graebner assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

New Zealand rabbits are an excellent first choice for rabbit farmers. The start off small, but then grow to be the size of a large housecat. They produce excellent, nutritious meat, and can grow up to twelve pounds in size.

American rabbits are another common meat breed, producing equivalent amounts of meat but also offering good mothering traits – a must-have feature if you plan on raising multiple litters.

Some meat breeds will produce good meat-to-bone ratio, giving you, so to speak, more bang for your buck. These include Californians, Florida Whites, Silver Foxes, and Cinnamon breeds. Other brands grow more quickly, such as the Palomino or the Beveren, while others are prized for their fur.

Rex Rabbit
Photo of a Rex rabbit, PD-user-en/Mr. Rex [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re looking for a dual-purpose fiber and meat rabbit, consider breeds like the Standard Rex, the Satin, or the Champagne D’Argent. These three breeds are prized for their high pelt and fur values, but can also be raised for meat, giving you multiple options to generate some income on the homestead.

Whichever type you choose, consider the intended purpose of your rabbits before you buy. When you’re ready to pick them out, consider buying a trio: one buck, and two does. Generally, a three-pound rabbit, before being butchered, will cost less than fifty cents to raise.

When it comes to how many rabbits you should start with, remember that they will breed quickly and you will rapidly grow your colony size.

Most part-time rabbit businesses start with 50 to 100 rabbits, but if you’re just raising rabbits for your family or as pets you likely don’t need that many.

One doe will produce 25 to 50 live rabbits each year, yielding up to 250 pounds of meat total. On the fur side of things, most rabbits will produce up to 16 ounces of wool each year.

rabbit in hutch

Shelter

Rabbits are incredibly easy to house, requiring only a rudimentary hutch. Your hutch can be as elaborate as a store-bought housing system, or as elementary as a wooden box divided into two roughly equivalent section. One section should be enclosed entirely with wire mesh, while the other should have wooden sides with a wire mesh floor.

Rabbits need wire mesh because it will allow them to stand and walk easily without their feet slipping through larger holes. It also makes it easier for you to clean, as the rabbit droppings will fall through to the ground and you won’t need to scrape excrement out of the bottom of a cage.

Another alternative to wire mesh is diamond mesh. This allows the rabbits a bit more comfort, but still offers holes for the waste to fall through. This is a bit more expensive, but you can use repurposed items, like pieces from a table made out of the same material.

You can also choose to deep litter your rabbits. This is an excellent choice during the colder winter months, as mesh can provide too much of a draft for your rabbits in extremely frigid conditions.

This also provides the rabbits with the ability to chew their cud, as these animals often eat their food a second time after they have passed it. If you have a wire floor, or some other floor with holes in it, this causes the cud to pass through just as it would with waste.

While fully enclosing the floor of your rabbit hutch may be more preferable for the rabbits, it does create extra work for you. You will need to clean the hutch at least once a week to prevent disease, and this time can add up if you are looking for a time-efficient solution.

Wooden boxes can easily build up urine, waste, and cause disease, and your rabbits will also be more likely to chew if you have a solid floor, so keep this in mind if you plan to use a solid floor instead of mesh.

The purpose of fully enclosing one side of the hutch is to provide your rabbits with protection from the elements. While you don’t want to enclose the entire hutch, since this will reduce airflow and make it more claustrophobic inside the box, it is good to provide your rabbits with a sanctuary to go to when the weather turns nasty.

Having multiple sections in your hutch also gives you an extra place to put your buck after your females have been bred. This will give you greater control over when and where the rabbits reproduce, making it easier for you to manage your populations.

Besides this basic structure, you should also provide your rabbits with a small piece of wood. This will give them something to stand on if they don’t feel like standing on the wire, and will also give them something to chew in order to keep their teeth sharp.

If you don’t want to build a hutch, another option for housing your rabbits is in the colony method. This allows your rabbits to stay together at all times, and is easier to construct than a hutch.

All you need to do is fence in a grassy area. However, this makes it tougher to control reproduction and also increases the likelihood of predation from outside predators.

Because the rabbits dig their own holes for shelter, the possibility of one getting out or being swept away by a hawk also becomes more likely.

Tractoring your rabbits is a good option for homesteaders who want free-range, grass-fed rabbits. This is a more natural option and very easy to do.

