RABBITS

Rabbits are medium-sized, hopping mammals with long legs, long ears and short tails. They are grouped with the family Leporidae. Unlike cattle, sheep and goats they have a simple stomach like pigs but with an enlarged caecum. They are classified as non-ruminants.



Recently, rabbits have been introduced to West Africa as a farm animal of economic importance. This is because rabbit meat has been found to be nutritious, low in fat and fine-grained, and it provides a suitable alternative to poultry meat. The domestic rabbit is as efficient as other farm animals in converting feed to meat for human consumption. It can be kept in the backyard in small units of two to four does (females) and a buck (male) to supply the family with additional source of animal protein. When kept in large numbers of one hundred to two hundred, it can provide additional income for the farmer. Rabbit raising has become a popular project for schools and colleges, as most of the hutches (houses for rabbits) can be made with locally available materials at reasonable cost.

Rabbits reproduce rather quickly and a 5kg rabbit doe can wean as many as thirty 2kg fryers (young rabbits raised for meat) in a year. This represents a production of 60 kilograms or twelve times the live weight of the doe in one year.

Besides supplying meat, rabbit pelts (skin from slaughtered rabbit) can be used for making jackets, headgear, carpets or rugs and other decorative household ornaments. Some rabbits, like the Angora breeds in Britain and America, are grown for their wool or fur but these breeds have not been introduced to West Africa because of their thick coats.

Rabbit manure can be high in nitrogen and phosphoric acid and useful in improving the fertility of the soil. It mixes well with soil and is useful in vegetable gardens and in flower gardens.







BREEDS OF RABBITS

Three of the most important breeds of rabbits recently introduced to West Africa are the New Zealand white, the Californian white and the Chinchilla.



THE NEW ZEALAND WHITE:
This is the most popular meat breed in use. The adult buck attains a mature live weight ranging between 4.5 to 5 kg in eight to nine months when it is ready to be used for breeding. Does weigh 4.5 to 5.5 kg at maturing. It is a good converter of feed to meat with a high dressing percentage (i.e. a high proportion of edible meat) when slaughtered.



THE CALIFORNIA WHITE:
This breed is a lighter breed than the New Zealand white and the adults may attain a mature weight of 3.5 to 4.5 kg. It is more adapted to cooler climates and should do better in the highlands than in the hot and wet regions of West Africa. The breed is also characterized by black markings on the nose, ears, feet and tail but it gives a white pelt. The breed also has a high growth rate and good flesh to bone ratio.


THE CHINCHILLA:
       This breed is a grey bodied animal and the adult has a mature weight of about 3.5 kg. It has a slower growth rate than the two breeds described above and it is raised more for fur than for meat.


GIANT FLEMISH:
      This breed could also be safely introduced to West Africa. It is a much heavier breed with the adult animals weighing from '5 to 6.5 kg. The young animals have a slow growth rate. The breed might prove useful in crossing with the other meat breeds.


NEW ZEALAND RED:
     This breed has a brownish red body and shows most of the characteristics of growth and feed conversion as the New Zealand white. Its pelt will, however, not be as valued because of its red colour.





BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION
      Young rabbits should be sexed at four weeks when those to be used for breeding should be separated from those that will be fed for slaughter at 8 weeks. At four weeks, gentle pressure on the sides of the reproductive organ reveals a circular aperture in the male and a slit aperture in the female. At eight weeks, examination of the reproductive organs show a V-shaped slit in the doe and exposes the penis in the buck.

It is good husbandry not to use an animal for breeding before it is ready to shoulder the strain of breeding and nursing. Does and bucks mature at roughly the same age, the period varies with the breed. While the heavier breeds, like the New Zealand white, mature at about 8 months, the Californian matures at 7 months and the Chinchilla is ready to be bred at about 5 or 6 months. One mature buck can service as many as ten does if the reeding is conveniently spaced. A good buck should not be used in mating more than two to three times a week.

There isn’t any definite oestrus cycle in the doe except that the does bred in the peak of the dry season (January to March) usually do not get pregnant due to the excessive heat. Where adequate precautions are taken to protect the does from heat,

does can be bred throughout the year. When a doe is on heat(that is, it is ready to receive the buck); it becomes restless showing an enlarged purplish vulva. Ovulation or the shedding of the ovules is often caused by the presence of the buck in the same hutch as the doe or even by the mating act itself. It is used to carry the doe to the buck for mating purposes and occasionally to restrain the doe in order to facilitate effective mating. Mating should occur within a few minutes. if not, the doe should be removed and returned later in the day or the next. Very often, a fresh doe is shy and an older one may be vicious and may scratch and bite the buck. Only one doe should be put to a buck at a time.

