Do I Really Want to or Need to Breed my Rabbit?

Breeding is most definitely not an activity to be entered into lightly, or casually, without assessing whether you have the knowledge and extensive time-commitment required – and permanent, responsible loving homes for the youngsters.

Before breeding, please ask yourself:-

  • "Why do I want to breed my rabbits?"
  • "What will I achieve through breeding?"
  • "Do I have the time commitment, knowledge and experience to proceed?"
  • "Do I have good, responsible and loving homes for the offspring?"

"Why do I want to breed my rabbits?"

Many people, having adopted their first bunny, sometimes think it would be 'fun' to breed their rabbits and then set out to buy a partner for their existing bunny or even a new pair of bunnies.

However, few actually consider the issue seriously and those who do usually change their mind when they realise that breeding involves more than casually putting a mixed-sex pair together and hoping for the best.

As a pet rabbit keeper and hobbyist breeder for more than 30 years, we often hear from people who've taken this route and then when reality strikes, or when things don't progress quite as they'd hoped or there are complications, then they have very obvious regrets.

Just like breeding any animal, or even human beings, pregnancy puts a strain on the mother and immediately puts her at risk of complications. It has to be asked whether this is fair for your pet... ..

Breeding bunnies is far from being all about fluffy bundles with cute faces – it can involve stillborn, complications and even the loss of a much-loved pet.

Please read on to learn the reality .....

"What will I achieve through breeding?"

Ideally, you should be aiming to improve the breed in some way - such as by working on a colour to increase its strength, improve markings, improve head shape or some other feature.

Any bunnies to be bred must be of breeding quality in addition to being in peak health and fitness.

It is vital that their line free of any genetic defects which might be passed on otherwise they could produce babies who are going to suffer from problems, most commonly teeth problems which means they, and their owners, undergo considerable stress (and expense) from the regular surgery needed to treat problems as they arise. This is neither fair to the bunny - nor their owner.

So, for this reason, it is best to breed only from rabbits with a good pedigree and whose previous generations are known and can be confirmed to be free of faults or problems. Bunnies bought from a reputable breeder should have some background information and a dedicated pet bunny owner/breeder will usually have maintained the same lines for decades and this is the best way to be certain as possible that their are no defects lurking.

If you have bought your rabbits from a pet shop then they are very unlikely to have any pedigree or background information relating to their line so it is not usually advisable to consider breeding these.

Apart from two breeding-quality bunnies, what else is needed?

  • A hutch for the father of, at least, 4’ x 2’ for a small/dwarf breed; larger for larger breeds (eg 6’ x 3’ for a French Lop)
  • A larger hutch of at least 5’ x 2 for a small breed mother and her family; larger for larger breeds (eg 6’ x 3’ for a French Lop)
  • Extra hutches for the babies post-weaning – if there are 4 babies in the litter then you will need at least 2 spare hutches of 4’ x 2’ for small/dwarf breeds; larger hutches will be required for larger breeds.
  • A large garden to provide the necessary number of safely-enclosed pens for mum, dad and babies.

Legal Requirements etc

  • You might be required to obtain a Licence in order to breed your rabbits if ANY of the babies are to be either sold or given away, regardless of whether or not a charge is made for them.
  • If the babies are to be sold then this might be considered a business and this could attract Business Rating of part of your home and/or garden – even though you won’t be making any profit.
  • Appropriate insurance and public liability insurance if any bunny adopters are to visit your home.
  • Compliance with Fire Regulation and any local bylaws. Please note – these requirements are applicable to ‘back garden’ breeders and not just commercial breeders selling rabbits for profit.

You will also need:

  • A LOT of time – and this cannot be under-estimated. You need to be available 24/7 at least during the latter days of pregnancy and during the birth. It is best to have one person as the bunnies’ main carer to provide regular checks and handling of the babies.
  • You will need to be available to check nests overnight and during the daytime (ie not working away from home). Sometimes employed bunny owners overlook this and find themselves unable to take time off at short notice.
  • A bunny savvy vet close by to provide any urgent or emergency treatment required.
  • Complete dedication.
  • A healthy bank balance to pay for the inevitable extra vet bills.

And: Good, loving, responsible permanent homes for all of the babies. Ideally, these new homes should be chosen by the breeder before the litter is even conceived.

How will pregnancy affect the mother?

Of course, pregnancy will place stress and strain upon the mother and her body – and there are risks, just as there are in humans and all other species. Many of the problems which can affect humans can also affect bunnies including toxaemia, ketosis…

The mother's behaviour, character and personality can change markedly once her pregnancy hormones begin to take control of her body. She should be kept quiet, stress-free and any unnecessary handling should be minimised to reduce any risks of damage to her unborn litter. This tends to go against instincts of cuddling and cosseting pet bunnies – but their welfare must always be given the utmost priority.

