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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rabbits-on-farm-welfare/caring-for-rabbits
1. Health and welfare
You should inspect each rabbit regularly because rabbits worsen quickly when they get ill. You should also check and change the bedding regularly.
Don’t frighten the rabbits with sudden noise or movement and make sure they are protected from any disturbance by rodents or other animals eg by providing suitably fenced areas for them.
1.1 Signs of good and bad health
You and other stockmen must watch for signs of distress or disease and take immediate action (such as giving them medicine) when you do.
Signs of good health in rabbits include:
- clear, bright eyes
- good posture
- vigorous movements if disturbed
- active feeding and drinking
- pellets that are quite firm
- clean and healthy fur and skin
You should check for ear mite infestations as these can disfigure and harm rabbits. Make sure that external ear canals and ears are free from debris and encrustations.
Signs of ill health include:
- dullness in the eyes
- tucked-up posture
- grinding teeth
- shaking of the head (suggesting ear canker)
- loss of appetite
- running eyes and tear-stains
- nasal discharge
- abdominal distention
- stained fur
- wet droppings
- sneezing and snuffles
- scratch marks (suggesting external parasites, such as fleas)
- swelling of the face (suggesting myxomatosis)
- sore hocks
You should segregate ill or injured rabbits and treat them immediately or, if necessary, kill them humanely.
1.2 Disposing of fallen stock
Fallen stock is any animal that has:
- died of natural causes or disease on the farm
- been killed on the farm for reasons other than human consumption
You must dispose of fallen stock properly.
Only a competent and trained operator should administer vaccinations and injections. They should take care to prevent injuring the rabbit or unnecessarily disturbing them.
1.4 Artificial insemination and mating
You should supervise mating to minimise the risk of fighting.
Only a competent and trained operator should carry out artificial insemination. You should get a vet’s advice before carrying out artificial insemination. You shouldn’t injure the rabbit or unnecessarily disturb them and it should take place with high hygiene standards.
You shouldn’t disturb litters aged less than a week if possible, and you shouldn’t wean rabbits before they’re 4 weeks old.
1.6 Managing teeth and nails
Overgrown incisors (a rabbit’s front teeth) can sometimes cause feeding and welfare problems. You should offer gnawing blocks (especially for breeding stock) and this can help you avoid tooth trimming.
If you must carry out tooth trimming then only a vet or competently trained person should do it.
You should trim adult rabbits’ toenails regularly to prevent toe damage from overgrown nails catching on the hutch or cage. When doing so you should also take care to avoid damaging sensitive areas.
How often you have to trim will vary between breeds and depend on the conditions under which they are housed. But you should check their nails in all cases at least once a month.
If you need to mark rabbits to identify them you should tattoo rather than tag them. Tagging can damage the ear, while a ring above the hock can become tight. You should regularly check rings if you do use them.
Only a competent and trained operator should carry out marking.
1.8 Handling and slaughtering stock on the premises
You should be competent in handling rabbits. You should lift the rabbit by grasping the loose skin at the back of the neck and support by placing the hand under the hindquarters.
When rabbits are killed on the farm you must do this humanely - see the guidance to killing rabbits on-farm.
You need to make sure that buildings are well ventilated and there’s enough air space in the rabbitry. You should get expert advice on building design for new buildings and altering an existing building.
- make sure that accommodation is designed and maintained to avoid injuring or distressing the rabbits
- be able to easily inspect each rabbit
- protect rabbits in cages from the elements when using open-side buildings or other enclosures exposed to the weather.
- make sure that you can easily clean and disinfect (or easily replace when needed) internal surfaces of housings, pens, hutches and cages
- design, site and install ventilation, heating, lighting, feeding and watering equipment, electrical installation and all other equipment to avoid injuring the rabbits
You shouldn’t use materials containing paint and wood preservatives toxic to rabbits.
2.1 Rabbits kept out of doors
- protect rabbits from predators
- offer shelter from sun, rain and wind that’s available at all times
- make sure that the hutch or pen’s roof extends to protect rabbits from the weather
- design and maintain accommodation to avoid draughts
- make sure that rabbits can access a dry-bedded area.
2.2 Accommodation size
Accommodation for rabbits over 12 weeks old needs to be at least 45cm high (or at least high enough to let rabbits sit upright with their ears upright).
Nest boxes need to be large enough to let does get in and out of to feed their young without injuring them, with a minimum:
- length of 30cm
- floor area of 0.08 square metres (larger for giant breeds, eg Flemish Giant and French Lop)
The lowest side or end of an open-topped nest should be low enough for does to enter or leave the nest without injuring herself or her litter. But it still needs to be high enough to stop the young from leaving the nest prematurely.
For most breeds of rabbits the height of the lowest side or end of the nest box should be at least 15cm. Nests need to have an entrance area of at least 0.023 square metres and be large enough for the doe to pass through without difficulty or injury.
You should make sure that floors are designed and maintained to avoid injuring or distressing the rabbits.
On welded wire floors:
- square mesh shouldn’t be bigger than 19mm by 19mm
- rectangular mesh shouldn’t be bigger than 75mm by 12.5mm
- wire should have a diameter of at least 2.032mm - 2.64mm diameter is recommended
- the mesh should be flat and any rough spots smoothed off
Adult rabbits of some breeds (particularly larger breeds) may need solid floors. For solid floors you should make sure there’s a good supply of clean bedding so that there’s a dry lying area.
2.4 Ventilation and temperature
The ventilation rates and house conditions should always:
- be enough to provide enough fresh air for the rabbits
- prevent ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and dust building up
You should make sure that the ventilation system has enough air flow below cages and avoid using dwarf walls or solid sides. But you should protect rabbits from drafts and cold conditions.
