CARE

How to Care for Newborn Rabbits

If you house male and female rabbits together, it is rarely a question of if the female will get pregnant, but when. There is a large variation in the age of when a rabbit will reach sexual maturity, which depends on its breed, size, and weight. In general, the smaller breed rabbits will become ready for breeding faster than the larger pet breeds. 

In small breed rabbits a female, called a doe, can get pregnant as early as 4-5 months old. A male rabbit, called a buck, will reach sexual maturity just a little behind, at 6 months. Medium-sized rabbits tend to take 1 month longer, and larger breeds will take another 2 months before they are ready.

So, if you find out that one of your females is pregnant, what do you do? Luckily for you, newborn rabbit care isn’t too tricky and we have a handy guide just for you, to help ensure a smooth pregnancy, successful birth, and then weening of the baby rabbits, also called kits.

How important is good food for pregnant rabbits?

Luckily, a rabbit’s diet will not vary much whilst she goes through pregnancy, but it is more vital than ever to ensure that she is getting what she needs to remain healthy. The food supplied to the doe should be of high quality and we recommend checking the label to ensure that it contains approximately 20 percent protein and 20 percent fiber. It should be very low in fat, ideally below 3%.

Supplementing her diet with vegetables and Alfalfa hay is ideal and will keep your pet happy and healthy. Ensure a good supply of water is constantly available and change it regularly to keep it fresh. 

Your rabbit’s general dietary requirements do not change whilst she goes through the weening stage with her kits either, other than needing more of the same, so overall this step is very easy to achieve. 

Do you need to separate male and pregnant female rabbits?

You should aim to separate the pregnant rabbit from any bucks before she gives birth. Whilst is unusual for a male rabbit to harm the kits, separation is needed because a female rabbit can be impregnated again as soon as she gives birth. 

Allowing this to occur would not only be poor breeder behavior, but it also risks affecting the weaning of the first litter and impacting the survival rate for those kits. Because of this, plan to separate the female from all males before she gives birth. 

A typical pregnancy lasts around one month, so there may not be a lot of time between noticing your rabbit is pregnant and the birth itself. Whilst separating them is recommended, keep the male close enough to keep the mother calm. 

Separating a cage with mesh or having side-by-side hutches allows the rabbits to interact without the risk of pregnancy. Ensuring that this bond is allowed to continue will help keep down the stress levels of the female. We will discuss the effects of doe stress levels in a moment. 

Should you provide pregnant rabbits with a nest?

When the kits are born, they are blind and hairless. They will need a warm environment constantly for the first part of their life. Cardboard or wooden trays or boxes are ideal as they keep the kits from spreading too far from the warmth of their mother. The tray needs to be just a little larger than the doe, with a 3cm lip to keep the kits close until they are old enough to climb out unaided.

Do not use a metal tray or box, as the metal will leach body heat away quickly if the kits make direct contact with it.

Line the tray with a clean towel to act as an absorbent layer and fill the tray with clean grass or hay. Ensure you are using bedding intended for animal use, as you do not want to introduce pesticides or fertilizers to the kits, who are very vulnerable. Your doe may rearrange the bedding or pull out clumps of her hair to add to the bedding layer. This is normal and is often a sign that the birth is very close. 

If your adult rabbit is well trained, she will use her litter tray for her mess. If so, be sure to place the litter tray on the opposite side of the hutch from the birthing tray. Keep the noise around the rabbit’s enclosure as low as possible and try to keep the light levels subdued. Once again, this is to help reduce stress on the mother

When do female rabbits give birth?

Most pregnancies last between 27 to 35 days, with a few larger breeds taking up to 45 days. Typically, your rabbit will give birth during the night or first thing in the morning. Therefore, it is very likely that you will go to bed with your rabbit still pregnant and wake up to discover she’s a mother. The typical litter will contain around 6 kits, but it can vary from 1 to 14. 

Your rabbit does not need any help from you to give birth, but the survival rate of kits isn’t all that great, so immediately check to see if there are any dead babies in the nest. The placenta should also be removed. 

As the mother already knows your scent, it is safe enough to move the babies, but be sure to thoroughly wash your hands before you do, as kits are very susceptible to bacterial infection, especially E. Coli which can kill them in just a few hours. 

Do you need to keep baby rabbits warm?

You do need to keep the kits warm. If you spot any of them outside of the birthing tray, return them to their mother. If this has happened, the kits may need additional warmth, or you risk them dying. One way to do this is to fill a hot water bottle with mildly warm water and slide it under the towel that you laid at the base of the nesting tray or a blanket. Do not allow the kits direct contact with the hot water bottle, as they are as susceptible to being overheated as much as they are to getting too cold. 

