How they suffer
Injuries and poor physical condition
Cages are mainly constructed of wire and sometimes the sides are solid metal sheets. Some farms use floor mats to cover part of the cage floor but in many cases the floor is made entirely of bare wire. Breeding females and males kept for long periods on wire mesh floors commonly develop sores on the footpads and hocks; These sores cause chronic poor welfare and can be so severe that they are a common reason for culling. A survey of French rabbit farms reported by the European Food Safety Authority Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (AHAW, 2005), found that upto 40% of female rabbits had paw injuries that were sufficiently serious for them to show obvious signs of discomfort. Another survey by Rossell and De la Fuente (2004), also reported in AHAW (2005), found sore hocks on an average of 9% of does.
Breeding does must cope with an intensive reproductive cycle, which can lead to a loss of body condition and metabolic disease. Hormone treatment is often used to synchronise the time of breeding. On most commercial farms, does are artificially inseminated within 11 days after giving birth. Breeding males have been selectively bred for increased growth rate, which can lead to chronic lameness.
Disease and mortality
Respiratory and enteric diseases can cause acute pain. Chronic conditions such as ulcerated feet and hocks, mastitis, mange, ringworm and abscesses can cause long term suffering in farmed rabbits.
Mortality of commercially farmed rabbits is very high, with typically 15 – 30% of growers dying. The main causes of mortality are instestinal and respiratory diseases. The main reason for culling breeding femailes is reproductive failure due to infertility or mastitis.
Within the EU, most commercially slaughtered rabbits are electrically stunned before slaughter. There has been little research to determine the current and frequency necessary to effectively stun rabbits. Therefore there is a high risk that rabbits may not be stunned correctly.
Rabbits are held individually for electrical stunning, which is stressful and may cause pain and/or injury, especially in larger rabbits, if their weight is not properly supported.
Within the EU, many of the smaller abattoirs have been replaced with fewer specialised rabbit slaughterhouses. The development of these high speed and more automated slaughter lines is likely to lead to a poorer welfare during stunning and slaughter.