Throughout this issue, we have placed a lot of emphasis on security when constructing or purchasing your structures and choosing your equipment. Once you have a safe rabbitry in place, security should still be a priority.
This security extends beyond protecting rabbits from outside threats and includes their safekeeping in all ways, from vigilant temperature control to regular feeding schedules.
The best way to make sure your rabbits stay protected is to develop consistent routines.
1. Visitor guidelines
A rabbit raiser called me up recently and said his does would not take care of their litters, and one of his bucks mysteriously died, and did I have any idea why. It took a few questions, but I finally learned that three cats resided in his rabbit shed.
Cats and rabbits are natural enemies. Cats eat rabbits when they can catch them, and if they can’t, they can still worry rabbits so much that they race around frantically in their hutches until they die of fright or, probably more accurately, heart failure. The does can also become so worried that they neglect their maternal duties and scatter and even eat their babies.
I wouldn’t let a cat or a dog, not even a friendly one, into my rabbit barn. The rabbits might not recognize its friendliness, and the animal might be carrying tapeworms that could be passed on to the rabbits. An infected dog or cat can leave behind worm eggs in their feces, and if the eggs are consumed by a rabbit, these will form cysts in the intestines and under the skin. Dogs and cats should not be in the rabbitry or near any feed, utensils, or nest box bedding, such as straw or shavings.
I wouldn’t let boisterous children into my rabbitry either, because they too might worry the rabbits. I wouldn’t even let in other adults who are rabbit raisers unless I knew they ran a disease-free rabbitry, because I don’t want my herd to be infected. Visitors who do not have rabbits are welcome, of course, but you should first find out why they want to be there.
There are existing reports of people from animal “rescue” groups letting rabbits out of hutches. If you obtain a new rabbit from another raiser, quarantine it in a hutch in your garage or outdoors for a couple of weeks before you let it join the rabbitry.
You should also eliminate rats and mice, which can eat feed and may carry disease. These rodents will often urinate on stored feed bags or in the hopper feeders. In addition, they leave their droppings all over the place and may get into hutches and kill baby rabbits or frighten the does to the point that they will kill their litters.
If you house chickens or other livestock in your building, it’s a good idea to partition the rabbit area to keep them out. Chickens love to hop up on rabbit hutches and deposit their droppings. Goats, sheep, pigs, cows and horses should have their own space specially designed for them.
Rabbits are easily startled, and a surprise can be especially detrimental when a doe is kindling. You want to keep the environment calm and quiet – no grunting, mooing, crowing, or honking. What’s good for the goose may be good for the gander but not for the rabbit.
When I’m not around, I keep a padlock on my barn door, because I don’t want anyone going in there without my knowledge.
2. Feeding and Breeding Routines
Security for my rabbits also means a regular feeding schedule.
It doesn’t really matter whether you feed your rabbits once or twice a day, but you should do it at the same time every day, because they will come to expect it. If I enter the barn at feeding time, they are glad to see me and are active but calm. If I go in at another time, I greet them by saying, “Hi, gang.” Otherwise, they are nervous until they can see me.
I also like a regular routine. I like to mate my rabbits on weekends so that youngsters will be born at midweek 31 days later, when neighborhood children are in school and things are quiet. This also means that I put in the nest box during a weekend, which is useful because I am less likely to forget to check their hutch cards for their due dates during the weekend. I like to palpate and test mate at two weeks, again on the weekend.
My routine includes placing weanlings into their own hutches – does together for a few weeks and bucks in separate quarters.
At this time, I tattoo their ears and enter their personal information in my stock record book. I record their ear number, date of birth, sex, the numbers of the sire and dam, and any special remarks, such as the quality of their fur or body type. The pertinent information also goes onto a new card for each hutch.
3. Good housekeeping
Now that you’ve put together an excellent rabbitry, complete with all-wire hutches, you’ll want it to continue functioning at a high level.
Overall cleanliness will do a lot toward making your life and those of your rabbits a lot more pleasant. The lack of it can lead to disease and be a turnoff to visitors, including potential customers. You, the rabbits, your family, neighbors and customers will appreciate your diligence in cleaning, even if they don’t come right out and thank you. It’s the finishing touch to a rabbitry and will help you raise a healthy and productive herd.
Before taking the weanlings from their mother, I clean and disinfect their new homes.
First I clean with a wire brush and burn off hair if necessary, making sure not to keep the torch on the wire longer than necessary to remove the hair, so it won’t damage the galvanizing and ultimately rust the cage. The torch cleans the cage but does not disinfect it, so I follow with a spray disinfectant.
You can use a commercial disinfectant according to the product directions, or make your own by mixing an ounce of household bleach in a quart of water. A bottle sprayer works fine for a small operation, while a tank sprayer is best if you have a lot of hutches. I like to let the hutch dry all day after I spray the disinfectant, then I spray plain water and let that dry before the rabbits go in.
While you are washing, disinfecting, and rinsing the hutch, don’t forget to do the same to the nest boxes, feeders and pans. You can spray them or dip them in a bucket of disinfectant, then rinse and dry them in the sun, if possible. If you use the all-wire nest boxes and give them a new corrugated cardboard liner for each new litter, you will save yourself some work and time and will always have a germ-free box.
Regularly clean off hair, cobwebs and dirt from the tops of cages, as well as suspension wires, legs and any other supporting members. Dust can lead to respiratory problems. Brush hutch floors every day with a wire brush to get rid of any manure that has not fallen through. Make the brushing a part of your daily routine.
It won’t take long, it will save you a lot of hassle in the long term, and you are not likely to forget if you make it a daily occurrence. Keeping your cages clean and dry will help avoid sore hocks, too. If the rabbits have wet hair on their feet, the hair doesn’t shield the skin, and sores can develop.
Because my barn is well ventilated and sits on more than a foot of gravel with good drainage, the manure under the hutches stays pretty dry. Wet manure attracts flies and creates ammonia fumes, so it should be removed regularly and not left to sit for long. Because the manure stays dry under my hutches, I let it stay there until I need it for the garden or the compost heap, which is conveniently located behind the barn.
I don’t move manure around in hot weather, but instead give it a good sprinkling of granulated agricultural limestone. This neutralizes the alkalinity of the ammonia and makes it a better candidate for the compost. If urine stains develop on a concrete or wood floor, a couple of ounces of vinegar in a bucket of water should take care of them.
A small greenhouse on the south side of my rabbit barn helps keep the fly population way down in the summer. When the plants are in the ground outdoors and the greenhouse is empty, flies tend to congregate in there. At the same time, spiders weave webs in it and love to catch and kill flies, so I call it my “website.”
This excerpt was originally published from Rabbit Housing by Bob Bennett, published by Storey Publishing, 2011.