Have you been considering getting some rabbits. There are many reasons why rabbits are a good addition to your homestead. Today we’re talking about ones raised for meat. Any rabbit can be eaten, no matter how cute, hairy, or small but some are a lot more practical for producing meat. You don’t have to buy purebred or pedigreed stock to start breeding meat rabbits, you just need to know what to ask the breeder, what to avoid, and what makes a good meat rabbit.
Questions to ask before you make a trip.
Are you buying a just weaned kit or an adult rabbit?
You’ll want to avoid buying rabbits before they are 8 weeks old, which is typically when they should be weaned. Rabbits that are weaned early often develop enteritis, a digestive disease, and sometimes die. Despite an increased risk of enteritis kits that are destined for the freezer – often called “grow outs” -are sometimes weaned early.
When you’re buying breeding stock you want them to have stayed with the mother for the full 8 weeks so they get the best start in life. It’s also hard to properly assess a kit’s conformation if they are younger than 8 weeks, which is something you’ll want to do when buying breeding stock and we will talk about in a few minutes. If you’re buying a rabbit over six months old you’ll also want to ask about their breeding history. Six months is the ideal age to start breeding for most breeds used for meat. Rabbits a year or older, especially does, that have never been bred are a gamble. Adult rabbits get fat easily, potentially preventing them from breeding.
Age and weight at weaning?
Like we talked about, 8 weeks is the ideal weaning age, you want as close to 5 lbs at weaning as possible. 5lbs at 8weeks is realistically hard to get but anything over 3lbs is good.
Average litter size, survival percent and weight at weaning?
Large litters, more than 8 kits, are usually smaller at 8 weeks but catch up quickly if well fed. The number of kits born, the number that survive to weaning and their weight tell you how good of a mother they had. Starting out with breeding stock from lines with good mothering skills is really important. It doesn’t matter how big the rabbits are or how meaty they are if they die in the nest. It’s not unusual for a doe to reject some of her first litters. Often this is because of human error but a doe that raised her first litter is superior because she is productive that much sooner than a doe who needs multiple litters to figure things out.
It’s also good to ask about their breeding program. A quick cycle where does produce one litter after another with little rest will often result in progressively smaller litters. This shouldn’t necessarily count against a doe unless you plan to also do a quick cycle breeding program.
The condensed version is: You want no less than six, preferably eight kits, consistently produced per litter, with at least six weaned weighing three or more pounds each.
What about breed, pedigree?
Even with mix breeds knowing the breeds is helpful. For instance, mixes including dwarf breeds are best avoided because they often have very small litters with frequent stillbirths. On the other hand, Flemish Giants get large quickly but have a poor meat to bone ratio.
In the case of purebreds you can research the breed to learn if it was developed for meat production. If you learn who the breeder was you can find out if they select their line for meat type.
Do they use solid bottomed or wire cages, tractors?
Rabbits kept in wire cages develop sore hocks more often. This has to do with the fact that most cages have flooring that is not right for rabbits, alas that is a topic for another day on my blog.
Theoretically rabbits kept in wire cages are exposed to fewer diseases and parasites since their droppings fall out of the cage. Solid bottomed cages unless they are cleaned with a religious procedure provide a place for potential disease to breed and can cause urine scald. Know if the breeder tells you they use solid bottomed cages that you will need to pay especially close attention to the cleanliness of the rabbitry. If the breeder says they use tractors, ask if they put their breeders and kits they sell live in tractors. Pasturing rabbits is awesome but it increases the risk of a rabbit contracting coccidiosis. Pasturing rabbits does NOT mean that they will get coccidiosis, but if it’s in the area then the rabbits have a chance of getting it from the soil. So ask if the rabbits you’ll be looking at buying have been on pasture and ask if coccidiosis has shown up in their rabbitry.
Can you visit the rabbitry or have photos?
After a few sketchy experiences I am very firm about visiting a rabbitry before buying breeding stock from it. There are only two ways I would do otherwise: if I could get a video or photos with a verifiable date and location or if someone I knew who was experienced with rabbits and had cleanliness standards equal to mine okayed the breeder for me.
