If you find yourself caring for a domestic rabbit that you suspect is pregnant, or has recently given birth you will probably have a million questions. This article addresses not only rehabilitation care, but is also a guide for answering questions and concerns about the proper care of the domestic mother rabbit and her babies and orphaned rabbits.
The first thing to do is to remove the father, or any male, if he is with the Mother. This is a great time to have the male neutered, while the mother raises the babies.
Males will probably not hurt the babies, but he can impregnate the female again, even on the day she gives birth. Not only can he impregnate the mother rabbit; he will also impregnate the female offspring as soon as they mature.
Often times, people suddenly discover babies in their rabbits’ cage and never realized that they had a male and a female. Help is often needed to sex adults. We here at The Sanctuary have made mistakes sexing Rabbits, as have Vets we have known. A behavioral attitude, such as mounting, does not necessarily help identify sex in a rabbit. It is usually easy to identify the male once we know what to look for: large testicles, recognized as pink, hairless “sacks.” This can be difficult in young Rabbits, before the testicles drop. The scent glands in a young female can be mistaken for emerging testicles. Males can also pull their testicles in to their abdomen. If you have any doubt, a trip to the Vet may be warranted.
Often times people are concerned that the mother rabbit “is not feeding the babies,” sometimes because she is never seen with them. This is normal behavior for a domestic (or wild) rabbit and that mother rabbits do not “lay” with their offspring in the same manner as dogs and cats.
Domestic rabbits retain some of the genetic imprints of their wild European ancestors, who are animals preyed upon by others in nature. Mother rabbits instinctually sense that staying with their offspring would call a predator’s attention to the nest. Adult rabbits have a scent, while babies do not yest have a strong scent.
Most mother rabbits will not hop into the nest (or box) to check on their infants during the day, although she is usually watching from a safe distance. This is normal behavior.
Rabbits feed their offspring only once or twice per day and will only do so when they feel safe, usually just before dawn and/or just after dusk. If humans and children are continually gathered around the cage, the mother may become too stressed to nurse the infants.
There is a way to determine that the mother is indeed feeding the offspring. Did the mother rabbit pull fur? Did she shred papers, or gather hay or rip up carpeting (if housed indoors) in an attempt to “make a nest?” Mother rabbits usually make a nest any time between a few days prior to the birth up to the day of birth itself. She may also do so without an actual pregnancy.
A mature female will often pull fur to make a nest, with or without a male present and regardless of whether actual mating has occurred. This hormonal behavior is known as a “false pregnancy.”
If the mother has pulled fur in an attempt to make a nest, she will probably be all right if her nest is appropriate. It is safe to examine the babies and move them, with the mother, to a more proper place, if necessary.
If the babies are scattered, cold and do not have plump tummies, the mother needs help making a proper nest box, and the babies need to be warmed up before anything else is attempted. No baby mammals can successful digest foods if their body temperature is below normal. This is extremely important to understand.
In this case, warm the babies as follows: Place a hot water bottle, filled with warm water (not hot,) into a small box of any kind. Line it with clean, terry cloth towels and place the bottle UNDER the towels. A small plastic container or a leak-proof plastic bag can be used if necessary. Make a small space within the nest and put the babies within the temporary warming nest.
Be sure the babies are not in direct contact with the warm water (it may become too hot for them.) Be sure that the towels do not have holes in them and are not frayed, because the fine threads could cut their delicate skin and holes could strangle them should they squirm through one.
In the meantime, prepare a proper box and nest for the mother, so she will feel secure when the babies are returned to her. Get a cardboard box, or make a wooden one, which is just slightly larger than the mother rabbit. It should not be too big, or the babies may scatter again and miss that important feeding.
A doorway should be cut in the center of one side, which is just large enough for the mother to fit through. The doorway should have a lip of about one-inch above the floor to help keep the babies in the box (until they are old enough to venture out on their own.)
Place a large handful of straw, grass or hay in the box and place it in a corner of the rabbit cage. Be sure it is not in the corner that she uses as a bathroom! Make sure that grass clippings do not contain any pesticides or fertilizers. Do not use fabric scraps, burlap, gauze or anything else with fine threads or holes in it. The straw/hay should be removed and replaced every three or four days as it may become soaked in urine. This is done by taking the babies out of the box, removing and later replacing most of the clean fur, and changing the rest of the bedding and lining the box with clean bedding.
The babies can be placed into the new nest as soon as their body temperature feels warm to the touch. (ONLY warm the babies if they have been scattered about on the cage floor. If they were huddled together in a good nest site, leave them alone, except to check whether they have been fed.).
