Van Damme, L. G. W., Ampe, B., Delezie, E. et al. 2023. Social behaviour and personality profiles of breeding does housed part-time in group. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 267, 106064.

Housing breeding female rabbits in multi-litter instead of single-litter cages allows for more natural behaviour and social contact with conspecifics. Hierarchy fights among does, however, inhibit uptake on farms. Past focus on high reproductive performances in single-litter cages may have yielded rabbit breeds that are less suited to living in groups. For (part-time) multi-litter systems, it may prove beneficial to identify does with personality traits that are desirable for group-living and that promote the rapid formation and maintenance of a stable social hierarchy without grave injuries and prolonged stress. In this trial, we aimed to profile the personality of does by investigating the consistency of their social behavioural strategy when mixed in different groups. We further tested if strategy and personality of does were linked with skin injuries in the groups and if skin injuries could serve as a proxy to identify doe strategies and profiles. During three consecutive reproduction cycles, three or four does and their 22-day-old kits were housed in multi-litter cages for a period of 13 days (N = 51 does in total). Doe agonistic behaviour was recorded during the first 24 h (cycle 1 and 2) and the first 8 h (cycle 3) after grouping. Cluster analysis revealed two social behavioural strategies does adopted when a new group was formed: ‘offensive’ (36.8%) versus ‘submissive/avoider’ (63.2%). From all does that participated in the study for all three reproduction cycles (N = 32), 46.9% changed strategy at least once between cycles and were identified as an ‘all-rounder’ personality profile. Two other profiles were identified for does that did not change between cycles: ‘consistently submissive’ (40.6%) and ‘consistently offensive’ (12.5%). The presence of both ‘stable’ and ‘unstable’ does suggests that some does adjust their behaviour in response to their social environment. No significant correlations were found between injuries at both individual and group level and doe strategy or profile. Likewise, results could not confirm if skin injuries were a good proxy to identify doe strategy or profile. Future investigations could explore alternatives to identify ‘sociable’ does without relying on intensive behavioural studies (e.g. ano-genital distance of female kits at birth). Additionally, it needs to be ascertained whether removing offensive behaving does would indeed lead to reduced aggression and stress in group housing systems. Implications: Breeding female rabbits may benefit from group housing but aggressive behaviour compromises animal welfare and commercial uptake. To gain knowledge on the social dynamics between does, we investigated whether problematic agonistic behaviour could be a stable personality trait. This could facilitate selection towards ‘sociable’ on-farm doe groups. Results showed that social behaviour strategies (offensive or submissive/avoider) were stable across three successive production rounds in half of the does. Other does showed more flexibility, possibly depending on group composition. Links between doe behaviour and skin injuries (including those of group mates), however, are missing which makes identification and practical uptake challenging.

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