I have had a really hard time in the last few years with rabbit raising myths. Having cared for rabbits for more than a decade and been homesteading with them for nearly three years (with previous breeding experience before that) I like to think I have enough experience-based evidence to debunk most of the false claims people give about raising rabbits. There are so many out there that people repeat as if they were bible passages without having spoken to real breeders who try it and it just drives me batty! So here are some rabbit myths that tend to just be nonsense.
Rabbits Will Have Heart Attacks From Loud Noises
I once heard a lady say that rabbits will keel over at just about anything. Why? She took in a rescue rabbit that had been so sheltered that it’s whole life it only ever knew one human person and no other living thing. She brought it home and her large breed dog barked at it. The rabbit immediately had a heart attack and died.
This goes to show that these things CAN happen. However, they are EXTREMELY rare. Every day my dogs are let out through my garage, they charge right past the rabbit cages at top speed, barking loudly. Once in a blue moon my husky tries to chase them through the wire for a few minutes until I can catch her and scold her. No heart attacks. I use my circular saw and drill within ten feet of them and they hardly budge. They even only pull their ears back if I am using a staple gun on a cage if they happen to be inside that cage. I know a lady who plays their local rock and roll radio station quietly in her rabbit barn. My rabbits have kept on being totally normal through seven different dogs roughhousing within 3 feet of them, cats trying to steal their kits, hawks and raccoons killing my chickens, construction work, the neighbor’s dogs, screaming children… They even made it through *gasp* fireworks near by on 4th of July and new years! Needless to say these things do not phase my rabbits and they aren’t about to die of fright just because there’s some thunder in the air… And wild rabbits have to survive frequent close calls with predators.
Rabbits ARE sensitive to new things and stress easily. I have even seen some of my rabbits have popped blood vessels from having an extreme fright. But it was REALLY extreme (running from the killer husky when she slipped out of her cage) and even then she lived and was fine and proceeded to have a healthy litter two weeks later. They are certainly not about to keel over because someone set off a set of firecrackers in their driveway next door.
Grains and Veggies will kill your rabbits
Some people claim that the slightest shift in diet will kill off all your rabbits.
Personally, I have never lost a single kit or adult rabbit to a digestive issue. Ever. In the winter I feed cracked corn as 1/5th-1/6th of their diet. I know a lot of people who do the same. In the spring, summer and fall they get everything from bell peppers, kale, dandelions, carrots (both wild and domestic), fresh grass, deadnettle, sow thistle, basil, mint, lemon balm, collards, turnip tops, beet greens, plantago, chard… The list goes on and on! Wild rabbits will happily devour most of these things out of your garden as well! And yet wild rabbits are not exactly on the endangered list from this magical “restricted” diet they are supposed to get… In fact they are one of the most invasive species in the world and will absolutely devastate crops if they are allowed to get out of hand. The key to a rabbit’s diet is two things; fiber and diversity. Many plants that are supposedly “rabbit toxic” are fine in small quantities because they’re only “kind of” toxic such as oak seedlings and broccoli. They can both cause their own type of digestive issues if eaten in large quantities. But nobody ever killed their rabbit by offering them a tiny snack of either. The trick is to not feed anything in a large quantity very suddenly. As the plants start appearing again I start feeding out a few of the reviving leaves from the wild plants I know. As the garden grows they get some small snacks from the garden as the wild plants come in full-force and become a major part of their diet. As the garden then contributes majorly to their diet as well I start allowing them out in “tractor” pens to eat whatever plants they want and feed the occasional full meal of vegetation. I know there are no truly “deadly” plants in my lawn such a poison hemlock so I don’t leave them out all day (so they don’t have only stuff that’s bad for them left to eat out of boredom) and I don’t worry about it.
The other secret is maintaining a healthy digestive system. There’s so many suggestions on this from probiotics and ACV to feeding Grandma’s Concoctions of garlic and cayenne pepper… But the first and best way to a healthy digestive is lots and lots of grass hays. Tons of low-fat, mid-protein and high fiber (especially whole long-strand fiber) feed will keep them healthy as bulls (or bucks in this case!).
