American Chinchilla Buck/Doe Colony '06
DA Blueboy (far left) with his does

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Valerie Leonard's
Rabbit Colony Keeping / Keep Them Purebred

Posted Dec 2, 2007


Suggestions~ from my 8 years experience in keeping rabbits in cages and colonies~


Rabbits seem to be extremely adaptable to whatever safe area they find themselves in...

* Small box stalls [~7' X 10'] or standing stalls [~12' X 5'] work well in my barn. I have observed that a space defined in some way by a long axis so they can run might be to their preference rather than an area of short axis, such as a square, especially if the square area is devoid of features within it. They like to hide...and likely need to... to be comfortable! Making use of their desire to hide is how you catch them, but more on that later.

* Defining the space. This can happen by the placement of cages, raised off the floor but close to it....about the depth of a rabbit in sufficient. It is obvious that rabbits enjoy the addition of built-in platforms. Perhaps these already exist ... for instance, see if you can make use of an old manger. Raised resting surfaces might be added easily. Some types of furniture such as shelving or cupboards have worked for me, but be conscious of the finish and construction of these because rabbits chew. If space allows, large rubber horse feed tubs cannot be chewed and are good for territorial sitting. These tubs can be placed on the manger or shelves with a layer of shavings and some hay or straw in the bottom of them.

My smallest colony space ----and my original, because it was too small for any other purpose---- only 6' X 6'. In this small room for over 8 years, by increasing the surface area with furniture (old shelves), my crossbred rabbits have flourished---a rabbit family started 13 years ago. They are mongrel sable --- in color only, not in breed, there is no American Sable in them, nor American Chinchilla. Their sports are dilute shaded colors----I enjoy the gorgeous silvery tints to their coats, now satinized. Two compatible [!] senior bucks with up to 6 does have raised young in here successfully many times and with both bucks continually present. Compatibility of these two bucks, a year apart in age was simply a discovery, not an orchestration is unlikely to be repeatable. Young junior bucks can be grown together for a limited time but the risk of serious aggression increases with each passing day as the hormone levels rise. The compatible ones are not common and the discovery of them can take a burdensome path. A 'family situation' comparable to this crossbred group of mine CANNOT work for Purebred rabbit husbandry. Record keeping is ultimately too challenged, and quickly deteriorates to a state of no knowledge of which pairing caused what. With crossbreds, I've found records have not mattered because anyone who has wanted these rabbits is not keeping records either.

* The floor must be concrete in order for the degree of cleanliness to be sufficient. Partial floor coverage with rubber stall mats makes winter cleaning easier and is an upgrade from concrete alone. The rabbits have a choice of surface temperatures with the two flooring surfaces. Perhaps as if they had found a rock to lie on, the rabbits will often keep a spot of concrete bare.

Rabbits outside/cleaning in progress
Not a dumb bunny...buck in the left foreground quickly
discovers his freshly power washed cage has not been secured yet.

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* Exposed wood is vulnerable to chewing. Those who need to be particular might fasten hardware cloth over exposed wood--- to the height of a rabbit's reach. Others who are not particular can count on some damage, or trimming, depending on how you look at it.


Many generations of rabbits can happen more quickly without increasing the cost of housing. A more rapid appearance of generations, produced in sync, has given me increased options for matching suitable pairs. There is a resulting ease of observation, comparison and hopefully a fruitful selection of desirable traits. Over the long term, once the herd has been worked through selectively in as broad a sense as practical, breeding can be again restricted to just a few rabbits. A few will then represent the explored genetics of the ancestors behind them. A prohibitive outlay of funds for cage space will have been bypassed.

