Over a billion rabbits worldwide are suffering in cages for meat production. The cages are often extremely small – up to 20 animals are kept at one square meter. This limits the rabbits' freedom of movement and their natural behaviour. Rabbits are very sensitive animals and by keeping them in such cramped conditions leads to serious health and behavioural problems.
Why do rabbits suffer in cages?
Natural behaviour is impossible in such a cage: due to the narrowness and the very high number of animals per cage, the rabbits, who normally enjoy running around, digging into the ground and gnawing on branches and scrubs, are doomed to immobility. They are also unable to escape or retreat from aggressive con-species. The low cages also deform their spine because they cannot even sit upright. They do not get any daylight or enrichment materials and due to the impossibility of being able to move and to occupy themselves appropriately by foraging and exploring, behavioral disorders often develop. Abnormal, repetitive movements (stereotypies), high levels of physical aggression and gnawed or injured ears are a daily occurrence.
The wire mesh flooring often causes serious injuries to the paws or legs. If the wounds become infected, serious complications can occur. Confined spaces and poor air quality due to the high ammonia content can cause breathing problems, lung diseases and purulent eyes. The lack of hay and straw for food along with poor hygiene is causing teeth problems and consequently diarrhoea and other bowel diseases that can lead to death in rabbits.
The breeding cages, in which mother rabbits spend their entire lives in, are even worse: serious injuries to the paws and legs as well as curvature of the spine are particularly common here. The lifelong and cramped individual husbandry of breeding rabbits prevents natural and social behaviour. The mother rabbit has no possibility to retreat from her offspring, which they would otherwise do to forage for food. This in turn often leads to aggression towards their own young animals. Sometimes they even kill their young. Mother rabbits under these conditions, only live a little over a year and a half. After a year as a 'birthing machine' that has to produce offspring continuously, the animals get exhausted and fall ill, then they are 'replaced'.
How do rabbits naturally live? What does the natural life of a rabbit look like in freedom?
Wild rabbits dig tunnels and caves into the ground. They hide in these caves, where they also give birth to their young. Rabbits are social animals, who dig structures, graze and rest together as well as groom each other for important components of social interaction. As very active animals, they can run up to 30 kilometres per hour and their jumps can reach up to 70 centimetres, which they do for foraging food as they are very selective feeders.
The strict hierarchy in the rabbit hole allows higher-ranking rabbits to drive away lower-ranking animals. The subordinate rabbits flee to avoid being bitten. That is why sufficient space in rabbit husbandry is so important: every rabbit must have enough space to be able to run away from the aggression. Hidden places must also be offered so that the animals can hide and retreat. Rabbit mothers in particular need opportunities for this - in the wild they would feed their offspring only for about three minutes a day before rejoining the group of adult rabbits, while the young animals remain in the nest.
What are the basic needs of rabbits?
- Rabbits need to be able to move freely and hop around their cage where they are also able to forage, explore and rest; there should be hiding places available, along with elevated surfaces.
- Rabbits are a social species and must be kept in stable groups – they should be kept socially as it is otherwise highly detrimental to their health but with ample retreat options so that they can retreat from possible aggressive situations with conspecifics in the group.
- Readily available gnawing material and a balanced diet is not essential only for the enrichment purposes, but the lack of hay and straw for food can cause severe teeth problems and consequently diarrhea and other bowel diseases that leads to death in rabbits.
- A digging crate with sand and soil or other options for digging should be made available so that the animals can express their natural behavior
- Sufficient lying space with dry and soft bedding – wire mesh flooring causes serious injuries to the paws or legs which can lead to severe complications if they become infected.
- Their housing should have a good ventilation in place - poor air quality due to the high ammonia content causes breathing problems, lung diseases and purulent eyes.
- Animals should be kept in good health and receive veterinary care when and if needed, along with pain relief for injuries that inevitably occur during the shearing process.
If neglected, it leads to poor welfare states and therefore to suffering, acute pain, distress, fear, and long-term negative welfare states.
Legal position for rabbit keeping in Europe?
Which legal provisions apply to farmed rabbits – and why they are not sufficient:
Over 340 million rabbits live in cages across the European Union1. Since there are currently no actual EU directives or regulations that stipulate minimum areas for rabbits, the space available for these animals is particularly limited. In doing so, their natural behaviour patterns, such as hopping and digging, are extremely restricted. There are no retreat or hiding places in the conventional cages, which are very important for the well-being of these animals. The majority of rabbits for meat production in the European Union are kept in Spain, France and Italy1, with animal fur being used as a 'by-product' for fur production.
In 2017, the majority of the European Parliament voted for minimum standards for farmed rabbits. Now the EU Commission is asked to quickly develop legislative proposals for better conditions for keeping rabbits. Currently, the Commission is evaluating the 'EU Strategy for Protection and Welfare of Animals (2012-2015)', and preparing other strategies, like the 'Farm to Fork Strategy', which plans for actions on animal welfare in the context of a more sustainable agriculture. In May 2020, the Commission launched a Fitness Check, which is an evaluation of the EU legislation on the welfare of farmed animals2. It will help the Commission to assess the relevance of its current legislation framework regarding animal welfare on farms, during transport and at killing, and will hopefully help improve the caged rabbits´ situation.
While an EU-wide ban on conventional cages for broiler chickens has been in force since January 2012, cages for rabbits have not yet been questioned. There is currently no EU regulation on the keeping of rabbits. FOUR PAWS already pointed out the need for better legislation in 2015 in a lecture to the EU Parliament and we are actively working on an EU-wide ban on caged rabbits.
1) Europäisches Parlament: REPORT on minimum standards for the protection of farm rabbits (2016/2077(INI)). Published January 2017
What FOUR PAWS does for farmed rabbits?
FOUR PAWS has been actively working on improvements in conventional rabbit husbandry for several years. The current legal situation regarding rabbit husbandry in the EU is far from sufficient to guarantee an almost animal-friendly husbandry - among other things, caging remains permitted.
We will never accept the feeble excuse that caging animals is a necessary evil of food production. Cage farming is a practice in which animals are imprisoned in factory farm cages. In Europe alone, hundreds of millions of animals spend their entire lives in cages. Cages keep animals isolated, or tightly packed in confined areas.
FOUR PAWS campaigns for an end to rabbit cage husbandry and supports the development of alternative husbandry systems. We also advocate a plant-based human diet that contains little or no animal products.
First steps towards animal-friendly rabbit husbandry
Individual rabbit producers have already taken some important steps in conventional rabbit farming. On some farms, the rabbits are kept in groups, on plastic or bamboo floors. They have elevated platforms and hiding places. The rabbits have more space to hop and jump. Mother rabbits also have more space in some more advanced systems. Keeping the mother rabbits in groups is still a challenge, but this is also being tackled. There are different systems of pairwise or group keeping. Depending on the breed and management effort, this is entirely possible.
FOUR PAWS calls:
- For a worldwide ban on all cage systems for rabbits
- That dealers and wholesalers stop selling caged rabbit meat
- That restaurants and canteens do not process and serve rabbit meat from cages
- For the fulfillment of basic needs of rabbits
What can you do:
- Before ordering rabbit meat dishes, ask about the rabbits' keeping conditions in restaurants and canteens.
- Try a plant-based diet and avoid meat and animal products more often. Find out more!
- Support the FOUR PAWS’ mission and become a part of our movement to end animal suffering! Join our mailing list here.