Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women? Part 2: Rabbits
About the Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women? Series
At the beginning of pregnancy I asked the midwife if there were any safety precautions I had to take due to our homesteading operations. She gave me a memorably vacant look and referred me to a doctor who proceeded to give me the same memorably vacant look and no useful information whatsoever. The best they could muster was “wear gloves” and that was the end of that conversation.
Clearly the health of my pregnancy was in my own… gloved hands. And judging by the numerous online forums I visited in my quest for information many of you have had similar experiences with your own caregivers. Apparently the medical community just isn’t into backyard farming as much as we are. Shocking, I know.
Family farms still exist so somebody somewhere must know something about being pregnant on a farm. Lucky for us they’ve shared some of that knowledge on the internet. Some, not all. There are still instances where I was unable to find pregnancy specific information in which case I reverted to general information about health and the related activity. If something is risky for a healthy person then it’s reasonable to assume the risk is elevated for a pregnant person.
This series lists the findings of my research in an easy to read format for all of my fellow backyard mamas and mamas-to-be. The series has 6 parts:
Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnant Women?
Part 2: Rabbits
An excellent and inexpensive source of lean protein, rabbits are a popular choice for many homesteaders. We started off with three rabbits (all bucks unbeknownst to us) and currently have 13 rabbits with more on the way. They’re funny and cute and loaded with personality. And as our three-year-old likes to tell people (including our appalled vegetarian friends), they’re delicious!
Pregnancy and rabbit jokes abound but useful human pregnancy info related to rabbit raising is hard to come by. With few pregnancy specific studies I instead focused primarily on general health concerns. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume that a pregnant woman is at a higher risk for anything that might affect a healthy individual.
Handling the Rabbits
There are relatively few zoonoses (diseases that humans can catch from animals) associated with rabbits. Those that are transferable are typically passed via bites or scratches. Wearing gloves and thick clothing while handling rabbits should dramatically reduce the risk of transmission. Particular nasties to look out for are Pasteurella, Bordatella, E. cunicili, and Tetanus.
Pasteurella multocida bacteria lives in the mouth and nasal passages of rabbits meaning a rabbit bite has the potential for infection. While fewer than 10 human cases of rabbit caused Pasteurella have been reported in the last 70 years, it is possible for the infection to be transmitted from mother to baby in utero. The first case of in utero transmission reported in 1992 resulted in a spontaneous abortion. The only other two cases of infection during pregnancy I’ve been able to find are from around the same time and likely from a cat or dog rather than a rabbit. Clearly Pasteurella multocida can have devastating effects during pregnancy but the chances of infection are incredibly slim.
The second strain of Pasteurella found in rabbits (Pasteurella tularensis) is responsible for causing Tularemia, a disease commonly referred to as rabbit fever. The disease is rare and curable but can result in death if left untreated. More typically found in wild rabbits, Tularemia can be avoided by safe handling of rabbit carcasses during processing and thorough cooking.
Bordetella bronchiseptica, the strain of Bordetella carried by rabbits, is the same strain that produces kennel cough in dogs and is related to the strain (Bordetella pertussis) that produces whooping cough in humans. While whooping cough is highly contagious and dangerous to infants, the rabbit version of Bordetella typically only produces a mild illness in humans.
Of all the transferable diseases between rabbits and humans, I find E. cunicili to be the most disgusting. The pictures from Stanford of these gross little parasites does not help the situation. They cause all sorts of nasty internal infections in humans but do not typically infect healthy individuals. Most resources state E. cunicili really only infect severely immuno-compromised individuals (think AIDS) but we all know pregnancy at least mildly depresses the immune system so these nasty little bugs give me pause. They’re transferred from the host animal to their next unsuspecting target via urine spores so muck around your rabbit bedding and put your hands in your mouth and bingo, possible infection. Male rabbits also spray their urine to mark territory so there’s always the possibility of a direct hit (ask me how I know). If you follow basic hygiene practices after handling rabbits you should be able to avoid E. cunicili but if these little buggers give you the heebie jeebies (like how they make me feel my insides are crawling) then limit your exposure to rabbit urine as much as possible. Have someone else do the hutch or enclosure cleaning throughout the duration of your pregnancy to be on the safe side.
Last on the nasties list is Tetanus. It’s bad news for pregnant women and should be actively avoided. Rabbit scratches (or a cut from rusty hutch wire) could lead to infection so take care to wear gloves and thick layers when handling your buns. Hopefully your rabbits are all as mellow and unlikely to scratch you as our rabbit Jack Nicholson. He’s a loaf who loves to lounge in your lap and flop over for belly rubs.
