(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
Placing a buck and a doe in the same location does not guarantee mating (unless it is accidental and you don’t want a breeding to take place, of course, per the Murphy's Law of Rabbits). Here is a summary of the most common problems and some ideas to work around them.
Sometimes bucks are just too eager and wear themselves out! This can be especially true of inexperienced bucks. All the running around and unsuccessfully mounting the doe can tucker out these poor excited boys! Make sure he is fit (see Overweight Bucks or Does below). Make sure the cage is not too big for him to catch the doe- smaller is better in this case. You can also try repositioning the buck to the correct breeding position to keep him from wearing himself out from incorrect positions (ie on the head, etc).
Shy or Unmotivated Buck
Sometimes bucks are too shy or submissive to breed successfully. Sometimes this can be trauma from a bad experience with an overly dominant or aggressive doe. If this has happened to your buck, try pairing him with an experienced, ready and willing doe with plenty of color in her vent. Sometimes a successful breeding or two will help him overcome his "shyness." Some bucks are just not aggressive breeders- this isn't a bad thing as long as you get the pair to cooperate with you.
If your buck just isn't showing any interest, first of all, double check to be sure he is a buck! Once you confirm that, make sure he is old enough to breed- most bucks hit sexual maturity between 4 and 6 months, and not too old to breed. Try positioning your doe with her rump toward the buck. If that doesn't work, try placing your buck on the doe in the "mating position." It's a good idea to get your bucks used to you reaching into the cage during breeding so that you can assist if needed. If you still can't get any reaction from him, try taking the doe away for an hour or two and then try introducing them again.
Some does are just naturals! Some are not. Unfortunately, many does being bred for the first time can be less than cooperative. They might be more interested in exploring the buck's cage, or become stressed at being in contact with an unfamiliar rabbit. Virgin does are also more likely to be defensive and attack your buck. If you run into an overly stressed doe, try removing her from the buck's cage and reintroducing her again later. If you can't get her to cooperate, make sure she is old enough. Most breeds reach sexual maturity between four and six months, but many does are still growing at that age. I encourage you to wait until your doe hits the senior weight or senior age determined by the ARBA SOP (typically 6 months for most commercial breeds) before you breed her. that way, she is putting all her energy into growing her kits rather than growing her body. If your doe is definitely old enough, try checking her vent- if it's light colored, she is not ready to be bred. While rabbits are induced ovulators (meaning they release eggs after breeding), they still have a hormone cycle and a darker vent is a sure sign that she is likely to be more receptive. If her vent is pale, try again the next day. Fortunately, once a doe has been successfully bred, she is more likely to be eager to breed the next time.
Doe Attacking the Buck
Always make sure you are taking the doe to the buck's cage and not the other way around. Does tend to be far more territorial and can even castrate a buck in defense of their territory. Some does are just high strung- consider if you want to breed that temperament into your lines. You could try holding her head while the buck mounts her or you could try supervised table breeding. Check your doe's vent- if you have color, bring both the buck and the doe to a table other other surface. Make sure the surface is not slick- a bath mat or a towel can help your rabbits get traction. You can stimulate her vent with your finger to make her more eager to breed. Position your doe with her rear raised (you can prop your hand under her if needed), and position your buck in the breeding position. Supervise the breeding. After breeding, be sure to make sure neither rabbit can fall from the table before returning them to their cages.
No Activity or No Falloffs
See above for shy or unmotivated bucks and virgin does. These can be some reasons why you aren't getting any activity.
Does that have a lot of extra butt ruffles (loose skin on the butt) can be harder to breed, as the buck may have to work harder to get past that extra skin. Sometimes does' butt ruffles get more saggy as they get older. If he's trying and you aren't getting falloffs, you may have to pull her tail up towards her head to move that extra fur our of the way for him.
If your doe is running laps, making it tough for your buck to catch her- try a smaller cage. If that doesn't work, try putting your hand int the cage and holding her in position. You can also try a cage switch- put the doe in the buck's cage and the buck in the doe's cage. This can ramp up her hormones and make her more eager to breed. Try leaving them in these opposite cages over night and then put the buck back into his original cage with the doe and see if they are more receptive. If your doe still won't accept the buck, try again in a couple of days.
