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.
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!