If all goes well then, between days 29-32 she should begin to nest-build in preparation for her family and then deliver her babies into it. However, this doesn't always progress as hoped. Some mothers don't build nests (so you’ll have to build one for her!) while others might have delivery problems which means that you will need to be available 24/7 to keep a close check on her to assist where necessary.

If she has any birthing difficulties then she will need immediate veterinary attention and/or your assistance in delivering the litter – be warned, this can be very messy with a lot of blood and only a slimey, strangulated, putrid-smelling dead baby to show for your efforts.

Baby rabbits can be delivered via caesarean but this is a very high risk operation for the mother and not recommended.

Some mums might collapse shortly after giving birth and, if this happens and is due to a calcium deficiency then she will need calcium administering immediately to prevent losing her.

What care will I need to give to the babies?

Babies need to be checked throughout the day and night, every day and every night. Most mothers seem to feed their litter between 2.30-3am so this, in our opinion, is the best and most important time to check on the babies. If one or two don't appear to be feeding as well as the others then giving a supplementary feed can help give them a boost. You'll need to stimulate urination/defecation afterwards and then return them to their nest.

Stragglers must also be checked for via regular day and night checks of the nest. If any babies find their way out of the nest, they don't always find their way back again and can be found chilled and dead on the hutch floor. A few can be revived if found in time and warmed up but many wanderers tend to be the weakest of the litter who are receiving less milk than their siblings. Others might have been dragged out of the nest by mum during feeds and will need replacing within a few minutes before they chill.

If there is a delay in mum’s milk coming through (which can occasionally be up to 3-4 days) then you might need to help stimulate it yourself by tweaking mum’s nipples and holding the babies to her teats. If there is absolutely no milk there then veterinary advice should be sought. In the meantime, the babies will need to be hand-reared using Lactol, Cimicat or other suitable formula milk.

What does Hand-Rearing Involve?

Hand-rearing is time-consuming. Babies aged 1-2 weeks will need to be fed every 4-6 hours, day and night, with freshly-prepared warmed milk at the correct temperature and using sterile syringes. Each feed can take 20-30 minutes per bunny. Once the babies have their coats then, if their coats are becoming sticky then they’ll need to be bathed following each feed. After bathing, towel-dry their coats then use a hairdryer on a low setting to dry their fur and comb through it to prevent tangles forming.

In practice, this cycle can take about 3 hours per feed which, just about, allows you time to have a quick meal yourself before starting on the next feed. This can be quite exhausting work and not all babies survive. It’s rewarding when they do but most disheartening when they don’t.

If you have a full-time or even part-time job then it’s best to book a couple of weeks off work or take the babies along to a vet nurse for care during these few weeks.

Once the babies are 3-4 weeks old then they will be nibbling on solid food. However, this doesn’t provide sufficient for their nutritional needs at this time so the syringe-feeding will need to be continued but you will, by now, be able to make contact with your bed at nights.

Probiotic, together with a few mushed-up fresh caecotrophs from a healthy rabbit, should be added to the feed to provide vital gut-bacteria.

General Care

In addition to extra care for the mother and her young family, all will need to be fed the correct diet for a nursing mother suckling youngsters – which can be very draining for her.

The babies will also need to be observed to ensure that they are all developing normally, eating well, gaining weight at the correct rate whilst also ensuring they are free of any defects such as a malocclusion.

Nursing mums can produce excessive caecotroph pellets which can attract flies at a time when youngsters won’t have been vaccinated against myxomatosis. Therefore their hutch and outdoor run must be kept scrupulously clean and hygienic to guard against both flies and infection risks.

Normally a hutch occupied by mum and her young family would need to be cleaned twice daily; morning and evening. It is also a good idea to start to litter-train babies once they’re about 4 weeks old.

Homes for the Babies

Ideally, homes will have been chosen for the babies before they are even conceived.

Following birth, the babies’ new owners should be encouraged to take interest in the babies and, possibly visit them before they are actually adopted.

As their new owners will have waited a minimum of 12 weeks before adopting their bunnies, this helps guard against impulse-adoptions while this waiting period also ensures they are committed to their new bunny.

Could I Make any Profit by Selling the Babies?

There is absolutely no profit to be made from breeding rabbits unless you are a commercial breeder with hundreds of rabbits on a continuous-breeding programme. Even then, the returns are very low when the costs of employing staff to clean out and provide some level of care for the rabbits are taken into account.

Keeping pet rabbits is extremely labour-intensive and can only be considered a hobby. With the huge time-investment required, it really is a ‘labour of love’!

Selling to Pet Shops

Pet shops typically pay about £5 (and, if you’re a taxpayer, you might have to pay income tax on this!) for a thoroughbred pet rabbit and these are then resold for about £25.

