Recently we found ourselves in need of a humane rabbit habitat, and we wondered how to build the best place to keep our rabbits happy as long as they lived.
After attending two homesteading events in which we learned a lot about keeping rabbits generationally, we were convinced it was what we wanted to do. We bought our rabbits when all we had to keep them in was a medium-sized pet cage.
We wanted our rabbits to have room to hop, but still to be safe and secure. It doesn’t matter if you’re keeping rabbits as pets or as a meat source, you want them to be comfortable and live as natural a life as possible while in your care. My husband and I knew we would need to put some work into designing and building the perfect rabbit habitat, or rabitat, if you please.
Why Keep Rabbits in the 21st Century?
During the Great Depression, people kept all kinds of animals for meat, not knowing when meat would be accessible in the food line. Beef was scarce and rationed, so people kept chickens, sheep, pigs, and rabbits to feed their families and neighbors.
Rabbits are a very useful animal for backyard homesteading. In fact, prior to World War II, it was common for Americans to eat rabbit as much as Europeans did. But thanks to a national campaign to get people to eat more chicken, that became the go-to meat in American cuisine, according to National Geographic.
Nowadays many people think of rabbits as too cute to eat, thanks in large part to cartoon pictures of them at Easter and cute depictions like Thumper in the movie Bambi. But just like people still eat venison despite feeling badly about what happened to Bambi, people still eat rabbit and there are good reasons.
The Rise and Shine Rabbitry website has a lot of facts about why people think rabbits are a good homesteading animal to keep.
For instance, rabbit meat is a lean protein with low cholesterol, making it ideal for a country battling heart disease and an obesity epidemic.
Their poop is such a perfect natural fertilizer that it doesn’t even need to be composted before it’s applied straight to your garden. Your tomato plants will be the envy of the neighborhood if you’re dumping rabbit poop in your soil.
A mama rabbit’s gestation period is only around 30 days, and they can breed at any time without waiting for a golden window. After they have their 4-7 kits, they can be bred again just two weeks later. That’s where we get the idiom “breed like rabbits.”
The lifecycle of a rabbit is quick, with rabbits coming to maturity in just ten weeks, much faster than chickens. And for five of those weeks, they’re still nursing, so feed needs are low.
Rabbits can be fed on pellets but they can also be fed on greens. Rabbits love garden greens and roots.
You remember all those Beatrix Potter stories about Peter the Rabbit getting into Farmer McGregor’s cabbages. Well, while McGregor may have been cast as the bad guy for threatening to put Peter into a rabbit stew or a rabbit pie, we can’t really blame him for 1) protecting his garden and 2) feeding his family and wasting nothing.
Maybe you can’t imagine making a rabbit pie. That’s okay. Rabbits also make adorable pets. A family friend rehomed a brown Netherlands lop-ear dwarf rabbit with me when I was about eleven years old, and I absolutely loved that thing.
As pets, rabbits are nice because they are quiet, soft to the touch, and take up very little space. You have to be careful how you hold them or they will panic and scratch your arms and chest with their natural defense mechanism: claws. Not so cuddly. But if you know how to hold them, they’re sweet, playful, and soft and can make nice companions.
What Rabbits Need
But whether you want to keep rabbits as pets or as a sustainable meat supply for your family, we can all agree they should be kept humanely.
A rabitat (rabbit habitat) needs three main things:
- Safety and security
- Space to stretch and hop
- An ample supply of food and water
1. Safety and Security
The first concern for any rabitat is that it keeps the rabbits secured against escape and safe from inclement weather and predators. A really good way to do this is to use deer fence around the entire enclosure, and a board or tarp on top to keep out rain and snow. Don’t forget to cover the bottom with this thick wire or they’ll dig their way out!
If a rabbit can get out, it will, and that’s very bad. Rabbits are a very common prey animal and they have a lot of natural predators, including dogs and cats which are pretty much everywhere these days.
It’s kind of insane how many different natural predators rabbits have.
The Natural Predators of Rabbits
- Dingos (in Australia)
- Domestic cats
- Komodo Dragons
2. Space to Stretch and Hop
This is where my husband and I part ways with some other rabbit keepers who keep their rabbits in small cages. People who keep them as pets and people who keep them for meat can both by guilty of keeping a rabbit in a small cage. We just think that’s sad.
Animals, whether they are destined to die of natural causes or predatory ones, should be free to move around and have at least some natural foods native to their species’ diet.
First let’s solve the space problem. We only bought two rabbits, one female breeder and one male breeder. Very soon afterward, however, we spotted a large white rabbit in the orchard next to our homestead.
Our nephew was instrumental in catching it for us. We suspected it belonged to the neighbor, so we took it back to him, asking if it was his.
Apparently it had been missing for a long time! He told us we could keep it, which thrilled us. The ideal situation for a backyard breeder bunch is one male and two females. Now we had our ideal.
But now we needed space!
We went to the hardware store and bought six 8-foot long lengths of wood and 50 ft of sturdy wire deer fence. We built a wood frame in the shape of a rectangular cube and then attached the deer fence with U-shaped nails. In the middle of the front panel, we put another wooden beam and built a wood framed door on four hinges with a latch to close it.