In selecting rabbits for breeding, does and bucks older than three to four years old should not be considered where there are younger animals. The Value of breeding tends to deteriorate after three years. Further, animals for breeding should be in good physical condition, alert, without deformities, with smooth glossy coats, erect ears bright eyes and good hacks. The doe should not be too fat, as this may cause temporary or permanent sterility or too thin. as the doe must be able to carry the pregnancies. Does for breeding should have at least eight or more functional teats.




PREGNANCY
      Pregnancy can be determined from about two weeks after mating by palpating the doe.
To do this, the operator places a hand on the body; slightly in front of the hind legs. This should be done gently to avoid the doe tensing up the hind leg muscles which will make it difficult to detect the developing embryo in the horns of the uterus. At 14 to 16 days after mating, the embryos can be distinguished as marble-shaped lumps as they slip between the fingers. Occasionally, where copulation does not result in pregnancy, false pregnancy may occur lasting for about 18 days. Does exhibiting false pregnancy generally start making a nest and secrete milk within 20 days of mating. Such does should be taken back to the buck and mated again.





KINDLING
     The normal gestation period lasts for an average of thirty-one days and kindling or giving birth to the young, occurs between thirtieth and thirty-third day after mating. Pregnant does should be provided with a nest box at the latest twenty-four days after mating. To enable the doe to make a nest, avoid kindling on the wire netting floor of the hutch, which may lead to death of the litter due to pneumonia. The nest box should be dry, clean and empty. The doc normally pulls enough hair from her body before kindling to cover the tloor of the nest. Kindling usually occurs at night and each young is licked and nursed immediately it is born until the litter is complete.





REARING
     Rabbits get easily excited and does that have just kindled should be allowed to rest. The litter should be checked for any dead or deformed ones which should be removed. The doe can be attracted away or separated from her litter only for this exercise and this should be done without disturbing the doe unduly or handling any of the young unnecessarily. The rabbit hutch should be well placed in little molts or narrow ditches tilled with water to prevent soldier ants from getting at the litter. Other enemies such as cats, dogs, snakes and rats should be kept away from the young as well.

On first kindling, a doe does not usually have many rabbits in the litter. The average litter size varies from six to eight; although some does have as few as two and others as many as fourteen. A doe should not be left with more than eight to ten young rabbits, depending on her ability as a mother and her number of functional teats. Any excess rabbits in a litter may be taken to another doe with fewer rabbits in the litter to foster, provided the two does kindled about the same time. The young to be fostered should be rubbed with some faeces from the foster mother before transferring them into the nest with her own offspring.

Does which kill their young for no apparent reason, repeatedly, after two kindlings, eat their young or which fail to suckle their young without any obvious reason should be discarded.





WEANING
      The young rabbits of a healthy, good doe should come out of their nest at about three weeks when they start to eat other feed in addition to the occasional suckling of their mother. Such rabbits can be weaned at 4 weeks, which by that time they should be able to eat concentrate feed. They may be left in the breeding cage after the doe has been removed or they may be moved to rearing pens. Does can be re-mated after the litter has been weaned at four weeks. This way it is possible to produce six litters in a year. Some commercial producers re-mate their does within a week to three days after parturition in order to be able to produce up to nine litters a year. The litters of such matings however, tend to be small and weak and under humid tropical conditions, weaning four litters a year is considered satisfactory.





HOUSING
     Adult rabbits are generally housed in individual cages while weaned rabbits are allowed to reach marketable age either in their mother's pen or reared together in colonies. It is important that the house should protect the rabbits from direct rays of the sun, from excessive heat, rain and the strong winds which very often accompany these rains. Rabbits can stand a fairly wide range of temperature, although they grow better and breed more satisfactorily under cooler conditions.


Some hutches or cages have a floor area of 2.6 sq. m for a doe and her litter up till slaughter weight at eight weeks. Commercial producers use hutches with a floor space of about 2 sq. m in area for the doe and her litter up till weaning; then the litter is transferred into separate larger hutches for fattening.

Hutches vary from 4.6-72 cm in height, although those for fatteners may be only 41 cm. They should be constructed in single, double or even three-tier units, provided that the tiers are separated by metal dropping trays, with wooden frames covered with glass or plastic to prevent corrosion of the metal surfaces. The floors of the hutches are usually made of 1.5 cm wire-mesh which allows the faeces and urine to drop to the ground. These floors are generally referred to as self-cleaning. Hutches with a solid floor are not very commonly used, as they usually require frequent cleaning and are labour intensive.

When wire mesh floors are used, it is necessary to provide a flat piece of board for the rabbit to lie on. This prevents sore hocks.

Most hutches are made of wood with wire netting and asbestos roofing. Although they can be made more cheaply of bamboo splits and teak poles with thatched roofs. During hot weather, it is good practice to cover the roof with palm fronds or grass thatch and to water with sprinklers on very hot days to keep the house cool. The end poles or posts of the house should be surrounded by a concrete moat filled with water to prevent ants from climbing into the house or a narrow gutter should be constructed around the rabbit house. The floor of the house should be smooth and sloped from the middle to the sides to ensure adequate drainage of 'urine away from the hutches. The cages should be about 1m from the ground.