* My cages are utilized more productively than they were. I have ~20 suitable kindling cages. I like the change to using them just for production of the next generation, instead of having a select rabbit spend a period of comparative inactivity in a cage that might have been put to more frequent and helpful use. Helpful ... in regard to learning . Cages, whether smaller ones without bunny guard, or the kindling cages --- best for size --- are now only used for very select bucks and does, or for does with litters. Also, at the end cycle of the doe raising her litter, these cages remain in use by her now very select Juniors numbering 1 - 3. These Juniors are kept in the large cage of their dam or foster dam, the mature doe having been removed....back to a 'doe only' colony, sold, given away, or not kept at all if the litter has already visibly improved on what she possessed. The doe is removed to other accommodation before the final selection of this young litter so they have more room and no competition for food and water from her. They are kept in their original territory to reduce stress and disease, (Pasteurellosis being the most common disease that possibly threatens a young rabbit with a developing immune system). Time is allowed in this home cage for their further development before reassessment. They are definitely kept here in the cage they were raised in until the writing of their pedigree, final check for DQ's and tattooing has occurred. I feel the large cage environment is the setting which is the safest, cleanest and the most conducive to the development of young rabbits that can be offered. In order that provisions and cage space are provided to all the young rabbits that are born here I am fortunate to have producers who take over the raising of the portions of the litter that I cannot provide for due to lack of personal resources of the necessary magnitude. The first reduction in numbers usually includes the young dam with half of her bunnies ---off to a producer they go, while their accompanying dam obviously demonstrates good mothering ability. Previous to this first reduction of numbers, during the week preceding parturition, an obviously pregnant doe is removed from the mature doe colony and placed in a kindling cage outfitted with a nest box. The second reduction in numbers happens when the litter is up to three months that time, more features are visible. From that point on, 1 -3 young rabbits typically remain in my barn from each litter, to grow in individual cages or in a colony. Selection is a continuing process however, because the herd and the breed cannot be sustained for long without new births, and new births cannot be provided for unless there is space to be filled.

Colony room emptied/cleaning due @ 6 wks
Free running young does and the cages for
Junior bucks have been removed.

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* I wanted to keep more rabbits in my barn than what the barn could house in order that I could begin to explore selection more thoroughly. I wanted to never be without a match, or even better, matches, that were distantly enough related, yet of course within the purebred strain... a match there when I needed him or her. Fellow breeders are few and far between. It has seemed that fellow breeders soon have very closely related rabbits --- very close or even too closely related to those that I currently have and soon all of us within driving distance have rabbits in a close to stagnation state--- only restricted choices of pairings remain. Also, I have wondered if the consistency in outcome of breedings is maybe not what it should or could be. Some litters have quite a visible range of quality, detectable even from an early age. Perhaps more consistency is possible. Once a breed is developed, close breeding seems to result in good rabbits despite the close lineages--- from what I see in three of the other breeds --- developed breeds --- that I have limited involvement with. It occurred to me that if the branches of existing relatives were broader in the small gene pool of American Chinchillas, at least for a while until the faults are hopefully more thoroughly worked past, any ability I might have in seeing what patterns of traits are present would have an opportunity to be exercised.

American Chinchilla, Buck/Doe Colony '07
DA Tipper with his does

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I try to always continue to learn from listening to the experiences of others and reading. For two years, now starting my third, I have in the late fall/early winter, used one of my seven colony rooms for housing a select buck with a group of does so a 'crop' can be born from one buck. All his litters are born near the same time. I can then pass the buck [!]...before he gets older, while he is still in full bloom of youth. The approaching cold of winter makes this project somewhat difficult, yet thankfully, since it is the slow time of year for other outdoor work, it has been possible to secure the next generation with a little extra care and a few resourceful measures. For instance, if it has become cold, I watch carefully (and discretely), and once the doe delivers, I bring her nest box full of newborn kits inside the house. If they are born in the night, it is absolutely amazing how impressive nest building by the doe always protects the vulnerable. Only the very occasional kit that clings too long to a teat is lost in an unfair early tragedy. A few does have over the years failed in adequate nest building, but very few. The incidence should be recorded, and outstanding mothers should be recorded as well.

A view of the young does waiting in a cage
Newly mixed does 12 hours prior. ALWAYS MIX IN A LARGE AREA!

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Soon after parturition, I carry the doe from the barn to her nestbox inside the house. I continue to do this once a day at the same time... if the weather has become dangerous to small kits....if a sudden cold change in the weather coincides with the arrival of litters. The doe is left alone to nurse her litter for the full time she needs. When this approach is needed, the doe continues to live in her cage in the barn. Her litter is again added to her cage once they have grown to the age of two - three weeks...or in extreme weather.... even older. Some basement pens help me out if I need short term help of a few weeks, in order that the arrival of safer outdoor temperatures are more sure.

