This is the first post in our series about Getting Started with Meat Rabbits. First things first…when you are thinking about getting started with meat rabbits the first thing you need to consider is housing.
Where will you keep your rabbits? Will they be indoors or outdoors? What type of cages will you use? What size do your cages need to be? How many cages do you need? We will address all those questions and more in this post of our series.
When deciding what type of housing to use for meat rabbits the main things you need to think about are protecting them from weather and predators, giving them enough space to live comfortably, and keeping their living quarters clean.
What you build to protect them from weather and predators will look a lot different based on whether they will be housed outdoors or indoors.
Housing rabbits outdoors can be more of a challenge than indoors. Your housing will need to be built to withstand a wider range of temperatures than indoors, as well as being more predator-proof.
Rabbits can tolerate cold very well, as long as they have a place where they can stay dry and free of drafts. But heat will kill a rabbit very easily. Temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat stroke in a rabbit if they are not given ways to cope. So outdoor housing needs to be preferably in a shaded area with plenty of cross-breeze for summer. And the cage or hutch needs to include an enclosed, draft free area for the rabbit to go into during the cold of winter. It will also need a good roof and a way to prevent moisture from coming in the sides.
Almost every predator is happy to eat a rabbit. And most of them can be quite cunning about breaking into hutches. Where we live there are bears, bobcats, mountain lions, raccoons, and coyotes. I have heard stories of every one of those predators breaking into rabbit hutches. In addition, you need to consider dogs – whether stray, or your neighbor’s, or even your own. And if they can get to the baby rabbit kits, cats and snakes will make a meal of them as well.
Due to the nature of our climate and the large amount of predators in our area we choose to always house our meat rabbits indoors. At our old home we used an unfinished basement, and at the new farm they are housed inside the barn. I have heard of people using sheds, garages, and even extra bedrooms in their house. That is one of the great things about meat rabbits…they can be housed almost anywhere.
When housing them indoors you have better control over the temperature ranges that they are exposed to, and it is easier to protect them from predators. However, cleanliness of the cages will be more tricky than outside where you can let the droppings and urine fall onto the ground under the cage. Plus, indoors you will need to be sure they still have good lighting (preferably some that is natural) and air flow.
Housing Types & Space Considerations
Once you have chosen where you will house your rabbits you can begin to plan the type of housing. Outdoor housing is usually more of a wooden hutch style house with a roof, a wired area for fresh air, and an enclosed area for protection. Indoors we have found the best housing to be wire cages.
There are many opinions on how much space each rabbit needs. We like to keep our breeding females in 36 inch by 36 inch cages – 9 square feet of living space. Our males are also kept in the 36-inch cages, but we would be willing to keep them in 30 inch by 30 inch cages (6.25 square feet) if necessary since they wont ever be sharing space with babies like the females will. Our weanlings also go into the 36 x 36 inch cages. We put 4-6 weanlings in one cage as long as they will be butchered at about 3.5-4 lbs. We really like the Bass brand of cages. Ours have lasted many years and are still going strong.
It is very important that the housing for the females has wire with very small holes in it all along the bottom 4 inches or so of each side of the cage. And that the floor wire not be to wide of holes either. Rabbit kits are very small when born, about the size of a mouse. They can end up wiggling around and falling out the holes in the sides of the cage if they are not properly wired. We have learned this the hard way and it is very sad – learn from our mistake and be sure the lower half of the cage wire is not bigger than 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch squares. We added the wire to our cages after our sad incident.
Note in this picture there is no wire along the bottom edge of the side wall. A baby kit can fall out of this:
In this picture you can see we have installed smaller wire along the bottom of the side wall up about 4-5 inches to prevent kits from falling out:
How many cages do you need?
Each breeding male and female will need their own cage. In addition, you will need approximately one additional cage per breeding female for weanlings, depending on how you plan to stagger your breedings. If you plan to breed two females to kindle within a few days of eachother (which is recommended and will be discussed in the breeding post of this series) then you will likely have 12-20 weanlings growing out at one time. That would need 2-4 grow out cages. And they will be in the grow-out cages for approximately 6 weeks. If you plan your breedings carefully, you could use those same two cages to wean kits from another set of 2 does bred at the same time, but it can be tricky to have it work out just right.
If your cages are 36×36 I would recommend having 3 weaning cages if you have 2-4 breeding does and 6 weaning cages if you have 4-8 breeding does. Then carefully plan your breedings to efficiently use your weaning cages. Larger weaning cages will mean you can get by with less than that, smaller and you will need more.
For our small backyard farm we generally keep 1 buck and 3 does and get by with 6 cages. Occasionally we have to use one of our other pens in the barn for the weanlings when our breedings don’t fall just right and we run out of cage space with the 6 cages.
The easiest way to be sure your rabbit housing stays clean is to use cages with wire floors to let the waste drop through. But wire flooring can be hard on rabbit feet, so make sure they have a non-wire resting place. This can be a piece of scrap wood (make sure it doesn’t have glue in it and is safe for rabbits to eat because they will chew on it). We prefer to use 12-inch ceramic tiles. These can often be found at thrift stores, or leftover from your own house remodel project. We put one tile in each cage. They are a cool resting place for them in the summer, give their feet a break, and can easily be cleaned when they get soiled.
There are many options for where the rabbit waste can go after it falls through the wire. Some people have them suspended over the dirt ground and then let chickens scratch through it. Or you can have trays that slide under the wire to catch the droppings. We used to have trays under our cages and we lined them with shavings to absorb the waste and keep the smell down. Here is a picture of what our set up looked like when we used trays:
The downfall to slide-out trays is that a 36 inch by 36 inch tray full of shavings and waste can be very heavy and tedious to pull out to clean. Our children love helping with the rabbits and because of the weight and size of the trays only my husband could clean the cages. So after using trays for a few years we decided to switch to a set-up that was easier to maintain, and that the whole family could help with. That is when we put in this set-up:
In this type of set-up the waste drops onto a slanted shelf covered with metal and then falls down into a gutter. The gutter slants towards a bin that collects the waste. Each morning and evening we run a squeegie along the shelf pulling any extra waste down into the gutters. Then we run a specially cut squeegie along the gutter to run any excess down into the bin. It is super quick and easy and doesn’t require any heavy lifting or awkward trays. Once a year or so we give all the cages and the shelf a good scrub down to remove the urine film and gunk that slowly accumulates on them over time.
Whatever you choose, it is very important that your rabbits are not living in their waste, and that it is cleaned often enough to keep the ammonia smell away so they are breathing clean air.
Now you are ready!
Careful planning and building of your rabbit housing will lead to many years of hassle free use and will keep your rabbits safe, healthy, and happy.
In our next post in this series we will be discussing feeding and watering your meat rabbits.