Rabbit Breeding Basics

So you’re new to the rabbit world? Rabbit breeding can be intimidating, but you can find the fundamentals here. There aren’t any other farmed species that compare well to rabbits when it comes to breeding, and each rabbit can have their own quirks. We have worked with Rachel Heaton of Hardly Simple Farming to put a simple guide together on rabbit breeding for you to enjoy and learn from. In this article, we will discuss the steps prior to rabbit breeding, how to accomplish a successful breeding, and what to do before and after your doe kindles.

Prior to Rabbit Breeding

In order to make sure our rabbits are as successful as possible in breeding there are steps we need to take beforehand. Rabbits have a good natural instinct when it comes to breeding and caring for their young, but the term “breed like rabbits” does not always find itself true.

What is Your Reason for Breeding?

If you plan on selling any type of rabbit product (pets, breeding rabbits, meat, hides, etc.), it is important to know if there is a market for those products before your hands are overflowing with them. Markets can vary greatly based on your location. After you have a plan for your rabbit products, the next step is proper caging.

Proper Cages for Rabbit Breeding

Once your rabbits do begin breeding, they tend to multiply quickly. Many like to call it “rabbit math”, similar to “chicken math”, but with rabbits! So, it is pertinent that you have enough space for all of the little ones, because they will soon be turning into big ones.

Below are the ARBA’s (American Rabbit Breeder’s Association) recommendations on cage sizing:

  • Breeds weighing less than 4.5lbs. – 1.5 square feet
  • Breeds weighing 4.5 to 9lbs – 3 square feet
  • Breeds weighing 9 to 12lbs – 4 square feet
  • Breeds weighing over 12lbs – 5 square feet
  • Doe with litter (under 4.5lbs) – 4 square feet
  • Doe with litter (4.5 to 9lbs) – 5 square feet
  • Doe with litter (9 to 12lbs) – 6 square feet
  • Doe with litter (over 12lbs) – 7.5 square feet

14 inches is the recommended minimum height for all breeds (ARBA).

After you have established your cage sizes you need to choose a material the cages are made out of. Wire is the most sanitary because waste falls through the cage floor and the entire cage can effectively be sanitized. Rabbits kept on wire should have a place where they can rest their feet, such as a resting mat or piece of wood.

Cage Environment for Rabbit Breeding

Rabbits handle the bitter cold a lot better than they handle the heat. So, if you live in a very warm environment, or your summers get hot or humid, there are some extra steps to rabbit breeding.

Keeping your rabbits cool is very important, and they can actually go sterile if they get too hot. Listed below are some ways to help keep your rabbits cool:

  • Proper ventilation and air circulation
  • Shade
  • Frozen water bottles or ceramic tiles

Rabbit breeding in winter can become troublesome if your cages are not protected from the wind. Your kits will need more protection than your full-grown rabbits. Here are some ways to keep your rabbits protected in the winter:

  • Keeping your cages in a building
  • Removable side walls for cages
  • Hanging tarps

Ventilation is still important in the winter. Stagnant air can cause a multitude of respiratory issues. So, all sides of the cage should not be covered. Having three sides of the cage protected will ensure that wind can not run through the cage.

Sufficient Feed

Correct nutrition for pregnant and lactating does is paramount to their success. Make sure to choose a high-quality pellet so that your does are obtaining enough nutrients to grow and feed their kits. Commercial rabbit pellets are created with everything your rabbit needs, but some are more nutrient-dense than others.

Choosing Breeders

When searching for your first rabbits it is easy to fall into the trap of picking the first rabbits that look the cutest. But, it will be in your best interest to select breeders that excel in the characteristics you will be breeding for. This will look very different for someone breeding for pets compared to someone breeding for meat or hides.

After bringing your rabbits home, any rabbit that came from a different source than another should be quarantined for 30 days. This quarantine is used to make sure the rabbit is not sick, and if it is sick it will not infect your other rabbits.

It is also good practice to not breed a doe for at least a month after bringing her home. Keeping her open (not pregnant) for 30 days will make sure she is not pregnant from the last owner. Accidental breedings happen often with rabbits. A nest box should be added to her cage just in case she is carrying a litter.