You will need about six square feet of space per rabbit, and keep in mind that you will need to move them every few days to provide them with access to new grass. This also allows time for the grass to grow back.

Tractoring is a good option if you want to provide your lawn with free fertilizer at all times. It also gives them more space to stretch their legs.

However, you must make sure the tractor is secure enough so that they can’t dig out from underneath it, and so that predators cannot make their way inside.

If your tractor is open on the top, or covered only with mesh, you also need to make sure they have an area to crawl underneath to gain protection from airborne predators as well as from the elements, like heat and precipitation.

No matter how you choose to house your rabbits, make sure you provide them with shelter in a shaded area. They get warm very easily, so it’s not a bad idea to also place frozen water bottles in the hutch during the hot summer months to help keep them cool.

Rabbits only need about three by ten feet. You can start to house them at any time of the year, so it’s an easy transition to make. Be on the lookout for common rabbit predators like foxes, wolves, or raccoons. Otherwise, there’s not much you need to do to get them started.

Rabbits are relatively self-sufficient throughout most weather, but may need a little extra TLC during extreme cold or heat. For example, when winter temperatures drop below freezing, you may need to add a heat lamp or some extra insulation.

Deep bedding can help. You can also feed them black oil sunflower seeds to help them put on a little extra fat. Generally, as long as your rabbits can get out of the wind and snow, they should be safe.

You will need to pay extra attention to their water to make sure it does not freeze. While you can purchase special heated waterers to prevent the dreaded freeze-thaw-freeze cycle, an easier way to remedy this problem is to simply wrap heat tape around the nipple water system. This will prevent freezing, and can be easily removed come spring.

The heat, however, is a different story. While rabbits relish the cold, they aren’t as well-equipped to handle hot spells. In some extremely hot climates, rabbit owners build burrows out of brick to help create a cool, shady shelter for their rabbits. The burrow will give them a nice cool place to hide.

Make sure the shelter is in the shade, and add water daily, even if you have a watering system that contains enough water for several days at a time.

Because of evaporation or spillage, you never know when your rabbits might unexpectedly run out of water, and just a few hours without water can be enough to kill them.

Most of today’s rabbits are descendants of hardy European rabbit breeds, so they can tolerate somewhat harsh weather. However, some kind of a shelter is imperative. In the wild, rabbits use burrows but as pets, they need hutches.

You can turn a section of your yard into a run, but it must be escape- and predator-proof. Rabbits can dig, and so can other predators. You will want to check your lawn for any poisonous plants prior to building your shelter.

Some rabbit keepers also raise their rabbits indoors. This is safest and easiest but takes up a lot of space, so it’s obviously not the best choice if you’re raising many rabbits. You will need a cage that provides your rabbits with one place to sleep along with some sort of a run.

rabbits eating

Feeding and Watering

Rabbits are one of the least expensive livestock animals to feed. You can purchase commercial rabbit pellets from your local feed store. These are packed with protein and will help your rabbits put on the maximum amount of weight in the shortest period of time.

However, commercial feed is not organic, so if you want to raise organic meat rabbits you should consider more natural options. Fodder is sprouted wheat grass and it provides all of the nutrients your rabbits will need. It is inexpensive and not time consuming to make.

Growing your own feed is a great option for many self-sufficient homesteaders. Consider cultivating foods like dandelions, barley, buckwheat, mint, or clover. Other good crops include wheat and oats.

Rabbits are incredibly versatile creatures, and really the only challenge in growing your feed is not the question of what to feed them, but how to store it.

It can be challenging to store some of these feeds for long periods of time unless you have access to commercial equipment, so do your research before plunging into this endeavor.

Some people also feed their rabbits hay. Hay can be purchased from local nurseries or agricultural stores, or if you already raise livestock you may have some extra on hand. Rabbits need less than a basketball-sized ball of hay every day to meet their needs.

Alfalfa is another good option. Timothy, clover, or other options can be fed as hay or as fresh (not dried) versions. If you feed hay or a similar food, make sure it is cut up into three- or four-inch lengths. This will allow them to both eat and digest it better. You can even feed your rabbits lawn trimmings!

If you have a vegetable garden, you can also feed rabbits scraps from your plot. You likely already know how difficult it is to keep rabbits out of your garden – they love the smorgasbord of tasty options there!

