Code of Practice for the Intensive Husbandry of Rabbits

This Code of Practice is intended as a guide for all persons responsible for the intensive husbandry of domestic-type rabbits for commercial production. It recognises that the basic requirement for the welfare of rabbits is a husbandry system appropriate to their physiological and behavioural needs.

The basic needs are:

  • accommodation which provides protection from the elements and does not harm or cause undue discomfort
  • freedom of movement to stand, stretch, turn around and lie down
  • readily accessible food and water
  • rapid recognition and treatment of injury and disease
  • protection from predators and insect-borne diseases
  • an environment which permits a level of social interaction so that individually housed rabbits can see and are aware of other rabbits.

This Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals is based on the knowledge and technology available at the time of publication, and may need to be varied in the light of future knowledge for commercial production. The Code does not include any consideration of the management of the European wild rabbit.

It does not replace the need for experience and commonsense in the husbandry of animals, and for professional judgement and care where necessary. Rabbits are animals which need individual and frequent attention. Responsibility and competent supervision is an essential prerequisite for the day to day management of rabbits and to ensure their welfare. It should be supplemented by expert opinion and veterinary care if the rabbits are in ill-health.

1. Environment

The building in which the rabbits are housed should be constructed to allow for controlling the extremes of temperature. It is recommended that temperature be maintained within the optimum range of 10°C to 25°C. If the building is enclosed, it should be adequately ventilated — if necessary force-ventilation should be installed to prevent excessive build-up of heat, moisture and ammonia.

A force-ventilation system should have an automatic alarm system to warn of power failure. A back-up alarm system to warn of temperature increase is also essential and should operate through an alternative circuit to the power failure alarm system. In force-ventilated buildings, emergency ventilation systems should be provided.

All electrical switching should be of a non-sparking design or installed outside the animal holding area. Internal surfaces of the animal holding area should be smooth to limit the accumulation of dust and fluff.

In any situation in which rabbits are housed intensively for commercial production avoidance of ammonia build-up is essential. In addition to adequate ventilation, means of urine disposal from housing areas must be effective to reduce accumulation of ammonia. Should ammonia levels reach the point of being detectable by human sense of smell remedial action needs to be taken to reduce the level. Faeces should be removed from both the immediate environment of the rabbits and from the confines of the shed on a regular basis.

During the hours of daylight the level of indoor lighting, natural or artificial should be such that all rabbits can be seen clearly. In addition adequate lighting should be available for satisfactory inspection at any time.

A standard 15 hour daylight period should be maintained by the facility, with shade provided to the bucks after 8 hours. Optimum light requirements for breeding:

  • does —15 hours minimum of higher intensity light
  • bucks — 8 hours maximum.

The rabbits environment should be designed to be as stress-free as possible. In particular steps need to be taken to minimise the effect of entry of unfamiliar people and to prevent entry of animals such as dogs and cats. The facility must be secure to prevent access by predators. Measures need to be in place to keep numbers of rodents and other vermin at a minimum. Well maintained wire screening or an alternate physical barrier is essential to prevent entry of insect vectors.

2. Space requirements

The floor area provided for the rabbits should be sufficient to allow the rabbits to move around, to feed and drink without difficulty, and to lie on their sides.

Minimum allowances for space are:

  • Doe and litter to 5 weeks of age 0.56 m2 total area.
  • Doe and litter to 8 weeks of age 0.74 m2 total area.
  • Rabbits 5-12 weeks 0.07 m2 per rabbit.
  • Rabbits 12 weeks and over (other than those used for breeding) in cages or other areas inwhich several rabbits are kept 0.18 m2 per rabbit.
  • Adult does and bucks for breeding 0.56 m2 per rabbit.

The above minimum space allowances refer to medium-sized rabbits, such as NZ white. Where larger or smaller sized rabbits are involved, space allowances should be adjusted appropriate to relative body size.

Cages for rabbits over 12 weeks old should be not less than 45cm high and should be of sufficient height to allow rabbits to sit upright with ears fully erect. No more than 40 young rabbits should be maintained in colony pens. These rabbits should be fed by hoppers suspended just above the floor.

3. Equipment

Floors on which rabbits are kept should be designed, constructed and maintained so that injury or distress is not caused to rabbits. Floors should be smooth and well- supported. The provision of a solid non-absorbent board may assist to minimise injury. Such board should be of not less than 0.1 m2 to occupy up to one third of the total floor area of each cage. Such boards should be replaced or cleaned and disinfected regularly. Wooden or other absorbent surfaces are not recommended. Boards may increase urine staining.

If the floor is of wire mesh material it should be of welded or flat construction. Flat mesh is preferable as it is more easily cleaned. Sufficient support must be provided to the housed rabbits feet. Square mesh should not exceed 19mm × 19mm and rectangular mesh should not exceed 50mm × 13mm. The wire of the mesh should be not less than 2.5mm diameter (12 gauge).

A special space with nesting material is required for does. Nesting material, such as untreated wood shavings or shredded paper should be provided. Where used, nest boxes should be introduced at least 2 days before the litter is due. The boxes should be built of non-absorbable material to facilitate cleaning between batches.

4. Food and water

The diet should be nutritionally adequate to maintain health and vitality and should take account of the requirements for growth, pregnancy and lactation and the rabbits' special need for adequate fibre-content. A new type of feed should be introduced over a period of a few days. Feeding and watering equipment should be designed, installed and maintained so as to avoid causing discomfort, distress or injury to the rabbits. Food and water facilities must be readily accessible by rabbits. Food hoppers with insufficiently large openings may discourage rabbits from eating and may cause injury to their faces. If the openings are too large, kitten rabbits may enter them and defecate on the food. Hoppers that are placed too high may be out of reach of young kittens. Hoppers that are positioned too low may become contaminated with faeces and urine.