Always assume a doe has been bred any time you have had them in the cage together. I've heard too many stories of supposedly unsuccessful breedings where no the breeder swore there were no fall-offs but 31 days later, there were kits born on the wire.
Not Enough Light
Like poultry, rabbits can be sensitive to amount of light exposure. If you have less than 12-14 hours of light on your rabbits in a day, try adding some extra light to the rabbitry and see if that improves things.
Both bucks and does can be reluctant to breed in the heat of summer. Exposure to weather warmer than 85°F can result in temporary sterility in your bucks, and the longer the exposure the longer the sterility can last, usually up to 3 months. Older bucks tend to be more susceptible to heat sterility than younger bucks. Keeping your bucks in the coolest part of your rabbitry can help prevent this. If you're having trouble getting your rabbits motivated to breed in the summer, try earlier in the morning or later in the evening when it's likely to be cooler.
Overweight Bucks or Does
Being overweight is one of the most common causes of infertility in rabbits. Not only are overweight rabbits less likely to be active enough to successfully breed and also lack libido, but fat cushioning their internal organs can prevent does from even becoming pregnant. Keep a close eye on your herd health- butchering is especially a good time to check for any fat built up inside the body cavity.
Does Not Taking
In addition to the concerns stated above, there are a few other things you can consider if you doe just isn't taking. First of all, try breeding her with a different buck- if she takes then it's possible your buck is the problem. If she still does not take- there could be another problem. Some does may have hormonal or structural problems that prevent her from conceiving and/or carrying kits to term. You could also be having a feed problem- I fed a popular locally-milled feed for years and years and almost overnight I noticed a sudden decline in the fertility in my herd. Does were not taking, and when they did I often had unusually small litters. This was not normal for my herd. For it to affect the entire rabbitry, I took a good hard look at my feed. I switched feed and within a month or so I was back to my prior success rates.
If your buck doesn't seem to be doing his job correctly then consider first whether he might be heat sterile (see above). Older bucks especially are more affected by heat. If you don't believe that to be the problem, try breeding him with other does. If they take, then your problem just might be the doe. Again, verify that your buck is old enough to be sexually mature. If he is, then consider the possibility that he might be permanently sterile. Also- aggressive or frightened does have been known to castrate bucks, so do your best to confirm that your buck has two testes (they can draw them up into their bodies so this may take some creativity).
Another problem that a buck might encounter is vent disease. If breeding is uncomfortable for him, he is likely to not pursue it. Since you are conducting a pre-breeding check, you may find the vent disease at that time. If the penis is red, swollen or blistered, do not breed at that time. Treat for vent disease and then retry the breeding. Consult your vet before treating for vent disease. I would use Combi-Pen (Pen B), given subcutaneously at a dose of 1/10 cc per pound, once a week for three injections. Because vent disease can be symptomless except for infertility, you may not be able to catch all cases by examination. Another problem that a buck might encounter is vent disease. If breeding is uncomfortable for him, he is likely to not pursue it. Since you should be conducting a pre-breeding check, you would find the vent disease at that time. Check the doe’s vulva. We are looking for a pinkish red color to indicate she is receptive. A pale white color is not very promising. If the penis is red, swollen or blistered, do not breed at that time. Treat for vent disease and then retry the breeding. I would use Combi-Pen (Pen B), given subcutaneously at a dose of 1/10 cc per pound, once a week for three injections. Because vent disease can be symptomless except for infertility, you may not be able to catch all cases by examination. This is not to common of a disease but thought I might mention it, but you should ALWAYS do a pre breeding inspection.
Hormonal/Crabby/Skittish/Angry/Aggressive Doe Before or After Breeding
Sometimes hormones can make your doe a little cray-cray. If you have a normally-sweet or standoffish doe suddenly start lunging, charging, or biting, check her age. Is she close to reaching sexual maturity? If so, it's possible that she desperately wants to be bred. I will give some leniency for this behavior if a doe is near sexual maturity, is pregnant, or has a brand new litter because her hormones are quite frankly raging. She must come around and sweeten up once the kits are out of the nest box, however. I do not believe there are any excuses to keep a crazy doe. Temperament ought to be an important part of your breeding program.
