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Rabbit reproduction during the winter
by Robert Spencer

I have been in the “rabbit business” for almost a year and have begun to realize the old adage about multiplying like rabbits has not been true in my case, so I decided to make an effort and learn what I was doing wrong. I talked with many experienced rabbit producers 

and began to discover that raising rabbits and having them multiply is not so easy. There are some important factors a novice producer needs to be aware of, one of which includes reproductive behavior for rabbits.

I previously assumed that to achieve successful rabbit production all a farmer does is to put the doe in with the buck (you never put the buck in with the doe, rabbits are territorial and will become very aggressive) and let him do his thing for a few minutes (and I do mean a few), and you have a bred doe. Then wait for about a month and here comes a litter of rabbits. Turns out its not that easy; after many attempts I received one litter.

One rabbit breeder suggested grooming and gently caressing the doe before putting her in with the buck. However, I believe that might be illegal in most states so I had to pass on that idea.

After talking with other rabbit producers on the heat cycle of does, opinions varied from one to three days. I mentioned the option of putting a doe in with the buck for three days to cover varying opinions on heat cycles and was lambasted by producers saying the rabbits would kill each other.

I decided it was time to search the Internet and here is what I learned:

In most domestic mammals ovulation takes place at regular intervals when the female is in heat or oestrus. The female rabbit, however, does not have an oestrus cycle with regular periods of heat during which ovulation will occur spontaneously. Does are considered to be in oestrus more or less permanently. Ovulation occurs only after mating. A female rabbit is therefore considered to be in heat when she accepts service and in dioestrus when she refuses. But the present state of knowledge does not make it possible to predict either the respective lengths of oestrus and dioestrus or the environmental or hormonal factors determining them. The sexual behavior of a female rabbit is thus very special. She has no cycle and can stay in heat for several days running. (http://www.fao.org/docrep/t1690E/t1690E00.htm

Next, I talked with a well-respected rabbit producer friend who told me I had to examine the does to make sure they were in heat and if they were to be put in with the buck. So I asked her to describe how I could tell the doe was in heat. After her description I decided that I liked raising goats better than rabbits because with female goats all you need to see is them wagging their tails repeatedly and it is time to put them in with the buck. So I decided to do some research to verify this crazy scheme of my friend, and sure enough, here is what I found: 

It has been noted, however, that 90 percent of the time when a doe has a red “external reproductive organ” (ERO) she will accept mating and ovulate, whereas when the ERO is not red the doe will accept service and become fertilized only 10 percent of the time. A red ERO is therefore a strong indication, though not a proof, of oestrus. A doe in heat assumes a characteristic pose, called lordosis, with the back arched downwards and hindquarters raised. A doe in dioestrus tends to crouch in a corner of the cage or exhibit aggression towards the buck. (See same web site identified earlier.) 

This same respected friend told me that rabbits’ reproduction habits are light sensitive. I took this to mean that rabbits preferred low lighting, kind of like mood lighting. What she was referring to was that as the length of daylight hours decreases, the likelihood rabbits will reproduce also decreases. As the length of daylight increases, so will the likelihood that rabbits will reproduce. So I decided to do more research, and sure enough, from the same source of information I have already listed, they verified the ability of rabbits to successfully reproduce is affected by light availability, natural or artificial. Here is what I found: 

In Europe, the season is usually analyzed in terms of the combined effects of light and temperature. The reproduction cycles of the European wild rabbit are strongly influenced by the season. Does breed from the end of winter until early summer…. Exposing domestic does to light for 16 out of 24 hours in Europe considerably attenuates this seasonal variation; indeed it nearly suppresses it. Even so, reproduction problems sometimes appear at the end of summer with no direct relation to the temperature. (See same web site identified earlier.) 

I weighed my options and decided one way or the other those rabbits might die, because if they did not kill each other and did not reproduce I was going to enjoy a nice meal of them. So, I tried my idea of putting each doe in with a buck for three days without supplemental light and it has been very successful. No rabbits were injured or killed in the process and my herd finally began to increase. So far I have experienced six litters of baby bunnies.

All kidding aside, keep in mind there are other factors that can affect the ability for rabbits to reproduce. They need adequate nutrition, which requires at least 16% protein feed, hay and/or alfalfa blocks (horse treat size), and plenty of water at all times. Living environment can also affect a rabbit’s ability to reproduce. Insure a stress free environment such as keeping them away from excess noise, such as constantly barking dogs or loud machinery. Also, make sure they have adequate shelter. If they are busy trying to survive the elements, they might

not be interested in reproducing. A heated building is not necessary, but a wind and rain free shelter helps. If the outside temperature drops down below freezing for extended periods of time, newborn bunnies can be brought inside over night, as well as water bottles. After all, nothing is cuter than baby bunnies.

Robert Spencer is Agribition Center Facilities Manager at Alabama A&M University.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006