Rabbits have a hard time in this world.
Bunnies are one of children’s favourite animals, but most people don’t know that most domestic rabbits live very sad lives and horrible deaths. Unfortunately, rabbits have been the victims (and still are) of almost all types of animal exploitation humans have conceived. They are used for food (meat), for their fur or wool (for hats and other clothes), for testing drugs and cosmetics, in cruel sports (hunting and shooting), as caged “pets”, in entertainment (like in a magician’s hats), or in religious rituals (sacrificing them).
Compared with other domestic animals such as dogs, cats, goats, or pigs, the domestication of rabbits happened relatively recently. In the wild, we still find the wild rabbits (known as the European rabbits) from which they were domesticated, but there are also many breeds of domestic rabbits, which despite their variety are still classified under the same species as the wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus).
The gentle nature of these peaceful herbivores (who are mammals from the Order Lagomorpha, which means they are not rodents), and the fact they reproduce quite fast, might have been one of the reasons why they have been exploited and hurt in so many ways. This article will focus on one such way: Cuniculture, also known as rabbit farming (keeping rabbits captive, breeding them, and slaughtering them for their skin or flesh as part of the animal agriculture industry). Rabbits are the fourth most farmed animal in the world, and rabbit farming is a cruel industry that causes immense suffering to millions of rabbits each year.
The History of Farming Rabbits
Many people don’t know that the term “Hispanic” comes from the word “rabbit”. Rabbits were first domesticated in the Iberian Peninsula, in the southwest of Europe, where the modern countries of Portugal, Spain, the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Andorra are. The Phoenicians named the peninsula i-shepanham, meaning “land of hyraxes”, which may have led to the name Hispania later used by the Romans (and this is where Hispanic comes from). The Phoenicians who conquered several parts of Europe, also known as Carthaginians, came from North Africa, where actual hyraxes (small furred rotund animals with short tails who happen to be closely related to the elephants) live, so when in 1100 BCE they conquered the Iberian Peninsula and saw the rabbits there, they thought they were hyraxes.
Although the Iberians may have started the domestication of the rabbits around their homes about 3000 years ago, the Romans were who domesticated them widely, and introduced them to other parts of their empire. They kept rabbits captive in walled areas or game preserves, where they were caught by snares, nets, hounds, ferrets, or falcons. It has been claimed that the practice of rabbit farming began in Christian monasteries in Europe and the Middle East in at least the 5th century, but this seems to be a myth and they were already farmed by then.
Mark Hawthorne, the Vegan Author of the book “The Way of the Rabbit”, said to Vegan FTA: “For many decades, the theory in scientific circles of how rabbits came to be domesticated is that French monks were raising them as food because they say that there was this edict from Pope Gregory, centuries ago, saying that it’s okay to eat rabbits during lent when good Catholics are not supposed to be eating animals — well, they’re allowed to eat fish, so I guess that they weren’t considering fishes to be animals. That was the theory. Well, this turned out to be completely untrue. I believe it was 1936 when somebody in Germany had shared this story in a journal, and it had nothing to do with Pope Gregory. It had to do with a historian named Gregory who was relating a story about rabbits. Somebody who died from eating a rabbit. But somehow, this got picked up and for decades was accepted as absolute fact, as the truth that this is how rabbits came to be domesticated.”
Despite this myth regarding the origin, rabbit farming did become more widespread and popular in the Middle Ages when rabbits were considered a high-status food and transported across Europe, and they were also farmed for their fur and wool.
The rabbit breeds that humans created by artificial selection over the centuries that today are more commonly used in rabbit farming for meat are the following: the New Zealand (white coat and red eyes, can weigh up to 12 pounds, and has a fast growth rate and a high meat-to-bone ratio), the Californian (white coat with black markings on the ears, nose, feet, and tail, can weigh up to 12 pounds, and it has a stocky body), the American Chinchilla (rabbit breed that is used for both meat and fur, has a grey coat with black ticking, can weigh up to 12 pounds, and has a high meat-to-bone ratio), the Champagne D’Argent (silver coat with a black undercoat, can weigh up to 12 pounds, and has a fast growth rate), and the Satin (another rabbit breed that is used for both meat and fur, with a shiny coat that comes in various colours, and can weigh up to 11 pounds). The most common breeds created for the fur rabbit industry are the Angora, the Rex, the Satin and the Silver Fox, and for wool the Angora, the Jersey Wooly, and the American Fuzzy Lop. The Angora rabbits, known for their thin fur that is transformed into expensive wool, are said to have originated in Ankara (historically known as Angora), in present-day Turkey, and were then brought to France in 1723 to be farmed there.
Today rabbit farming is spread throughout the planet. The global production of rabbit meat in 2021 was 861 thousand tons of flesh, with China being the major producer (462 thousand tons), followed by North Korea, Egypt, France, and the Russian Federation (131, 72, 25, and 18 thousand tons, respectively). However, global production of rabbit meat has been going down slightly since 2014. About 100 million rabbits are slaughtered each year, and annual consumption is 2.3 kg per capita. While annual rabbit meat production in the EU has remained relatively constant over the past 20 to 30 years, France, Italy, and Spain together account for 25% of global production.
