In the world of livestock, chickens are the easiest animal to raise on the farm or homestead and usually the starting point for most homesteaders. They’ve been called the gateway farming animal for their simplicity, accessibility and the amount of return for their care. In recent years, they’ve grown in popularity because many cities have lightened restrictions on keeping chickens. Today I offer one other homestead animal that rivals the chicken in ease of care: the rabbit.
In general, rabbit care is quite easy, and we’ll explore the details of tending to these adorable critters in this article. The good news is that chickens and rabbits can—and often do—cohabitate on a homestead harmoniously. With a few precautions, of course, you can reap the rewards of caring for both on your land.
At the risk of sounding obvious, remember that chickens are birds, and rabbits are part of the animal family logomorpha. (They were previously considered rodents, but that was updated in 1912). This quite simply means that the needs of these two species are different—sometimes very different. While they can live together copacetically, we must never forget that they have different instincts, behaviors and social structures, and this fact alone will determine how we best care for them.
With that said, there is one very distinct difference and one very important similarity between the two upon which we can base most of our decisions. The difference is that unless they’re mating or raising a litter, rabbits are mostly solitary animals.
Does (females) and bucks (males) left together will mate constantly, so the two must be kept separate until you are ready and able to prepare for kits (young bunnies). A pair or trio of just does, or just bucks, might coexist happily if raised together as kits and as long as the does aren’t raising a litter of kits themselves.
Chickens, on the other hand, are very social and must be kept in family groups—flocks—or they’ll be terribly unhappy. Typically, a flock comprises a number of hens, with or without a single rooster. Roosters also mate daily with hens, but because hens lay eggs (and presumably you collect them daily), chicks won’t hatch unless you let a broody hen sit on fertilized ones for 21 days or you raise the eggs in an incubator.
The big similarity between rabbits and chickens? They are both vulnerable prey animals, with comparatively few defenses. This is an absolute that we can always assume, and it will serve you, the keeper, well. Bank on the fact that they will be hunted by any and all predators in your area, and they know this, so they act accordingly. This is quite possibly the fact that most informs the behavior of chickens and rabbits. Why is this so important when it comes to rabbit care? Because how they respond to stress or fear is how they react to you, and that determines how we provide rabbit care, protection and housing.
A Hutch Is a Home
Like chickens, rabbits require specific housing that meets their needs. You might notice many chicken coops and rabbit hutches are sold by manufacturers interchangeably, and admittedly one could sub for the other in a pinch. On our homestead, we’ve used a rabbit hutch as temporary housing for a sick or injured hen, and even a broody hen; this is certainly a pro to keeping both species.
If you already keep chickens, you know that a predator-proof coop is an absolute must. A locking door with a latch that is secured at night, a solid roof, hardware cloth mesh across doors and windows, and good ventilation are but a few undeniable requirements of a good coop. And you can apply all of those features to a rabbit hutch as well.
If you plan to have a doe raise kits, you’ll even want her to have a nest box. A big difference between chickens and rabbits regarding the coop is that chickens roost at night up high while rabbits’ instincts tell them to burrow low. You can also count on rabbits and chickens depositing their waste in a predictable place: Chickens usually defecate the most at night, while roosting. Rabbits pick a favorite spot, either in the hutch or in their own run, to do their business. This predictability helps with our cleanup efforts, too.
So where do we begin when constructing housing? What should we look for? When shopping for or devising plans to build a rabbit hutch or a chicken coop, look at how each is made. Notice the differences: You’ll see how each is designed with the instincts of the animal in mind.
Hutches are typically raised off the ground to keep rabbits safe from predators. The flooring is part solid and part mesh. With furry, padded feet, rabbits fare better on mesh flooring than their poultry counterparts, which are more prone to foot ailments as time goes on. But they also need something solid upon which to rest those feet and to give them the sense of security similar to a dark burrow.
Chickens and rabbits have incredibly sensitive respiratory systems, and rabbit urine is particularly caustic. If the hutch is located within a closed barn or larger chicken coop, excellent ventilation (and consistent cleaning) must be one of your top priorities.
Once the fundamental physical needs of each separate animal are met, it’s important to consider the behavioral needs. Rabbits need to retreat to a dark, cozy space that is private and safe. But they also love to stretch their legs and frolic. How can you best meet those needs in your setup and also accommodate your chickens? Much depends on your own homestead and the structures you work with, but remember that proper rabbit care requires a safe haven. They should have the freedom to move but accessibility to their own hutch to hide at all times.
Now, let’s talk food. Remember that we’re blending species from different walks of life, artificially, on the same land. While ground fowl and wild hares forage for their meals, what they forage for is sometimes quite different. Chickens left to free-range look for the juiciest, tastiest, bounciest bugs; as omnivores, chickens forage for a fair amount of animal protein in addition to the greens they seek on pasture. Rabbits, on the other hand, are strictly herbivores. They eat mostly grasses, seeds and fruits.