The late fall has happened to be the time, twice now, when the select, yearling, show-proven buck-of-the-year has become available from another breeder. The balance of the year I have my own in-house selections! I know from past experience that it is better to get the promise of a new generation sooner rather that later. Keeping any animal in solitary inactivity for any significant length of time risks loss to the whole. Rabbits do not come with expiry dates, and some of them are not given a large portion of time. As mere caregivers of such transient creatures, we all are likely to see repeated evidence that much remains outside of our control.

Through years of observation, only slowly coming to realize at least a portion of the limitations a breeder faces, I now continue on, working towards what I hope is my best effort of perpetuating the breed in my care. Presently I have time for the special attention this project always needs and it has been very interesting to give it a try. There is a potentially sudden need for cage availability to consider well ahead of time. Each doe in turn 'shows' in her own time, and must then be moved to kindling cage. Each cage would have been recently vacated by 1 - 3 juniors, three to five months old. The juniors would be three months old if they were a pair of bucks, and they are now given their own growing cages, unless one has obviously grown better than his companion. The lesser companion will not stay in the breeding herd in that case. If instead the juniors are does... two does, of up to five months old have been kept with each other in their dams kindling cage until the time of transition is made. Either both will be added to a young doe colony, or alternatively, one of them will stay in the large cage as a select show prospect. Show prospect does will develop best in a large single cage---I firmly believe this and it has continually been my observation here.

In a colony, there are growth influences stemming from the social natures of the rabbits . Temperature fluctuations also affect the water intake of rabbits and subsequently their feed intake. It appears to me that summer temperatures in the 90's for prolonged periods affects the frequency of their water intake due to group lethargy and winter sub zero temperatures affect the growth of not only colony rabbits, but also individually caged rabbits, due to the increased demands on the body to keep warm. The colony rabbit that feels warmer if it stays cuddled up to its companion rather than move up to the feed dish to fill its stomach, does not grow as quickly as the caged rabbit that does not have that particular choice.

The colony rabbit has two choices and makes them in this order: social before sustenance. This is demonstrated by the extreme example of what could happen when there is too much social pressure, as in a buck colony with a picked-on subordinate buck, constantly hiding and failing physically as a consequence.... if that terrible situation were allowed to occur. In the caged rabbit, the availability of secure individual territory along with constant provision of free choice personal feed and water makes a huge difference to development--- at the optimal time for growth---the youth. This time of potential can never be revisited. It can and does happen, that a doe raised in a colony can mature into a show rabbit, but there are hefty risks along the way --- a nibble to an ear ---they lie passively and allow a companion to nibble a piece out of an ear!---maybe this is why we can tattoo them so easily-----or, due to a passive temperament that prefers resting with companions to eating, she doesn't choose to eat as much as she would if she were individually caged.

Despite the variety of possible outcomes when colonizing is employed, I hope to learn about American Chinchillas well and to recognize patterns of traits in these rabbits I have. I try colony raising at present, rather than consistently and quickly narrowing the focus, keeping only a few rabbits to look at --- pruning the little I have available and perhaps doing so prematurely.

Fresh stall - no furnishings or hiding spots
All the does from the cage have just been added to the colony.

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* Another important personal reason is that I see a considerable repertoire of social behavior within my rabbit colonies. Behavior of any of the domestic animals I have and care for seems to be like a highlighting, a simpler rendition of some of the aspects of our own, more complex existence. The simple makes the more complex easier to understand.

Colonies make for efficient use of space, and provide good opportunities for the comparison of many features of rabbits whether 'free moving' or in 'still life' ---if the lighting is good. Rabbits in colonies are easy and fast to feed and water, and I find cleaning a colony of rabbits to be light work. I provide a community feed dish, 12" wide, and a community water dish, the plastic, gigantic dog size. Straw and/or third cut alfalfa hay are added, one flake at a time, routinely, but not essentially. One or two shaving bales bed the stall. Cleanings at 6 - 8 week intervals produce 3 - 6 wheelbarrow loads each time----this is good for mulching shrubs and other landscaping applications.