At least one billion rabbits are farmed and killed for their fur every year, with China being the world’s leading producer of Angora rabbit hair, contributing approximately to 90% of world production, and Chile is the second largest producer.
What is Wrong with Farming Rabbits
There are many things wrong with farming rabbits. Here are a few:
Whether they are exploited for their skin or flesh, farming rabbits relies on keeping them in captivity, which is already one of the major problems with this practice as rabbits, as any other animal, like to be free, and they suffer when confined for long periods. Intensive confinement is the norm for big farms, which means keeping many animals in a space that is far too small for them. The farming of rabbits typically involves confining them in small, overcrowded cages that provide minimal space for movement, denying rabbits the ability to express their natural behaviours, such as hopping, digging, and exploring. In the EU, the majority of rabbits reared for meat are housed in tiny wire cages within large sheds containing 500 to 1000 breeding females (known as does) and 10 to 20 thousand rabbits. These cages are often stacked on top of each other, which can lead to health problems. The lack of adequate exercise and mental stimulation leads to physical and psychological suffering, ultimately compromising the welfare of these animals.
How the rabbits are bred is also a cause of concern. Rabbits in commercial farming are subjected to intensive breeding practices to maximize “production”, with does being continuously impregnated. This leads to stress, exhaustion, and potential health complications. Does are commonly given hormone treatments to control their reproductive cycles and get them ready to breed at the same time. Like in the dairy industry, does are artificially inseminated (on average within 11 days) after giving birth to their last litter. The constant cycle of breeding and birthing takes a toll on their bodies, including suffering from skeleton deformities. The offspring, known as kits, are often separated from their mothers at an early age (about four weeks old), which is a cruel practice for both.
Diseases and mortality
By being kept in high densities, as in any other type of factory farming, farming rabbits also causes many health problems. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which rabbits are kept increase the risk of diseases, especially respiratory infections. Their most common diseases are Snuffle (a chronic respiratory disease caused by bacteria such as Pasteurella multocida or Bordetella bronchiseptica), Encephalitozoonosis (a parasitic infection caused by microsporidia such as Encephalitozoon cuniculi), Flystrike (flies laying eggs on the skin or fur of rabbits, especially around the anus or genitals), Staphylococcosis (a bacterial infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus), and Rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease (a viral infection caused by caliciviruses such as RHDV or RHDV2). Obesity, heart disease, and cancer are also common illnesses in rabbit farms. In addition, wire cage floors can cause foot injuries. Mortality rates are high for both Rex and white rabbits (usually between 10-15%), and 25-30% for Orylag rabbits in fur farms, which account for this loss without affecting their profit margin (this is a higher mortality rate than in other commercial animal farming). In the EU, 100 – 120% of breeding does typically die or are culled and replaced each year, and 15 to 30% of fattening rabbits die before slaughter.
Many farmed rabbits are fed a pellet-only diet that does not allow them to forage leaves (which is what they eat in the wild), promote digestive good health (they have a unique digestive system among mammals), or keep their teeth in good condition (as they keep growing through the rabbit’s life). They may also suffer from dehydration and malnutrition.
Discomfort and Pain
Farmed rabbits are also subjected to distressful procedures that could be painful, such as artificial insemination, teeth trimming, and shearing. Teeth trimming is the process of clipping or filing down the rabbit’s incisor teeth, as they continue growing and an artificial diet may not be adequate for them to be filled down naturally. Shearing is the process of removing the rabbit’s fur used in rabbit fur farms. This is often done with sharp shears, which can cause the rabbits pain and injury. In some cases, the rabbits’ fur is torn off by hand, which is even more painful. Due to the fact rabbits are prey animals, they become terrified very easily and fear being picked up, and they are prone to heart attacks in stressful situations. They have even been reports of rabbits being skinned alive in some countries — the pain this will cause is unimaginable.
Killing rabbits is part of rabbit farming, and they are slaughtered at a young age, usually between 8 to 12 weeks for growing rabbits and 18 to 36 months for breeding rabbits (rabbits can live for more than 10 years). The methods employed to do so on commercial farms are often inhumane. These include blunt force trauma, throat slitting, or mechanical cervical dislocation, all of which can result in prolonged suffering and unnecessary pain for these gentle animals. In the EU, commercially slaughtered rabbits are usually electrically stunned before slaughter, but investigations have shown that rabbits may be frequently incorrectly stunned. The transport of the animals to the slaughterhouse will also cause them stress.
Bad for the Environment
The environmental impact of intensive rabbit farming should not be ignored either. The carbon footprint of the industry is high compared with plant-based food production and non-animal fibres. Studies have shown that the carbon footprint of standard rabbit farming is 3.86 kg CO2 eq/kg live weight, slightly higher than farming broiler chickens and not different from that of pig farming. Also, the accumulation of waste contributes to pollution and the ecological degradation of the areas around rabbit farms. The overuse of antibiotics producing resistant bacteria and polluting the environment with them is also a problem. The rabbit farming industry in France uses seven times more antibiotics per kilogram of meat than the poultry industry.