Doe Not Caring for Kits or Death of the Doe
Very young mothers, especially those under 6 months of age, may not quite "get it." Nervous mothers may sometimes abandon their nest. Your doe may die for a variety of reasons. If any of these have happened to you, you can check out Hand-Rearing Kits or Fostering Kits.
Sometimes kits will get injured while the doe is kindling or while she is feeding them. If a doe's nails aren't trimmed they can accidentally scratch kits. If the nest box is not the correct size or a doe is stressed, or a doe is naturally skittish, there's a higher risk of injury to the kits, First time does may kill and eat their young for a number of reasons, including nervousness, neglect (failure to nurse), and severe cold. Dogs or predators entering a rabbitry often cause nervous does to kill and eat the young. Cannibalism of the dead young also occurs as a natural, nest-cleaning instinct. Sadly first/second time mothers sometimes get overly enthusiastic about cleaning their new babies and can severely damage or kill the delicate new kits. More on cannibalism here. Keep the mother feeling safe – in a quiet, predator free area. Minimise your interruptions to the nest for the first week. You will have to humanely dispatch any severely injured kits. Kits with simple wounds can be kept clean, with antibiotic cream applied twice a day. Many kits survive missing an ear or a foot quite happily. Lacerations can be closed with superglue. Kits heal remarkably fast when the wounds are kept clean. Kits can be ‘shelved’ to keep them away from the mother. This involves bringing the nesting box into a safe area, only returning it to the mother twice per day for feeding. If all management practices are proper and the doe kills 2 litters in a row, she should be culled.
Does Eating Kits
Rabbits are strictly herbivores (vegetarians), but sometimes they will eat their kits. DO NOT FEED YOUR RABBIT MEAT! There are some common wives' tales that say to feed a doe bacon or some other type of meat before she kindles. Your rabbit may very well eat this meat- but not because she needs the nutrients, but because she wants the nest clean of anything that can attract predators. The same can happen with malformed, injured, or dead kits. Rabbits also eat the placentas and afterbirth for the same reason- to keep the nest clean and not attract predators. First time does may kill and eat their young for a number of reasons, including nervousness, neglect (failure to nurse), and severe cold. Dogs or predators entering a rabbitry often cause nervous does to kill and eat the young. Cannibalism of the dead young also occurs as a natural, nest-cleaning instinct. Sadly first/second time mothers sometimes get overly enthusiastic about cleaning their new babies and can severely damage or kill the delicate new kits. More on cannibalism here. Keep the mother feeling safe – in a quiet, predator free area. Minimise your interruptions to the nest for the first week. You will have to humanely dispatch any severely injured kits. Kits with simple wounds can be kept clean, with antibiotic cream applied twice a day. Many kits survive missing an ear or a foot quite happily. Lacerations can be closed with superglue. Kits heal remarkably fast when the wounds are kept clean. Kits can be ‘shelved’ to keep them away from the mother. This involves bringing the nesting box into a safe area, only returning it to the mother twice per day for feeding. If all management practices are proper and the doe kills 2 litters in a row, she should be culled.
Kits Dead on Arrival
First of all, kits aren't dead until they are WARM and dead. If a doe has dead litters with several normal-sized kits and it is not her first litter, evaluate whether something is frightening or upsetting the doe. Is there a squirrel running across the metal roof, or a new dog in the neighborhood? Is her cage near a window or door where it is more noisy? Do you have any kits you could give her to surrogate? If not you can dry up her milk by feeding her sage and mint. If she has too much milk and nothing draining her, she will get mastitis. Re-breeding her will reduce her milk production fairly quickly too. My Doe had her Kits Out of the Nest This is a common problem with first time mothers. It is less common with mothers that are bred young – 16+ weeks. If the kits are cold and seem dead, don’t give up yet. Bring them inside and either put them down your top, on a warm hot water bottle or heating pad or in an open ziplock bag in a bowl of warm water. Kits aren’t dead until they are warm and dead. Give them a rub and see if you can encourage them to come around. If they have blood visible in their nails and they are still dead, they are actual dead. Sorry, but you can’t fix dead. Pop the mother back in with the buck and get her re-bred. Hopefully she will have it sorted next time. Often you lose the first 1-2 litters before they work it out. If she does it a third time, I suggest you remove her from your breeding program, maybe add her to your cooking program instead.