Difficulties to consider:

* Catching rabbits on the fly may not be for everyone. I like it a lot!...and the rabbits are playful about it if they are never pushed hard as in a chase or a grab. Follow the rabbit's eye as it runs, if it runs. Move your feet as little as possible and always avoid forward steps if you do move them while the rabbit runs. Shuffle, if you need to make a forward motion. Keep the side of your shoulder even with the rabbit of your focus, instead of showing it a frontal body stance. In some situations, and with certain rabbits that know how to be evasive and have gained experience with freedom and survival from threat, the tactic of staring with one eye open (the near one, of course!), as silly as this sounds to us, can be less threatening to them...making catching easier. To understand why this could make a difference, remember the facial structure of rabbits and other herbivores when compared to us and other 'hunters'. When stared at steadily, the rabbit will stop and/or turn... it won't run forever in a circle around you if you stare at it steadily. Have your dominant catching hand still, but ready for a deliberate motion . Reach and step forward, GENTLY place your hand over the rabbit's eyes (giving it the place to hide it needs) and hook that hand under its chest, at the same time scooping the crook of its diagonal hind leg with your other hand. Lift it up, firmly hugging it with your arms, carefully restricting the shoulder and hips from too much jumpiness. Tuck the head under your arm if the rabbit panicked or won't calmly settle. I catch rabbits in order to check their identifying tattoo, to learn and record distinctions between them, to pose them, to weigh them periodically, and to check them all over for whatever purpose. After handling them, I always place them down hind end first --- with them facing my feet --- so they are not running away from me as they leave. I think the final point is quite influential to their perception of the handler. With the sideways body stance and maintained eye contact, catching a rabbit often is as simple as reaching out, placing hand-over-eyes, a scoop up, and a firm hold. 10 minutes/10 rabbits.

* The feed bill will be proportionately higher for a colony-with-cages style of rabbit husbandry due to the greater number of rabbits being accommodated. When compared to the situation of exclusive cage use for housing rabbits within the same space, the colony situation makes it possible to keep a greatly increased number of rabbits. In addition, colony keeping facilitates the keeping of more select maturing rabbits from many litters of similar age than would otherwise be possible with an existing space, while proven matriarchs and patriarchs can continue to be harbored. Growing rabbits of course require more feed than what is required to maintain a herd of adults. More litters per year can be raised by using a given number of kindling cages, along with a senior doe colony and a young doe colony or two. More select offspring can be kept concurrently with the purpose of exploring and hopefully capturing some of the genetic diversity that would pass, if not given opportunity for expression.

The best individuals from each pairing are raised to breeding age with their contemporaries and many potential mates. The duration of time that this means of rabbit breeding and housing can be sustained will be subject to personal resources such as time and money (to name but two).

The rabbits will all become more closely related, but in a broader sense than if selection had been made only through restricted breeding from beginning to end. Given time, there will be fewer branches to maintain. I've read a little about working toward a pure strain and will look for more to area to possibly learn from is the model of how mouse strains were developed. I have been told this method has been published.

* The cleaning in the winter must be done at the same interval as in the warm season----but here, the temperature does not always allow for it. Top freshening with straw and/or hay helps....making a fresh layer which builds up until cleaning day like a mattress. Cleaning and power washing are very weather dependent. A rise to even just-freezing for a few hours is necessary to clean thoroughly. In the winter here, these 'warmer' periods are the days it rains---making for a wet and still 'cold-for-humans' cleaning day---but it is possible to dress comfortably and the results are always worth it. Just don't invite company over that day....the process in wet weather leaves much of the mess on the cleaner.

* Any detection of a rabbit with even a singular occasional sneeze must be immediately investigated --- fast---and the rabbit removed. Colony rabbits have close contact and have not even the buffer of cage depth between them. A quarantine stall with outdoor air only is my intermediate measure for this. Fifteen years ago I stopped using medications and instead I select only the rabbits that I feel have a chance... the ones that only have an occasional sneeze with no nasal discharge. I wait, keeping them absolutely separate ...for months sometimes. I wait for the strongest immune systems to prevail. A portion do, and they are tough rabbits to rise to that threat and overcome it. I take careful precautions when moving myself and equipment, like feeding/watering pails and scoops, to and from the quarantine area ... when it becomes necessary to put it in use, about once every two years. I am careful to keep myself from becoming a vector of disease. I rely only on sunshine and water for cleaning anything here, and quarantine cages are kept exclusively for that area. Even when quarantine is not needed for any rabbits, the specific cages designated for that area stay there in a state of readiness. I did faithfully use medications until it dawned on me that antibiotic resistance is part of the equation. I was frustrated by the depth of the sickness (and suffering) the afflicted endured, when I had my two year experience with the former approach.

