Rabbit is one of the latest domesticated livestock in Nigeria. While in the wild, rabbit is commonly referred to as hare. Rabbit production in Nigeria became popular following its earlier introduction in the Western States of Nigeria by the United States Department of Agriculture and the subsequent creation of awareness for its popularization by the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) in 1988/1989. Rapid spread of rabbit production arises from its large scale advantages over many other species of livestock. The feeding habit of rabbit confers the ability to utilise forage and concentrate diets efficiently as sources of needed nutrients. This ability further assists to reduce feed scarcity and cost for rabbit production. While the growth 
rate is comparable with chicken in terms of meat production, it costs far much less to feed rabbit than broiler chicks. Its high reproductive efficiency measured by number of young ones per birth, fertility and short generation interval makes rearing of rabbits a highly attractive and 
profitable enterprise. The quality of rabbit meat product is nutritious and it is relished in social gatherings and drinking places as “bush meat”. 
Rabbit production above all is environment friendly; rabbits are not known for noise making, fierce fighting, attack on the husbandman or poor defecating habit that may result in stench environmental pollution. 
Thus, new entrants into livestock production often commence building 
up their skills through backyard rabbit production because of its attractiveness.
At the end of this unit, you should be able to: 
• identify breed characteristics and select for desirable traits 
• explain the principles of reproduction in rabbits 
• mention feed ingredients available for rabbit and their nutritive values 
• describe the basic principles underlying housing designs for rabbits 
• explain principles of health management in rabbitery. 
 

3.1 Breed Characteristics of Rabbit

There are several breeds and strains of rabbit that have been introduced into Nigeria. The breeds vary in the pattern of coat colours, sizes and productive characteristics. Most common coat colours are of dark, white brown, gray or ox-blood or a combination of two of these colours exhibited in a characteristic pattern for a given breed or strain of rabbit. 
However, much greater interest to the producers relates to the productive  characters inherent in a breed. In terms of size, there are medium-sized or heavy breeds of rabbits which vary in their relative suitability for home and commercial meat or fur production. For fast growth, rapid attainment of mature body weight at 4.1-5.5 kg and 5.9-7.3 kg 
respectively for medium and heavy breeds is more desirable compared to small-sized breeds weighing 1.4-1.8 kg at maturity. 
Some medium and heavy breeds of rabbits commonly found in Nigeria are listed in the table below:
 
The objective of the producer most importantly dictates the choice of breed or direction of selection. 
Breed selection is commonly based on healthcare and vigour which is evidenced by alertness, brightness of eyes, coat colour, smooth and glossy coat, reproduction performance, type and conformation. Light coloured skins are often preferred to dark coat coloured rabbits. A good age to start production is at weaning or maturity. Selection for breeding and rearing must be decided on the basis of rabbit performance records 
on the farm. However, such records are hardly available. Rabbit breeds commonly found in the locality with proven assurance of good health and productivity from the producers nearby may suffice for a beginner. 
For example the New Zealand white and American Chinchilla are the most adapted exotic rabbit breeds in Nigeria, and they thrive very well in most ecological zones. Among the local types the light and dark 
brown are most preferred. Note that a breed name depends on location or place of origin, coat colours, breeder nomenclature or size. 
Rabbits that have white coat colour are preferred and sell faster in Nigeria than those with dark coat colour. For wool production, the English Angora and French Angora have higher preference. For new 
starter, rabbits at maturity are easier to manage than newly weaned stock. However, matured rabbits are more expensive than weaners but they hasten to attain the breeding age of 5 or 6 months. It is important to rely on the health status and records of performance in selecting rabbits for breeding. The adaptability of a breeding stock may be easily accessed from the breed most populous in the community, this will also guarantee early disposal of stock whenever the producer desires. 
 