Rabbits particularly like tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, and even weeds – but no vegetable is truly off limit. However, you should try to avoid feeding too much green material at once, as this can cause bloating and diarrhea.

Here are some other treats you can feed your rabbits:

  • Pineapple
  • Fresh and dried leaves
  • Herbs
  • Dandelions
  • Most vegetables (about a cup a day)
  • Arugula
  • Fruits (avoid cherry pits and tomato leaves)

Each rabbit needs about twelve to twenty grams of protein each day, depending on their age, gender, and whether they are pregnant or lactating.

They need about three grams of fat and fourteen grams of fiber. The cost of feeding a rabbit is minute, especially when you consider how quickly rabbits reach maturity.

Rabbits do, however, drink a lot of water. They need several liters of water per week, so the easiest way to provide them with consistently fresh, clean water is to purchase a nozzle that you can place on a recycled soda bottle. This will allow you to refill the bottles just a couple times a week, instead of every day.

Avoid using a bowl to water or feed your rabbits. These result in a lot of waste, as they are easily spilled and emptied. Instead, purchase or build feeders or waterers that can be mounted to the side of a cage and opened for filling.

When it comes to food that your rabbits should stay away from, here are some of the most significant:

  • Any plants that grow from bulbs
  • Bindweed
  • Buttercup
  • Elder
  • Foxglove
  • Hellebores
  • Hemlock
  • Lupine
  • Oak leaves
  • Potatoes
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Yew
  • Woody nightshade
  • Amaryllis

Health Needs

Rabbits are relatively self-sufficient, and generally do not have any health problems besides ear mites. Ear mites can best be prevented by avoiding straw bedding, but your rabbits can still pick up these mites even with alternative sources of bedding.

If your rabbits get mites, treat their ears with a couple of drops of olive oil in the infected ear every other day for about thirty days. Clean the hutch with a diluted bleach solution to make sure the mites are destroyed.

Most issues in rabbits are related to allergies or mild illnesses. Occasionally, rabbits can become affected by too much dust in the cage, which can cause sneezing and watery eyes.

That being said, it’s important to stay on top of any symptoms you might notice. Pasturella, also known as snuffles, is a viral illness known to affect rabbits and it’s highly contagious.

You can treat with antibiotics, like penicillin or duramycin, but you need to catch it early on. Otherwise, it can travel quickly through a rabbit colony and can be devastating.

Knowing the signs of a healthy rabbit is important to stay on top of any diseases before they become problematic. A healthy rabbit is one that is alert, interested in food, and aware of its surroundings.

It won’t be sitting in a corner looking unkempt or having any kind of runny discharge, unusual odors, colors, or diarrhea.

Another common issue results from poor housing in your rabbit hutch. When your rabbits have thin fur padding on their hocks and rest them on a wire floor, they can develop sore hocks. Putting some plywood on the floor to form a more solid barrier can give your rabbits somewhere to rest their tired feet.

Coccidiosis is a common parasite issue. This is caused by too much coccidian in the digestive tract, which leads to a sickly appearance, a failure to thrive, and a weakened immunity.

You can treat this disease with coccidiastat, which can easily be added to your rabbits’ water. There is one type of coccidiosis that affects the liver of your rabbits, so if you suspect this strain, be sure to check with a veterinarian.

Bot fly infestations can also occur. These are flies that lay their eggs on your rabbit’s fur, with the larvae later migrating inside the rabbit via the skin. It’s fairly unpleasant to deal with and can lead to many secondary infections.

As with any kind of livestock, make sure you pay attention to the water, feed, and housing of your rabbits. Keeping things clean and secure will help prevent a lot of diseases, as flies and other pests that can transmit diseases are attracted to wet bedding and manure. After all, this is where these pests like to breed!

If you decide to raise rabbits, it’s a good idea to keep on hand a rabbit first aid kit. This should include items like VetRx, Vetericyn Eye Gel, and wound care spray. You might also include things like scissors, a flashlight, gauze pads, and veterinarian wrap in case any injuries arise.

Some people also keep herbs on hand to naturally treat any health issues that might come up. Thyme, parsley, oregano, and lemon balm are particularly effective, with dried thyme serving as one of the best respiratory health boosters.

