Rabbits; Colonies and Chickens

Can I keep rabbits in a colony on the ground and can I house them with chickens?

I find myself being asked these two questions pretty often, so I thought I’d just write down my perspective on them for reference and anyone who cares to read about it.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all of these statements are definitive and there are anomalies to everything. Your mileage may vary and it may work well for you. If it did, that’s fine, but this is the reality for most people.

There are some serious issues with keeping rabbits either in colonies or with chickens. People have this idea that they’ll run together and be best buddies and eat the same things and behave similarly and get along it’ll all be good and that just does not work out most times.

Colonies

Rabbits are specialists. They do one thing every time and do it well. They are not like keeping chickens at all. Chickens are opportunists; they try everything and thrive in many environments. Rabbits are not.

Rabbits are, generally, solitary or in family groups. In nature it’s normal for a male rabbit to be completely alone after a certain age. For a female rabbit, she sometimes keeps a daughter or two around until it’s time for her next litter. During breeding seasons you will find males hanging around females for the duration of breeding. All other times hormones kick in and they are aggressive animals. Also if a rabbit (male OR female) happens across another’s nest they often kill the offspring.
What this means is that rabbits can often be kept in pairs or trios and be quite happy, as long as they are not breeding rabbits or adolescent/competing. However, in a colony setting you’re talking about 4+ rabbits that are aggressive, solitary breeding animals in the same space, all having babies and expected to get along. It CAN happen if the pen is large enough and built well but in general there will be fights, injuries, deaths, litters lost, all just from having rabbits together all the time.
In a colony pen you have no control over who is pregnant when or who is bred by whom. The bucks can easily over-breed the females and they can loose condition very quickly. They could also just not bother breeding at all. Females have even been known to castrate unwanted bucks when they feel too pursued.
Rabbits dig. And dig and dig. They dig to create tunnels to nest in and for safety from predators. They dig against any “shelter” they can find… If that happens to be your fenceline they can and will dig under it down 2′ and across 8′ with great cheer. And if you have a structure in the middle of your pen that’s occupied by senior rabbits, young females will seek out dens of their own along your fence anyhow.
Rabbits need dry, packed ground because there are more parasites that effect rabbits than you can shake a stick at. Rabbits in a colony pen are hard to identify illness in (that may be killing over half of your kits from every litter) and rabbits are very sensitive to medication and are therefore hard to treat.
Colony rabbits tend to become skittish, wild, and refuse to allow themselves to be picked up or handled, especially for medical reasons.
Any plants that a rabbit is familiar with in their pen will quickly become lunch. And dinner. And breakfast, until there is nothing left but unfamiliar, possibly toxic plants which they may very well consume out of boredom. I have seen more rabbits devour oak saplings out of being bored than I should have because they are mildly toxic. Too many others can cause serious harm over and over like Hemlock and Ground Ivy.

Now, colony pens HAVE been done with success. The best one I saw was in a dry, arid climate. The pen was tall with hardware cloth around the bottom. It had custom-built PVC tunnels dug into the ground, leading to nest boxes that can be accessed from ground level. The rabbits were fed and watered just like normal caged rabbits, and there was little growing in the pen because they took out all the toxic weeds. There were just a few (and only one buck) in a very large pen meant only for meat production. And the rabbits still fought and some were still eaten by predators. The rabbits were otherwise happy and as natural as one could hope without a dozen acres of woodland brush to work with. It would possibly be best to keep the rabbits in trios (two females and a male) so you have a better idea of who is breeding who, who is pregnant when, which rabbits are/aren’t sick, etc.

But the pros and cons of a rabbit colony lead me to believe it’s sub-ideal to keep rabbits in a colony. Which lead me to;

Rabbits with Chickens

Rabbits give major benefits to chickens, but the benefits are distinctly not mutual. Rabbits poop edible poo, spill edible feed, dig through litter that spills out and grows bugs…

Chickens offer some serious detriments to rabbits. Chickens often live on slightly damp ground from all the poo and water they have. The ground is often loose from all the digging. This creates a much higher parasite load than dry, packed ground even in deep litter. Many chicken parasites are shared by rabbits and while easy to treat in your hens are hard to treat in your rabbits. This leads to poor conditioning, small litters, and poor growth/survival rates.
Bugs are great for your chickens and grow fast on chicken poop and deep litter but will upset your rabbits a lot. Rabbits do not like bugs and can be severely irritated by them.
Chicken feed is often deadly toxic to rabbits (unlike vice-versa where rabbit feed is fine for chickens to eat), containing less than 1/3rd the fiber they need, twice the calcium they can handle and sometimes twice the protein as well! Rabbit pellets are 12%-18% protein, 0.5%-2% calcium and 15%-30% fiber, with the approximate ideals of each being %15, 0.8% and 25%. Chicken feed is anywhere from %16-28% protein with laying pellets going up to 5% calcium and only containing 7% fiber, not to mention many chicken feeds are formulated with meat or meat products. This can wreak some serious havoc on any rabbit that eats it, from bladder sludge to GI stasis and heart problems, all of which are nearly impossible to detect and deadly. Many things chickens eat such as older fruits/veggies or lots of grains are highly inappropriate for feeding rabbits who should rely on hay for much of their diet.