Provide your rabbit with lots of food and water.

As you can imagine, birthing and weening are going to take a toll on your doe. Whilst the food type doesn’t change from what we described above, the amount may. She needs a constant supply of food and water to ensure that she produces plenty of milk for the kits. She will drink considerably more water than normal, as she will have become a source of drink for her kits. Be sure to monitor her water supply and keep it well topped up. It is vital not to stress her at this point, especially over a lack of food. 

How can you check that your rabbit has begun nursing?

If you are expecting to see your doe laying on her side all day, allowing her kits to ween, you are very much mistaken. The doe will only feed her kits once or twice a day, so instead look for evidence that she has nursed the kits. 

Kits that have nursed will be quiet, whilst they will make mewling noises if hungry. In addition, a well-fed kit has a full, round tummy and is warm to the touch.

Through the weening process, the kits will be getting antibodies against certain pathogens, building their immune system up to defend them once they are old enough to move away from their mother’s milk.

Do female rabbits eat their babies?

So why is it so important not to stress your doe? Unfortunately, female rabbits can, and frequently do, eat their own young. They can also mutilate them.

We have heard stories of doe’s chewing off the ears of all her kits in response to nest trays having other rabbits’ fur in them. Common causes of cannibalism are:

  • Stillborn: The rabbit may be in clean-up mode and decide to eat any stillborn kits. 
  • Panic: The rabbit is worried about predators and aborts her litter.
  • Dietary Problems: The rabbit instinctively detects a lack of protein following birthing.
  • Territory: Some mothers can become territorial and will eliminate other mother’s kits.
  • Darwinism: Runts and other inadequate kits may be consumed, for the instinctive good of the litter. 
  • Stress: Stress in any form can trigger a cannibalistic response in your doe. Keep her calm and well-supplied. 

Why is my rabbit ignoring some of her babies?

Your rabbit is biologically designed to further her species as efficiently as possible. She may detect the runt of the litter and other weaker rabbits and separate her litter into two groups, one of which she may ignore, whilst feeding the other group. 

The weaker young may well become buried deeper in the nest, away from milk and body heat. Check the bedding regularly to bring any such stragglers back to the group and give them the best chance of survival possible.

If your doe persists in ignoring certain kits, the chances of them surviving are low. Whilst this is normal behavior, don’t be afraid to call your vet for advice. 

Should I call the vet?

If you find that the kits are struggling, with sunken tummies and wrinkly skin, or are barely responsive to your touch, contact a vet immediately, as it would appear that the doe is not nursing them properly.

If the mother appears to be trying her best, having set up the nesting tray to her liking, pulling out fur, and so on, then she is attempting to nurse her kits but may not be able to do so. This might be due to the litter being too large for her to handle, or a general lack of milk production. Your vet will be able to give you advice but be aware, sadly not all kits are likely to survive. 

Should you disturb the bedding for newborn rabbits?

You need to keep the nest tray as clean as possible until the kits are strong enough to hop out and go exploring on their own. Until that time you need to place a fresh towel in the tray every day and replace the betting, as the kits will be going to the toilet in their bed. 

When will baby rabbits begin to eat dried food?

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The good news is that rabbits grow up quickly. Therefore, they may begin to eat small amounts of pellet food as early as two weeks after their birth, but they will continue to ween from their mother for around 8 weeks. Their consumption of milk will slowly taper off and stop by itself once they are old enough, you do not need to perform any kind of intervention.

One thing to note is that once the kits are old enough to start eating for themselves, avoid leaving greens for the mother, as the kits should not move on to eating these until at least a few months old, as they can cause digestive problems.  

When you do decide to add vegetables to the diet, start small and test by adding small amounts to the hutch, but be ready to remove it again if there is any sign of vomiting or diarrhea. Carrots, kale, and romaine lettuce are all good starter vegetation for the rapidly growing rabbits. 

When can you begin handling the baby rabbits?

Whilst we have suggested that is fine to handle the baby rabbits early in their lives, this is only to relocate them back into the nest or to clean up their bedding. Because they are so susceptible to bacteria when they are first born, always wash your hands carefully before handling, and avoid regular handling until they are 8 weeks old. 

Once your rabbits are 8 weeks old, begin handling them daily, as this will teach them that your company is safe and that they will come to no harm around you. This in turn leads to tamer adult rabbits and easier handling, making for more enjoyable pets. Ensure you continue to wash your hands before handling until they have fully weened and built their immune system as well as can be. 

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