When there are several rabbits in one cage being fed on a system which restricts the supply of feed, the feed containers should be of such a size that all rabbits in the group can feed at the same time. Otherwise the dominant rabbits will eat more than their share of feed. Clean water must be readily available to the rabbits at all times. An automated watering system reduces the risk of contamination by urine, faeces, fur and airborne disease organisms. Drinking nipples should not be positioned too high or too low, but at about 10cm from the floor of the cage, they should not project more than 2.5cm into the cage. Food hoppers and waterers should be checked each day to ensure that they are operating effectively. There should be a back-up system to ensure that the rabbits continue to have access to water if an automated system should break down.

When pellets are fed steps to prevent or dispose of reservoirs of dust must be used. This may be done by using mesh flooring in the base of feed hoppers.

5. Handling

Mixing established groups of unfamiliar rabbits should be avoided. Where several rabbits are kept in one large cage or other enclosure, the social stability of these groups will be seriously upset if other rabbits are introduced into the system. Such introductions will lead to savage fighting until a new hierarchical structure is established in the group.

A rabbit should never be lifted by the ears alone. It may be lifted by grasping with one hand the loose skin over the shoulders, and placing the other hand under the rabbit's rump to support its weight.

Toe nails of adult rabbits should be trimmed periodically to prevent toe damage from overgrown nails catching on cage or equipment surfaces. Care is needed when trimming to avoid damage to sensitive tissue.

In adult rabbits regular teeth checks for overgrown incisors are necessary and trimming implemented to avoid interference with feeding or damage to the rabbits lips. Access to hard, chewable items may reduce the problem of overgrown incisors.

Replacement bucks should be housed individually after 10 to 12 weeks of age. For mating purposes does should be taken to the buck rather than the reverse.

Removal of rabbits from the housing area for slaughter should be carried out quietly and with care exercised to avoid stress and unnecessary struggling which may otherwise bruise or injure the animal. Relocation of rabbits from individual cages to transport cages needs to be done by imposing a minimum of stress to the rabbits with consideration given to the orderly movement from one cage to the next.

6. Health

Persons responsible for the care of rabbits should be watchful for the signs of ill-health. Rabbits should be inspected at least once daily except that litters under 1 week old should be disturbed as little as possible. Lighting should be adequate to enable detection of any problems.

Rabbits kept over 12 weeks of age on the property must receive vaccination against Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD). Breeders on the property must be vaccinated against RCD annually. Vaccination against myxomatosis should be considered as suitable vaccines become more readily available commercially. All rabbits introduced onto the premises must be kept in a quarantined area and carefully observed for signs of disease for a period of 3 weeks before entry into the commercial herd.

Ailing or injured rabbits must be treated promptly and should be segregated to a quarantine area. If necessary, they should be humanely destroyed. The provision of hay or paper on the floor may assist in the treatment of foot injuries.

If the person in charge of the rabbits is not able to identify the causes of ill-health and correct them, specialist or veterinary advice should be sought. Records should be kept of treatments given, responses to treatments, and mortalities to assist investigations of disease.

Any use of antibiotics and other drugs must be under veterinary supervision with all due care taken to avoid chemical residues in the carcass meat. Dead rabbits must be removed and disposed of promptly and hygienically.

7. Protection

Rabbits should be protected from predators and from harassment by other animals. The area in which the rabbits are kept should be maintained free of feral rabbits and rodents. Insect proofing may be desirable to protect rabbits from myxomatosis. Sufficient fire-fighting equipment must be available to control a fire in the area where the rabbits are kept.

8. Transport

Containers for transporting rabbits should be ventilated and large enough to allow the animals to turn around and lie down, but small enough to prevent bruising. Containers should be designed and maintained to allow rabbits to be put in and taken out without injury. Precautions should be taken to protect the rabbits from wind and rain and from excessively cold or hot conditions during transportation. Rabbits should not be held in transit for more than 24 hours unless they are provided with food and water.

9. Euthanasia

When necessary, rabbits should be destroyed humanely by a competent handler. Where it can be performed competently, cervical dislocation is an acceptable method.

10. Humane slaughter for human consumption

The method of slaughter of rabbits in licensed abattoirs must be humane and must adhere to the standard outlined in the Australian Standard for Hygienic Production of Rabbit Meat for Human Consumption endorsed by the Agriculture and Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand (ARMCANZ). This stipulation particularly applies to the requirement for rabbits to be humanely transported, restrained and handled prior to slaughter and to be electrically stunned or made unconscious and insensible to pain by other approved humane methods prior to bleeding.

The Australian Standard for Hygienic Production of Rabbit Meat for Human Consumption is available from CSIRO Publishing, PO Box 1139 Collingwood, Victoria 3066.

Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 

Approved by the Governor in Council 30 September 1997
Responsible Minister: Minister for Agriculture and Resources
Appeared in the Government Gazette 18 December 1997

The advice provided in this publication is intended as a source of information only. Always read the label before using any of the products mentioned. The State of Victoria and its employees do not guarantee that the publication is without flaw of any kind or is wholly appropriate for your particular purposes and therefore disclaims all liability for any error, loss or other consequence which may arise from you relying on any information in this publication.

Page last updated: 29 Jan 2024