Place the mother and the babies in a small, warm, quiet room. Give the mother a litterbox, in the opposite corner of the nest, if she’s placed indoors. If she is not used to being in the house, this may stress her more than being left in her outdoor cage. The only thing to do in that case is add a proper nest area.
A well-fed baby will have a very distended tummy, looking like the “Pillsbury Dough Boy.” If the babies’ tummies are full, the mother is feeding them and the caretaker can rest assured. The babies can be examined every day if that will make the caretaker feel more assured.
If the babies have not been fed, they will have sunken tummies, their skin will be wrinkled from dehydration and they will be weak (their response to being handled will be weak or non-existent, although they will hopefully be breathing.) Scattered babies are more likely not to have been fed, so make sure that they are warm first.
If the babies are weak or dehydrated, veterinary intervention is advised. Placing a drop of honey or fruit jam into their mouths sometimes helps elevate their blood sugar level until veterinary help and/or mother’s milk is available.
At this point, examine the mother for signs of lactation. By gently holding the mother upright, or gently turning her upside down in a lap, the nipples can be examined. They should feel slightly swollen and it is likely that the mother pulled a great deal of fur from her chest and stomach to not only make her nest, but also to better expose the teats for the babies.
Slight pressure in a milking motion should release either small amount of milk or clear fluid. If the mother is lactating, return her to the babies and allow her to calm down and become familiar with her new nest. Examine the babies the next day to make sure that they are being fed.
If the mother is definitely not lactating or has not attempted to pull fur or make a nest, etc., take the mother to a qualified rabbit-experienced veterinarian immediately. The veterinarian will probably give the mother a small dose of oxytocin, a drug that will stimulate the milk glands. She should nurse within the next 24 hours.
If you feel it is necessary to examine the babies every day to verify that they have been fed, pet the mother rabbit first, to help cover human scents, and avoid wearing heavy perfumes when handling the babies. It is best to handle the babies as little as possible until they are old enough to leave the nest box on their own.
If your concerns begin on the day of the birth, wait a day before attempting to do anything. Some mother rabbits do not feed their babies until the evening of the first day or early on the second day.
If it has been close to two days and you are positive that the babies have not been fed, a veterinarian must be seen immediately. Oxytocin will not produce results if you wait more than forty-eight hours after the birth.
While waiting for a veterinary appointment, try allowing the babies to nurse, as suckling sometimes stimulates the milk glands. If that happens, monitoring the babies’ growth is the only thing that needs to be done. Mother rabbits stand upright while nursing and the babies lie upside down beneath her. Hold the rabbits in this natural position.
If you think that the mother is injuring the babies while kindling (giving birth,) while feeding, or has “cannibalized” any of the babies (eaten them,) several issues should be explored. Sometimes a mother rabbit will accidentally injure the kits because her nails have never been clipped, the nest box is not proper, or she is stressed and skittish by too much activity around her. It is possible, if she is housed outdoors, that neighborhood predators, such as feral cats, raccoons or fox, are causing her anxiety at night. Some rabbits are highly skittish (“fractious”) by nature.Very young mothers, especially those under six months of age, may not “understand” what has happened to them and veterinary intervention is imperative. Nervous and young mothers sometimes abandon their nestlings for unknown reasons, which may include having produced unhealthy kits. Sometimes the nutritional status of the mother is highly inadequate.
If the mother seems to be cannibalizing the nestlings, nutritional deficiencies are but one of the possible scenarios. It is normal for these vegetarian animals to eat the afterbirth, as it is for most other mammals. It prevents predators from discovering the nest and provides the mother which some much-needed nutrients. Sometimes people confuse this behavior (if it is witnessed) with cannibalism.
Sadly, if the father of the babies is much larger than the female, she could be inadvertently injuring the kits, which are too large for her birth canal, while attempting to free them. Seek immediate veterinary intervention should this be happening. The mother’s life is in danger, as well as the lives of the babies.
If the mother rabbit has died, cannot or is not feeding the babies, you can attempt to hand feeding them. Bottle-feeding infant rabbits usually culminates in the babies’ death within a few days to weeks. Hand feeding is terribly unsuccessful because there is no milk replacement formula that is 100% adapted for infant rabbits. This is also true for native species, such as cottontails. The physiological reasons are complex, and you should have the following information concerning what you will be facing when trying to hand-raise infant bunnies.
