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How to determine the gender of your rabbit.
By Sherri Talbot In the early 2000s, Visa put out a commercial involving a father buying his child a pair of rabbits as a gift. Since Dad dares to do something as terrible as writing a check — rather than using plastic — the store owner begins to go through the verification process. While this was happening, the two rabbits were in the same cage, and, in the background, “Love is in the Air” began to play. The child is shown with wide eyes as the number of rabbits in the store increases exponentially while they wait.
While the ad may have initially been for a credit card, the point should have been knowing what gender rabbits you are getting! This is important for obvious reasons. Many new rabbit owners buy a pair of “does” only to have kits a few weeks later. Even if this is what they had planned for, eventually, the rabbits may be too young to breed safely, resulting in sick or dead babies and damage to the doe. It isn’t necessarily suitable for the buck either since young bucks can develop testicular issues if bred too young. And for owners who had only wanted pets, not breeders, having a litter can cause several problems around space, care, and rehoming.
So why does this happen so often? There can be several reasons. Some breeders may not know how to check the gender of their rabbits. Some are simply checking the gender of the rabbit or rabbits too young to be sure. I have seen postings by people who claim to be able to tell gender at a day old with perfect accuracy, but I am highly doubtful of this claim. I certainly cannot make that claim, nor would any professional breeder I know.
Finally, in some cases, unscrupulous breeders may see a quick way to get rid of an unwanted buck. Being able to know for yourself is best.
The first thing you need when learning gender is a cooperative rabbit. A rabbit that has been held a lot from birth is best, and we often find our boys are easier to handle than the girls. We try to ensure that all our kits are handled early, so they don’t get scared when we do gender or medical checks. It’s best to start with a pair of pre-identified, older rabbits since it is easier to see the differences in the genitalia when the rabbit is larger. Large-breed rabbits can also make the differences more noticeable.
Start by holding the rabbit upside down, cradled in one arm like a baby. (Even better, have someone else do this for you.) If you are right-handed, tuck the head end up under the left elbow, which leaves the right hand free to do the check. Use the ring and pinkie fingers to hold one leg out of the way and expose the genitals. Reverse this if you are left-handed.
A male rabbit’s genitalia is partially internal until use, so it can be hard to differentiate between male and female, especially in smaller animals. However, in an older male, when you press against the sides of a mature male’s opening or vent, the penis will emerge, and the difference should be obvious. Also, in a fully matured male, the testicles become easily visible.
Females, when matured, have a more extended, thinner opening, and even when pressed, there will be no protrusion. Obviously, there will be no signs of testicles.
The younger the animal, the more difficult it is to differentiate. Especially very early in development, tiny rabbit parts can be a struggle! If you are having trouble distinguishing differences, placing the forefinger and thumb on either side will often help push fur back and get a betting visual.
The male, even when young, will protrude slightly more than the female genitalia. However, it can be tough to see the difference unless looking at them side by side. As they begin to mature, one may be able to see the slight bumps of immature testicles as well. The doe should have a longer hole than her male counterpart and lack the slight bump of a juvenile penis.
If you cannot tell the difference in genitals even after practicing, the rabbits are probably too young to breed anyway. Wait a couple of weeks and check again. However, when raising rabbits together, either in hutches or colonies, it is always better to be safe than sorry. If you need more confidence in your abilities, have an experienced rabbit breeder mentor you.
Keep in mind that every breeder can make mistakes, even experienced breeders. Bio-security will be a concern in any set-up; the breeder should have a system in place for you — or your mentor — to handle the rabbit for checks and to look at the quality of the rabbits. This is especially true if you are buying an expensive breeding animal. You have the right to know exactly what you are buying.
The alternative? Rabbits will be rabbits …
Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.