Line-breeding Rabbits

Last Updated on December 18, 2022 by Ellyn Eddy

Line is Fine: How to Linebreed Rabbits

How do you linebreed rabbits? This works for any breed: Holland lops, Mini Rex, New Zealands… and for any goal. Whether you desire to breed rabbits for meat, breed rabbits for pets, to get a specific color, or breed rabbits.

Line Breeding involves mating two rabbits that not only are the same breed but share a common ancestor. Linebreeding can be done for many reasons, including locking in quality traits you admire in the foundation stock or creating new breeds. In this post, we will discuss how to line breed rabbits and some of the benefits of doing so.

Line Breeding Chart for Rabbits

Here’s a helpful chart to reference. You don’t need to follow it exactly; make your choices based on phenotype while using the chart to reference for genetic makeup and to make sure you aren’t inbreeding the two rabbits.

This Linebreeding chart works dogs, cats, chickens, or any species at all.  The concepts are the same for any species.

baby rabbits in a nestbox


What is line breeding?

If you are starting, you may have heard of line breeding rabbits.  Perhaps you’ve seen a “line breeding chart”  and perhaps it didn’t make much sense.  When I started in rabbits I often heard, “you’ll do best to line breed”,  but it was a long time before I realized the value of line breeding.  Now that I have developed my own lines in two breeds, I think I understand it better.  I have not made an outcross or purchased an animal for breeding in years, and yet my herd’s condition and show records continually improve.

Line breeding is a careful process of breeding closely related animals, to improve individual traits in your rabbits.

Can you breed a father and daughter rabbit? Or a mother and son?

Yes, you can. You can do this safely (if you’re keeping good records) for a long time. This is called linebreeding.

Is Linebreeding the same as Inbreeding?

Linebreeding is not the same as inbreeding. Inbreeding means breeding animals that are very closely related for generation after generation, without keeping track of each one’s genetic makeup and what percentage of the same genes they share.

Linebreeding is staying aware of what percentage of genes your individual mating pairs share, and making sure to select for good, strong, healthy traits while avoiding and weeding out “bad genes.”

How does a “line” begin?

All great lines start with a few good rabbits.  The breeder breeds these rabbits together and keeps the best offspring.  They breed the offspring back to the parents and then those second-generation offspring back to the parents and grandparents and to each other, and so on, always selecting the strongest pairs and keeping only the best kits. 

As time goes on, the herd branches out.  The rabbits get more and more distantly related as the foundation stock gets pushed farther and farther back on the pedigree. Then what often happens is that the line produces an exceptional buck that the breeder uses on all their does, and the process begins again.

Why should you line breed? 

Line breeding is all about consistency.  If you want long-term success with raising rabbits, line breeding is your best bet.  Sure, the occasional outcross may bring you a winning rabbit, but such an animal rarely breeds true (that is, consistently produces offspring as good or better than itself.) 

The key that I think people often don’t realize is this: that rabbits can carry recessive traits for fur, type, and condition as well as for color!  These recessive traits might be good, and they might be bad.  If you consistently mate rabbits of similar backgrounds, eventually all the good and bad traits contained in a line will surface.  The breeder can utilize the rabbits with good traits and reject the rabbits with bad ones.  Eventually (at least, in theory), you should be able to produce consistently good animals without having many surprises crop up in your litters. 

Advantages to Linebreeding vs Outcrossing

The other advantage to line-breeding is that you will learn how rabbits in your line should look at various ages.  Kits of some lines develop faster than others, and by knowing what you can expect from your growing juniors, you can cull at an earlier age.

Having a unified line, where all rabbits are fairly similar, allows you to tackle problems one at a time.  If you have a barn full of animals from different lines, they will show many different strengths and weaknesses. 

But if you have a barn full of related animals, most of them may have thin ears, but they may also all have full hindquarters.  Then you don’t need to worry about correcting hindquarters on some and ears on others, but can set the goal, “I want to improve ears on my line”, and concentrate on that.  You get what you breed for, if you have patience—you really do.

Inbreeding vs Line breeding.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do everything, of course, even to line breed rabbits.  It can lock in bad traits as well as good ones.  Beware of too much inbreeding, that is, of mating rabbits so closely related that they lose vitality and disease resistance. 