3.2 Selecting and Improving Desirable Traits in rabbits 

Breeding stocks are selected predominantly from past records of a rabbit or its parents. Selecting on the basis of coat or eye colour is secondary. 
Quantitative traits such as fertility, growth and feed efficiency, milk production, disease resistance and carcass quality are more desirable basis for selection. High heritability percentage of most quantitive traits in rabbit further ensures that larger proportion of the characters can be passed from parents to offspring, and makes parent’s records a dependable tool for the selection of good traits. Besides selecting desired characteristics in the animal, other techniques for improving such traits in the flock are:

Principles of Reproduction in Rabbits 

Rabbits are known to be highly active in sexual activities, as such, if undesirable mating (including mating prior to maturity, mating between closely related members of a family or mating between wrong partners) are to be avoided, rabbits should not be allowed to live communally. 
Males (Bucks) and females (Does) prior to age of maturity must be separated into single cages or hutches. Mature female rabbit (also known as Doe) normally comes into ‘season’ or ‘heat’ periodically by demonstrating signs of high receptiveness to male for purpose of mating. 
Such sign may include restlessness in the cage; making frantic efforts to leave the cage to join other rabbits in the next cage, rubbing her chin on the hutch, water or feed troughs. Other signs observable are physical changes or discharge from the vulva such as redness or swollen genital. 
When these occur, the producer is encouraged to transfer the doe to the 
cage where the buck is housed without any further delay. Some bucks may be timid to mount on the doe if such bucks are taken from their cages to where the doe is housed. A delay in introducing a doe on heat to a buck immediately may result in loss of the experience to be receptive to the male. The act of mating or copulation also stimulates the release of eggs (oval) in the does for fertilization and conception within the reproductive organ of the female rabbit, usually 10 hours after mating. For this reason i.e. release of eggs only after the act of mating has taken place makes rabbit to be described as a “silent or included ovulator’. 
It is important to regulate the mating ratio in a large stock of rabbits. 
Mating ratio refer to the number of male allotted to a group of female for purpose of mating for efficient reproduction and without over tasking the sexual stamina of the male. Recommended mating ratio is 
modestly put at one buck (male) to two-five does (females) daily.
A successful mating results in fertilization and pregnancy which extends between 28 and 32 days. Often kindling or parturition occurs between 31 and 32 days or an average of 30 days gestation period. Young rabbits (or kittens) grow for four-12 months to the maturity age and ready for 
breeding, depending on the breed. For example the small polish breed may be breed at four months, medium New Zealand white at six-seven months and heavy Flemish at nine-12 months of age. In many breeds sexual maturity may be attained at five months after birth but it is not recommended to opt for breeding doe immediately attaining the sexual age of maturity. Consideration must be given to the physical ability of the doe to carry pregnancy to term and to kindle young ones safely. 
Good quality feed and adequate feeding plus sound management care from birth may encourage a producer to breed a fast growing doe much earlier than its other mates lacking adequate quality and quantity of nutrients and growing slowly. This implies that age is not an absolute 
consideration in breeding but rather size, which is often from 2.0kg live weight. Please note that the doe must be returned to her cage and separately kept as soon as copulation with the buck occurs, to avoid 
abortion or loss of developing embryo as a result of struggling and fighting by the buck to have another round of mating with the doe if fertilization had taken place. Sometimes inexperience doe may resist 
mating, it is therefore important for the rearer to assist by restraining the doe to enable the buck to mount on her. 
About four-five days before kindling nesting box is required to be placed within the closest reach for the pregnant doe. The nesting box should be stuffed with succulent bedding materials such as wood saving or grasses. The pregnant does on her own would naturally shed part of 
her hair covering to create warm cover for the hairless kittens to be delivered. Kittens cohabit with their dam in the nesting box for about two weeks during which the eyes are open and hair covering also develops. Re-breeding of the doe can be done shortly after kindling; however, re-breeding of doe four times in a year will suffice for good results. A good doe produces on the average 28 kittens per year. 