Bedding

Make sure you add plenty of fresh, clean bedding to your rabbit hutch. This is where rabbits sleep and will give birth, so it’s important that they are comfortable.

Keeping flies away from the hutch is also important, because flies can feast upon your young rabbits and even cause them to die. If you are changing bedding regularly (think at least once a week) and still have a fly problem, consider hanging fly strips outside of the hutch.

You have several options in terms of the material you use for the bedding, but you should always avoid using straw. Straw can carry mites. Rabbits are particularly susceptible to ear mites, which can be difficult to get rid of once they have emerged.

Wood shavings are a good choice, as long as the rabbits have not recently given birth. Wood shavings can carry scents that can damage young rabbits’ respiratory systems.
Other options include sand (which can be challenging with a mesh floor), paper, or leaves.

Old shredded paper is an easy source of bedding for rabbits, because you likely have tons of old papers lying around the home Whenever you receive junk mail or empty out your filing cabinet, go ahead and drop them into a shredder.

You can then fill your rabbits’ hutches with this material you were growing to throw out anyway. You can also use shredded cardboard or even hay. Both options will keep your rabbits clean, comfortable, and warm.

Raising Rabbits for Wool

Many rabbits are dual-purpose breeds, meaning you can use them for either meat or wool. However, some species, such as Angora breeds, are usually raised exclusively for their fiber.

While you can eat the meat from these animals, it is not as high-quality as that from a rabbit raised solely for meat.

If you choose to raise rabbits for the fiber, you will obviously need to raise them for a longer period of time. You will also need to brush them at least once every other week (ideally once a week).

You can process and craft the fiber on your own, or sell the fiber as a raw material to interested buyers. Rabbits are easy to clip – much easier than larger fiber animals, like sheep or alpacas – and while it takes much more fiber to make a living, you can easily supplement your homestead’s income by selling some extra wool.

Mating and Birthing

One of the most difficult aspects of raising rabbits is navigating the mating and birthing process. Keeping your rabbits in a hutch, instead of a colony housing system, can make this easier. You will be able to keep track of birthing dates and also keep your males and females separated.

When it’s time to mate, bring the female to the male’s hutch – not vice versa. Females can be territorial and averse to courting when they are in their own spaces, so moving her out of her comfort zone can help reduce this.

You will know your female is bred when you see a “fall off.” This is when the male falls off the female and becomes very stiff. First-time rabbit breeders often panic at this sight, because it looks as though the male is dead. However, he will recover after rest and be ready to go again (but don’t let him!).

Rabbits have very short gestation periods. They only need about thirty days, meaning you can have a new litter of rabbits in a month. That being said, there is a learning curve involved for the mother rabbit, who may take a couple of litters to figure out how to keep your young alive.

It’s time to give birth when the mother starts pulling her hair out. She may be practically bald in spots by the time the babies arrive. This is done to provide extra bedding. Once the babies are born, you need to make sure you stay away.

While you can look to make sure the babies are alive, you should avoid touching the babies for as long as possible. This can discourage the mother rabbit from caring for her young.

In very rare cases, you may have issues with your does not breeding. This can be caused by a lack of light or inopportune weather conditions, such as too much heat or precipitation.

If your doe seems reluctant to be bred by the buck and is fighting him or showing resistance, get the buck out of there, as she can cause injury to the buck without necessarily intending to. Try again in a couple of days.

Stress, malnutrition, and overfeeding are other common causes of a doe’s resistance to mate. A predator lurking nearby could cause your animals to be stressed, as could tight and cramped living quarters.

An issue with the buck could also be a problem, such as if he is ill or otherwise stressed as well. Again, try again a few days later, and you can always consider adding another buck or doe if you need to.

A mother will feed her babies in private, usually twice a day. When the babies have fur and can move, they will begin to come out in the open more often. You don’t need to do anything except have a new hutch ready to go once they are too large to stay with their mother.

You can breed your rabbits every ninety days. The young will nurse for about six weeks, and can then be butchered just a few weeks later. You don’t need to worry about inbreeding your rabbits, either.

Keep a young doe or two out of each litter, and you can breed her with the same buck. Every four years, you should consider purchasing a new buck.

