One of the most common questions I come across online is, “Why breed rabbits when there are so many in shelters?”
Every time I see it, I take a deep breath in, find my “happy place,” and close the screen before my fingers start typing. It’s a loaded question. Very loaded. Because there are, in fact, many animals waiting in shelters for their forever families. Some find them, some don’t. As an animal lover and pet owner, I’m devastated over the possibility that we can’t save them all. But as a breeder, I understand that my breeding program can help save them.
Answering the above question completely is difficult to do in one post, so I’ll start at the beginning and revisit it later.
So, why breed rabbits?
There are more than 50 rabbit breeds currently recognized or in development in the United States. Similar to dogs, they are all bred for specific purposes. Obviously rabbits aren’t herding or working animals, but they’re a good source of wool, fur, or fiber, as well as high protein, low calorie meat. Of course, they also make great pets and are more recently being trained for agility and other recreational activities too.
Such a wide set of skills requires very specific, selective, and intentional breeding. Fiber and meat purposes are rather self explanatory, but even smaller companion breeds require ongoing development.
Years ago, rabbits were almost exclusively considered livestock. There was limited reputable information about how to properly care for rabbits and treat illness. For that reason, breeders had to work diligently to select for rabbits with healthy immune systems and a hardy nature. As companion rabbits become more and more widespread, research into their care and treatment is picking up speed too. Many more veterinarians are specializing in small animal care and some ailments can be easily controlled with treatment.
Yet, breeders still work hard to uphold the health and longevity of their animals. This is something that is constantly under development. You can never have animals that are “too healthy,” but there are so many benefits to animals hardy enough to withstand regular stressors – whether you have rabbits for livestock purposes or a household pet.
Conformation is also a concern, not just on the show table but in daily life. Rabbits have a skeletal structure unlike many other animals. They’re built to move quickly, take off fast, and support their weight on relatively light bones. Wild rabbits in most areas of the world have an average lifespan of three or less years, but domestic rabbits can live upwards of 8-10 or more years with proper care. Their bodies need to be strong enough to withstand triple the lifetime of their ancestors.
In that respect, traits like wide shoulders, full hindquarters, or proportionally heavier bone are not only cosmetic requests on the show table. Those physical traits matter for health and mobility in every rabbit, and knowledgeable breeders help to ensure that every generation is stronger and healthier than those before it.
Then there is temperament. This is probably the most important characteristic to many pet owners. A docile, friendly rabbit is easier to handle and often more enjoyable than one who is skittish or aggressive. In some cases, personalities have environmental influence, but there is a definite genetic component. I notice that my does who are calm, laid back, and friendly often have kits with a more docile temperament. Kits from does who are more skittish or hands-off need much more handling and coddling in the early days to develop a favorable personality.
Temperament is important even if you’re not keeping house rabbits. For instance, wool or fiber animals require hours of grooming weekly and must be tolerant of excessive handling and primping.
The reason for breeding reaches beyond a need for more animals or larger populations – it’s purpose is to further develop and improve the populations of animals we already have. If we sit back, stop selectively breeding, and just try to control what backyard breeders or pet breeders produce, we’ll be faced with large numbers of animals with serious health concerns and no animals with the health and vigor to strengthen those species.
While breed standards also focus on cosmetic traits like little ears or special color patterns, the reason for breeding has greater purpose. Those who contribute reputable programs to the effort have a hand in preserving the many rabbit (and dog, cat, etc.) breeds we all know and love.
Like I mentioned before, that is only the beginning of the story. I am sure to come back to this later.