Nest boxes should be provided. These should adjoin and open into each doe's cage. They should be accessible to the farmer, from the top outside the cage, to permit him to examine the young Without disturbing the doe. In some cases, nest boxes are of a removable type and are put inside the cage prior to parturition.

The box should be 0.3m high, 0.3m deep and about 0.5m wide, with drain holes at the bottom for urine. The boxes should be fixed with guard rails to prevent the young from rolling out into the cage and be well protected from the direct rays of the sun and from Wind and rain, especially where the box is built outside the cage.

Battery cages are used for fatteners that are raised from 4 weeks (weaning) to slaughter. These cages are large, with wire-mesh sides, 1.5 cm sq. welded mesh floors allowing 0.3 sq.m space per animal. The weaners are raised in groups of 40 to 50‘ animals and killed off at 8 weeks old. A cheaper alternative is to raise these weaners on a solid floor with 9 cle cm sawdust or wood shavings, allowing 0.5 sq.m per rabbit. The deep litter house is cleaned out at the end of the fattening period and thoroughly disinfected before another batch is brought in.

Food is supplied to the cages in side hoppers for batch rearing or in clay feed dishes about 4.5 to 6 km high. Water is also made available in water droppers made from bamboo rounds and small 0.41 bottles.





FEEDS AND FEEDING
    There is scarcely any information on the nutritional needs of rabbits; most of what is known is based on the experience of experimental research stations and individual farmers. Rabbits can be maintained on a ration consisting of roughage, home grown vegetables and cereal grains. These feeds are generally supplemented with salt and a source of calcium such as bone meal. Concentrates can be fed to rabbits in a mash form when it is home produced or in pellet form as in most commercial operations. It is necessary to feed as much dried grass or green vegetable as possible with these concentrates. There are a number of green feeds which rabbits like and some of these should be cut daily and put into the cages every evening. Any remnants of green feed that is not eaten by morning should be removed during the cleaning process. A few of the plants which rabbits likeinclude weeds like Aspilia Africana. Water should be supplied to rabbits in unlimited quantities. Fresh clean water should be put into the containers every morning and the attendants should check at least twice daily that the containers are full.




HANDLING
  Rabbits should be handled carefully to prevent excitement, as in a struggle they may bite and scratch the person holding them. Young rabbits should be lifted by grasping the loins but without undue pressure on the kidneys.

Older rabbits can be lifted by grasping a fold of skin over the shoulder and supporting the rump with the other hand, with the feet held away from the person carrying the rabbit.
Rabbit claws should be clipped regularly.





RECORD KEEPING
     It is important to keep records of performance of each animal in a breeding stock so as to be able to calculate the economies of production for the herd. Each animal should be given a number at about eight weeks old. The number is stamped in a ring and clipped to the ear. Each animal should have a record card which shows its age, date of birth, breed, when last bred, number of rabbits in last litter, number of young weaned, weight of litter at weaning and amount of feed consumed. It is only by keeping adequate records that poor producers can be separated from good producers.





DISEASE CONTROL
    It is better to prevent diseases by adopting good management practices, as disease out breaks can reduce the profit margin through high mortality rate. Rabbits should be checked regularly at least twice every day. Any rabbit that looks dull, or which shivers, sneezes, or breathes heavily, or which refuses to eat or is unable to stand, should be removed from the cage, isolated and closely examined for any signs of diseases. Keep rabbit hutches clean, cool and well-ventilated. A few of the disease conditions which are most common in West Africa are noted below.



SORE HOCKS
    This condition is commonly encountered in adult rabbits kept in cages with wire floors that are sharp or that sag too much or that are filthy. Some animals with thin fur development on the soles of their feet are prone to this condition. Affected rabbits develop scales and irritation, with the thin fur on the soles of their feet becoming spongy, often bleeding and getting infected. The soles of feet of such rabbits should be soaked in warm soapy water to remove the crust, rinsed, dried and treated with zinc ointment or sulphathiazole ointment until healed.



COCCIDIOSIS
     This is a major disease condition affecting young rabbits. It is caused by a single-celled parasite which multiplies in the gut lining of the rabbit and is carried from one rabbit to the other through faecal contamination of food, bedding and water by infected rabbits. A mild case does not show symptoms but in severe cases, affected rabbits become pot-bellied, dull and lose their appetite. These animals sometimes have diarrhoea and may die. The condition can be treated by adding drugs such as sulphaquinoxaline or sulphamezathine to the food or drinking water of the rabbits.

Other diseases are colds and snuffles and pneumonia.

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