3.4 Rabbit Feeds and Feeding 

Management of kittens from birth through weaning to maturity depends 
largely on quality of feeds and appropriate application of feeding principles during the growth period. Young rabbits are left with the does to have access to milk until weaning at 56-60 days to attain 1.5kg 
weaning weight. Litter size (number of kittens per birth) determines the average litter weight due to competition for milk and feed. During lactation, adequate good quality concentrate, sufficient succulent greens and plenty of clean fresh water should be provided to ensure production of abundant milk for the young ones. Milk consumption at early stage of life of a kitten offers nutrients that ensure immune protection and rapid growth during the pre-weaning growth period. As such kitten weighing about 60g at birth attains 1.8-2.0kg at the weaning age of 50-60 days. At four-eight weeks, kitten would have grown hair coat to conserve body heat without the dam providing warmth for them. They should on their own eat some concentrate, greens and root supplied to their dam. At 
weaning, the dam is simply removed from the litter and kept separately away in another hutch. Sudden removal of the dam while the milk still flows may results in a caked udder. In order to avoid this condition at weaning, a few kittens especially those having slow rate of growth be left with the dam for few days until milk flow ceases. 
Besides the removal of dam at weaning a number of activities are usually carried out immediately for ease of good management such as: 
(1) Identification of individual weaners using ear tags, tattooing or notching methods. 
(2) Sexing: separation of males and females weaners. 
(3) Selection for breeding especially for replacement stock. 
It is important to note certain principles guiding the feeding and nutrition of rabbits. The domestic rabbit is primarily herbivorous and will eat most types of green vegetation, hays, grains, tubers and roots. 
Thus rabbits may thrive on feed ingredients from plant sources. This 
convenient feeding habit derives from the special adaptation of the digestive system of rabbit. The digestive tract basically is that of a monogastric consisting of a simple stomach and a pair of large caeca 
(plural) where cellulolytic microorganisms reside. The latter additional structures aid in digestion of forage feeds which other simple stomach animals cannot easily digest. Another special ability of rabbits 
supporting the use of poor quality feed ingredients is the recycling of soft faecal pellets to supplement protein quality and B-vitamins and further aids better digestion of poorly digestible feed. The protein-rich soft faeces (coprophage) is produced from bacterial protein synthesised in the caecum (singular). The stomach adaptation of empowers rabbits to utilise non-protein nitrogen ingredients (urea, poultry manure, biuret) as sources of protein which further ease feed and nutrient requirements of rabbit while contributing to faster growth. 
The nutrient needs of rabbits consist of suitable amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, minerals, vitamins, water and roughage. It is essential that feeds containing these nutrients must be provided in a palatable form and sufficient quantity. Nutrient requirements of 17 per cent crude protein (plus 0.65 per cent lysine and methionine), 2450 kcal digestible energy have been recommended the protein sources may include soybean, groundnut, cottonseed, palm kernel and sunflower meal in combination with non-protein nitrogen sources. While the energy may be derived from fats, tubers, grains and forage feeds. Fat supplementation as energy source should not exceed 20-25 per cent depending on age. It is of necessity to add a satisfactory level of 
roughage or any fibre source into the diet of rabbits to avoid enteritis and to aid both microbial activities and bowel movement. Staple food by-products commonly consumed in many Nigerian cultures have been tried and found to be useful for feeding rabbits e.g. dry cereal and legume grains. The use of cassava tuber peels and leaves, bambara nut wastes, poultry manure, maize and sorghum offal have been recommended as cheap alternative feedstuffs for rabbit without comprising growth rate and development of body tissues. 

