Sick rabbits, by and large, are dead rabbits in my experience. Dead rabbits – when they die before you harvest them for meat – are a waste of your precious time, resources, and wear you down psychologically.
I detailed my struggles with meat rabbits in 2017. My research indicates that herbs, more than anything, are my best plan of attack to maintain a healthier rabbitry in 2018.
The Problem: snuffles, parasites and bloat
One health problem I encountered a lot in early 2017 is commonly known as snuffles, an upper respiratory infection typically caused by either pasteurella or bordatella. Nearly all domestic rabbits are silent carriers of these bacteria, particularly pasteurella. Becoming symptomatic (sneezing with white or colored nasal discharge) is a sign of a weak immune system, because a stronger rabbit would have kept the bacteria suppressed.
Immunity in rabbits is highly driven by genetics, so the best practice is to cull weak members from the herd. In my case, I am down to one breeding pair of blue New Zealands because my foundation stock was susceptible to snuffles. The buck in that pair is a proven sire that is still useful to me when doing hybrid crosses with my other breeds but if the remaining doe proves unproductive, I will simply drop this breed and focus on my remaining breeds for now.
A much more chronic problem for me throughout the year was coccidiosis, caused a type of parasitic protozoa that can plague nearly all livestock species. In rabbits, severe coccidiosis results in diarrhea and/or bloated stomachs, both often lethal. The nature of the parasite’s life cycle, being spread in manure, makes it difficult to eradicate once established.
Sanitizing cages with a 10% ammonia solution helps but adult rabbits can be asymptomatic carriers of it who then pass it on to younger rabbits, resulting in litters with very high mortality rabbits.
Bloat can also be caused by other bacterial imbalances in the rabbit’s GI tract, but the herbal solutions I will be discussing below serve to correct those imbalances as well.
There’s some debate among the breeders I know whether we can select for genetic resistance to coccidia the same way we do for resistance to pasteurella and bordatella. Genetic immunity is of particular importance to breeders who raise using colonies or rabbit tractors where the rabbits are in ground contact and thus at higher risk of contracting parasites like coccidia.
One breeder I know says she notices considerably less mortality from coccidiosis in litters from does who have been in her colony system long term, versus does that have been brought in from outside.
Joel Salatin mentions in several of his books that his son Daniel had very high mortality in his rabbit project when he first began to run growouts in rabbit tractors. Unlike a full colony, Daniel keeps his breeders in conventional hanging wire cages, but through selective line breeding over several years he still arrived at genetics with much lower mortality rates when put on the ground post-weaning.
Because of the small size of my rabbitry and my desire to focus on multiple breeds, I have less ability to explore a lot of genetic variation in my quest for resistance. However, for the next few months I will stop using purebred pairings and instead do hybrid crosses back and forth between my breeds to increase vigor. Hybrid vigor is an important phenomenon in both plants and animals. Rabbits frequently see a 10-20% increase in growth rate and should also have stronger immunity with the higher genetic heterogeneity of such a pairing.
Rabbit breeders solely focused on meat production often focus on so-called “mutts”, or they intentionally maintain two purebred lines and do terminal hybrid crosses between them, much like the famous Cornish Cross meat chickens. The ability to sell healthy, pedigreed purebred stock is important to me for extra profitability (breeding quality stock is worth 2-3 times more than a processed rabbit for the table) however, so I am hoping I do not need to rely on full hybrid crosses to maintain a healthy population. The hybrid crosses I’m doing currently are a stop gap until the gardening season starts here in southern Wisconsin and I can get my own medicinal plants started.
Why herbs and not conventional medicine?
Over-reliance on medication inevitably results in pathogenic resistance to that medication. We see resistance selected for in bacteria, fungi, and insect problems. The most common medication for coccidiosis in rabbits has been amprolium but there’s increasing anecdotal evidence that it is losing its effectiveness. I’m not the only rabbit breeder who has tried using it to little effect.
Toltrazuril and sulfa dimethox are two stronger medications I could use. Sulfa dimethox is now only available by vet prescription since the FDA changed regulations on certain medications, making treatment an expensive proposition for a small rabbitry. Toltrazuril is available without a prescription from certain sources but before I spent the money and started down a hard-core antibiotic path, I wanted to step back and examine both my own motivations and other alternatives.
