Routines, Tools and Equipment for Raising Rabbits
By Bob Bennett
Your rabbits are in their hutches. Those hutches are under cover. Now is a good time to assess what you need, and what you might simply want, to keep everything running smoothly.
We’ve covered basic housing options and the typical rabbit feed and watering options already. But what about all those extra tools that make running a rabbitry go smoother – the things you’d never think about until you were helping a buddy cull a few rabbits and you had one of those where-did-you-get-that-thing moments? And where should you draw the line between essential and nonessential?
Read on, and we’ve got you covered with some devices that may or may not be fundamental to your rabbit keeping operation, drawing on decades of rabbit-keeping experience and expertise. And then once you have everything you need, it’s a good idea to establish a regular routine for your animals.
Let’s start with you — with what to wear — and then proceed to what your rabbits need.
Long-sleeved top. After handling rabbits, you realize that while they have a reputation for being soft and cuddly, they are also noted for scratching and shedding. When handling them, long sleeves are a must. Wooly sweaters are not a good idea, as rabbits’ nails can get caught in them, and shedding hair sticks to them. A twill or nylon shop coat, full canvas apron over a sturdy shirt or blouse, or sweatshirt make a good outfit for the rabbitry. I have a favorite thigh-length denim jacket.
Rose gloves or boot sock. When carefully looking over young stock at weaning time, deciding what to keep and what to cull, you realize what sharp nails they have. And they tend to aim for the insides of your wrists and forearms.
My favorite antidote is a pair of rose gardener gloves with the fingers snipped off. These are leather gloves with very long, heavy leather gauntlets that protect up to your elbow. Rose gardeners use them because they are always reaching deep into thorny bushes to prune. I first used these gloves many years ago after I took a physical.
The physician looked at my wrists and forearms and asked, “Are you and the missus getting along?”
A good alternative to these gloves is an old pair of high, heavy boot socks. If you cut the toes off and poke holes for your thumbs, you can pull them right up over your shirt sleeves and handle your rabbits with safety.
I have observed rabbit judges wearing athletic sweatbands on their wrists. Those are good, and perhaps stylish, but they don’t provide as much coverage as the rose gardener gloves or the modified boot socks.
Feed scoop and bucket. You will need a feed bucket, unless you have a large operation and need a feed cart. A 20- or 30-gallon steel garbage can will safeguard your feed supply.
Plastic feed scoops are inexpensive, and you can easily make one from a plastic bottle. I have a steel scoop that is still as good as new after 40 years of use every single day.
Nail clippers. Rabbits raised on wire tend to wear down their nails over time, so clipping them is not a regular chore. But when you need to clip the nails of an older animal, a regular dog nail clipper does the job nicely. You don’t want a rabbit’s nails to get caught in the floor wire of a cage.
Brushes. A good wire brush with a scraper on the end (sold in paint and hardware departments) comes in very handy for use on hutch floors to remove the occasional dried manure droppings that cling to the wire.
A wire brush with brass or stainless steel bristles will cost more but last longer. Another brush with nylon bristles is handy for brushing hair from the hutch. And a slicker brush, as used on dogs and cats, will take out dead fur and ease a rabbit through a molt.
Building tools. We covered the tools that you need to build your hutches. They include wire cutters, J-clip and hog ring (or C-ring) pliers, and basic household tools.
Bucket and scrub brush. These are for washing and disinfecting hutch floors and feeders, as well as nest boxes, unless you are using wire nest boxes with disposable corrugated cardboard liners.
Propane torch. Not required but certainly handy is a small propane torch to burn off hair on wire hutches. Use a torch nozzle that flares, rather than pinpoints, the flame. My Tans don’t shed a whole lot, but in late summer or early autumn, my torch goes to work.
Wide-blade putty knife or paint scraper. If you use pans under the hutches, these are useful for scraping off manure that the hose can’t budge.
Pitchfork and shovel. Use for manure removal. A rake and hoe are handy, too.
Wheelbarrow or garden cart. For hauling manure to the garden or compost heap. I have one of those wooden garden carts with big bicycle wheels, and it still works great after 30 years of service.
Nest box warmer pad or aluminum photoflood reflector. If your rabbitry is cold in winter, you will need one of these, along with a 25-watt light bulb or a heat bulb used to keep pet reptiles warm.
Insulation foam board panels and plastic foam trays. These are another way to make doe hutches warmer, along with the heating devices above.
The following equipment and supplies are useful in many rabbitries, but others may be required depending on the kind of operation you have. For example, if you raise Angoras, you may need a grooming table and tools, such as combs and shears.