3.5 Basic Principles of Housing and Sanitation for Rabbits 

The underlying principle of housing for rabbit is that housing accommodation should protect stock from predators, extreme climate, accidents and injuries. It should also aid comfort, growth and 
reproductive wellbeing of the rabbits and conveniently permit all operations to be carried by the husbandman. In its characteristics habits rabbit houses may be sited close to human habitation because rabbits are not noisy and their faeces are not stenchy-like in poultry and piggery. 
Rabbit houses ought to be a simple, cheap labour saving and easy to operate without compromising adequate ventilation and convenience of stock and workers. Specific designs of rabbit houses vary from one location, climate, scale of operation and investment to another. 
Materials for construction also determine the durability of the houses and their 
facilities. 
Rabbit hutches or cages have been recommended to measure 0.9-1.2 m 
in length, 0.6-0.9 m in width and 0.6 m in heights with a clearance from the ground level of 1m. In principle a breeding doe or buck should be provided with 0.09 m2
 floor spaces for each 0.5 kg body weight. In another words, 5 kg live weight doe would require 0.9 m2 of floor space 
for its convenient accommodation. 
The type of flooring installed in rabbitry, influences the easy and frequency of cleaning of the cage. Wire mesh flooring is widely used where self-cleaning hutches are desired. Other types of flooring are solid and slat flooring or their combination with wire mesh flooring. Where solid flooring is installed slanting of the floor and frequent cleaning to remove urine, faeces and left-over of feed stuff on the floor is suggested. 
Slat flooring requires that hard wood slats are spaced closely to avoid trapping of rabbit feet in between slats. It is advisable to double wire mesh at base of hutches to avoid trapping of feet, breaking by predators or weakened by urine. 
Provision of component facilitates such as nesting box, feeder, waterer, rack for forage and saltlick are important consideration for the construction of a rabbit hutch. Different materials ranging from metal sheets, wood, concrete, mud, plastic to earthen pots are commonly in 
use. The choice of material depends on capital, labour and preference of the owner. Rearing of rabbits in colony cage ranges from 0.37 to 0.55 cm2
 for a cage. Colony or cage rearing is often used for raising young rabbits especially for meat production. A space of 60 x 43cm types of housing are briefly described as follows: 
• Pens: These are partitions in housing where rabbits are kept on concrete floor surrounded by wire mesh, wooden or concrete wall. All components facilities are placed on the floor for easy 
access by the rabbits. Note that matured rabbit reared as replacement stock are not suitable for this type of housing. 
• Paddocks: These are fenced area in fields where rabbits are allowed to freely graze on the growing vegetation; portable 
hutches are usually placed within the fenced area to provide accommodation for the rabbit while they remain in the area or at night. 
• Underground Housing: This type of housing permissible for rabbit to create a natural mode of living similar to condition in the feral state. However, concrete flooring must be provided beneath the underground to prevent rabbit burrowing to escape. 
Rabbit burrows into the underground where they live most part of the day but occasionally come up to the surface to feed and drink. 
Both the top and underground spaces are fenced to avoid escape. 
• Portable Hutches: These are light movable hutches to accommodate and transfer hutches from one point to another usually in the backyard where rabbits can be grazed on vegetation or in paddocks. 
• Nesting Boxes: Nesting boxes are special housing facilities designed to accommodate the dam and the kittens prior to kindling and during the period of nursing to weaning. They provide convenient place for kindling for the breeding doe and prevent kittens from wandering away from their source of 
warmth and suckling. Cushioning materials such as succulent hay, cotton wool, shredded paper or hair are provided by doe or rearer to aid survival of the kittens at their early life. 
Ease of attention and disposal of dirt for a clean environment should form a strong consideration for a choice of accommodation for rabbit.

3.6 Rabbit Disease Prevention and Health management

Management Rabbits in good health and vitality are easily recognized by their bright eyes, alertness to sound, smooth and glossy coat and good appetite. The 
immediate surrounding including hutches, equipment, water and feeds are the points of attack by parasites and diseases. Cleaning and hygiene of the sanitary conditions of these ports determine the health status of the rabbitry. Cleaning and hygiene implies prompt disposal of manure, used bedding materials, stale food, providing wholesome water and feed and keeping the entire hutch and its components clean and disinfected. 
Sanitation in the rabbitry forms the best method for the prevention of disease outbreak. Similarly, rabbits entering into the rabbitry from an outside environment must be quarantined for two-three weeks prior to introducing into the stock. The quarantine provides a period of observation and treatment of worms and external parasites as well as other diseases that may be noticed. Isolation of any sick rabbit immediately on notice of certain habits or symptoms of a disease 
condition helps a great deal to prevent spread of diseases in the herd. 
Habits associated with disease condition include: listless (or restlessness), isolation from other mates or sitting hunched up in a corner, not actively feeding or drinking, dull eyes, rough coats. These observations are indicative of disease infection and the immediate attention of veterinary personnel is most desirable. Most disease conditions of rabbits may be categorised into viral, bacterial, parasitic, fungal and non-infectious diseases: 

a. Non-Infectious Diseases

(i) Cannibalism: Does may sometime be predisposed to killing and eating up their kittens. Lack of sufficient or good quality feed or water, nervousness and crowdy 
accommodation may trigger such a vice habit. Does found in this vice behaviour consistently should be culled or disposed off. 
(ii) Bloat: This is a condition associated with the distention of the abdomen due to accumulation of fluid in the stomach 
as a result of malfunctioning of the digestive system. 
Excessive feeding of carbohydrate-based diets, slimy forage or certain legumes are predisposing factors.
Addition of fat or hay to diets and reduction of grains in concentrate diet eliminate bloating condition in rabbits. 

