So your doe has just given birth! it’s an exciting time and although she’s more than capable of handling most things herself, she’s also lucky in that she has you to help her with any issues getting them through their most vulnerable stages.
With an obvious focus on the babies it can be easy to forget that mum has also been through a lot so if you would like more information on how you can help mum specifically follow our guide to looking after your doe post-pregnancy here.
Anyway, back to those beautiful kits and here is some important information to know along with some things you can help with when looking after newborn baby rabbits.
Mums General Behavior
Firstly, as you observe mums behavior after the birth of the kits, it’s natural to be concerned. Rabbits usually sit separate from their nests and won’t be spending a lot of time with the babies, in fact she will probably only nurse the kits once or twice a day before retreating away from the nest.
There is a good reason for this so don’t be fooled into thinking she is not a very good mother. Domesticated rabbits retain survival instincts passed down to them from their wild relatives and maintaining a distance from their nest of kits is in fact a way that the wild rabbit ensures its safety.
Adult rabbits unlike fresh young give off a strong scent which can be detected by predators while (youngsters have not yet developed this strong scent). The female is aware of this and sits a safe distance away so as not to alert a predator to its location, protecting the kits from the possibility of a terrible fate.
Obviously domesticated captive rabbits have less to fear but their instinct to protect their young is still very strong. Even if mum seems to be ignoring her kits rest assured that she is still keeping a watchful eye.
Another myth surrounding rabbit young is that the mother may eat the young if a human handles them, this is not true, domestic rabbits are good mothers and used to human contact. They will not harm the young for this reason alone.
That said, always keep an eye on how she behaves around her kits. Aggression (while rare) is not unheard of. In particular, never touch the nest or individual kits with the scent of a rival or unbonded rabbit on your hands, it might confuse her into displaying aggression towards the kits.
If your doe does show any aggression, separate her from the young until you can ascertain the cause. Assess environmental factors which might be causing the behavior such as excessive noise and see a vet if the behavior continues.
Checking The Kits
As mentioned in our article here following the birth your doe will clean the kits by eating the afterbirth and will jump out of the nest for a well earned rest. She may not return to nurse the kits until the next day, this is perfectly normal.
Note: that eating the afterbirth is a normal part of the birth even for herbivores. It allows them some much needed nutrients and should not be confused with the mother cannibalizing the babies. Rabbits will not usually cannibalize their young without good reason and will display their maternal instincts the moment they hear the noisy babies. Cannibalism is usually only the result of dead kits and is nature’s way of clearing up the mistake.
When mum does leave the nest, the first thing that you are going to want to do is check the litter to make sure that the kits are all ok. While it’s best to handle the kits as little as possible until they are able to leave the nest on their own, there are times when handling is necessary for the continued health of the kits, it’s therefore important to know how to handle them correctly.
Start by washing your hands with an unscented mild soap to avoid them becoming exposed to harmful bacteria before their immune systems have had the chance to develop. Also, avoid the urge to put them too close to your face where again they may again be exposed. This as a general rule up until about 10 days old when they will be a little stronger.
The doe will likely be sat away from the nest so when you approach her do so carefully and avoid sudden movement or noise which may frighten her. If she seems agitated calm her with a favorite treat and pet her (this will also pick up some of her own scent).
Carefully pick up the kits and check each baby carefully for signs of injury. Sadly it’s not uncommon to find some dead kits. If this is the case remove them from the nest and dispose of them, if you decide to bury them it is a good idea to cover up the spot with a large rock to prevent predators digging them up (don’t be sad, on the positive side rabbits birth large litters and good news for us bunny enthusiasts is that they are extremely unlikely candidates for extinction!).
Cleaning a Nest Box
Aside from checking you will need to handle the kits when the nest box needs a clean for hygiene or odour reasons. It’s almost certain that the rabbits nesting box will become smelly, the newborns won’t have much control of their bodily functions (rabbits in general seem to produce an endless supply of poop!).
The kits developing immune and digestive systems will need certain bacteria from mum but you don’t want the nestbox to become damp, after all you want the kits to remain warm and dry.
When cleaning the nest box remove the kits and put them on some warm soft fabric such as a fleece blanket to keep them comfortable (don’t be surprised to be urinated or pooped on and be aware that kits may suddenly try to leap from your hand).
Carefully remove the existing nest material and put it aside. If you have followed our article here the nest will probably be sitting on a layer of shavings so if these are wet they will need replacing. For extra absorption you can line the floor of the nest box with newspaper before replacing the shavings.