Rabbits from a dirty rabbitry will at best seem healthy but have lung damage and react poorly to stressful situations such as going to a new home. They may develop a case of bloat or loose a significant amount of weight. Worse case they will have serious contagious diseases. When I say “dirty” I mean there is an ammonia smell that burns your eyes and throat, the cages are caked in manure and hair and there is standing urine on the floor. A rabbitry can have lots of manure and bedding and be perfectly fine if there’s enough bedding and ventilation to prevent ammonia build up and if the cages are clean.
Looking at a Rabbits General health
Overall condition and personality.
A healthy rabbit should have a clean smooth coat and clean nose, eyes and ears. They should be interested in people opening their cage and move around when pestered. You should just barely be able to feel their back bone but a rabbits body should feel solid not bony.
A rabbit’s teeth should look like this photo. The top teeth should be in front. A rabbit’s teeth grow through out their life and naturally ware down during chewing. If the bottom teeth are in front they don’t ware down properly, they eventually grow to a point that stops the rabbit from eating. This condition, called malocclusion, can be dealt with by clipping the teeth in pet animals but a rabbit with incorrect teeth should never be used for breeding stock.
The ear canal should be clean and look to have healthy skin. If it appears inflamed, bloody as if the rabbit is scratching or scabby don’t buy any rabbits there. Run away and sanitize yourself and anything you brought or were wearing while you were there. Scabby inflamed ears are caused by ear mites, a different species from what affects dogs and cats.
Ear mites are highly contagious and potentially life threatening. When I first got back into rabbits as an adult ear mites were somehow introduced into my rabbitry. It took me two years and abandoning all my wooden rabbit equipment to eliminate it.
Bucks should have two testicles and a normal penis. Need I really say more? If he’s funny down there just say no. There should be no pus or sores or anything that makes you have flash backs to high school Sex –Ed class.
Nails shouldn’t be excessively long. If a rabbits nails aren’t trimmed regularly the quick grows out past what is normal and they begin to twist. This is uncomfortable for the rabbit and increases the likelihood that they will break off a nail. Most importantly though, over grown nails cause a rabbit to change where they place weight on the foot contributing to sore hock development. Sore hocks happen when the fur is worn off the bottom of the foot. It can progress to sores developing and eventually into a bone infection which can be deadly. A rabbit with sore hocks can be saved and heal completely but it’s not something a beginner should really get themselves into.
Assess a Rabbits Conformation for Meat Quality
A meat rabbit is shaped like half a ball. From the side their topline should make a smooth arch, from the top they should be ball like. To assess a rabbit’s conformation the front feet should be just below the eyes, with the elbow on the table and the toes of the back feet lined up with the round of the back leg. This is for commercial and semi compact type rabbits. There are also cylinder type meat rabbits which are posed differently, I’m not familiar with those breeds so I can’t give you any advise about assessing cylinder type rabbits. Avoid rabbits that are small, bony, racy- think like a jack rabbit- have shoulders that look low from the side and narrow from above.
- Bad Side View – Notice that she isn’t very arched and that her shoulders are lower? You want to avoid this type.
- Good Side View – This girl is not friendly, so I get the best photos of her in cage. Notice she also has a mostly smooth arch. She hasn’t been posed properly, but you can still see the arch.
- Good Side View – Notice that there’s a smooth arch from behind the ears to his tail? That’s what you want.
- Good Wide Top View – Notice that his hips are almost the same width as his shoulders? That’s good. He could be thicker through the middle, so he looked more like a ball, but Salix is nice.
- Bad Top View – Note that her shoulders are markedly narrower than her hips? Compare her to Salix and you can really see the difference.
Assessing a rabbit’s conformation can get very detailed, it’s too much to get into here and I’m sure your eyes would glaze over pretty fast!
So let’s review: In short you are looking for a rabbit that is fast growing, has good mothering skills, and is big, healthy and roundish. Now you’re ready to go find yourself breeding stock to start your meat rabbit adventure, good luck!