Chickens are opportunistic feeders and will dig out rabbit nests to eat the young. Anyone who has seen them dig a mouse out of it’s den and eat it knows this. Mother rabbits defending the nest can kill chickens. Big chickens or roosters fighting back can kill rabbits. Similarly, a rabbit may cause enough irritation to a broody hen that she leaves the nest and attacks.
Rabbits and roosters are fairly indiscriminate and may try to “mate” each other, resulting in huge gouges in your rabbits from rooster spurs, or harassed and aggressive chooks with feathers missing on their backs. This can also lead to fights.

Rabbits and chickens will not sleep in the same building together and with the exception of both needing to be dry, have very different housing needs. Even the ideal bedding is different.

In short; chickens and rabbits don’t mix without something keeping them separate, in which case they’re not mixed. Oh sure, you can send your lone buck to live with the chickens and scrape by or some such, but it won’t work well for an intense, meat production breeding group.

The good news is there’s a great compromise! Simply keep your rabbits in cages or hutches above the chickens. The chickens get all the benefits (the food, the poo, the litter) and no detriments to either side. Put the litter from the rabbits in the chicken pen to create compost for them to dig through, and a place for bugs to breed!

I really feel rabbits also do best alone, in large cages with lots of hay bedding. This really lets you pay attention to the individual animal, and have accurate health and breeding records. There are never any fights between solitary rabbits. Rabbits off the ground have few diseases or parasites and don’t loose flesh condition. You always know who bred whom when and you can handle your rabbits every day to keep them friendly and amiable. There are no accidental breedings, no unforeseen duels, no lost litters due to cannibalism.

Just some of my thoughts on the issue, gleaned from what I believe to be reliable sources. However you choose to house your own rabbits that produces the results you want is the best option for you!

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10 thoughts on “Rabbits; Colonies and Chickens

  1. Our chickens and rabbits are very interested in each other. They like to watch each other, but I doubt very much it would be harmonious living without those tractor walls firmly between them.

    • Ours do too, but the rabbits don’t even go to sniff the chickens like they do the dogs. They’re pretty wary. And chickens like watching rabbits in part because rodents are food to them and rabbits are rodents… Kinda like a cat watching fish. It can go terribly wrong.

  2. We had two Mini Rex buns escape from their tractor a couple months ago and they live happily among the chickens and ducks. They share water and pasture grass, but I leave some rabbit feed in a place the rabbits can get it, but the chickens can’t. So far, no problems. My bigger worry is about predators because one of the rabbits is black and white spotted, therefore easily spotted. Fortunately they sleep about 20 feet away from our Collies. I doubt foxes or coyotes will venture near.

  3. I know i am a little late to this page but i found it while searching for colony info so i figure it may be helpful to others if i put in my 2 cents. I had a pet rabbit buck for 12 years and for the last 4 of his life he lived very peacefully with a pair of banty chickens in a small coop. He had his own shelf and the chickens had a roost, he was happy, and obviously healthy living to 12 years old. I just started my rabbit colony and have my first litter in there,and with 5 does and a buck not one rabbit has attempted to hurt them. My colony pen is rather a rather small 8×4 with a mini barn attached for the nest boxes,and some rabbit furniture for interest and hiding. I am not commenting to contradict you but to inform others about a different situation, with different results. Not all rabbits a docile enough to co-habitat same with chickens, but if you need a different option than individual cages a colony and/or mixing species might be worth a try.

    • Hello, and thank you for the comment. I’m glad you’ve had really good luck with your own colony and chickens. I have had some more experience with colony raising (about 6 months) since I first wrote this and unfortunately had very opposite results of what you report. Many of the rabbits get along fine but the ones that don’t crop up out of nowhere and cause extreme havoc. My rooster HATES rabbits (full grown chickens in an established flock are VERY different than two bantam hens alone) and my hens will mob and chase any animal they find including local cats and rabbits. My adult rabbits will fight viciously, and I have had VERY serious injuries including torn open noses, holes in ears, massive scarring on valuable hides from bite wounds and one rabbit who got into such a fight that when I came out to check on them she was missing so much hide I decided I had to put her down because she would never live without huge amounts of antibiotics and would never be a healthy rabbit again. All of this in a huge space (30’X60′) with plenty of food, water and hiding places. Oh, they certainly bred, and raised litters. But the does and bucks got very aggressive towards their own genders and I still don’t suggest this style of housing unless you’re extremely confident in the temperaments of the individual rabbits you raise and are prepared to remove all the kits into gender-segregated pens at 10 weeks.