Kits Born "On The Wire"
f you find cold babies on the wire or scattered in the nest box (and even sometimes well nestled, but still chilled), don’t assume they are dead. By briskly, but gently rubbing the kits, you might find that one or more is alive. If you see any movement after a couple of minutes, then take the kits into the house. Throw a towel into the dryer and fill a large zipper-type freezer back half full of very warm, but not hot water. Squeeze out the air and close, making a warm water bed for the kits. Cover them with the warmed towel. Make sure the kits are well warmed, for two to four hours, before you take them back to the barn. If you are concerned about the dam’s ability to care for the kits, you may want to foster them. Many breeders believe that good production and mothering is genetic. If you are trying too hard to get babies from particular rabbits, perhaps you are just perpetuating a problem. One ARBA judge noted that he was very picky about mothering in the beginning and now has very little problem with it. I have noted in my own barns that certain lines are very easy to get babies from while others are a bit harder. One of the early causes of death is chilling. It’s not unusual for a first or even second time doe to have her kits on the wire or in the front of her nest box out in the open. There may be little you can do about that except give your doe time to learn. But you can check her nest box to make sure she hasn’t dug a hole that goes all of the way to the bottom. I’ve had kits well covered and snuggled together, only to die from exposure to cold air on the bottom wire of the nest box. Make sure that you are using a nest box the appropriate size for Hollands. Mine are just about the biggest you would want to use. With them, I make sure that there is plenty of hay stuff in so that there is only a small pocket for the kits to be placed into–just about the size of my fist. Do you have any kits you could give her to surrogate? If not you can dry up her milk by feeding her sage and mint. If she has too much milk and nothing draining her, she will get mastitis. Re-breeding her will reduce her milk production fairly quickly too. My Doe had her Kits Out of the Nest This is a common problem with first time mothers. It is less common with mothers that are bred young – 16+ weeks. If the kits are cold and seem dead, don’t give up yet. Bring them inside and either put them down your top, on a warm hot water bottle or heating pad or in an open ziplock bag in a bowl of warm water. Kits aren’t dead until they are warm and dead. Give them a rub and see if you can encourage them to come around. If they have blood visible in their nails and they are still dead, they are actual dead. Sorry, but you can’t fix dead. Pop the mother back in with the buck and get her re-bred. Hopefully she will have it sorted next time. Often you lose the first 1-2 litters before they work it out. If she does it a third time, I suggest you remove her from your breeding program, maybe add her to your cooking program instead.
For one reason or another your doe has ovulated and created a corpus luteum (normal) which produces progesterone to support a pregnancy, but didn’t actually fall pregnant. So she is getting all the hormone signals that she is pregnant, without actually growing babies. These will resolve all by themselves after 2-3 weeks, just don’t try and breed her in this time or she might attack the male, or you. If a doe has phantom pregnancies more than twice I would suggest she is not productive breeding stock and you should cull her. Very rarely these symptoms can be due to uterine cancer or a naturally terminated but not aborted pregnancy, the babies should be re-absorbed by the body, but sometimes can calcify and harden or get infected. In a purely meat breeding program, these does would be culled. For a pet rabbit the doe may undergo a hysterectomy removing the problem tissue but leaving her sterile. If you are quite sure the mother is pregnant, give her until 40 days to give birth, it is rare but it does happen. If you get to day 40 and still no babies, return her to the buck. Or if they are in a colony, don’t even worry about it, she is probably re-bred already. Pseudopregnancy (false pregnancy) is a condition in which a doe seems to be pregnant but is not. This can result from a sterile mating or from physical stimulation, such as being mounted by another rabbit, which causes a physiological response in the doe, resembling pregnancy. During pseudopregnancy, which lasts about 17 days, the doe will not breed. She may also construct a nest, even though she may not be expecting. Although the condition is normal and not harmful to the doe, it will delay breeding.
Retained or Reabsorbed Kits
There are two types of retained kits- those which are delivered late and those which are never delivered. Permanently retained kits can cause fertility issues. It is possible to retain a kit in one horn of the uterus and deliver on the other. Kits can be mummified once they are finally delivered. Late-delivered kits have a high-risk of being delivered deceased, but they do sometimes survive. Often late-delivered kits are furred rather than being naked.
