Rabbit Handling and Husbandry
ALAT Chapter 21
Tracy Gluckman, D.V.M, M.S.
Dept. Comparative Medicine
• Oryctolagus cuniculus
• New Zealand White (NZW) rabbits: most
common breed in the research
• Behavior and response reflects prey status
in the wild: nervous, flight reactions,
covert pain manifestations.
Rabbit Research Models
Common use for rabbits in research
• Serum antibody production: ascites
• Drug testing/screening: toxicology, pharmacology
• Pyrogen (fever) induction
• Atherosclerosis: arterial plaque formation
Handling and Restraint
• Manual v. device restraint
• Slow, calm movements
• Cage removal: One hand at scruff and one
hand always supporting hindquarters.
Vertebral column fracture (7th lumbar vertebrae)
• Never lift or move a rabbit by the ears
Pinnal (external ear) cartilage trauma
• Transport: Tuck head under arm, support
hindquarters. Short distances only!
• Transport carrier for longer distances.
Cage Removal Initial transport
•Easy access to ears,
musculature for sedation
and minor procedures
drug or fluid administration
– blood collection
Never leave a rabbit unattended !
Manual restraint for health examination
• Head, abdomen, thorax, genital area:
– Neck restraint at scruff
– Gently rotate rabbit onto back
• Access to genital area for sexing
• Access to oral cavity
Always support the hindquarters !
Always keep the rabbit calm !
• Body Temp: 100 - 104°F (38 - 40°C)
• Heart Rate: 130 – 325 bpm
• Respiratory Rate: 30 – 60 bpm
• Weight (adults): 2 – 6 kgs
• Weight (kits): 0.02 – 0.08 kgs (20 – 80g)
• Average Lifespan: 5 – 8 years (captivity)
• Obligate herbivores
• Prefer high protein, low carbohydrate feed
• Water consumption: 50 – 100ml/kg/day
• Food consumption: 50g/kg/day
• Cecotrophes (night feces): soft stool with thick
mucus consumed (coprophagy) to supplement
protein, water and B-vitamins.
• Day feces: dry, round pellets
• Urine: yellowish (brown or reddish) +/- cloudy
appearance from high mineral content
• Male urine has very strong odor.
• Males (bucks):
– descended testicles within an external scrotum (open
– Penis: gentle caudal pressure at prepuce
– Urethral opening (penile tip): rounded
• Females (does):
– Vaginal opening: central line
• Polygamous species: no bonded mating pairs.
• Puberty at 5 – 7 months
• Reproductivity: males 5 – 6 years, females 1 – 3 years.
• Males can breed up to 5x/week
• Buck moved to doe’s cage for breeding
– Females are very territorial
– Males will scent mark
– Sexual receptivity can be determined in 15 – 20 min.
• No distinct estrous cycle. Period of receptivity marked
by swollen vulva, behavior change.
• Induced ovulators: ovulation 10 – 13 hrs post-coitus.
• Gestational period: 29 – 35 days
• Average litter size: 4 – 10 kits
• Kindling (parturition): nest box or nesting
material 3 – 4 days before kindling. Dewlap hair
plucked for nest.
• Kindling: early morning, ~ 30 – 60 minutes
• Doe first litter: Do Not Disturb! Stress can
• Altricial young: helpless, blind.
• Curious: actively play with cage toys
• Prey species:
– Nervous around loud noises
– Cower in corner
– Run, kick, jump, bite or vocalize when stressed
– Aggressiveness: lunging, stopping, biting
• Diurnal: research rabbits primarily.
• Most active: early a.m., early p.m.
• Rest with even weight distribution
• May lie in lateral recumbency (on side)
• Water must be available ad libitum (free choice)
• Rabbits have very high water requirements.
• Condition the rabbits to use automated lixits.
• During water deprivation, rabbits become
anorexic. Always check water source.
• Standard feed: high fibre, lower protein.
• High gastrointestinal transit time: 6 – 8 hours.
• Coprophagy: 3 – 8 hours post-meal.
• First signs of illness: loss of appetite, decreased
• Ambient temperature: 61°- 72°
• High temperatures can increase shedding and
lead to gastrointestinal obstruction from hairballs
• Rabbits excrete a high percentage of minerals
(primary calcium) in the urine and high ammonia
• Cage pans cleaned 2 – 3x/week. Urine minerals
can cause scale accumulation.
• Cages washed every 2 weeks
General Husbandry: Cage Design
• Indirect bedding systems: avoid contact
• Slated flooring: filter down feces
• Gated fronts: non-stressful observations,
• Ventilation: 10 – 15 air changes/hr
– Ammonia accumulation
•Rabbit teeth grow continuously.
•Malocclusion (poor tooth alignment) can lead to tooth
•Clinical presentation: inappetance, weight loss and oral trauma.