More than anything, as someone selling breeding stock to others, I want to sell the healthiest rabbits possible. I’m also learning about breeding to the standard of perfection set out for each breed by the American Rabbit Breeders Association but health is something even more important to me. Natural immunity is the most resilient kind.
When natural immunity isn’t quite enough, that’s where herbs come in. Almost all of the herbs I’ll be discussing below to boost immunity in rabbits are perennials that are easy to grow in any temperate climate once established. Many of them double as good nutritious food for the rabbits, not just medicine. Long term, they are much more resilient than reaching to a manufactured solution. They are also lower cost.
I’m ordering this list in my perceived order of importance based on my research so far.
Willow is a wonder plant for rabbits. The leaves have a high protein content, similar to alfalfa that makes the base for commercial rabbit feed. The natural form of aspirin in the woody cuttings promotes good health, and the wood also has anti-parasitic properties. The species is not important, anything in the salix genus will work.
I will be planting a shrub type willow in several places on my urban homestead. Some of them will be installed as a shrub layer in my mini front yard orchard. I also have a few spots around other perennial fruit plantings. If the plant does well in 2018, in 2019 I’ll take cuttings of the now-established plants and perhaps even take up some of my annual garden beds with them as our homegrown rabbit meat is increasingly the most valuable produce of our homestead.
I’m specifically looking at SX61 (Salix miyabeana), a shrub variety developed by Cornell specifically for use as livestock fodder.
Much like for humans, echinacea is a proven immunity booster in rabbits with actual antibacterial and antiviral properties in larger amounts. You can feed the leaves and stems fresh or dry or make a tea and mix in with their water. I will be removing some of my other perennial flowers (I have a few varieties of rudbeckia that have spread aggressively) and popping echinacea I plan to try growing from seed. Depending on how fast they establish, I may use the tea solution for most of 2018 since leaves will be needed to feed root development.
Comfrey is supposed to fill a lot of the same roles as echinacea, though arguably less potent. I fed comfrey regularly last year, but I know there were periods I was lazy and didn’t stay on top of cutting and feeding it. It’s possible my problems cropped up during the times I wasn’t feeding it, I can’t remember. I’m putting it lower on the list for this reason. Another factor may be that I grow the sterile Bocking-14 hybrid which is sometimes regarded as less potent for topical human use, so it may also be less potent for internal benefits in animals. Finally, it’s possible that coccidia eggs are not destroyed in the manure I use fertilize the comfrey before harvesting for forage.
At the same time, when the rabbits are interested in eating it (their interest seemed to vary last year), it’s a very high protein feed and ridiculously easy to grow in my climate so it has benefits beyond being medicinal – much like willow leaves.
Unlike a lot of veggie gardeners, I’ve never grown parsley as we don’t particularly care for it. However, it promotes good bacterial balance in rabbit GI tracts. Many rabbit breeders swear by it for preventing and curing bloated stomachs. I’ll be learning how to grow it this year.
I was talking with a woman who was finishing up a veterinary degree with a focus on herbal medicine and she said there’s some new research that peppermint aggressively kills coccidia. Other research says any mint variety works but she was insistent it had to be specifically peppermint. Funnily enough, I just pulled out our peppermint plants last fall as we prefer the taste of chocolate mint. If it doesn’t come back on its own (mint is tenacious!) I can easily get starts in the spring at the farmer’s market.
Mint should not be fed to pregnant or nursing animals (or humans) because it dries up the mammary glands. It’s also not good for younger babies. This is why I put it lower on the list despite the strong evidence for its benefits.
Apple, Spruce, and Pine
I’m grouping these three together, as the concept is the same. Prunings from these three types of trees contain beneficial tannins and give the rabbits something extra to chew on to boot. You want the bark on, as the bark and cambium are where most of the benefits are found.
I helped a neighbor fell and break up a very large partially broken apple branch last year so I’ve got a bunch of apple prunings I was originally meaning to season for use in my smoker, but I’m giving them to rabbits now as I’ve found I like cherry and hickory better for smoking anyways. I can probably find some free spruce or pine branches easily, plus our cat was so rough with our artificial tree this past Christmas that we may switch to using a real tree next Christmas. As long as I find a tree farm that doesn’t spray (possibly harder than I think), I’ll save all the branches for feeding to the buns after – dual purpose!