Although the £20 shop ‘profit’ might sound high there is unlikely to be any net profit made. The rabbits will be occupying valuable space within a store, incurring overheads and even their basic feeding and cleaning will attract staff costs. All animals are labour-intensive and pet shops don’t generally make any profits from the sale of small animals.

If you are considering bringing baby bunnies into the world, then we feel you have a responsibility to ensure they are adopted by equally responsible owners who will provide them with caring, loving, permanent homes. We also recommend that you, their breeder, are available to provide post-adoption advice for them for the rest of their lives. Pet shops are not usually in a position to provide this so we always advise against selling any babies to them.

We strongly advise against selling rabbits to pet shops for several reasons:-

  • It is stressful for young rabbits to be taken from their mother/littermates and then placed in an unfamiliar environment. Stress can bring on conditions such as pasteurella or gastric stasis – which can be fatal.
  • This can involve a change of diet at a very vulnerable age when a baby is at risk of developing mucoid enteropathy (often referred to as ‘pet shop disease’).
  • Pet shop staff rarely ‘filter’ customers to determine if a rabbit really is a suitable pet for them. They make the sale and then there is rarely any after-sales service. If you are selling one of your own baby rabbits then you are able to refuse to sell/give away a baby to a home you feel might not be totally suitable.
  • Pet shops don’t always provide general care advice (eg information on vaccination, neutering, bonding…) or even the correct feeding information which can put young rabbits at risk.
  • Pet shops cannot usually offer detailed advice about the characteristics or personality of a litter as they will normally only have them in their store for a short time.
  • Many pet shops typically sell undersized flimsy hutches which may mean any bunnies they sell, ie your bunnies, are at risk of living very cramped lives.
  • Pet shop staff often fail to emphasise the benefits of neutering pet rabbits. Without neutering, male rabbits can spray urine and try to mate anything in sight while females can become stroppy or even aggressive and territorial due to their hormonal cycles. If such bunnies are rejected rather than neutered, they run the risk of being semi-neglected at the foot of the garden or taken along to add to the large number of other ‘pet shop’ bunnies longing for new homes at re-homing centres.

Rabbits from Pet Shops:

Generally it is ‘pet shop’ rabbits which tend to be the most likely bunnies to end up at rescue and re-homing centres.

Often they can be bought on impulse by customers passing through the store who see a ‘cute’ fluffy bunny with an appealing face and twitching nose - and buy him/her without necessarily thinking it through in the way that they would if taking on a dog.

Similarly, it tends to be ‘pet shop’ rabbits who are bought as pets for young children by well-meaning parents who overlook the fact that a rabbit isn’t always the most suitable pet for a child. A young child cannot always hold a bunny correctly, may be frightened if the bunny wriggles or scratches them and can quickly lose interest once the initial novelty has worn off. If/when this happens, the rabbit then becomes a burden on the parents. Also, pubescent behaviour in rabbits can be alarming to owners who suddenly feel their ‘cute little fluff-ball’ has become a ‘teenager’ while younger children can become frightened by the personality change. The purchasers of pet shop bunnies might not be aware that neutering will prevent or minimise much of this hormonally-induced behaviour and castration/spaying makes for a much more contented pet bunny.

Some responsible parents will provide full care for the rabbit while others feel the rabbit perhaps isn’t receiving the attention, fuss, love and cuddles s/he deserves and then try to re-home him/her while, by doing so, inadvertently give children the message that rabbits are ‘disposable pets’.

Owners may find there are few takers for this now-adult rabbit (who has probably not been neutered) and then either keep him/her alone in a hutch until it dies of old age (or boredom or neglect). The luckier bunnies may be taken along to a rescue centre to offer them a second chance of a happy, fulfilling life but some rescue and re-homing centres are already full of unwanted rabbits that this is not always a possibility.

So, in order to prevent this cycle perpetuating, we urge you to firstly not buy your rabbit in a pet shop and secondly, to not breed your rabbit simply for the sake of it, or a ‘bit of fun’.

Summary

We hope these notes will have given you an insight into what breeding involves in terms of the time commitment and dedication required.

Owning any pet animal is a responsibility and we strongly feel that the pet should enjoy the best life possible. Usually, this will involve living as a member of the family, either indoors or outdoors, ideally neutered with a bonded opposite-sex partner to provide companionship for the life of both animals.

Casual breeding is not in the best interests of most pet animals and can put their health at risk. Similarly, suitable homes are not always available for their offspring and with hundreds of unwanted bunnies already sitting in re-homing centres, longing to be wanted and loved, there is also the moral issue of bringing yet more bunnies into the world.

So, please think very carefully before making such an important decision on behalf of your bunny.

Thank You

Karen Williams
Ross Rabbits

Copyright ã 2004 K Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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