Handling New Born Kits or Strange Smells Will Make Mom Eat The Litter
This is quoted to me so often it’s nuts. Most commonly it’s quoted in reference to not handling kits until they are 2+ weeks old and not to let dogs, cats etc. around moms with litters. Poppycock I say. Once again, my dogs run past barking every day, there are hawks that attack my chickens, on butcher days my lawn smells like blood, sometimes cats and coons and other scary critters come into my lawn… My rabbits just keep on having babies and not eating them. I have had one mom actually eat a litter (Tasty) and she was promptly culled from the herd. She was a bad production doe anyhow.
Sometimes first time moms will appear to eat their kits. This is an unusual phenomena that’s known as “over cleaning”. Does clean the blood off of their kits when they are born. If they are too rough it’s quite easy for those big teeth to cut open fragile skin. This then bleeds, which the confused does begin to try to clean “off” the kit, but are really cleaning flesh and blood “out” of an open wound. The result? Half-mauled kits in the nest, clean on one end, missing on the other. Sometimes it’s all the kits, sometimes they only nibble a “little” (a foot here, or an ear there), most of the time it’s only 1-2 kits that get badly beat up. But this is a very different behavior than just eating the babies because they are threatened and usually goes away after the first litter and the outside environment (predators, loud sounds, handling the kits) has pretty much no influence on this. It either happens or not and the doe either becomes a good mom or not as all does do (or don’t), irrelevant of this happening on the first litter. First litters are often flops.
I and almost every breeder I know also handle kits within 24 hrs of birth without incident. This lets us see if the mom HAS mauled a kit by accident, if they are getting fed, how many there are, any still borns, and birthing matter left in the nest, etc. While some does have attacked ME for doing this, the does are not like “Oh! You have my kit! Better go EAT IT OUT OF YOUR HAND!”. Once I leave the cage, the does normally just check the nest, sees that the babies are fine and life goes back to normal. A doe that eats her kits over disturbances that should be normal is an abnormal rabbit with an unhealthy trait and should simply be removed from the breeding program. They would never reproduce successfully in the wild.
Feed Your Birthing Does Bacon
What? No! Why this awful rumor even exists is sometimes beyond my comprehension, but here it goes. Some people claim that the reason rabbits occasionally eat kits is because they lack something they need in their diet immediately after birth, mostly proteins, fats, iron and calcium. Because of this myth about why rabbits eat kits, some people take a chunk or two of bacon and put them in the rabbit’s cage to kind of “give the rabbit what she needs” without killing her kits.
For starters, there’s no evidence that rabbits eat their kits due to nutritional deficiencies. Accidents or stress, yes, nutritional deficiencies, no. So the reasoning here is patently false. But far worse is the idea of feeding your rabbit bacon to fix it in the first place.
Some rabbits will actually EAT the bacon. But it’s not because they need the nutrients, it’s because they are desperately trying to clean up their nest site to keep it from smelling like meat and to keep predators away.
But this can make your rabbit extremely sick, usually from GI stasis or salt shutting down their kidneys, and runs the risk of creating a prion disease in rabbits. Don’t know what that is? It’s a disease that creates improperly twisting proteins in the body and brain. It’s mostly transmitted through strict herbivores eating meat infected with the disease. Still not familiar? In sheep, it’s called scrapie, in deer is’d Chronic Wasting Disease. In bovines, it’s called mad cow disease.
For god’s sake. Do not feed your rabbits meat. If they need calcium, protein, iron, fat, etc, just feed them some clover hay and give them a mineral block. Yeesh!
Hay or Death!
There’s this crazy idea that some people who are new to rabbits are getting that if you don’t feed your rabbits hay that they will die. This rumor comes primarily from vets and others in the pet industry. It’s one I have perpetrated myself on occasion. Pet rabbits are very different than production rabbits. They are smaller, often times spayed or neutered, with no environmental stresses on them at all. And products for these rabbits tend to be marketed to “pet” owners. Look at “Beneful” with it’s brightly colored cereal pieces, openly advertising the “whole grains” they add, or “Fancy Feast”, which implicates that your cat is royalty to be spoiled like a princess. The pet rabbit market is no different. Rabbit feed filled with sunflower and thistle seeds, dyed sugary cereal pieces and nuts covered in honey are in most “premium” rabbit feeds and sell extremely well. These feeds are extremely fatty, fattier than most “complete” rabbit feeds marketed for meat production and are much lower in fiber. Additionally, many pet owners like to further “spoil” their pets by giving them sugary treats such as yogurt drops or dried fruits, as well as making sure they have a full feeder 24/7.