      • I am so sorry you had such a bad experience. I think i kinda lucked out with my rabbits temperament wise, i only had to cull 2 does so far, one was so aggressive she attacked and killed her first two litters(no three strikes for that one) the other was aggressive towards me and simply wouldn’t breed. Also the pair of banties was a hen and a rooster but he was a doll. I do have a full size egg laying flock but i wouldn’t house rabbits with them on sanitation grounds anyway,with just the banty pair cleaning was manageable daily. I intend on pulling the kits around 8 wks for finishing to 12 week butcher weights. I think if people really want to colony raise they have to be willing to cull otherwise healthy animals based on temperament alone. I don’t have a lot of money invested in base stock as mine are all mutts (harlequin,rex ,nz ,giant and lionhead) so i decided early i would have to cull to get rabbits that fit my farm goals. Only looking at rabbits as meat for about the last 2 years i have done a lot of reading and i figured out that no one way works for everyone. They all work for different reasons and therefore, different farms. I think the info on your site if helpful and encouraging as it is still taboo in a lot of areas (mine included) to butcher cute little bunnies for food. So thank you for encouraging others and i wish you luck all that you are doing.

        Cheers,
        Jolene.

  4. I have three rabbits and am moving to a home with a much larger garden, so have been wondering about keeping a few laying hens. The info you’ve provided on the health detriments/benefits is great, thank you. I’ve got an idea on the work I’ll need to do to provide a healthy, secure home for them.

    I’m curious about you saying that rabbits are solitary though. I had always thought that even in the US, domestic rabbits were descended from the European rabbit. Unlike the American cottontail rabbits, they are gregarious animals, living in colonies of up to ten mature individuals.

    • Hi! I mention rabbits being solitary because many of them are, or they live in family groups, and frequently breeding females each have their own den site that they defend aggressively. A rabbit that leaves it’s family group is unlikely to find a place in another group of rabbits unless there is a gap left by a dominant buck and no strong adult bucks to fill it. They often simply find their own territory and start their own family group. It’s pretty uncommon to see several rabbits of different lineage come together like you see in the situation most people try to create for domestic rabbit colonies.
      http://www.justrabbits.com/rabbit-hierarchy.html#gs.uAHLoQQ

      I’ve tried out a colony situation once before, somewhat by accident I must admit. These were rabbits that lived in neighboring cages for weeks, had plenty of space (almost 2000sq ft), 2-3 bales of hay, tons of hidey holes and water. Three does, one of which was bred. The resulting fighting, especially as the buck rabbits of one litter grew older, was intense. I’d come out to find tufts of fur everywhere somewhat regularly…. And I have a Rex with a literal hole in her ear and a huge scar on her nose from it. I check on my rabbits several times a day and I could not keep them from shredding each other. The kits fight too, as they get a bit older and they fight with the adults. One kit got into a fight with an adult and I came out to do my evening feeding to find it with half of it’s skin on one side hanging off of it. After that I decided no more and never again. Non-breeding rabbits can get along OK, can learn to live together, but even they will get into the occasional scuffle. But not breeding does and bucks.

      The fact is, in the wild, rabbits have plenty of space to run away if they get driven out of a group. A group of wild rabbits may have a few acres to their name. A colony does not. And rabbits are simply aggressive animals, especially when breeding. In the wild, a dominant pair would be established, and that would do most of the breeding, sub does and bucks only breeding if there were enough resources and space. In solitary captivity, EVERY rabbit thinks it is the dominant rabbit because it has it’s own territory and breeds regularly. They breed better for you and they think they are on top of their totem pole. And this is how rabbits have been kept since the Christian monasteries kept them for food in the middle ages. I just think it’s too much to expect over 1000 years of breeding solitary, dominant breeding rabbits to live peacefully in a colony. I know people who do it, but it’s not easy and it requires a huge space and culling hard for temperament.
      http://rabbitbreeders.us/history-of-rabbits#

  5. We had rabbits and chickens living together for a short time, we didn’t really have a choice, and they didn’t bother each other. the parents kept breeding and you would even find the rabbits and chickens eating together from the same veggie scraps. But again, it was for a short time. We were given rabbits and were completely unprepared for them…

  6. Pingback: Rabbits; Colonies and Chickens – Nysia's Homestead Journey

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