b. Fungal Diseases 

Ringworm: This is a disease of the skin coat caused by fungis Trichophyhton mentagrophytes. It is characterized by circular loss of hair at a spot on the skin or thinning of the fur. The affected portion may be inflamed or covered with bran-like flaky skin debris. Treatment is often effected by sprinkling of powdered sulfur to nesting boxes or on infected spot after scrapping off the whitish flakes. 

c. Parasitic Diseases 

(i) Coccioliosis: Coccioliosis is caused by protozoa known as Eimeria spp. Infected rabbit show signs of diarrhea, lack of appetite, rough coat and poor growth rate. The diarrhea may be accompanied with stained feaces. Treatment with sulfaquinoxaline often suffices. 
(ii) Mange: This is a disorder associated with Sarcoptes scabiei or Notoedres cati infection. It is characterized by 
scratching of the spot of infestation and loss of hair on the chin, nose, head, base of ears and eyes. Dipping rabbit in lime sulfur preparation has aided in treating the disease. 

d. Bacterial Diseases 

(i) Pasteurellosis: This is a disorder of the nasal membrane, air passages and the lungs. It is highly contagious disease 
caused by Pasteurella multocida. Rabbit exhibit snuffles or nasal catarrh and inflammation of mucous membrane. 
The bacterial parasite is responsible for abscesses which may be found in any part of the body or head. 
(ii) Conjunctivitis (Weepy eye): Infected rabbit is prone to rub the eyes with her feet resulting in watery exudates or discharge from the eyes, reddening of the eyes and 
eventual inflammation of the eye tissues. Treatment is done with eye ointments containing sulfonamide, antibiotics and/or steroids. 
(iii) Pneumonia: This is bacterial infection arising from dampy and unsanitary hutches and inadequate bedding. 
The body temperature of the affected rabbit rises up to 400C and the animal exhibits off-feed, dyspnea and lassitude. Antibiotics such as oxytetracycline, penicillin or combination of penicillin and streptomycin are used as effective treatments. 

4.0 CONCLUSIVE NOTE ON RABBIT FARMING

The focus of this study unit is on the basic management principles guiding rabbit production. For a fresh beginner in rabbit rearing, there is need for clarity on the advantages of choosing rabbitry as an enterprise among other livestock production engagements. He must have the understanding of identifying breeds or strains of rabbit required to meet his production objectives and subsequently selecting for specific traits of interest. The realisations of the farmer’s objective are predicated on his knowledge and application of the principles of rabbit management and husbandry which are concisely discussed under the six themes of the main content 
 

5.0 Rabbit farming summarised note 

Domestication of rabbits from the wild is recent. Rabbit production has several advantages over other farm animal production enterprises especially in terms of low cost and easily available feedstuff, high reproductive efficiency and above all, high profitability. As such fresh beginners, be they farmers or students, must be acquainted with the basic principles of selecting, breeding, feeding, housing and managing the health of rabbit to achieve the production objectives. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT 
1. Identify three breeds of rabbit you consider suitable for your local environment. Describe how you will establish a rabbitry for your college to enable it sell replacement stock to your community. 
2. Describe a housing system for a tenant who lives in an upstair and desires to keep rabbit for family consumption. 
3. Itemise routine daily husbandry activities for feeding and healthcare of rabbits reared in a backyard hutch. 

7.0 REFERENCES/FURTHER READING 
Aduku, A.O. & Olukosi, J.O. (1990). Rabbit Management in the Tropics. Abuja, Nigeria: Living Book Series, (Publ.) 
Agrodok 20. Agromisa (1989). Backyard Rabbit Farming in the Tropics. Second Edition. The Netherlands: Wageningen. 
Cheeke, P.R. (1984). “Rabbit Nutrition and Feeding: Recent Advances and Future Perspectives.” The journal of Applied Rabbit Research 7(1): 31-37.