Colony Raising Rabbits
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By Sherri Talbot For those looking for alternatives to cage raising their rabbits, colony raising is being recognized more frequently as an option. While not appropriate for all breeds, colony environments can be a great way to raise rabbits in a setting that allows them to be social, healthy, and live more natural lives. Rabbits have lived for hundreds of years in outdoor environments, in all kinds of weather, and evolved to live in groups — called warrens or burrows — with dozens of other rabbits. While domestic rabbits have less tolerance for extreme weather, they can also survive in various temperatures and environments.
Colony raising is not a new practice. The Romans are known to have used fenced enclosures to keep groups of wild rabbits for meat and fur as early as 200 B.C.E. Due to the lack of things like fine wiring, the Romans struggled to keep their animals contained, but it was colony raising that introduced the idea that rabbits could be domesticated for easier raising. Cage raising probably didn’t develop until about the 5th century, making it the “new” practice for rabbit breeding.
So why are colonies better for rabbits? There are a number of answers to this question, and they can be loosely categorized into three areas: physical health, social health, and ease of caretaking.
Rabbits, in the wild, are browsers. In their search for food, they cover a territory of 2 to 8 acres — the males travel further than the females — and eat whenever availability and desire happen to collide. Compare that to the recommendation by the Rabbit Welfare Association that rabbits’ cages be 6 feet by 2 feet. While most rabbit breeds can move comfortably in such a cage, even the RWA’s own terminology admits this gives them only “three hops” from end to end. This is assuming that individuals raising rabbits follow these recommendations, but popular stacking rabbit cages for sale usually run about 3 feet by 3 feet.
Rabbits — especially young rabbits — are also evolved to play with one another, often chasing and wrestling like many other animal species. Rabbits are also designed to dig, and by denying these instincts, rabbits often end up bored, stressed, and, in some cases, neurotic. Rabbits may overgroom, chew on their feet, or grind their teeth when raised in a caged environment.
Rabbits under these conditions also must have carefully controlled diets. Like humans, rabbits will eat when bored or stressed. While colony raised rabbits will eat until they find something more interesting to do, caged rabbits will often overeat, gaining an unhealthy amount of weight with no way to work it off.
The result is rabbits that are often stagnant, laying in one spot for long periods of time. While this does result in large, fat rabbits in a shorter time, it doesn’t result in healthy rabbits. While a cage raised rabbit is often touted as being more tender, this is for the same reason veal is often so tender; the muscles get little use until butcher.
Since rabbits are designed to be social animals, there is a close connection between their physical and social health. Exercise, for instance, is often a social activity for the warren. As mentioned earlier, rabbits often play together. They also groom one another for comfort and share body heat when the temperatures drop. Without a companion to share these activities with, rabbits can become anxious, leading to the previously discussed behaviors.
Having a social support system is especially important to rabbits in distress. Mothers with large litters can often get help from other nursing females. Orphaned young will often be adopted by other does. Younger females without litters (and sometimes bucks!) will sometimes assist with warming kits whose mother dies or rejects them. We often observe kits wandering into an adjoining colony, where an adult rabbit will usually hang out with them and keep them warm until we move them back home.
Older rabbits need comfort too. As rabbits age and their bodies begin to fail, it can be hard for them to clean themselves or even move around in some cases.
We currently have an older male named Gomez — the patriarch of our entire warren, in fact. He has begun to struggle with mobility, however. He still can get around, doesn’t appear to be in pain, and eats and drinks well. Were he a caged rabbit, we could have euthanized him long ago since his physical condition would have made life alone miserable.
Instead, he is living out his golden years in one of our 8 feet by 8 feet “buck pens” with a young doe. He can see and smell his grandchildren in the attached colony. His companion grooms him, cuddles with him, and keeps him company. He moves around over the dirt without causing injury, whereas a metal floor would likely hurt him. He shows no sign of anxiety or upset over his condition, and one can spend hours watching the two of them relaxing together in the sun.
Care of Colony Rabbits
Colony raising rabbits can be easier on the humans involved, too. Rather than cleaning individual cages weekly, colony raised rabbits naturally tend to use one corner of their living space for a toilet, meaning pens can be cleaned once every month or two (depending on their size) using a rake and a wheelbarrow. It is important to note, though, if there are lots of new litters in a colony, it will take the adult time to “potty train” the kits, which may temporarily make for more of a mess.
Colony raised rabbits will eat and drink from a central source, reducing the time it takes for daily caretaking. Depending on the setup, heated water bowls can make winter care especially easy. If there is no access to electricity in an area with heavy snowfall, the rabbits will often eat snow if their water dish freezes over. Some of our rabbits will even choose snow over fresh water!
Multiple does often birth together, meaning no need to hand feed should a mother have difficulties. Several does may help to keep kits corralled when they start to explore. Having a male in the pen means an extra line of defense for the kits, and most of our bucks will play with their children when they are small. Depending on your space, though, it can be important to move out the grow-out bucks early. Dad can decide they are competition at a young age.
Colony raising also makes life easier for breeders when the weather turns cold. While rabbits tolerate cold better than heat, a solo rabbit can regulate their body temperature only so well. However, in frigid temperatures, several rabbits will huddle together for warmth, using available shelters to hold in the heat and packing hay around themselves.
Colony raising is by no means perfect. Like with any livestock methods, things can go wrong. However, it is frequently abandoned as an option for people because cage-raising is seen as “normal,” and the benefits are not recognized. For those who are interested in a more natural way of raising rabbits, colony raising can be an excellent option.
SHERRI TALBOT is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered, heritage-breed livestock and hopes someday to make education and writing on conservation breeding her full-time job. Details can be found at SaffronandHoneyHomestead.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SaffronandHoneyHomestead.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.