The entire project took four work periods, either after work hours or lunchtime breaks. We started it together on family night. Each of our five sons got to screw in a corner, and as they got distracted, my husband and I continued the effort.
When we were done, the structure was sturdy enough to be moved. It was light enough for my husband and I to move single-handedly, despite it being eight feet long and four feet tall and wide.
The boys scoured our wood pile in search of hollowed logs to include in the habitat. Then came the moment of truth. One by one, we put the rabbits into their new rabitat.
It was early autumn, and the weather was perfect. We put them under an ash tree and beside the neighbor’s orchard by the fence line where there would be optimal shade. The neighbor’s water pipe constantly trickles, creating a peaceful water sound which I like to think is comforting to the rabbits.
The two rabbits that we bought from a breeder took a while before they began to stretch out and hop around, probably because they are used to cages.
But the newest addition from our neighbor that had been missing for a long time and living wild took to the new habitat eagerly. It was so fun to get to watch the natural playfulness and personality of that rabbit.
We hope the ones who have lived their whole lives in small cages will appreciate the new digs, too, as they get used to them.
There will be modifications made to our rabitat.
The obvious is that we will need to put a top on it for the winter months to keep out rain and snow. Additionally, we will put wooden sides to keep out cold drafts, even though to some extent they will keep each other warm and have places to hide from the drafts, thanks to our wood pile of hollow logs.
But that’s not all we’ll need to change. When it’s time for the females to have their kits, they will need there own space, protected from the male. A stressed female will nibble on the baby rabbits. We will be building a few partitions and some nesting boxes to fill with hay so our mama rabbits can build nests in safety.
In very cold places, we would need a heat lamp, but here it doesn’t get below 10 degrees Fahrenheit very often, and dry hay should be sufficient.
The heat is a bigger threat in the summer because rabbits don’t tolerate heat well. Fortunately, my earlier pet rabbit experience in Arizona has prepared me for that. It’s an easy fix if you have the freezer space. Fill a milk jug with water and freeze it with the lid off. Then rotate the frozen water jugs as they thaw to keep your rabbits cool.
We’ve also set our rabitat on a high point in the yard so water will drain away from the habitat and there will be zero risk of flooding. Did we think of everything? Probably not. We welcome tips in the comments and we plan on continuing to learn from experience, as well.
3. An Ample Supply of Food and Water
The last thing on my list is food and water. Rabbits won’t eat if they don’t have water, so make sure they always have access to that.
They may need more water in the summer heat, but dehydration is also a risk in the winter if water freezes where you live. Black rubber crocks in the habitat area are better than the easily frozen pet rabbit water bottles you may be used to. If the water freezes, you can dump the ice right out of the rubber crock and fill it up again. If you can’t find a rubber crock at your local feed store, this silicone pet bowl from Amazon can also work.
Rabbits can live on pellets alone, but where is the fun in that? I mentioned my belief that animals should at least occasionally be fed their species’ natural diet. I am a big believer in this and follow it with our cats and dogs, as well as our sheep, chickens, and rabbits.
Rabbits love garden greens, obviously. Peter Rabbit taught us that. But they also love hay and grain.
If your rabbits have been fed a diet of pellets their entire lives, switch them to natural foods slowly, or continuously feed them both pellets and natural foods. Changing their diet too quickly will upset their sensitive stomachs.
Avoid alfalfa hay for adult rabbits, as it will upset their stomachs. They will literally explode, as in their stomachs will get so gassy they can rupture. According to The Rabbit Haven, alfalfa is too high in calcium for adults although oat/alfalfa hay cubes are actually sold for young rabbits who need higher calcium content for their development.
Meadow hay and timothy hay are the best choices for adult rabbits. You can also buy timothy hay cubes, and these are fun for rabbits because they are hard so they double as a chew toy. They should only be given as a treat.
For proof that rabbits like to chew on hard things, one of our rabbits was spotted taking a chunk out of the bark on one of the old hollow logs in her habitat. I guess those powerful teeth crave resistance sometimes.
Most garden greens are safe, and some roots, like carrots. Don’t give your rabbits apples because the sugar content is too high for them. They may tolerate a very little bit of apple slices, but it’s not a good staple for them.
Among greens, some weeds are rabbit superfood, including mallow, a weed that is found literally everywhere in the United States. People can also eat mallow in moderation. Mallow is, according to Garden Betty and Pliny the ancient historian, an aphrodisiac. Maybe that’s why rabbits like it so much.
For more ideas on natural foods that rabbits eat in the wild, whether in summer or winter seasons, check out this post from Rise and Shine Rabbitry.
Now that you’ve considered security, space, and sustenance, you are ready to build your rabitat. There are plenty of other people venturing into rabbit keeping, too. You’re in good company.
Here’s some old news but good news from NPR if you’d like a feel-good story about meat rabbits: This German man decided to breed giant rabbits to help feed starving North Koreans.