Retain as much of the original nest as possible but remove any pellets that mum may have left during feeding. Put some fresh hay into the nest box area and replace the nest, put the kits back in and cover them with mums fur (you may have extra collected if you have followed the tip from our article here!).
As a general rule and until they can leave the nest box of their own accord, try to avoid keeping babies out of the nest for anything longer than a few minutes at a time. Young hairless kits in particular will get cold very quickly.
When kits are taken out of the nest and away from their siblings they will be expending energy usually reserved for development in order to keep warm (warmth is also used to keep their digestive systems moving to absorb the nutrients from the does rich milk).
Check the cleanliness of the nest box daily and clean when it becomes overly messy. When the kits reach about 2 weeks of age you can remove the nest box, they have an increased risk of issues such as eye infections if they are in there for too long.
Providing there are no issues baby rabbits will open their eyes between 9 and 11 days old and will also be able to hear. Eye infections are common in rabbits and if the eyes are not open by 12 days then steps should be taken to assist them.
Fill a bowl with some lukewarm water and soak a soft clean tea towel. Ensure the baby is warm before removing from the nest and carefully dab the eyelid with the cloth, be sure that the water soaks through but be careful not to saturate the fur otherwise the kit may get cold.
Re-warm the water if necessary and repeat this process for 10 minutes or so.
If you have access to sterile water (contact lens solution) this can be used as an alternative to warm water.
Whichever process you carry out the eyes should open within a day or two (if not immediately) however take the baby to a vet as a matter of urgency if this is not the case.
Male Behavior Around Kits
While you or your doe won’t necessarily want him around during and immediately after the birth male rabbits provided they are neutered before putting back in with the female will be tolerant of young babies and in most cases will be safe to remain with his new family. He will however become increasingly aggressive towards the youngsters as they approach puberty, and will see them as direct competition for the doe. Separating the young males from the buck then becomes a necessity to prevent him from injuring the youngsters.
If you have read our article about how to look after a pregnant rabbit here you will understand the importance of healthy nutrition for your doe throughout her pregnancy and as she nurses her kits.
As well as a selection of healthy vegetables mum should be eating alfalfa pellets and alfalfa hay which has great benefits to a nursing doe. Alfalfa is high in fibre, packed with calcium and is a source of digestible protein.
The high fibre content makes it an ideal food choice which perfectly fits with the does dietary requirements and assists her in the production of a rich nutrient packed milk.
After nursing ends at around 2 months of age, the doe may be left underweight. Continue to feed her with a diet high in alfalfa to increase her weight back to a satisfactory level.
Once this is reached slowly transition her off alfalfa hay and pellets to timothy hay by gradually adding more of the new hay/pellets to her diet.
Note: Most importantly always provide unlimited water for your doe!
Feeding the Kits
Just as important as keeping mum well nourished, It’s crucial to ensure she is feeding her kits regularly. Weighing the kits at the earliest opportunity with an accurate digital scale (ideally when you check their condition after birth) is a good way to monitor their progress.
As mentioned most mums won’t check on their infants constantly however they will return to nurse them once (maybe twice) per day. Remember to ensure that the nest location is nice and quiet so the doe is not put off returning to feed her kits.
When nursing, your doe will stand in an upright position to allow the kits access. The kits will get under her by lying on their backs before attaching themselves to her nipples.
Each kit will feed for just a few minutes. While this might not seem sufficient, mums milk is very rich and nutritious (providing you have given her the correct nutrition throughout her pregnancy).
When she finishes nursing, be conscious that she may attempt to jump out of the nest before all kits have had a chance to detach. If she does you will need to handle the kits to put them back in the nest as mum will not be able to do this herself.
It’s a good idea to observe her during feeding times and ensure this does not occur. Kits outside of the nest will lose heat quickly and won’t survive outside for long without the heat of the nest and their siblings.
Note that there is also a possibility (be it very small) that if you have water bowls in the cage that babies dragged outside the nest may accidentally fall victim to an unfortunate accident, as such consider removing bowls in favor of bottles whenever young kits are nearby.
How to Know if Your Doe is Lactating
The easiest way to know if mum is lactating is to watch a feeding session and examine the young after, however, be prepared to be up early as the usual mealtime is between midnight and 5 am.
After nursing, well fed kits should have plump tummies. If the kits appear to be attempting to feed however their stomachs do not seem full it may be necessary to check the mum to ensure that she is producing milk, also remember that females only have 8 nipples so in cases of large litters it may simply be that there are not enough nipples for all the kits.