Also, there is some danger of going “barn blind”, and, for instance, being so used to full hindquarters that you let it slip. It helps to have a friend evaluate your animals sometimes and let you know what they think.  Always select for healthy rabbits in your breeding pair. Never allow unhealthy stock in your breeding program, even if they are the next generation on the linebreeding chart.

The right time to outcross.

Sometimes, yes, “outcrossing” or breeding to an unrelated rabbit is the right thing to do. Perhaps you’re having trouble breeding out a certain fault, or perhaps your herd is becoming too inbred and losing vitality.  If you are raising meat rabbits, perhaps these are starting to develop undesirable traits like small litter size.

When you outcross, choose a rabbit (if possible) not only with strong traits to offset your faults, but from a long line of rabbits with those strong traits. 

Breeders sometimes say, “you ought to buy rabbits, not pedigrees”, and while I agree that a good line can produce a poor animal, a good animal from a good line is the smartest choice of all.  Don’t select merely on genetic makeup. Don’t buy an animal just because it has a show-winning father or because it’s from a specific breed if the animal’s own phenotype isn’t what you’re looking for.

Remember that a buck will go farther to impact your line than a doe—for obvious reasons.

The first generation of outcrossed babies may or may not be all that you hoped for.  Remember that the rabbit from the new line carries recessive characteristics that might clash with your line’s genes. 

But take the best of those F1 (first generation) babies back to your line, and soon you should see results. After several generations, your line will start to look truly yours. Those hidden recessive genes will appear, be weeded out, and you’ll get consistent results.

Be patient in your line breeding.

Consistent winners are bred, not bought.  Line breeding takes time—but not too much time before you see results.  It takes patience, wise management, a keen eye, and a healthy environment, but with these things you should get there, sure enough.  A judge told me once that bringing your herd from average to good isn’t so hard if you know what you’re doing.  From good to great is a larger step.  Line breeding will help you get there.

Rabbit Coat Color Genetics Study Guide

This article is adapted from “A book About Bunny Colors: The Practical Breeder’s Guide to Rabbit Coat Color Genetics.”   Written from a breeder’s perspective, the book is designed to help every breeder grasp a working knowledge of rabbit coat color genetics. Now you can use the knowledge of rabbit color genetics to your advantage, and no longer feel like its victim!

How do you breed rabbits? 

If you have never bred rabbits before, your first time putting them together can be intimidating. “Breed like rabbits” sounds so simple — and it can be when all goes well. But like anything, being prepared leads to the best outcomes.

(If you’re not intimidated yet, ask any long-time breeder for a story about a doe castrating a buck with her teeth.)

Safely putting the buck and doe together

When you have two rabbits you know you would like to mate, the most breeders’ advice is to always bring the doe to the buck’s cage. That way she will direct her interest to the business at hand, not defending her territory. If you bring the buck to the doe’s cage, she may be less interested in mating.

You may also try to put them together in a neutral space. When you are ready, let the buck out first and give him a few minutes to explore. He will likely want to mark his new territory with urine, so don’t be alarmed. Let him get comfortable in the space so he will get to business once his lady arrives.

The place where you pair your rabbits should be confined enough that the bunnies can’t run away, but open enough that you have easy access to intervene should any aggressive behavior start.

If all goes well, the buck with mount the doe quickly. He’ll do his thing for 10-15 seconds, the doe will lift her hind end, and the buck will fall off. (I’m sure you’ve seen the amusing youtube videos of this.)

Troubleshooting when breeding rabbits

If you have small breeds of rabbits, they often accomplish the whole process faster. If you have large or meat rabbits, they often have extra fluff in the skirt area that can get in the way. 

Sometimes the doe is willing, but you’ll have to strategically lift her tail or some of her fur out of the way with your hands.

Do female bunnies have menstrual cycles?

Rabbits are known as “induced ovulators” – which means a doe could get pregnant nearly anytime she has an encounter with a buck. However, they do have a cycle of roughly 28 days “on” and 3 days “off”. During their 4 weeks of fertility, they could ovulate any time sexually stimulated by a buck.

Sometimes the doe just isn’t feeling it. Turn her over and check the color of her vulva.  Is it swollen and bright pink or red?  She probably just needs more time to warm up.  Is it small and pale pink?  If so, you’re probably better off trying another day.  

There are lots of other tricks to getting a doe pregnant that we cover in our complete breeding rabbits guide.

Hope that helps you!  Best of luck with linebreeding rabbits!