The use of a cat-flap at the nest entrance to mimic natural conditions in the breeding of fattening rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Management systems allowing free nest access are widely used in commercial rabbit breeding, but these produce a potential conflict with the doe's behavioural goal of a closed nest entrance. Furthermore, the restricted space in commercial breeding units prevents the doe from achieving a sufficient distance between her and the nest, another highly adaptive behavioural goal. This can lead to behavioural problems and pup mortality higher than 20%, attributable to hypothermia, injuries, weakness caused by the scattering and crushing of pups, or even cannibalism. In this study we tested a type of nest entrance (a metal cat-flap) that visually closed the nest box while still allowing the doe free access during the first 15 days after parturition. The effects of a cat-flap access (group CF) and of a permanently open nest box (group O) on nest-related behaviour, general activity, and plasma corticosterone concentration of the does, and on the mortality and weight of the pups, were compared using 15 ZIKA does in each group. Over 24 h, there was no difference between the groups in the frequency of 'nest controls' (approaches or entries to the nest without nursing of pups). However, outside nursing hours, does in group O showed more 'head contacts' with the nest, whereas does in group CF performed more nose contacts and nesting activities outside the nest. Does in group O performed twice as many potentially disturbing nest contacts in this time than does in group CF and had a higher increase of corticosterone after the administration of exogenous adrenocorticotrophic hormone. Pup mortality from days 16 to 35 was significantly higher in group O, and pups born to does in group O left the nest earlier. There was no significant difference in the weaning weights of pups between the two groups. As does with a cat-flap at the nest entrance still showed repeated nest approaches, the cat-flap possibly did not block all nest stimuli from the does. Alternatively, it is possible that the repeated approaches to the next box result from its being one of very few attractive or interesting features in an otherwise barren environment. Removal of the nest box from the cage is an effective method to eliminate nest stimuli, but this increases work for the staff without improving the barren environment for the rabbits. A better way of increasing the distance between the doe and the nest, as well as presenting a number of other attractive features, is group-housing of does.
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