Upon inspection kits who are not feeding may appear to be very weak, in contrast to well fed kits they will have sunken stomachs and wrinkled skin due to dehydration. If you are concerned about any kits not being fed, it may be necessary to see a vet. In some cases a drug can be administered to the rabbit to stimulate milk production.
When babies get to around 2 weeks old you can give them some supervised exercise. This can take place in a run or puppy pen however ensure that the area is completely predator proof (baby rabbits make easy food for birds of prey, snakes and any other number of predators. Also just as important is to ensure that there are no gaps that they may squeeze through and escape.
Around this time you can also remove the nest box from the cage, however, in doing so, you’ll find that the kits will chase mum around for food constantly. Help mum by providing somewhere she can away if she wants some peace (a platformed area that the kits cannot follow her on to is a good idea to help relieve her stress).
Your doe will obviously be spending time with your kits when she feeds them and while she probably won’t sit down in the nest as a chicken would, she will stay in to lick them clean and stimulate pooping and peeing. Although a relatively short time is spent with the kits there is a slight risk of her stepping on or over them. This isn’t necessarily an issue however just to be on the safe side and avoid accidental injury always keep her nails trimmed if they are excessively long.
Your doe will nurse the kits for approximately 8 weeks however her milk production will slow down at around weeks 4 -5 in order to wean the kits onto more solid foods. The kits can also be fed some kale from around week 4 which is calcium and nutrient-rich and will help with their development however as with all new foods introduce these gradually to avoid digestive problems.
It is often advised that lettuce can be fed however lettuce is very high in water and has very little nutritional value for kits. If you do decide to feed lettuce, avoid iceberg which is harmful as it contains lactucarium and monitor the kits to ensure that they do not experience any diahorrea due to the high water content.
Kits will also eat grass of course if they are placed outside (in a run) however never feed grass cuttings as they go rotten quickly once cut. Kits may stop nursing at around 7 – 8 weeks of age although some kits may continue to try and nurse. Separate the kits from the doe from around 8 weeks and continue to feed them alfalfa hay and pellets until they are around 8 months old in order to build their overall health, they can then be transitioned on to (an unlimited supply of) timothy hay and conventional foods.
Make sure you also separate the sexes before they reach sexual maturity around 3-4 months of age.
Abandonment & Orphans
Occasionally young and immature does will go through a pregnancy without carrying out any preparation for the imminent birth of their young, no nest will be built and her milk production may also be delayed.
Before you panic, It’s important to know that even in the case of young doe’s, females will rarely completely abandon their kits, and even if she has not made a nest by the time the kits arrive, in most cases as soon as she sees and hears the squeaking of the babies her maternal instincts will likely kick in.
There are however rare instances whereby mum will show no interest in her babies even after birth or worse still, a difficult labour may kill a doe leaving her unfortunate orphaned kits behind.
In these very sad cases, you may be left with no other choice than to attempt to hand feed them however note that rearing rabbits from birth is rarely successful without prior experience.
Feeding difficulties such as inhaling milk into the lungs while drinking too fast from a syringe or bottle often leads to the kit developing and consequently dying from pneumonia, while milk replacement formulas are an imperfect and of course inferior substitute for a doe’s milk which may also lead to health issues and death.
If you are left with no alternative but to attempt hand feeding seek the advice of a qualified rabbit savvy vet beforehand or alternatively contact a rescue centre to see if they are available to take the kits in. If you are keen to take on the daunting task yourself a rescue centre may also be able to offer advice on a feeding method which will give you a better chance of some of the kits surviving.
Another alternative is to note that a litter has a much greater chance of survival if adopted by another doe.
If you have one available with a very young litter of her own you can encourage the doe to adopt the orphaned litter by placing them in her nest however ensure that she is not nursing an already large litter which may leave her available milk insufficient to feed her own kits.
If you do find yourself in a situation whereby you will be hand-rearing orphaned kits, expect losses and for them to be dependent on you until they are around 4 and a half weeks of age, (around the same length of time that it would have taken for mum to get pregnant and have another litter!).
It’s great fun to have baby bunnies around but also a lot of work especially for your doe so remember to help her out as much as you can.
While this article covers some of the basics of newborn rabbit care remember keeping rabbits is a constant (but fortunately rewarding) education and we rabbit owners can always learn more to help us give our rabbits the best life possible.
Finally spend as much time as you can with the babies yourself to help them get used to human contact, remember at the rate rabbits grow they won’t be tiny handfuls of joy forever!