Other Herbs: Honorable Mentions
Plantain, lemon balm, marjoram, basil, and rosemary are some further plants that my research suggested are worth growing more of but I’m ranking lower on the list. Plantain arguably deserves an entry for itself, but my site has almost no lawn left, and I’ve found it difficult to encourage outside of lawn areas, though it is increasingly spreading in some of my perennial areas.
I currently have a small amount of lemon balm and plant to grow more, though it seems slightly less hardy in my climate than mint. Marjoram is similar to oregano, which grows well in my garden, so it should also be easy to establish.
I normally grow a lot of basil each year but had never thought of feeding it to the rabbits – useful especially when it’s growing faster than you’re using it and you want to keep it from going to flower.
Rosemary is hardy in my climate (zone 5b) only with winter protection and I don’t use it much culinarily so I’ve never tried growing it. If I grow in a pot and bring indoors it may be worth adding.
Happier, Healthier Rabbits with Herbs
Together all of these plants should offer a lot of benefit to my herd, leading to happier, healthier rabbits. Most of these plants also offer either feed value to our homestead animals, or medicinal or culinary value to us people, so it’s not burdensome to grow a little extra for the rabbits even if the medicinal benefits don’t materialize like I’m hoping.
Do you include your livestock when planning your gardens, either for feed value or for medicinal purposes? What has your experience been?
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Rachel C. says
Great article David! Thank you for all of the wonderful information. I was not aware that peppermint was so beneficial for rabbits. I will be cutting some of ours tomorrow for our Flemish Giant Bill. Good luck with your rabbitry this year!
Thanks Rachel, I hope your rabbits do well too!
Hi David, a very interesting post. Keeping healthy rabbits seems to be a very complex undertaking, with so many issues to take into account.
I’m curious about one point. You mention that one of the problems with relying on conventional drugs is loss of effectiveness over time due to the development of resistance in the disease-causing organism. It’s not explicitly stated in your post, but there appears to an underlying assumption that the development of resistance is not going to be an issue with those herbs that you mention as containing antibacterial/anti-parasitic/antiviral substances eg. willow, peppermint (as opposed to those boosting immune response or gut health). Could you elaborate on why that is – do you have strategies in mind to prevent resistance occurring, like using a range of herbs with different modes of action in rotation, and/or using them aggressively only when symptoms occur etc?
Tracey, the reason I said that is many herbs have more than one active ingredient or mode of action that contributes to their effectiveness, whereas a synthesized antiobitic has a single mode of action. I may be mistaken in this understanding but that is how I understand the science currently.
Thanks David. I hope it goes well. I guess you won’t know for sure which things are most effective if you pursue several strategies at once (different herbs plus outcrossing and culling), but I guess that doesn’t matter do long as you wind up with healthy livestock. It must have been so devastating with all the setbacks. Good luck!
Nancy E. Sutton says
Thanks, David, for your valuable experience and research. Looking forward to future reports on results 🙂
Great info. I’ve had a lot of pet rabbits in my life, but never thought of all the herbal ideas for treats and illness. I did save apple tree prunings in bags in the frig for chew toys, and they lasted that way for months before drying out.
Jana Smithmyer says
My rabbit will not eat dried echinacea and I don’t have any growing plants to give her fresh. With each litter of kits she battles snuffles like symptoms but always seems to bounce back without meds after the kits are weaned. Any suggestions for using the dried echinacea? Can I make a tea out of it and mix with her water? If so, how do I go about doing that. She is a great doe and has produced champion kits. I want to keep her as healthy as possible (babies too).
Hi David, thanks for the good information- great article you wrote. I was hoping I could get some advice… My 9 year old Holland Lop has been experiencing for the past several days: a head tilt, loss of balance, and some loss of appetite. He hasnt been drinking water from his bottle so I have been giving him water with a syringe and he is always eager to drink it. He still eats romaine lettuce and his pellets but hasnt realy touchedhis hay. I have appointment made for him this coming saturday at the vet- im thinking ear infection bc of the head tilt.. but unsure. I bought some dried Echinacea and dried dandelion leaf today bc ive read of the antibacterial effects. But I am unsure of the dose I should administer to him. Could you help me with that?