When you combine the idea of these extremely fatty feeds with the idea of a “pet” rabbit, usually living in a small cage in a climate controlled environment without breeding, it’s a recipe for disaster. GI stasis, heart disease and congestive heart failure are not uncommon among pet rabbits. Pet rabbits are in a state of severe decline in health among most pet owners. So vets and others in the pet industry, in an attempt to educate people in the 10-20 minutes they have to sell them a product or talk about their pet at a checkup, tell people that if they do not feed their rabbits a diet of primarily hay (or at least feed some hay), their rabbit will get sick or die. And for a sedate, over-fed, stress-free pet rabbit, this is true. And since rabbits CAN live off of hay and minerals alone, a fortified hay based pellet or a hay based diet with a mineral lick is ideal for a pet (and can be ideal for production rabbits as well).
But this is not always true of meat rabbits. These rabbits are big, covered in lots of muscle, exposed to outside environments, and breeding. A litter puts a strain on a body. Milk production is a huge fat sink. Calories are needed to burn in cold winters. Production rabbits make use of the extra calories they consume, and production feeds are not as fatty as the sugar-loaded “pet” rabbit feeds, focusing instead on protein. A rabbit can, and many millions do, live well on pellets alone.
Haying is a personal choice that has more to do with moving towards personal food security, offering a more natural diet, stability of the GI tract in a variety-based diet, offering quality of life based environments, etc. A rabbit can live happily on pellets, and happily on hay, but neither is a death sentence when balanced correctly.
If You Eat Only Rabbit You Will Die
Rabbit starvation is a real thing. It’s also sometimes call mal de caribou and if you are ever out in the wilds keep it in mind. If you ever eat so much protein with no carbs and fats to balance it out, the protein can build up in your system and overload your body systems and you can die. In survival settings, especially in the winter, this can be your downfall as wild rabbit is easy to find and wild veggies are not.
But to equate this concept to a typical-world homesteading or farming situation is extremely far reaching at best.
The only way rabbit starvation works is by eating extremely lean meat with no carbs and fats for days or weeks on end as your sole food source. If you eat a salad, a carrot, a slice of bread, some potatoes, green beans, or a glass of milk with your rabbit, you will never experience this phenomena. Almost every vegetable, dairy, or grain product has plenty of fats and carbs to balance out the protein in the rabbit and make a complete diet. In fact, if you eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and rabbit for dinner, you’re pretty much set right there. Experiencing rabbit starvation is very difficult in all but the most extreme of settings and isn’t practical to reference in almost any situation.
Rabbits are Silent or Always Quiet
Rabbits are generally quiet animals. They don’t make sounds… Most of the time.
Rabbits make some really quiet, really annoying sounds on a regular basis that will bother you quite a bit if you keep them indoors, especially near your bedroom. They like to dig and will dig at anything, even solid or wire floors. They will chew cage bars, scrabble in loud circles, and best of all they will stomp their hind feet as loudly as possible. And they do most of this at night.
But most people don’t realize that rabbits also vocalize. Many rabbits make grunting noises. This is mostly a mating call. But the real sound they make is a distress call, and can only be described as a scream. It’s loud, it’s piercing, it carries through blocks and neighborhoods. And it sounds distressingly like a human baby being brutally murdered with a knife. If you ever hear the most bone-chilling high pitched shriek of pain in your life carrying across your property, it’s time to book it to your rabbit barn ASAP and see what’s up!
I hope this clears up some common misconceptions about rabbits and helps you understand your rabbit’s behavior and physiology better! Good luck and happy rabbiting!
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Loads of good practical information here. I had rabbits many years ago, but fear I’ve forgotten a lot. This cleared up some misconceptions and boosted my self-confidence till I get in the groove again.