The Basics of Breeding Rabbits – Part Two
This article is the second in a two-part series about breeding rabbits at home. Last time, we discussed the breeding pair selection process, tips for successful mating, confirming pregnancies, and the nesting process up to when the doe kindles. The good news is, once a healthy litter is delivered, the hardest part is behind you! Rabbits does are very self-sufficient mothers, for the most part, and require little to no human assistance. However, human caregivers should be aware of some things they can do to help ensure that the mother rabbit and the litter thrive.
Right before the doe kindles, she will usually gather hay or straw in her mouth, and pull fur from her chest to line the nest. This can happen several days before, but a lot of does wait until the last minute, particularly first time mothers. Ideally, she will give birth in the nest, and not on the wire floor of the cage. If you find babies that have been delivered outside the nest box, dry them completely, and transfer them to the box as quickly as possible. Even if the kits are not moving, it is worth trying to revive them, as often some stimulation and warmth will save their lives. This is not necessarily a sign that the mother rabbit has rejected those babies, and she may begin to care for them properly after that. If she does not, the only options are to foster them to another doe with a litter, or try to bottle feed the kits. Bottle feeding usually does not have a very promising outcome. For one thing, there is no commercially made supplement that is intended to substitute specifically for rabbit milk. On the other hand, as long as the kits are a few days or less apart in age, fostering them out can have very good results. Mother does are not fussy about taking in new babies, and if you time it right, you can put the foster kits in the nest box with her babies long before she returns to nurse, which means the new babies will smell like the rest of the litter to her. However, make sure that the foster mother will have enough nipples to feed the extra babies. It is important not to overload her with too many, or she will not be able to feed them properly.
The First 24-48 Hours
Baby rabbits are very helpless. They are born blind, deaf, and without hair. You can generally gauge in the first 24-48 hours how well the doe is going to attend to her young. You should be checking on the babies at least once, if not two or three times a day to make sure they are all still alive, and that their bellies look full and round. Remove any dead kits immediately. You should also be checking to make sure the doe is not using the nest box as a toilet. This generally does not happen though unless she started doing it before the kits were born. Keep in mind that while newborns sleep the majority of the time, they should appear strong and healthy. They will be disturbed by parting the fur that surrounds them, and should squeak and “pop” up a bit when touched. This is normal, and a very good sign that they are healthy. If at any point any of the kits appear to be wet, it is important to towel dry them until they are completely dry, and then return them to the nest box. Occasionally, if the nesting material is soiled, you might have to change out the soiled material with fresh bedding and hay. This will often deter a doe who has been toileting in the nest box from doing it again. Be careful if changing the bedding in the nest box, to preserve as much fur from the doe as possible to transfer back in, and pack it around the kits. Do not be alarmed if you rarely, if ever, witness the doe in the nest box. Rabbit mothers typically only feed their young twice a day for 5-10 minutes at a time. As long as the babies have full bellies and act healthy, they are being well taken care of.
From here on out, the growth of the babies will astound you, if this is the first time you are going through this process! Kits grow quickly, and it is fascinating to see how much they change in just a day or two’s time. You will notice them starting to grow fur, and increase noticeably in size, even in 24 hours’ time! Check on them daily, at least twice a day. If you know your doe, and she is familiar with you, she should not object to you taking out the nest box and checking the babies. She may hop around and look worried while the nest box is out of the cage, but this is normal behavior. She will become more relaxed the more she sees you doing it. You can take the kits out briefly and hold them in your hands. What you are looking for are dry, warm bodies with full, round looking bellies. The kits should struggle and squirm when you take them briefly from their warm nest. Be conscious of the weather – if it is extremely cold out, try not to take them out for more than a few seconds before returning them to the nest. However, if they appear to be soiled in any way, use a baby wipe or wet paper towel to clean them off. It is important after doing so, to use a soft, dry towel to dry them off completely before returning them to the nest box. The babies should immediately begin to burrow back into the warmth of the nest upon returning them back to their siblings. Every day the kits should appear to have hair growing. They will gain strength, and will “object” more to being handled, by squeaking and struggling in your hands. This is a good thing, and means they are developing properly. It is also important for rabbit owners to be monitoring the doe for any signs of mastitis, which is a painful swelling and tenderness in her breasts. The first sign of mastitis is refusal to eat, and if a mother rabbit is off her feed, this should be the first suspected reason. Mastitis is very treatable with penicillin if it is caught early.
By the tenth to the twelfth day, the kits will begin opening their eyes. If some only open one, or if that process is delayed in some babies, it is not a cause for worry unless the eye area appears to be wet and/or irritated in some way. It is normal for the kits to urinate and defecate on one another while confined to the nest box, and this irritation is often referred to as “nest box eye.” Should you notice that some of the kits have irritated looking eyes, change out the bedding in the nest box, again, being careful to preserve whatever unsoiled fur from the doe you can. With new vision comes added mobility as well. Some kits may be strong enough to jump out of the nest box by Day 10, but not be able to get back in. Mother does do not pick their babies up in their mouths, so the kit that falls or jumps out and stays out overnight at this stage will likely not survive. As soon as you are convinced that the babies are ready to begin exploring, you can turn the nest box on its side, or put in a nesting area without high walls, such as one woven from Timothy Hay designed specifically for small animals. If you make the decision to replace the nest box with another structure at this stage, be sure and try to save any of the unsoiled fur from the mother rabbit to line the nest with. The kits will start crawl around the floor of the cage while they are learning to hop, and it is endearing to watch! They will also begin to experiment with eating solid food and drinking water, so it is crucial that food and water be readily available at all times. Be sure to check the kits daily for signs of diarrhea as their digestive systems adapt to the change in diet.
By the third week of life, baby rabbits are ready to live outside the nest box full time. Remove the nest box, and sanitize it thoroughly before using it again for another litter. Using a nest box with a removable bottom, such as our Metal Rabbit Nest Boxes, makes clean up easy and efficient. If you use wood-bottomed nest boxes, you may have to replace the bottom after each litter. Once the nest box is removed, the kits will adjust to life without it quickly. They will still spend a lot of time resting and napping, but will certainly be busy the rest of the time. It is very important that the doe and her young have a large enough cage to allow for extra bodies and mobility. Continue to handle the babies daily to socialize them, but also to check their growth and development. At this age, a common problem is feces accumulating around the rectal/genital area, which if left unattended, can cause infection. You can sometimes also begin to sex the kits at this age. It is difficult sometimes to tell though, and even the most experienced breeders can get it wrong!
By five and a half to six weeks, the kits will be ready to be weaned. Some of the larger breeds that are slower to mature may not be ready until closer to eight weeks. It is a good idea to do this somewhat gradually. One way for example, is to take the kits to a separate cage during the day, and only return them to their mother at night for 2-3 days, before separating them completely. It is also recommended to keep some of the siblings together for one to two weeks after, to ease the transition. If the rabbits are being raised for show, it is time to start checking them out for conformation flaws and possible disqualifications on the show table. If they are being raised for meat, the focus should be on diet to develop the optimum fat-lean meat ratio for processing in a few weeks. If the rabbits are going to be sold as pets, it’s time to start advertising. Keep in mind though, that it is not good practice, nor is it legal, in most areas, to sell babies under the age of eight weeks.
We hope by reading these two articles that you feel prepared for your first breeding. If you have already had the experience, we hope this series provided some additional insight. Please feel free to leave comments or questions below!
Other contact information: