House Rabbit Society volunteers get countless calls from well-meaning people who find “orphans” or “abandoned baby rabbits” behind the shed or in a nearby field. Unknowingly they break up families and separate mother rabbits from their babies in an effort to “save” them. Also, we often hear from concerned owners, who don’t know that rabbits only nurse once a day, that their pet rabbit is not feeding her newborn litter. We usually reply with the question, “How do you know? Do you stay up all night and watch?” Since House Rabbit Society rescuers have taken in many pregnant rabbits, who live inside our homes with us (instead of outdoors in hutches), we are able to observe, get close to, and participate in the activities of raising a litter.
If you are ever confronted with questions on baby bunny care–domestic, not wild rabbits–here are a few guidelines.
- Although rabbits build nests, they are not chickens and, after initial preparation, will not sit on their nests. They also do not stay on or by the nests after the babies are born. This would attract the attention of predators. The babies burrow to the bottom of the nest where they remain hidden until Mamma Rabbit wakes them up at mealtime.
- Only rarely does a mother rabbit nurse her young right after giving birth. Most often the first nursing will occur the night after the kindling. The rabbit’s rich milk sustains the babies for 24 hours at a time. The preferred mealtime is between midnight and 5:00 a.m.
- A mother rabbit does not lie down in the nest, as a cat would do, but stands over the babies to nurse them. She does, however, clean them and lick their bellies and bottoms to stimulate elimination in much the same way as a cat.
- If you want definite proof that the babies are being cared for, check them early each morning. They should be warm and round-bellied. The best way to know for sure is to weigh them on a small postage scale or kitchen scale. Write down a description and the weight. If they’re gaining weight (1/4 oz. or so), they’re being fed.
- You can handle the babies even if the mother doesn’t know you. Domestic rabbits are not that concerned over human smells.
- Rabbits are not prone to cannibalism, as many people think. Cannibalism is an occasional result of a stillborn litter, and this is nature’s way of cleaning up the “mistake.” The activity and noisy squeaking of healthy babies trigger the “maternal instincts.”Only rarely does a mother rabbit truly abandon or ignore her babies. This may occur when a very Immature rabbit gives birth, In which case, she usually does not build a nest or make any preparations. Her milk production Is also delayed. Sometimes the babies can be hand fed for short time until the mother rabbit can take over the job. Again, their daily weight gain is the test of adequate nourishment. (If you must hand feed, refer to page 81 of the House Rabbit Handbook.
- Generally a male rabbit is tolerant of young rabbits and, if neutered, can remain with his new family. The father will begin to nip and play roughly with the sons as they begin to reach puberty and start acting feisty. Then It’s time for separation. A male rabbit must be neutered before being put back with the mother because she can conceive again immediately after giving birth. They should be kept separate for a minimum of two weeks after neutering.