You should have an alarm system to warn you of any automated equipment.
You should avoid extreme temperatures by aiming for a temperature range of 10C to 20C. This will prevent heat stress in rabbits (shown by extended panting).
You should make sure that during daylight hours indoor lighting (natural or artificial) lets you see all rabbits clearly. There should be a period of darkness in each 24-hour cycle.
When rabbits are kindling (nursing young) you can cover nest boxes from light.
2.6 Equipment and servicing
You should inspect all equipment regularly, and keep it clean and in good working order.
All automated equipment needs to have a fail-safe device with an alarm to warn you of failure if the rabbits’ welfare depends on the equipment. You should fix any problems straight away.
Make sure that any electrical installations at mains voltage are properly earthed and that rabbits can’t get to them.
2.7 Space allowances
The total floor area needs to be in line with the size of the breed and natural behaviour of rabbits (including hopping, sitting with ears upright and playing). When using nesting boxes all rabbits needs to be able to lie on their sides at all times.
The total floor area should let rabbits move around to feed and drink easily.
2.8 Minimum floor space - cages
|Rabbit type||Minimum area|
|Does and litter to 5 weeks old||0.56 square metres total area|
|Does and litter to 8 weeks old||0.74 square metres total area|
|Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks old||0.07 square metres per rabbit|
|Rabbits 12 weeks and older (other than those used for breeding) in multiple occupation cages||0.18 square metres per rabbit|
|Adult does and bucks for breeding||0.56 square metres per rabbit|
2.9 Minimum floor space - hutches
|Rabbit type||Minimum area|
|Does and litter to 5 weeks old||0.75 square metres total area|
|Does and litter to 8 weeks old||0.93 square metres total area|
|Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks old||0.009 square metres per rabbit|
|Adult does and bucks for breeding||0.75 square metres per rabbit|
You should clean and dry premises and equipment before restocking. You should disinfect the premises at times to reduce the danger of infection.
2.11 Fire and other emergencies
You should have plans for dealing with emergencies such as fire, flood or supplies being disrupted. You should make sure that all staff know how to deal with emergencies.
At least one responsible member of the staff should always be available to deal with any emergencies.
You should make sure that all new buildings, or alterations to existing ones, have ways to quickly release livestock in case of emergency.
You should reduce the risk of fire spreading by:
- separating straw storage from livestock accommodation
- making sure that electrical, gas and oil pipes and services don’t risk spreading flames to the building, equipment, litter or straw
In case a 999 call has to be made, notices should be clearly displayed in rabbit houses stating where the nearest phone is located. Each phone should have a notice telling the fire brigade on how to reach the rabbit houses.
3. Feeding and watering
- feed all rabbits at the same time (unless they have continuous and unrestricted access to feed)
- give all rabbits a daily diet that’s nutritious enough to keep them healthy
- introduce any new type of feed over a period of a few days.
- make sure that rabbits have clean, fresh water at all times that’s enough for their needs - eg a lactating doe with a large litter, close to weaning, can drink up to 4.5 litres of water a day
- place nipple drinkers should be around 25cm from the bottom of the cage
- make sure that water doesn’t freeze
- only use feed or water bowls that can’t be knocked over and can be cleaned easily
You shouldn’t let contaminated feed or water build up.
3.1 Use safe feed
You must not place feed that could harm human or animal health on the market.
You must not:
- feed animals any substance, food or liquid that can cause them unnecessary suffering or injury
- use feed that makes the animals who eat it unable to produce food that’s safe for humans to eat
- arrange for unsafe feed to be withdrawn from the market if you believe that you supplied it - contact local environmental health officer and the Food Standards Agency if this happens
- destroy unsafe feed - unless an advising authority (such as a vet) has told you not to
- tell anyone who uses your feed why you’re withdrawing it
See the guide to food safety and farmed animals for more information on how to follow safe feed laws.
4. Protect animals from hazards and emergencies
You must protect your animals from any potential hazards, like:
- on-farm debris - eg wire or plastic
- open drains
- predators - including dogs
- extreme weather - heat waves, flooding or being buried by snow
You should make plans for dealing with emergencies like fire or flood for housed livestock. Include details of how you’ll move your animals off site in an emergency and make sure your staff have read the plan.
You should make sure that staff can get into all buildings as quickly as possible during an emergency.
You also need to take care of your livestock’s welfare off the farm. You should read the guidance on:
- how to transport animals and look after their welfare
- caring for animals at farm shows and markets
- looking after animal welfare when you kill them
4.1 Keeping surfaces safe
You should keep all surfaces that your animals can access (like walls and floors) free from anything that could cause injury or death, like:
- sharp edges or sticking out parts
- electrical wires
- toxic paint or wood preservative - make sure that any second-hand materials don’t have any lead-based paint
5. Animal welfare inspections
Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Agency and your local authority can visit your farm. They’ll normally give notice but may not if they’ve had a complaint about how you’re treating them.
Find out more at the guide to farm inspections.
They’ll check how you’re caring for your animals and if you’re following cross-compliance restrictions. You must allow inspectors to:
- see all your animals in their normal rearing environment
- see a demonstration of how your alarm system (to alert you if automated ventilation and other systems fail) and its back-up generators work
- examine specific animals on request
- take any samples, carcasses or photographs they need
- inspect veterinary medicine records and mortality records
- check any other records that will show you’re meeting requirements (like animal feed records)
- ask if there’s been a known or suspected outbreak of a notifiable disease on your premises during the year