Hanging scale. This is perfect for weighing fryers and other rabbits to make sure they are reaching their growth goals. The hanging type has a hook to hold a bucket or other container and subtracts the weight of the container. I like to weigh my rabbits in one of my wire nest boxes. You can purchase the scales in capacities of either 22 or 55 pounds.
Limestone or deodorizer. A bag of agricultural limestone, the granulated kind used on lawns and gardens, is handy to have in hot weather. You can sprinkle some on manure under hutches or in pans to diminish ammonia odor, if necessary. Neutralizing ammonia odors will help prevent respiratory problems. Additionally, you can purchase biodegradable deodorizers that eliminate odors in a building.
One product, called Anotec, chemically bonds with odors to eliminate them, not just mask them. You can apply it directly to surfaces or use it as an air freshener in a pump dispenser.
Record sheets. Record keeping will make you a proficient rabbit raiser. You need hutch cards to record mating dates and the does’ overall performance. Stud cards for each buck let you measure the performance of your bucks at a glance. These cards fit on the outside of hopper feeders and are held on with clear plastic card covers. There is so much plastic in packaging these days that you can probably make your own covers, but otherwise you can buy them in sizes to fit the feeders.
Pedigree forms, production record sheets, and daily, monthly, and annual summary sheets are also available from rabbit supply companies, or you can devise your own. In addition, now there are computer programs that help you keep track of everything to make sure you have a successful operation.
Skinning knife, skinning hooks, and hide stretcher. These are needed only if you are slaughtering your own meat rabbits. A good knife is a “boning knife,” which is used in most commercial slaughter plants because of its ideal size and shape for rabbit processing. Skinning hooks, made of plated steel, are specifically shaped to hold the carcass in the correct position for dressing. Mine are attached to a board that I hang on the wall of the barn. I like to place a large black plastic garbage bag under everything to catch the offal.
Tattoo set. If you plan to enter your rabbits in shows, they need an identifying number or letters in the left ear. And even if you don’t show, after you raise a few rabbits you will find no better way to keep track of who’s who in the herd. I prefer the pliers type, but you can also buy one that is battery-operated. If you don’t have room for a table in your rabbitry, you can make a shelf that folds down from the wall and use that for tattooing.
Depending on your location, you may need equipment for such needs as heating, cooling or lighting, among others. Here are some items I have found useful.
Cooling tools. A portable electric fan can come in handy in hot weather. You can even find one that you hitch to a garden hose to mist your rabbitry with cool, moist air.
A soaker hose, which emits a fine spray, can be placed on your shed roof. It cools the roof, and when the water flows off, any breeze blowing by can provide additional cooling.
If temperatures in your area are regularly in the 90s or above, you can make your rabbits (especially your pregnant does) more comfortable by filling some plastic milk jugs or soda bottles with water and freezing them. If you put a couple of them in their hutch, they will lie against them. I keep herd bucks in my lower tier of hutches because it’s cooler near the floor.
You might also purchase a window air conditioner. The classified ads often reveal many serviceable used ones at very reasonable prices.
Small electric heater. I keep one in my barn, not for my rabbits but to warm my fingers if I’m knocking ice out of water pans. There are many different kinds of electric heaters, and you might want to use one on occasion to warm up your rabbitry.
Folding cart or two-wheel truck. If you go to rabbit shows, this will help you haul carrying cages from the parking lot to the showroom. If you raise Angoras, you’ll also want a folding grooming table to take to the show, along with assorted combs, brushes, shears and clippers.
Humane trap. Mine is known as the Havahart. It traps any rabbits that happen to escape their hutches. I just bait it with a carrot or some lettuce, and I’ll have the rabbit back in its hutch by the next day.
Motion-activated outdoor lights. These can help protect your rabbits from nighttime intruders and can also be used along walks and on stairs for your safety. You can even buy one that is battery-operated or solar-powered if you don’t have electricity in your shelter. These lights turn on when the sensor detects movement and shut off when no more motion is detected.
Clip and solar lights. If it’s dark in your backyard when you feed your rabbits, holding a flashlight at the same time is not easy. A battery-powered light that clips to your glasses or the bill of a cap frees up your hands. You can also buy solar lights with long power cables that allow you to place the solar panel unit outdoors in the sun and locate the lamp inside where you need it. This kind of light can be especially useful to boost chances of conception when days are short. Solar walkway lights leading up to the rabbitry provide for safe passage, and installing them takes nothing more than poking each fixture into the ground.
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.
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.
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.
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 has been reprinted with permission from Rabbit Housing by Bob Bennett, published by Storey Publishing, 2011.
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