Meat rabbit breeding

Accomplishing a Successful Rabbit Breeding

Once you have your set-up figured out and you have obtained your breeders, you likely want to breed them. There are a few things that will help you be successful when rabbit breeding.

Proper Conditioning

Before breeding your rabbits you will want to make sure your doe has the correct conditioning. If she is too thin her body may not be able to grow the kits and she might abort them. On the other hand, if she is too fat she will likely not be receptive.

Bring the Doe to the Buck

Rabbits are very territorial and this can quickly result in fights. You can reduce the chance of a fight by bringing the doe to the buck. The buck will be more worried about breeding than protecting his territory.

Adequate Daylight Hours

Rabbits are more likely to breed with longer daylight hours. If you are having trouble breeding while the days are shorter you can add artificial light to your cages. Many breeders have found success with this. Optimally does should be receiving 14 – 16 hours of light, in order to be the most fertile (NLM). Litter size has also been shown to increase with extended daylight hours.

Rachel has questioned whether it is worth breeding rabbits that need artificial additives in order to breed successfully. In the long term, it may be more efficient to keep only the rabbits that are receptive during short and long daylight hours. This way you are not playing with the rabbits’ minds and bodies while creating new breeders that are going to also need artificial lighting.

Breed the Doe Multiple Times in a Day

Does are stimulated to ovulate when the buck is riding the doe. So, bringing the doe back to the buck 1-2 hours after the first breeding is said to increase the chance of more eggs being fertilized.

Breeding Multiple Does at Once

If you have the opportunity, you can increase your kit survival rate by breeding multiple does at once. This way, if one doe has a small litter (2-5 kits) and one doe has a large litter (10-14 kits), you can foster some of the kits from the large littler to the small litter, in order to more evenly distribute the mothering responsibility.

Fall Offs

The buck falling off of the doe is a sign of successful rabbit breeding and is often accompanied by a grunt. Most breeders watch for 2-3 fall-offs, and some wait for 5-6. Others just watch for the first fall-off and leave the doe with the buck for 30 minutes, but only if there are no signs of aggression.

Rabbit making nest

Once the Rabbit Breeding Has Occurred

After your rabbits have successfully bred, there are some things that need to happen in order to set your doe up for kindling.

Feeding the Doe

Once your doe is bred her feed should be slowly increased until she has free-choice pellets. This means that her feeder never runs empty. Her body needs a lot of nutrition in order to grow the kits while keeping her own body conditioned.

Pregnancy Checking

It takes a bit of practice to gain the skill of pregnancy-checking rabbits by palpating, and it can be difficult. This needs to be done very carefully so that you do not harm the developing kits, and it should not be done after 2 weeks. Starting at about 10 days you should be able to feel the kits, they will feel almost like a grape. Below are some tips for palpating rabbits.

  • Make sure the doe is on a flat surface.
  • Place your hand, palm up, at the back of her abdomen.
  • Make a pinching motion (but don’t pinch too hard), and feel between your pointer finger and thumb.
  • Be very gentle and go slow.

Pregnancy can also be evident with mood changes. Not all does have mood changes, but some are drastic. This could mean that they get more cuddly or take on an attitude.

Another way to check if a doe is pregnant is to put her back with the buck about a week later. If she is pregnant she will not be receptive to the buck.

Rachel says, “My does tend to be moody when pregnant and do not want attention. I have tried to palpate the best ones with no success on my part. Usually, I make a note in the app to put them back with the same buck 8 days after the original fall-off to see if she is receptive to another breeding. If she is receptive she is assumed not pregnant. If she clucks and growls at him then she is assumed to be pregnant.  I don’t always stick to this 100% of the time and take a 32-day chance hoping that she is bred.”

Nest Boxes for Rabbit Breeding

A nest box should be added on day 28 no matter if you think the rabbit is pregnant or not. Everbreed’s Schedule feature will automatically notify your phone when nest boxes need to be added.