In some cases, you may have trouble with the doe raising her kits. While a doe will very rarely neglect her young once she’s gotten the hang of rearing them (generally after her first one or two litters), there are some factors which may cause a doe to abandon and neglect her little ones.

If the buck is nearby, your doe may be stressed by his scent. Make sure you keep him away until the doe is ready to be bred again. Another common solution is to try to give the doe more room to lower her stress levels, and to make sure her living space is secure against predators.

When you build your rabbit hutch, be sure to leave space for a nest box. A nest box will be necessary prior to kindling (or rabbit birth), as it will give the doe a place to hide and protect her litter.

Nest boxes should be small enough to keep the litter together but big enough so that mama has space for herself and her babies. You can make these out of wire mesh, sheet metal, or nontreated wood, but be sure to pack bedding like straw or wood shavings inside during colder months.

Butchering

A single rabbit can yield you up to two hundred and fifty pounds of meat per year. This, of course, depends on how frequently the doe – or female rabbit – is bred, and how many kits she has per litter.

However, despite this, a rabbit’s productivity makes them one of the smartest animals to raise for meat on your homestead.

While you can technically butcher rabbits at any age, keep in mind that the older the rabbit gets, the tougher the meat will become. You should plan to butcher your rabbits when they reach eight weeks of age.

For some larger breeds you may be able to butcher slightly sooner, but try not to wait too long past that eight-week mark for any breed.

If you are ready to butcher some of your old breeding stock, don’t think that the meat needs to go to waste. You can skin them and place them in a stew. The skin of a mature rabbit is actually worth more than that of a young one, so consider selling the hide if you have a market to do so.

Butchering can be a mental challenge, as it is time-consuming and draining. The easiest way to kill a meat rabbit is to deliver a blow on the back of the head. Then, you just need to skin, gut, and process it. Rabbits taste delicious regardless of whether they are stewed, roasted, or fried.

Once your meat is processed, there are several ways you can store it. Curing with salt is a good option, as is freezing or dehydrating your meat into jerky.

You can also can your rabbit meat, but make sure you only do so using a pressure canner. A water bath canner will not raise the processing temperature high enough to stand a chance against foodborne illnesses like botulism.

When raising rabbits for meat, keep in mind your local market. You also need to think about potential buyers and slaughtering facilities if you don’t wish to do this yourself.

Ways to Make Money with Rabbits

You already know that you can make some extra cash by selling the wool from your fiber-producing rabbit (like an Angora or similar breed). However, there are other ways you can use your rabbits to make money as well. In many cases, you can also sell the tanned pelts.

For example, rabbit manure is a fantastic – and highly sought after – fertilizer. You can spread this directly on your garden without needing to age it, since rabbits process their food twice. This kind of fertilizer can easily be sold on the open market or on sites such as Craigslist.

Another option is to look into selling your rabbit meat to local restaurants. In some cases, you may have to become USDA certified in order for a restaurant to sell your meat.

This can be a hassle, but definitely worth it if you are considering selling a large amount of meat. If you are considering raising large amounts of rabbits, make sure you look into the local regulations about the legality of mass livestock production in your area.

Getting Started

Raising rabbits on a large scale isn’t super common yet. In fact, there are fewer than 5,000 farms selling rabbits in the United States. However, you can rabbits and information on raising rabbits in your area by consulting the American Rabbit Breeders directory.

When you purchase your rabbits, make sure you check with local breeders, advertisements, and rabbit clubs, asking to see herd breeding and health records for all rabbits you ultimately purchase.

If possible, visit the rabbitry from which you intend to buy your rabbits. It should be clean and free of any disease. Rabbits should be large and be able to produce big litters. Ideally, they should also be able to raise their offspring to maturity and produce high-quality animals.

Wrap-Up

Raising rabbits is a great way to raise delicious, organic meat for your entire family. These gentle creatures breed prolifically and can also provide you with fiber that you can sell or spin into soft sweaters and blankets as well.

Because rabbits are inexpensive to raise and take less than five minutes a day to care for, they are an animal that everybody should consider raising on their homesteads.

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updated by Rebekah White 01/30/2020

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5 thoughts on “Getting Started with Rabbits”

  1. I married the boy next door and they used to raise rabbits. Some were kept as pets and I remember as kids we loved playing with them. He gave a baby to a friend and she even potty trained it.

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