Timing of part-time group housing for farm rabbits: Effects on reproductive performance, skin injuries and behaviour

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Commercial rabbit farms commonly house breeding does in single-litter cages that generate concerns for animal welfare. Group housing increases the space per animal and allows for more natural behaviour. When housed in group, however, does exhibit aggressive behaviour around parturition and continuous group housing systems have negative effects on reproductive performances. Part-time group housing aims to reduce aggression by delaying the grouping of does until 3 to 4 weeks after kindling. The aim of this study was to test the effect of the time of grouping on reproductive performances and animal welfare. This trial was conducted at 2 commercial rabbit farms in Belgium. At 22 (G22), 25 (G25) or 28 (G28) days post-partum (pp) groups of four does with their kits were created by removing walls between single-litter cages (13 and 7 groups per treatment on farm 1 and 2, respectively). Reproductive performances, skin injuries and behaviour were monitored during 2 (farm 1) and 3 (farm 2) consecutive reproduction rounds. Both does and kits were checked for skin injuries immediately prior to grouping (as reference for newly acquired injuries), at 1, 4 and 6 days after grouping, and again at weaning (35 days pp). Doe behaviour of a subset of groups (N = 21 per treatment) was observed at 3 days pp. Results showed that kit mortality between day 22 and 35 was highest in G22 and lowest in G28 (P = 0.03). The incidence of injured does and kits increased after grouping. At weaning 93.3% of the does and 39% of the kits showed injuries. On all observation days, G22 kits had fewer and less severe injuries compared with kits from G25 (P <0.05) and G28 (P <0.05). Skin injuries before grouping were found but this was unexpected; it may indicate aggression unrelated to group housing. Behavioural analyses indicated that G22 does showed more locomotion (P = 0.02) and more friendly social behaviour (P <0.001), but less comfort behaviour (P <0.001) compared with G28 does. Offensive and defensive behaviours were rarely observed (<0.1%). In summary, skin injuries were found after grouping, with fewest and less severe injuries observed in G22 kits on all observation days. Reproductive performances did not show significant differences except for kit mortality, which was dependent on treatment. Pre-grouping injuries should be considered as it may affect estimates of the incidence and severity of aggression of rabbits housed part-time in groups.
Oorspronkelijke taalEngels
Artikel nummer105656
TijdschriftApplied Animal Behaviour Science
PublicatiestatusGepubliceerd - jul-2022

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