There are a few types of nest boxes available but the most common are a box that can be removed from the cage and a drop-down nest box. Drop-down boxes are a wire basket that hangs from the bottom of the cage and can be covered when not in use. 

If you opt for a removable box there are many commercial options available for purchasing, but they are fairly simple to make on your own and free plans can be found online. If you decide to make your own, keep in mind that you should have a way to sanitize the box before using it for another doe.

Rachel says, “I prefer drop-down baskets that hang under the cages because there is nothing for me to keep up with and make fit inside the cage. They are completely made of wire so I usually put a piece of cardboard or layers of paper feed bags in the bottom to keep the hay from falling through. When it’s cold I also line the sides of the basket with cardboard or paper and then fill it with hay. For my cages that do not have drop-down nest baskets I use the traditional wooden nest boxes.”

Once you have your nest box you will need some nesting material.

Nest Box Material

There are a few things that can be used as nest box material. Some breeders prefer to put a shallow layer of pine shavings in the bottom of the nest box. Be sure not to use cedar shavings as they are harmful to rabbits. This layer helps to collect moisture as the kits age.

Hay or straw is the most common nesting material. If you use hay the kits will often start nibbling on it as they age. But, hay is also better at trapping moisture than straw so you may have to clean your nest box more often. Some does might end up eating most of their nest, and in this case, straw could be the better option.

Early Kindling Signs

When a doe is getting close to kindling she will start to build a nest. Some does are early preppers and start their nest a week or more ahead of time. Other does might make their nest as they are kindling.

On top of making a nest, the doe will start pulling fur. They pull fur from their belly to line their nest and keep the kits warm. Young does may not have this instinct right away. If your doe kindles and does not have fur in her nest you may have to help her. The fur on her belly will pull out easily and there should be enough in the nest to surround the kits. If the fur does not pull out easily you will need an alternative.

Possible alternatives:

  • Keep fur when a doe pulls more than enough. Make sure the fur is clean and use it for does that do not pull fur.
  • Small 1-inch squares of fleece.
  • Sheep’s wool.

Other soft materials would work in place of fur. Just make sure there are no long materials that could get wrapped around and hurt the kits.

Rabbit kits in nest

After Kindling

Your kits are here, how exciting! The doe should have all of the instincts to care for her kits, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure she is doing her job, especially if it is a young or first-time doe.

Can I Touch the Kits?

Yes. In fact, it is important to count the kits as soon as you notice them and make sure they are all alive. The doe will not abandon her kits because you touch them. It is not uncommon for rabbits to have dead-born kits, and these kits can quickly spoil the nest and kill the others.

Kits should be counted at least once a day to make sure they are all alive and thriving. This will also help to make sure that they are all in the nest and none have escaped.

Making Sure the Kits are Fed

The easiest way to ensure kits are being fed is their big round bellies. Rabbits only feed their babies once or twice a day so you will be lucky if you get to see her feeding her kits. Their bellies should be full in the morning and evening, around feeding times. If you have small, wrinkly kits for more than a day your doe is likely not feeding the kits.

Rachel says, “I like to count kits twice a day to ensure none are dead or missing. I can tell by full bellies or wrinkly skin whether they are being fed or not.”

Record-keeping for Rabbit Breeding

Keeping records of your new little ones will be important. Things such as growth rate and doe misses will be influential to your rabbitry’s efficiency. Everbreed makes all of your record-keeping simple. This software calculates Reports to directly show you how productive your rabbitry is. If your rabbits are pedigreed, Everbreed’s Pedigree feature will help you keep track of your rabbit’s lineage. Kit pedigrees are automatically created when you record a birth.

Conclusion

Now that you know what to do before breeding your rabbits, how to breed them, and what to do before and after your doe kindles, you should be able to breed with success. Rabbit breeding can be complicated, but once you figure out the tips and tricks it doesn’t have to be. Setting your rabbits up for effective breeding will make the breeding day easier and improve the odds of a pregnancy. Once your doe has the correct nesting materials and kindles, you can enjoy watching the babies grow while making sure they are being fed. With Everbreed you can ensure you are always working towards better efficiency and production.

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