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Rearing rabbits: a major challenge for animal welfare

On 04/05/2015, in Farm Animals, by Animal Welfare Intergroup
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Strasbourg – During its 311th session the Intergroup on Animal Welfare discussed Rabbit Welfare, its issues and possible solutions.

Rabbits are one of the most farmed species in the world, and almost 326 million rabbits are slaughtered for meat production every year in Europe. Most of the rabbits are kept under poor husbandry conditions in wire cages, without being able to express their normal behaviour, in conditions that do not respect fully the five freedoms – the compact of rights for animals under human control. Given the structure of productions units, rabbit farming in Europe could be described as intensive.

In regard to these problems, Jonathan Fleurent from Protection Mondiale des Animaux de Ferme (PMAF) presented ‘The ethological needs of rabbits and deficient farming practices’. He identified the pros and cons of each system and pointed out that standard breeding systems restrict the rabbit’s natural behaviour. He commented; “These systems do not meet the basic needs of the rabbits, including sufficient space for movement, social interaction and exercise. In the pen system some ethological needs are considered, but only at the fattening stage.”

Even though organic farming should consider most of the needs of the rabbits, Jonathan Fleurent highlighted very important sanitary issues in these systems.  His conclusion is clear: “It is unacceptable to rear animals which are sentient beings in conditions which are so far away from their natural life conditions, and potentially expose them to animal health problems. Alternatives exist, as Nina Jamal will demonstrate and must be developed while existing structures must be phased out.

Nina Jamal, an expert on farm animals from Vier Pfoten, analyzed The opportunities to achieve higher welfare in rabbit farming.  During her presentation, Jamal presented the work of Vier Pfoten on rabbit welfare and shared reached successes including the ban of cage housing in Austria.  But there are still several welfare issues that can be denounced, such as respiratory problems, intensive breeding, the short life circle of mother does and the high use of antibiotics.

She then explained the essential steps to improve rabbit welfare in Europe and stressed that there is a lack of scientific research towards welfare improvements. She stated; “Rabbits are not protected by any species-specific legislation in Europe and only a few EU member states have legal requirements for rabbit farming, except the general farm directive  No 98/58 this in itself sends a strong signal to the EU and retailers to ban cage systems for rabbits in Europe.

Responding to the presentations Janusz Wojciechowski MEP, President of the Intergroup commented: Keeping thousands of rabbits in small, barren cages is completely unacceptable! We have the responsibility to ensure that farmed rabbits are kept in species conform housing systems. Let’s relieve their suffering and follow the good examples of a few member states which have already introduced measures for better rabbit welfare. Such measures should be harmonised on EU level by introducing specific legislation.  Consumers need also a clear system of production labelling allowing them to make an informed choice about the rabbit meat they buy.”

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