To Breed or Not to Breed?

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

We all know there's nothing quite as cute as a litter of baby bunnies. The desire to let your rabbit breed "just once" before neutering is a great temptation. But it is a temptation that the informed rabbit "parent" must resist if he really does love his rabbit and have the rabbit's best interest at heart. Here are just a few of the reasons NOT to breed your rabbit.

Rabbit overpopulation.

Some breeders will dismiss as a myth the rabbit overpopulation problem lamented by the rescuers who see it every day. Although rabbits are the third most often surrendered animals at shelters, their numbers lag far behind those of abandoned dogs and cats. We in the rabbit rescue "business" have a pretty good idea why the numbers do not reflect reality.

After the "Easter Bunny Rush" season, a few months pass before we begin getting the dreaded "dump" calls. This is the time when rabbits sold as babies at Easter start to reach sexual maturity and may become difficult to manage. The "lucky" rabbits are turned over to animal control once they have grown up and "stopped being cute." However, a vast number of unwanted "Easter Bunnies" languish in backyard hutches, forgotten once the novelty has worn off. Many of these die from ignorance of proper care, and even from outright neglect. A significant "silent" population of unwanted rabbits is simply abandoned in parks, and are never recorded as part of the problem.

Some well-meaning, but misguided people may believe that released rabbits can to fend for themselves in a wooded area or park. The grim truth is that they cannot. Wild rabbits live in family groups in complex warrens dug into the ground. Domestic rabbits released into the "wild" often do not survive their first night, since they are in an unfamiliar, frightening territory and have no place to hide from predators. The few that manage to survive for a while are eventually picked off by predators, hit by cars or succumb slowly to thirst, malnutrition and disease.

Please remember that although you may understand that a rabbit is not a disposable plush toy, the vast majority of people buying them in pet stores have no idea about the commitment necessary to properly care for a rabbit. Do you really want your beloved companion's babies to end up as discarded toys, sentenced to an early death?

Rabbit Abuse.

Many people who allow their rabbits to breed feel it's completely safe to sell or give the offspring to pet stores. They hope the babies will be sold to people who will care for them as lovingly as they care for their own rabbits. Although a well cared-for rabbit can live 10 to 12 years, an alarming number of each year's pet store purchases die before they reach their first birthday. Some of these deaths are due to unscrupulous dealers' selling them before they are old enough to be weaned (eight weeks), and others to their owners' lack of knowledge about rabbit care. Rabbits are delicate and have special health needs of which most of the general public is ignorant.

A relatively small percentage of the rabbits sold in pet stores find safe, loving homes with people who know how to give them the proper care. Most of the others will not. Pet stores do not check the intent of the purchaser, and if the rabbits are sold inexpensively (as most hybrid rabbits are) they may be sold as snake food. A terrifying death awaits these unfortunate rabbits.

Rabbits who aren't sold as snake food or pets eventually outgrow their baby cuteness and many are given to "petting zoos" (to be poked and prodded mercilessly) or to breeders who are unlikely to use them for more breeding, since their heritage is unknown. It's not unlikely that the bunny will end up on someone's dinner plate before too long.

Rabbits sold as pets often are abandoned by the time they are five to eight months old, since that's when the sex hormones begin to cause the rabbit to exhibit destructive adult behaviors (digging, spraying, aggression). Spaying and neutering the rabbit will solve this problem, but most rabbits are never given the chance to show that they can be exceptionally intelligent, sensitive and loving companions. They are simply discarded.

The Danger of Cancer.

The longer a female rabbit remains unspayed, the greater her risk of developing uterine, ovarian and/or mammary cancers. As rabbits age, the incidence of these disorders increases. By leaving your female rabbit intact, you increase her risk of cancer.

In addition to the danger of cancer, gestation, birth and raising a litter take a large toll on a doe's health. Wild rabbits live only one or two years before the rigors of natural life (including the high

expense of the high rate of reproduction) take their toll. Most breeder rabbits, often forced to raise several litters a year, don't last beyond the age of four or five, when the body begins to break down under the constant strain of reproduction, and their "productivity" starts to lag.

In contrast, a well-cared for spayed/neutered house rabbit can live more than ten years. Spay/neuter will allow your bunny to have rabbit companions without the stress of constant sex drive, and will reduce aggression and destructive behaviors such as carpet chewing, digging and spraying.

A No-Win situation.

A few people hope to make money by raising rabbits. The brutal truth is that it is impossible to raise rabbits properly (i.e., with the rabbit's health and care in mind) and actually turn a significant profit. Huge-scale commercial breeding companies, in which rabbits live in unpleasant, cramped conditions and are usually sold for slaughter may be profitable, but no house is equipped to handle such an operation. Simply stated, if you give your rabbit the veterinary care and diet he needs and spend the proper amount of money on adequate housing, food and care you simply cannot make much money raising rabbits.

Remember: A rabbit is a social, intelligent animal. He needs companionship, proper diet and proper housing to be happy and live a long, healthy life. Your rabbit needs a balanced diet consisting of fresh grass hay, lots of fresh, raw, varied vegetables, and a bit of quality commercial pellets for general health. If your rabbit must live in a cage while you're not home, he needs a cage at least 36" x 36" x 36" if small (up to five pounds) or larger for big breeds. The bunny should be able to stand on his hind legs inside the cage, and have plenty of room to run around. The cage must be supplied with toys and clean, safe feed and water containers. Even with a large cage, a rabbit must get at least 4 to 5 hours of free running time per day outside the cage, in a safe, human-supervised environment.

So before you give in to the temptation to breed your rabbit, remember that you'll need to find homes to provide all of the above for four to fourteen babies! Are you sure you can find those homes? If the answer is "no"--and if you're honest with yourself, you know it will be--then please don't contribute to the overpopulation of domestic rabbits. Have your companion rabbits spayed and neutered for everyone's health, happiness and long life together.

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