No Type of Rabbit Farming is Good Enough
For vegans, opposing rabbit farming is part of opposing any other type of animal farming as this is animal exploitation that is considered unethical. But non-vegans who oppose animal cruelty should also oppose any type of rabbit farming as all of them cause suffering that is totally unnecessary.
Depending on the purpose of the farming (meat or fur production) and the scale of the operation, there are different types of rabbit farming, but they all cause suffering to the animals and have their particular problems.
Cage method: This is the most common and intensive method for commercial rabbit farming. Rabbits are kept in wire cages that are arranged in rows or tiers inside a building or under a flat roof outdoors. The cages are usually small and barren and do not allow rabbits to exercise or express their natural behaviours. Eight or more growing rabbits are often kept together in a cage of around 0.56 square metres in floor area. Breeding does without young and breeding bucks (males) are usually kept on their own in separate cages (in the EU they measure 60 to 65cm long, 40 to 48cm wide and 30 to 35cm high). Singly housed rabbits show more abnormal stereotypical behaviour indicator of mental suffering, such as over-grooming and gnawing at the bars of their cage. Each doe will have around five to eight litters of eight to ten young per year. This method, which is essentially factory farming, has low production costs and high welfare problems.
Deep litter method: This is a less intensive method for small-scale rabbit farming. Rabbits are kept on a thick layer of bedding material such as straw, wood shavings, or sawdust, inside a pen or shed. The bedding absorbs urine and droppings and provides some enrichment for the rabbits, but they will still be in intense confinement. To prevent rabbits to dig burrows (a natural behaviour they cannot perform in these settings), the floor is often made up of concrete. Ammonia buildup may occur if the litter is not turned over regularly or if it becomes too wet or compacted, which could affect the air quality and the health of the rabbits. Also, parasites and pathogens may thrive in the litter if it is not kept clean and dry.
Colony method: This is a more extensive method for semi-commercial or backyard rabbit farming, in which rabbits are housed in groups in large pens or enclosures that have natural or artificial shelters, nesting boxes, and enrichment items. They can still be living in overcrowding conditions, but rather than each in one cage, all in the same space. In this method, fighting among rabbits may become a problem, especially between males, and as they are still captive the losing animal has no place to escape to — which will cause him lots of stress. Also, the risk for transmission of some infectious diseases increases if they are transmitted by touch.
Pasture method: This is the most natural and extensive method of rabbit farming, but it is extremely rare in a commercial setting as it would be more expensive and require much more space. In this method, rabbits are allowed to graze on grass and other vegetation in bigger fenced areas that have access to shelters, water, and supplementary feed. However, they are still captive, with all the problems associated with captivity, and may be too exposed to the elements if kept in the wrong geography.
In all these methods of farming, rabbits can still be submitted to the distressful and painful procedures mentioned above, and will still end up being killed at a young age. This is why all types of farming rabbits should be abolished.
Also, regulation of the industry has not been helping rabbits much, so in any type of farming their welfare ends up always secondary to the profits of the farmer. For instance, rabbits are the second most frequently farmed species in the EU, yet, they are not protected by species-specific legislation. A few countries within the EU (Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands) have species-specific requirements for rabbit farming but they produce only a very small percentage of rabbit meat farmed in the EU. Another example is that, in the US, rabbits are not covered under the USDA’s Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, so they do not have to be stunned like other animals before they are slaughtered.
Without not even having minimal animal welfare legislation (which is insufficient in itself to prevent all farm animal suffering) rabbits are less protected than other animals, so more farmers can get away with decreasing the quality of their husbandry without fearing legal consequences.
There have been several undercover investigations exposing the cruelty of such rabbit farmers, as was the 2021 exposé of the rabbit farming industry in Victoria, Australia, undertaken by Animal Liberation, or another 2023 in the UK undertaken by Animal Equality. The latter found animals killed by blunt force trauma; workers throwing live rabbits into the waste containers due to over-breeding; animals with open wounds or infections left in the cages without veterinary treatment; farms selling rabbits to restaurants without meeting health and safety requirements; a vet smashing a rabbit against the ground whilst acknowledging, to the camera, that this constitutes animal abuse; farms which had never received health and bio-security inspections, and dead animals left to rot in cages next to live animals. A PETA Asia undercover investigator visited almost a dozen Angora rabbit farms in China, the source of 90% of the world’s angora, and found rabbits screaming in pain and terror as workers ripped the fur out of their skin. They have to endure this every three months.
Everywhere in the world, including their native Iberian Peninsula where will rabbits come from, rabbits of all breeds suffer from humanity’s supremacy delusions. The exploitation of rabbits should stop.
It’s not fair how rabbits are treated.