The most likely potential disease to cause infant/weanling mortality is mucoid enteritis. Although it does occur occasionally in weanlings who have been fed by their mothers, it is seen much more often in hand-fed babies and those who are removed from their mothers before eight weeks of age. It manifests as severe diarrhea, anorectic behavior (refusal to eat) and may contain blood or mucous. It also causes bloating and gas.
Mucoid enteritis is caused by a pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, usually of Clostridium spiroforme, in the hindgut (cecum) of the baby, as the normal microflora are attempting to establish. These normal microflora help the baby achieve adult digestive capabilities.
Adult rabbit stomach pH is 1-2, but a neonates’ stomach pH is much higher; the stomach and gastro-intestinal tract of neonates is also sterile (containing no living microorganisms.) As babies wean off of milk onto adult solid foods, the gut pH gradually changes by getting a lot of help from the mother’s changing milk constituents.
By ten days of age, the babies eyes will have opened, and they will begin eating their mother’s cecotropes, (also called “night feces” or “cecal droppings”). Cecotropes help provide the babies with essential nutrients and later, inoculate the hindgut with the essential flora that is needed to metabolize a diet that is changing from milk to solid foods.
Cecotropes are clustered, soft gel-like “bunches” of fecal matter, which are covered with a light mucous film and resemble a mulberry in shape and size. They are manufactured in the adult cecum through “hindgut fermentation,” and contain high concentrations of proteins, B and K vitamins, fiber, ash (nitrogen-free extract) and unidentified “energy” elements, as well as the hindgut microbes. Cecotropes are an important part of a healthy rabbit diet and are usually eaten directly from the anus as they are produced.
Remember that our domestic rabbits were developed from the wild European rabbit, whose native diet was lacking in many nutrients. Cecotropes, a self-manufactured source of proteins and other nutrients, provide rabbits with the necessary nourishment to sustain their lives.
Infant rabbits also have an antimicrobial fatty acid in the stomach that differs from digestive gastric acids. It is produced only from an enzymatic reaction with a substance found only in the mother’s milk. This action controls the gastro-intestinal microbial contents in the babies’ tract.
As the babies begin to wean, at four to six weeks of age, they lose the guardianship of the mother’s milk/stomach enzymatic reaction and gradually develop the adult pH of 1-2. Often babies will seem to do fine until this critical stage is reached. It is at this point that both the mother’s milk and her cecotropes begin introducing the necessary adult flora (to digest solid foods) into the babies’ gastro-intestinal tract.
Note that a diet low in fiber and a high level of grain have been documented to cause enteric disturbances in adult rabbits as well as weanlings. Toxic microbes proliferate in the cecum due to the high-carbohydrate levels, and the lack of dietary fiber slows down the gut motility, providing a perfect environment for the toxins to grow.
In hand-raised babies, it is essential to provide adult cecotropes to the babies after their eyes are open. Usually, the babies will eat the cecotropes immediately, because it the natural thing for them to do. However, if the babies do not eat the cecotropes on their own, add two to three of the individual pellets in the cluster to the formula at one feeding per day for three to four days. As the babies begin to explore adult foods, it is impotant to monitor their fecal output. At the first sign of “mushy” stool, re-introduce cecotropes to them, in formula if necessary.
Depending on the infant’s dietary status and stress factors, that may include the babies’ immune system (which varies greatly from genetic factors,) the infants’ sterile gut may be unable to colonize with normal adult microflora. The gut would then become overloaded with abnormal bacteria, which leads to bloat, electrolyte loss and death from mucoid enteritis. The most common pathogens found in weanling rabbits that died of enteric disturbances are E. coli and Clostridium spp., and protozoa such as Coccidia spp.
Intravenous or intra-osseous fluid therapy supplied by a veterinarian experienced in rabbit medicine may help in some cases, as the ensuing diarrhea severely affects hydration and electrolyte levels. Oral hydration would be of little help in this instance, and the use of antibacterial agents in infants is not advised. Administering antimicrobials in an attempt to control abnormal gut flora may further disturb development of normal gut microflora. Products such as Baytril (enrofloxacins) are extremely detrimental for use in baby mammals.
Some practitioners and rehabilitators use “probiotics,” theoretically establishing the correct pH environment in the cecum to allow the “good bacteria” to proliferate, and thereby crowding out the “bad bacteria.” The addition of Lactobacillus acidophilus cultures to baby formula may be helpful by acidifying the gut, although no scientific documentation has proven the theory. (There have been several studies done, with inconclusive results.)
