The way in which rabbits are farmed for meat results in a number of welfare concerns. These concerns arise from the confinement of animals in a way that prevents them from moving freely and does not satisfy their behavioural, social and physiological needs.
Rabbits bred for meat are generally housed in wire mesh cages that are suspended above the floor. Cages may be placed in single tiers in rows within a shed, or may consist of various tiers (i.e. cages placed on top of each other) with droppings diverted away from lower cages. In these cages, young rabbits (up to 12 weeks of age) can be housed in a floor area of only 700 cm2 (slightly bigger than an A4 piece of paper) and adults can be housed for their whole life in only 1800 cm2 (this is less than the area of three pieces of A4 paper).
Rabbits are curious and intelligent animals who need exercise, mental stimulation, somewhere to hide and things to chew on – natural behaviours that cannot be expressed in these conditions.
The RSPCA advocates for rabbits to be housed in systems that properly cater for their health, welfare and behavioural needs, while at the same time keeping them securely contained to prevent escape. Such systems may involve rabbits being housed in small social groups in pens with suitable bedding as well as tunnels and/or platforms to provide some form of environmental enrichment. Importantly, rabbits need space and opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours such as foraging, gnawing, hopping, leaping, stretching upwards, running and digging. Rabbits also need space to rest and relax with their legs fully extended. While rabbits are social animals, they need the opportunity to withdraw from their social group or hide when feeling fearful.
The minimum guidelines for the care and management of farmed rabbits (the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Intensive Husbandry of Rabbits) is overdue for review and should be updated to ensure housing systems fully provide for the rabbits’ physical and behavioural needs.