Aside from the “invisible” diseases your rabbit could pass on to you there are also a few visible problems to be aware of, namely mites, fleas, and ringworm. All three conditions are treatable and can be avoided by limiting contact with infected animals. While the conditions themselves are relatively benign even if you’re pregnant, keep in mind that fleas (and ticks) can pass on their own host of infections to humans.
Cleaning the Rabbitat
Whether you keep your rabbits in individual wire hutches or some type of colony, you’re going to regularly deal with rabbit urine, poop, and hay. We already know that E. cunicili parasites pass from rabbits to humans through infected urine spores (ew) so extra sanitary precautions should be taken when cleaning your rabbits’ environment. Rabbit urine may also produce ammonia, a gas that is harmful to humans at very high doses. You’ll smell the ammonia long before you’re exposed to harmful levels so don’t worry too much. Most wire hutches aren’t conducive to ammonia gas build up anyway due to their great ventilation. We’ve had our rabbit colony enclosed by greenhouse tarp all winter with only modest ventilation and haven’t had any issues.
As far as poop goes rabbit poop is mostly harmless (which is part of the reason it can be added directly to your garden beds without composting). It does not harbor toxoplasmosis or coccidiosis like poultry feces and therefore poses little risk to people. Still follow basic hygiene guidelines after handling rabbit waste but don’t feel the need to bust out your hazmat suit – unless you’re dealing with a lot of moldy hay that is.
Deep bedding, covering old bedding with layers of fresh bedding, is a highly effective bedding method in colder months. We use it in the rabbit colony and it works great. The fresh layers of bedding keep the rabbits clean while the decomposing bottom layers release heat to counteract freezing winter temperatures. However problems can arise when the weather warms up. In the spring and summertime deep bedding should not be employed because it may encourage mold growth which can cause various health issues such as farmer’s lung. While pregnant you should take care to minimize your exposure to mold as much as possible.
Overall you shouldn’t have any restrictions from cleaning the rabbitat during your pregnancy if you use common sense, ensure the area you’re working in is well ventilated, and follow basic hygiene practices. And of course wear gloves. That being said, I’m still more comfortable having someone else do all of the enclosure cleaning while I’m sporting a baby bump. If you have someone willing to help out take advantage of it, it’s not every day someone will offer to shovel crap for you.
Processing the Rabbits
Culling and dressing a rabbit is a straightforward process and in many ways easier than processing a chicken. (Um hello, no feathers to pluck.) The greatest risks to you as an expectant mother during the process are being scratched (rabbits twitch after they’ve been dispatched) or cutting yourself. In either scenario there is a possibility of contracting an infection such as Tularemia or Tetanus, especially if the wound comes in contact with the rabbit’s internal organs. Take extra care during the cleaning process to avoid scratches and cuts. Wear gloves (yay gloves!) and as always, follow basic hygiene practices when you’re done.
Eating the Meat
In addition to being an excellent source of lean protein, rabbit meat is loaded with B vitamins and minerals. Just 3 ounces of rabbit meat provides more than 100% of the daily recommended value of B12 and 35% of the daily recommended value of B3. In tandem with folate, B12 is believed to help prevent spina bifida in pregnancy while B3 improves digestion and reduces nausea. I don’t know about you but I needed all the help I could get to quell morning sickness. (For the record I hate whoever coined the term morning sickness because we all know it’s not limited to the morning.)
Compared to chicken, rabbit meat has 33% less sodium and significantly less cholesterol. It also has fewer calories per serving. While rabbit meat is more nutritious than chicken meat, the two are prepared and stored in similar manners. For those of you new to rabbit meat prep the USDA provides a thorough overview of safe cooking and storage methods. It’s especially important to pay attention to food safety when you’re pregnant!
If your raging hormones and maternal instincts don’t inhibit you from feasting on young cuddly rabbits then by all means bon appétit. Your stomach and growing peanut will appreciate the nutritional boost. I know I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of rabbit throughout this pregnancy. Rabbit cacciatore is the next recipe on our “to try” list, I’ll let you know how it turns out.
*Updated on April 18, 2018 – Listeria is a serious infection often caused by consuming raw or under cooked meats. While only a small number of people fall ill annually, pregnant women infected with listeriosis are at an increased risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, infection to the newborn, and stillbirth. Listeria can be prevented by thoroughly cooking all rabbit meat before consuming and following basic food sanitation.
With what we know today, raising rabbits for pets or meat is not unsafe for pregnant women if the proper safety precautions are followed. Have someone else do the rabbitat cleaning and meat processing if possible and always follow basic hygiene practices. Wear gloves (this whole wearing gloves things is turning out to be golden advice) and most importantly, share your favorite rabbit recipes in the comments!
Subscribe to Backyard Woman to make sure you catch the next series installment, Is Backyard Farming Unsafe for Pregnancy? Part 3: Goats & Sheep.