When raising animals – either livestock or pets – it’s always going to be easiest to work with the animal’s natural instincts. You are not going to win a fight against nature, and it will make for happier animals!
When it comes to raising rabbits, many people keep them in separate cages where they live out nearly all their life solo. They are often only brought together for breeding or when raising young. The reasoning behind this method is to keep fighting and unwanted pregnancies to a minimum. While that might be true, it goes against rabbit nature to live alone. They are very social and want to live with other rabbits.
In the wild, rabbits live in large groups, called colonies. A wild colony could have anywhere from a few rabbits to a couple dozen. They watch each other’s backs while grazing, practice social grooming, and snuggle together to keep warm in the winter.
When raising rabbits, they will be happiest if you can allow them the space and freedom to live in a colony. The colony can be set up in your yard, shed, barn, garage, basement, or spare bedroom. click here to read more about keeping indoor vs outdoor rabbits
Tips for working around the two biggest problems
When rabbits are first introduced to the colony, you can expect there to be a little fighting. They need to establish where the new rabbit fits in the pecking order. Sometimes even existing colony members will fight to move up the ladder a bit during the upheaval of a new colony member. The worst of this is usually over within a week, but it really just depends on your rabbit’s personalities. I have had rabbits take to each other instantly with zero fighting, and also some that took nearly a month to live peacefully together. Rabbits that have lived for a long time as solitary rabbits will have the hardest adjustment period. click here to read more about introducing rabbits
The best thing you can do to keep fighting to a minimum is to give them lots of space. I recommend 20 square feet per rabbit. The more space they have to spread out, the less chance they have of getting on each other’s nerves! Also, be sure to provide lots of options for hiding. Small boxes large enough for 1-2 rabbits are great when they need to retreat for a little quiet time.
Bored rabbits are more prone to fighting. Keep your rabbits busy by giving them levels for jumping and areas for exploring. Tunnels intended for cats, or even just large PVC pipes provide entertainment. Rabbits also love to dig. Boxes filled with shredded paper or straw can provide hours of fun!
Another common reason for fighting is when they feel there are not enough resources. If you have a large colony, you will find providing multiple hay bins, and feed & water dishes will limit fighting.
Rabbits are famous for their breeding skills. Left to their own devices in a colony setting you will be overrun with bunnies! A rabbit is typically pregnant for 30 days and can become pregnant again immediately after giving birth. With litter sizes up to a dozen, you can see how this can quickly get out of hand!
Your colony approach to breeding will depend largely on your reasons for keeping rabbits. I raise rabbits for pets, with the fiber & garden friendly manure they produce being a nice side benefit. I do however also occasionally sell rabbits for pets or 4H projects so I do breed a couple times per year. I have two separate colonies, one for does and a much smaller one for bucks.
Colony raising pet rabbits is super easy – you either just keep a single sex or you only keep rabbits that have been fixed. My female rabbits get along very well even though they are not fixed. Intact males (and occasionally intact females) might fight more often, but without the presence of the other sex can often live together happily.
Raising rabbits for breeding, either for sale or for meat, requires a little more planning. When breeding rabbits for sale, siblings from the same litter should not be allowed to breed so once they reach maturity (around 8-10 weeks) they will need to be separated. Some rabbit colony raisers keep the buck in with his does all the time. This can generally only work out if you are raising rabbits for meat and plan to process them often. Keeping too many males with too few females will cause overbreeding of your does and competition fighting among your bucks.
The solution for breeding rabbits really depends on how much space you have. You will likely need to maintain a female only colony and a male only colony with a pen where you can bring pairs together for breeding. I would recommend you ensure the male colony can not see the females so they don’t fight to “show off” for the females.
If raising meat rabbits, you can select the rabbits that live harmoniously together to maintain the colony while processing the rest. You might still want to have pens available to separate out the males to regulate how often litters are produced unless you have a really high demand for rabbit meat.
Other factors to consider when setting up your colony
Predators & the elements
An ideal place for a rabbit colony is a shed or barn outdoors, or a spare bedroom indoors. This gives the rabbits lots of space to roam about while still being secure on all sides. click here to read about setting up a bunny barn – If possible, providing them with a secure, attached outdoor run is a great addition for exercise and fresh air. No matter what the setup, ensure the main walls are either solid or small gauge wire to prevent predators & rodents from getting in. The flooring should be solid to prevent predators from digging in and rabbits from digging out. The roof should be solid to keep out rain. Be sure to provide predator proof ventilation, especially in the summer. Heat is a much bigger threat to rabbits than cold. click here to read more about setting up an outdoor rabbit enclosure
Straw is an excellent product to use for bedding. I like to scatter it all over the floor, piled at least a few inches. They will have fun moving it around and making nests of it. Straw is a good nesting material and good insulator for the winter months.
Rabbits are naturally clean animals and can easily be litter box trained. When your colony is litter trained it really cuts down on cleaning chores! Click here to read more about litter training rabbits
Maintaining my rabbit colony is very easy. I currently have my male & female colonies each in a 110 square foot horse stall in the barn. Once a day I fill the feed, water, & hay bins. Sweep up any stray poop pellets around the litter box. A couple times per week I dump the litter box into the compost. We have solid foam interlocking mats on the floor to make cleaning easy. In the winter we add a bale of straw for them to snuggle into. click here to read more about my rabbit set up