* Cage doors must be absolutely secure at all times. I use a spring of a fair length, hooked diagonally across the door of each cage and it never fails. These springs even held against the jaws of a neighbor's two pet huskies, determined to destroy and working together at it. The springs and cages held; many of the rabbits didn't.

Rabbits can bite each other in a colony, but with does...or does and a buck...if it doesn't happen in the first few minutes, it won't. They have to be watched when the group is newly mixed and action taken quickly if necessary. I mix rabbits of similar ages and always in the LARGE area of the colony room. These groups have worked for me well: Young does, or senior does of reproducing age, or a group of does with a buck. I don't colonize juniors because I feel they grow best within the security and cleanliness of a cage. A problem rabbit that intends to make a connection with its teeth is not suitable as a colony rabbit. If a rabbit connects with another in a real biting grip, don't 'wait and see'! Immediately lift the aggressor out while the victim's fur is still protecting it. Cage the attacker immediately. The majority of rabbits 'Posture' ...similar to what happens with any animal that has a social order....horses, goats, sheep, camelids, dogs, cats, cavies, poultry....lots more that I don't have experience with. These posturing animals are not intending to inflict a wound and the social order balances within a few minutes. The new balance happens through the course of a lot of spectacular moves ... bluffing, and evasions of contact. The photographed does sitting together peaceably within the cage had met for the first time 12 hours before.

Young does hiding and caged Junior bucks
The rabbit colony room reassembled for growing rabbits.

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Believe it or not ....I have thought of more cautions...but the best teacher is your own experience, of course. I hope anyone who tries keeping colonies experiences enough good outcomes to outweigh the many challenges this approach can leave one open to. The challenges are not different from what we already know well through the course of keeping and breeding caged rabbits...the familiar problems just become augmented by having a group involved...

All at once there are more exposed and more quickly, with the keeper's discovery of a problem made in a setting of less immediate control (outside a cage, and the rabbit-in-need mixed up with a group of rabbits). Unless you always make a habit of visual, aural and occasionally, tactile study as you feed and water in your barn, early detection of a problem can be missed. A keeper needs to WATCH for any that are not thriving and investigate, LISTEN for even the smallest sneeze and be ready and able to catch and FEEL the underside of any of the rabbits, perhaps to check does for developed mammary glands [!].... if one day there is a litter in the litter! If there has been a failure to recognize which doe was next to need a cage, the does will do the best they can with their current home. A person could of course move all the does that were exposed to the buck into cages at once, well ahead of the week of expected kindlings... . but if that was not done and a surprise litter results, there must be immediate action taken in order for the pedigree(s) to be saved from the end result of an unknown dam half.

The correct colony doe CAN be detected through touch. She is then caged with her litter, now in a newly provided nest box. They MUST be moved to a kindling cage in order for record keeping to be possible. In order for the records to be right, a colony keeper has to be alert and have the time to always take action promptly. At the time of mixing, colony does could be added to their new territory in possibly staggered groupings of least 4 or so...groups, in order that they do not claim larger patches of territory. The outcome of that approach would be that the does would be exposed to the buck in smaller groups on a certain day, and part of the colony would potentially kindle before the next group of 4. In my experience they never kindle at exactly the same time...even when I start with 10 does and the buck, mixing them at the same time, or... adding the buck to the entire mature doe colony for just-short-of- a-month-- - less if desired.

* Personally, I wouldn't be as interested in keeping rabbits if I had not stumbled across this particular 'bigger picture'. For me, the 'Oh Wow!' moments make the 'oh no' moments tolerable... and day to day I see groups of rabbits that are together in a state of simple blissful contentment.
- Valerie

There is an online discussion group on yahoogroups called
Colony Raising Rabbits which focuses on this topic

(added 3/20/2010)
There is an online discussion group on Homesteading Today
for rabbits where colony raising is often a discussion topic
Search the forums for "colony". You have to register to post message.

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