Try to avoid breeding a bigger buck to a smaller doe (the reverse is just fine). The resulting kits could be too large for the doe, and could get stuck in the birth canal. This could risk the lives of both the doe and her kits, Sometimes if the doe has a very small litter, kits can be bigger which can also result in stuck kits. If you believe that you have a stuck kit, there are some steps you can take to assist her. First of all, it's a good idea to keep mineral oil or some other lubricant on hand in your emergency or first aid kit. Anything greasy can work including vegetable or olive oil (make sure whatever you use is non-toxic). Soak the doe's bottom in a basin of warm water or use a very warm compress around her vent area. After about 10-15 minutes, lubricate the vent area and watch to see if she makes any progress. You can re-oil the area if she does make some progress. If any part of the kit is protruding, grasp whatever you can. A rag can help you keep a grip. Don't worry about hurting the kit- odds are it is already dead, and you need to remove it to save the life of the doe and any other unborn kits. Wait for a contraction- you don't want to pull on the kit, you want to help add some tension so that the kit is not sucked back into the birth canal. Be cautious- you don't want to rip a foot or leg off, so do your best to grasp the kit as firmly and securely as possible. If after a couple of contractions, there is little to no progress, then you can try massaging the vent opening and apply more oil. Keep at it. Continue these steps until you have success or until your doe shows signs of being in distress. If no progress can be made you need to make a decision- do you want to keep trying, put her down, or seek veterinary care? If you are able to deliver the kit, then keep an eye on your doe and allow her to try to deliver the subsequent kits. Odds are high they may not be born alive. Give her 24 hours. It's a good idea to give her an injection of Pen G after she completes delivery to ward off any potential infection.
A Note Oxytocin
Some breeders recommend using Oxytocin to induce rabbit labor. I do not recommend that without consulting a vet, and I am not one to rush first to the vet before treating at home or culling. If you do decide to use oxytocin, do your research and understand the correct dosage. Know when you can give it and when you cannot. You don't want to kill your doe.
Doe Not Producing Milk
Another problem you may have concerns doe’s milk. Most does make sufficient milk and nurse their kits with no problem. But every now and then, a doe will have little milk, no milk or very late milk. I had a doe that didn’t seem to get milk after 36 hours, so I always fostered her kits. But once, none of the other does kindled with her and she had seven kits. I thought that I would just lose them all. On the third day, however, two of the kits looked well fed. The next day, a couple more looked chubby. By the fifth day, all of them were quite fat and doing well. From that litter on, I always let her nurse her babies and don’t stress if they don’t look good the first couple of days. If the doe doesn’t seem to have milk at all, you might try tandem nursing for a few days just to be on the safe side. You can give the nest box to one doe for the morning and to the other in the evening. Once you are sure that the nursing routine is established and milk is plentiful, you can give the litter to a single doe. If the doe you had doubts about never develops milk, then the other doe has kept her milk supply going and can nurse the litter. [Editor’s Note: Many first-time rabbit breeders are afraid that their doe is not producing enough milk to feed her newborn babies. However, it is very important to realize that a doe naturally does not produce much milk the first few days after giving birth. This is normal and healthy, as it protects her from getting mastitis in case that the litter should die. She will produce enough to keep the kits alive until day 3-5 when her milk comes in fully. Hand-raised kits most often die, so it is very important to be patient with your doe. According to the American Rabbit Breeders’ Association’s manual, baby rabbits can live for 72 hours without being fed! Many times I have been afraid that my doe was not producing milk, but she finally came through and raised fat litters.] Hand rearing babies seldom works, so if there are too many in a litter (most mums will struggle to feed more than 10. You have a couple of options 1) Mercy-kill the weakest 2) Foster on some of the bigger ones to another litter 3) Shelve the kits, and feed the smaller ones first the first few times or 4) Attempt to hand raise some. Herbal options to increase and support the mama’s milk production include Oats, Borage, comfrey, dandelion, Goats Rue, Milk Thistle, Nettles. Make sure your doe has as much food and fresh water that she wants.