While acidophilus is not a normal flora in the rabbit gut, it may help produce an environment which helps normal flora establish and grow. Other studies claim that none of the living cultures in acidophilus can survive the high pH in the stomach and therefore it is a wasted effort. However, this may be a clue as to why conflicting evidence is found: as the weanlings’ gut pH is undergoing drastic changes very quickly, the actual age of the baby may have a profound effect on whether or not the addition of acidophilus or other probiotics is effective. The addition of acidophilus has never been shown to be detrimental, at any rate.
Yogurt with live cultures has been used as a source of acidophilus and has been used in baby formulas. Adult rabbits do not produce lactase, the enzyme which digests lactose sugars (milk) and I advise against using yogurt as a source of acidophilus, if one chooses to supply it. Because a weanling rabbit’s gut is changing so drastically, it would be realistically impossible to determine at what exact moment a weanling rabbit develops intolerance for dairy products. Freeze-dried, organic acidophilus cultures are available at better health food stores and would probably be a better, safer choice than yogurt, in my opinion.
The probiotics “Bene-bac” (providing “beneficial bacteria” for avian species) and “Probiocin” (used most often for canine and feline species) have also been used to provide beneficial bacteria in rabbits and rabbit babies. The banana flavor of Bene-bac is popular with rabbits, which makes it easy to administer. No documentation has proven either product to be detrimental, although likewise, none exists supporting its use (except manufacturer’s claims.)
Fox Valley Animal Nutrition, Inc. also has a product called “Formula L A 200,” which is a viable lactobacillus acidophilus that acts in the same way as Bene-bac. The telephone number for Fox Valley is 1-800-679-4666
Unfortunately, because so little actual documentation exists regarding the use of probiotics, there does not exist a formulary regarding appropriate dosages, either. Too much could be as detrimental as the problem itself.
Probiotics also usually come in proportions of millions or even billions per milligram, which makes breaking down an appropriate dosage for a baby bunny difficult. “Bene-bac” in housed in a syringe calculated for the smaller weights of domestic-exotic parrots and other caged birds. This would be reason alone to argue that the use of avian “Bene-bac” is a more reliable dosage indicator for a weanling that weighs less than about half a kilogram.
There is another more recent product for veterinarians and rehabilitators on the market from Pet-Ag, Inc., Zoological Nutritional Components, called Milk Matrix. Manufactured for various wildlife species, there is a specific formula for native Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus Floridanus.) This may be the best substitute for a domestic rabbit’s milk available. I have not yet used it, but other rehabilitators have claimed success with it. The telephone number to order is 1-800-323-6878. If you have technical questions about the product, the number is 1-800-323-0877.
No substitute milk formula supplies immunity from disease (although the normal maternal antibodies are scarce) nor are most rich enough to supply the energy needs of the rapidly developing babies and without overfeeding them (leading to bloat.) For these reasons and the others stated, the prognosis is not good for the babies.
Infants lose the suckling instinct quickly, so if hand feeding is to be attempted, it must be started within 48 hours. Kitten nursers are much too large for the mouth of a baby rabbit. Toy doll bottles are sometimes small enough. If the baby has lost the suckling instinct, a tuberculin syringe (with needle removed, of course) can be used to carefully administer formula. Allow the babies to swallow naturally, or it may aspirate (breathe fluids into its lungs.) Be sure that the formula is warm, the babies are warm and that the bottle or syringe is sterile. Serious pathogens may be present in both the nursers and the formula, if not prepared correctly.
If the babies survive (BIG IF), they may suffer from chronic gastro-intestinal problems throughout their lives, including stasis episodes and bloating. Both problems are treatable for quite a long time, but expensive and emotionally draining to do.
If the mother rabbit has died, call rabbit rescuers to find a foster mother. Rabbits will foster another’s baby if they are the same of the same size and age.
As soon as the babies are weaned, at eight weeks, the mother rabbit should be spayed. She can then be placed back into the companionship of the now (hopefully) neutered male.
In any case of domestic rabbit babies, do not remove the babies until they are a full eight weeks of age. Separate the male babies from the females at this time. Males can become sexually mature as early as ten weeks!
Spay and neuter the offspring. Males should be neutered as soon as the testicles descend and females after four months but before a year of age. This is especially important in “open warrens,” wherein rabbits run free; as one pair of mature rabbits, with their unaltered offspring, can produce more than 200 babies within a year. That is a lot of responsibility, which could be curtailed by simply altering the existing bunnies.
Altered babies will make much more adoptable bunnies, be better human companions, will live longer, and will never be a contributor to the pet overpopulation problem. They will be less likely to be dumped at a shelter, most of which would be unable to accept such large numbers and would probably have to euthanize most… if not all of them.
by Sandi Koi