We have made it to the last post in our “Getting Started with Meat Rabbits” Series. To view other posts in the series, click the following links:
Feeding and Watering
Buying Breeding Stock
Pregnancy and Kindling
Birth to Weaning
Weaning is the process of removing the kits from the mother rabbit so they are not nursing anymore and the mother rabbit’s milk production can dry up. The kits will now eat hay, feed, and water like an adult rabbit, and the mom is now free to have another litter of kits.
The most important aspects of weaning are to keep the kits healthy and growing without nourishment from the mother and to prevent mastitis in the mother.
Timing the weaning to when the kits are eating and drinking enough to sustain themselves without nursing is key to keeping them healthy through weaning. We wean our kits at 6 weeks of age. Some people wean as early as 4 weeks or as late as 8. We find 6 to be an excellent middle ground. The mother is usually starting to wean them on her own by 6 weeks, so it follows the natural pattern. Our kits have never had a problem continuing to grow and be healthy when weaned at 6 weeks.
We re-breed the mother at 5 weeks (as long as she is at a healthy weight and body condition) – so that gives her only one week of nursing and pregnancy at the same time. We do not suggest you make her overlap nursing with early pregnancy for any longer than one week at the most. It can cause issues with the pregnancy and the upcoming kits.
How you handle the weaning process is very important to keep the mother from getting mastitis. Mastitis is an infection in the mammary glands that occurs when too much milk builds up and isn’t expressed. Sudden stopping of nursing can cause it, so it is important to gradually remove the kits so her milk production can decrease gradually.
We wean gradually over a 4 day period. We find this has made it so we never have a doe get mastitis, and it gives the smaller kits time to catch up with the larger ones. The litter size will control how many are weaned each day. But we always wean at least two on the first day so no kits are living alone in a cage because after being with a litter and mother it can be very stressful for a kit to live alone. The stress could cause trouble with their growth or cause illness.
So, to give an example, lets say we have a litter of 6 kits. We would wean the largest two on the first day, then the next largest one on the second day, the next largest one on the third day, and the smallest two on the fourth day. We find that by the fourth day the two kits that were the smallest when we started weaning are now comparable in size to their larger siblings because they have been given more time with mom and have had access to more milk with no bullying. So if there were 7 kits it would be 3, 2, 2, 2. 8 kits it would be 2, 2, 2, 2. If there were 10 kits we would do 3, 2, 3, 2. You get the point.
If there are less than 5 kits we do it over less time than 4 days. If there was 4 kits we would do it in 3 days by doing 2, 1, 1. If there were only 3 kits it would only be 2 days with 2 and then 1. Again, we never put one kit all by itself in a cage. If somehow you had a litter of only 2 kits, we would suggest just weaning both of them the same day. That way they don’t have to live alone and stressed, and with the mother only feeding two her milk production is probably not very high anyway.
During the weaning process and once all the kits are gone we check the mother daily for signs of mastitis until she is completely dried up. To do this we just gently palpate each mammary gland with our hands. They should not feel hard or hard and hot – that would indicate mastitis. The first few days after the kits are gone it will feel like there is some extra tissue hanging down under her, this is fine as long as it isn’t hard. It should shrink back up within a week or less.
Once the kits are all out of the mother’s cage we decide how to feed her based on her body condition and status. As we discussed in the feeding and watering post in this series, she will always have unlimited hay and unlimited water. The pellet amounts are what will fluctuate. If she is overweight and pregnant we would go back to rationed pellet feedings until the last week of pregnancy and then go to unlimited pellets. If she is overweight and not pregnant we would do rationed feeding until we got her to a good weight. If she is in good condition and pregnant we would continue with unlimited pellets. If she is in good condition and not pregnant we would put her back on the adult rationed pellets. If she is underweight then she should not be pregnant because we wouldn’t have bred her while she was underweight – but if this is somehow your situation she would absolutely stay on unlimited pellets. If she is underweight and not pregnant we would continue unlimited pellets until she was a good weight for breeding. You can read more details about rationed adult feeding in the Feeding and Watering post.
The weaned kits receive unlimited pellets, unlimited hay, and unlimited water all the way through their growing out. Depending on how many kits are in a cage, we find towards the end of growing out we have to fill pellet feeders three times a day instead of two, and put two water bottles on a cage instead of just one.
It is fine to put weanlings of different ages (from different litters) in cages together. But be careful if there is a large difference in size or age because the larger older weanlings might bully the younger smaller ones and cause them stress and growth problems.
Do not overcrowd your weanling/growing out cages. Your kits will not grow as fast and as well if they are crowded and stressed. However, do try to keep them with at least one other kit, never alone. Young animals eat and grow better when they have another young animal with them. You may start with 8 new weanlings in one 30×36 inch cage, but as they get bigger you would split them into two cages with four rabbits in each to be sure they have enough space.
We butcher our kits at about 11 weeks of age. Sometimes they are at weight at 10 weeks, and sometimes not until 13 weeks. But basic fryer butchering age is between 11-12 weeks.
If we are keeping a kit to grow-out into a breeding animal they either move into their own cage when the rest of the litter is butchered, or we keep them with a same-sex sibling if we are keeping more than one. They can live with a same-sex sibling until they are bred – once it is time to breed them they need their own cage. We feed them unlimited pellets, hay, and water, until they reach a healthy adult size.
We have now covered everything one would need to know to get started raising meat rabbits. We hope the series has been helpful – please feel free to ask any questions in the comments sections of any of the posts in the series and we will do our best to help you.