The domesticated versions of these animals naturally require different diets, too. What we feed them is determined by their life stage and circumstances. Domesticated chickens are often fed a commercial ration designed for their needs: young chicks, meat birds and laying hens have slightly different nutritional requirements and must be fed accordingly.
On a perfect homestead, the flock has unlimited access to rotating pasture lands that make up the bulk of their diet. Treats are offered in moderation, and supplements, such as oyster shells for the extra calcium that laying hens require, plus grit, for helping to break up predigested food, are at the ready.
Nearly all domesticated rabbits, whether raised for fiber, meat or as pets, can be fed roughly the same commercial ration: a high-quality pelleted feed designed for rabbits. As with all animals, variety is a key to optimum health, so supplement that feed with daily greens (such as lettuce), unlimited Timothy hay availability, and a few fruits and other treats in moderation. If you raise rabbits for meat, you’ll probably want to be choosy with the quality of feed and supplements you offer; you are what your animal eats, after all.
There’s one more important element of rabbit care to discuss. Like cats, rabbits continually groom themselves, and, also like cats, they ingest a bit of their own fur. Unlike cats, however, rabbits are not capable of coughing up any ingested fur that gets stuck or blocked in the form of a hairball. This is one of the main considerations of care for your rabbits, and many rabbit-keepers utilize dried pineapple and papaya fruits as a supplement to aid their rabbits in passing the excess fur.
Blockages can happen quickly and be quite dangerous, so having these supplements on hand at all times is a wise preparation. Pineapple and papaya fruits contain enzymes that help rabbits break down the fibers of their own fur—helping it to pass successfully. Many times, rabbits prefer the dried version (without sugar, of course), and it keeps longer, too. If you raise rabbits for fiber, this is doubly important—as is a good grooming routine on your part. The animals’ having access to Timothy hay daily will help here as well.
Most importantly, chicken and rabbit food should be kept separate and only accessible to the species it is meant for. One way you can manage this is by keeping the chicken feed suspended in a hanging feeder, at the height accessible for adult poultry. Water should not be shared between the species, so keep these fonts separate and only accessible to the animal it is meant for.
It’s lovely and idyllic to imagine frolicking rabbits and sweetly clucking hens coexisting in a seeming homestead utopia, but there are health risks to keeping these two species together. Pasteurella multocida, streptococcosis, coccidiosis and, most concerning, salmonella, represent the highest possibilities of sharing disease between species. Salmonella, particularly, can make your rabbits very sick. Chickens will probably defecate in the rabbit’s food or water at some point if kept housed together, so smart setups and cleanliness are critical to keep disease at bay.
Remember that flocks of ground fowl and burrowing animals behave very differently. Chickens might see a wayward rabbit as a threat (especially a fast, jumpy rabbit) and might attempt to harm it or drive it away. Chickens can be quite brutal to outsiders or anything they perceive as a threat, and it’s possible that a flock could kill a rabbit. Smaller pet rabbits (vs. large meat breeds) are particularly at risk here and should always have a safe place separate from the chickens—if they’re not housed separately all the time. No matter your setup, rabbits should be kept separate from very small, fragile chicks.
As sweet as it seems, allowing rabbits to pasture is not the same as allowing chickens to graze untethered. A flock of chickens always comes home to roost and does it so predictably that you can set your clock by it.
Rabbits, on the other hand, are not so reliable, and if you leave them to free-range you might find yourself chasing unhappy rabbits at dusk every night. These behavioral tendencies are worth considering as you set up housing. Most rabbit hutches are open along the bottom, allowing access to grass below. Much like a chicken tractor, you can move this hutch daily to give your rabbits ample time on grass.
A fenced run could also be extended from the rabbit hutch and might or might not include the chickens while grazing. As always, more space is better than less for chickens. But if you give rabbits more space than you have eyes to manage it, you might leave your bunnies susceptible to predator attacks or escaping the enclosure.
Always keep rabbits in some type of fenced enclosure, even while they’re ranging. One indisputable fact of both chicken and rabbit care: A high level of good hygiene on your part always benefits both species and drastically reduces chances of illness and the spread of disease.
As with any cohabitation situation, weigh the pros and cons as well as the risks and benefits, and know your own homestead’s layout and where everything will fit before bringing home any animals. Only you know whether it will be successful or detrimental in your space. Follow the rules of nutrition basics and housing needs, always watch for predators, and you can successfully keep chickens and rabbits together for years to come.
As a fertilizer, chicken manure is “hot” and needs to break down before you use it in the garden. Rabbit manure, on the other hand, is “cool,” which is to say that it can go straight into the garden. Both manures make great supplements for gardening when composted correctly.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Chickens magazine.