Rabbit cages: EFSA identifies welfare issues

The welfare of adult rabbits kept in conventional cage systems is worse than that of those housed in other systems used in the EU, EFSA has concluded. The main welfare issue they experience is restricted movement. The findings are part of a comprehensive comparison of the different rabbit housing systems used in the EU.

EFSA’s scientific opinion is based on an extensive survey of rabbit experts in the EU. The opinion relies on expert judgement because there is little data available on the subject. In its recommendations, EFSA emphasises the need for data on welfare of farmed rabbits to be collected across the EU. EFSA also suggests that conventional cages should be enlarged and structurally enhanced to improve rabbit welfare.

The experts considered a number of welfare consequences related to health and behaviour, such as restricted movement, resting problems, prolonged thirst or hunger, thermal stress and skin disorders.

Most rabbit farming in the EU takes place in five Member States: France, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Farming practices vary widely both between and within these countries.

To capture this variability, EFSA’s scientific opinion focuses on six examples of housing systems: conventional cages; structurally enriched cages; elevated pens; floor pens; outdoor/partially outdoor systems; and organic systems.

The main conclusions are that:

  • the welfare of adult rabbits is lower in conventional cages than in the five other housing systems (with a certainty of 66-99%). The most significant welfare consequence is restricted movement;
  • the welfare of unweaned rabbits (kits) is lowest in outdoor systems and highest in elevated pens (certainty 66-99%). The highest welfare impact on kits raised in outdoor systems is thermal stress;
  • organic systems are generally good.

EFSA has published two other opinions on welfare issues associated with farming of rabbits: one looks at stunning methods and identifies welfare hazards and indicators of consciousness in the slaughter process. It proposes corrective measures. The other covers welfare issues associated with killing for reasons other than meat production (e.g. disease control).

Background

Rabbits are the second most farmed species in the EU in terms of numbers. Although there are rules stipulating minimum standards for the protection of farmed animals, including rabbits, there is no species-specific legislation protecting the welfare of farmed rabbits in the EU.

In 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on minimum standards for the protection of farmed rabbits, and asked EFSA to provide a scientific opinion that would help implement the resolution.

The parliament was acting in response to concerns raised by NGOs, stakeholders and consumer groups about the poor welfare, high stress levels and high mortality and morbidity rates of rabbits farmed in Europe. There is also concern that electrical stunning of rabbits does not always render them fully unconscious, causing pain, stress and suffering.

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