If the mother rabbit has died, cannot or is not feeding the babies, you can attempt to hand feeding them. Bottle-feeding infant rabbits usually culminates in the babies' death within a few days to weeks. Hand feeding is terribly unsuccessful because there is no milk replacement formula that is 100% adapted for infant rabbits. This is also true for native species, such as cottontails. The physiological reasons are complex, and you should have the following information concerning what you will be facing when trying to hand-raise infant bunnies.
Feeding Orphaned Baby Rabbits The most likely potential disease to cause infant/weanling mortality is mucoid enteritis. Although it does occur occasionally in weanlings who have been fed by their mothers, it is seen much more often in hand-fed babies and those who are removed from their mothers before eight weeks of age. It manifests as severe diarrhea, anorectic behavior (refusal to eat) and may contain blood or mucous. It also causes bloating and gas.
Mucoid enteritis is caused by a pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, usually of Clostridium spiroforme, in the hindgut (cecum) of the baby, as the normal microflora are attempting to establish. These normal microflora help the baby achieve adult digestive capabilities.
Adult rabbit stomach pH is 1-2, but a neonates' stomach pH is much higher; the stomach and gastro-intestinal tract of neonates is also sterile (containing no living microorganisms.) As babies wean off of milk onto adult solid foods, the gut pH gradually changes by getting a lot of help from the mother's changing milk constituents.
By ten days of age, the babies eyes will have opened, and they will begin eating their mother's cecotropes, (also called "night feces" or "cecal droppings"). Cecotropes help provide the babies with essential nutrients and later, inoculate the hindgut with the essential flora that is needed to metabolize a diet that is changing from milk to solid foods.
Cecotropes are clustered, soft gel-like "bunches" of fecal matter, which are covered with a light mucous film and resemble a mulberry in shape and size. They are manufactured in the adult cecum through "hindgut fermentation," and contain high concentrations of proteins, B and K vitamins, fiber, ash (nitrogen-free extract) and unidentified "energy" elements, as well as the hindgut microbes. Cecotropes are an important part of a healthy rabbit diet and are usually eaten directly from the anus as they are produced.
Remember that our domestic rabbits were developed from the wild European rabbit, whose native diet was lacking in many nutrients. Cecotropes, a self-manufactured source of proteins and other nutrients, provide rabbits with the necessary nourishment to sustain their lives.
Infant rabbits also have an antimicrobial fatty acid in the stomach that differs from digestive gastric acids. It is produced only from an enzymatic reaction with a substance found only in the mother's milk. This action controls the gastro-intestinal microbial contents in the babies' tract.
As the babies begin to wean, at four to six weeks of age, they lose the guardianship of the mother's milk/stomach enzymatic reaction and gradually develop the adult pH of 1-2. Often babies will seem to do fine until this critical stage is reached. It is at this point that both the mother's milk and her cecotropes begin introducing the necessary adult flora (to digest solid foods) into the babies' gastro-intestinal tract.
Note that a diet low in fiber and a high level of grain have been documented to cause enteric disturbances in adult rabbits as well as weanlings. Toxic microbes proliferate in the cecum due to the high-carbohydrate levels, and the lack of dietary fiber slows down the gut motility, providing a perfect environment for the toxins to grow.
In hand-raised babies, it is essential to provide adult cecotropes to the babies after their eyes are open. Usually, the babies will eat the cecotropes immediately, because it the natural thing for them to do. However, if the babies do not eat the cecotropes on their own, add two to three of the individual pellets in the cluster to the formula at one feeding per day for three to four days. As the babies begin to explore adult foods, it is impotant to monitor their fecal output. At the first sign of "mushy" stool, re-introduce cecotropes to them, in formula if necessary.
Depending on the infant's dietary status and stress factors, that may include the babies' immune system (which varies greatly from genetic factors,) the infants' sterile gut may be unable to colonize with normal adult microflora. The gut would then become overloaded with abnormal bacteria, which leads to bloat, electrolyte loss and death from mucoid enteritis. The most common pathogens found in weanling rabbits that died of enteric disturbances are E. coli and Clostridium spp., and protozoa such as Coccidia spp.
Intravenous or intra-osseous fluid therapy supplied by a veterinarian experienced in rabbit medicine may help in some cases, as the ensuing diarrhea severely affects hydration and electrolyte levels. Oral hydration would be of little help in this instance, and the use of antibacterial agents in infants is not advised. Administering antimicrobials in an attempt to control abnormal gut flora may further disturb development of normal gut microflora. Products such as Baytril (enrofloxacins) are extremely detrimental for use in baby mammals.
More On Feeding Orphaned Baby Rabbits Some practitioners and rehabilitators use "probiotics," theoretically establishing the correct pH environment in the cecum to allow the "good bacteria" to proliferate, and thereby crowding out the "bad bacteria." The addition of Lactobacillus acidophilus cultures to baby formula may be helpful by acidifying the gut, although no scientific documentation has proven the theory. (There have been several studies done, with inconclusive results.)
While acidophilus is not a normal flora in the rabbit gut, it may help produce an environment which helps normal flora establish and grow. Other studies claim that none of the living cultures in acidophilus can survive the high pH in the stomach and therefore it is a wasted effort. However, this may be a clue as to why conflicting evidence is found: as the weanlings' gut pH is undergoing drastic changes very quickly, the actual age of the baby may have a profound effect on whether or not the addition of acidophilus or other probiotics is effective. The addition of acidophilus has never been shown to be detrimental, at any rate.
Yogurt with live cultures has been used as a source of acidophilus and has been used in baby formulas. Adult rabbits do not produce lactase, the enzyme which digests lactose sugars (milk) and I advise against using yogurt as a source of acidophilus, if one chooses to supply it. Because a weanling rabbit's gut is changing so drastically, it would be realistically impossible to determine at what exact moment a weanling rabbit develops intolerance for dairy products. Freeze-dried, organic acidophilus cultures are available at better health food stores and would probably be a better, safer choice than yogurt, in my opinion.
The probiotics "Bene-bac" (providing "beneficial bacteria" for avian species) and "Probiocin" (used most often for canine and feline species) have also been used to provide beneficial bacteria in rabbits and rabbit babies. The banana flavor of Bene-bac is popular with rabbits, which makes it easy to administer. No documentation has proven either product to be detrimental, although likewise, none exists supporting its use (except manufacturer's claims.)
Fox Valley Animal Nutrition, Inc. also has a product called "Formula L A 200," which is a viable lactobacillus acidophilus that acts in the same way as Bene-bac. The telephone number for Fox Valley is 1-800-679-4666
Unfortunately, because so little actual documentation exists regarding the use of probiotics, there does not exist a formulary regarding appropriate dosages, either. Too much could be as detrimental as the problem itself.
Probiotics also usually come in proportions of millions or even billions per milligram, which makes breaking down an appropriate dosage for a baby bunny difficult. "Bene-bac" in housed in a syringe calculated for the smaller weights of domestic-exotic parrots and other caged birds. This would be reason alone to argue that the use of avian "Bene-bac" is a more reliable dosage indicator for a weanling that weighs less than about half a kilogram.
There is another more recent product for veterinarians and rehabilitators on the market from Pet-Ag, Inc., Zoological Nutritional Components, called Milk Matrix. Manufactured for various wildlife species, there is a specific formula for native Eastern Cottontails (Sylvilagus Floridanus.) This may be the best substitute for a domestic rabbit's milk available. I have not yet used it, but other rehabilitators have claimed success with it. The telephone number to order is 1-800-323-6878. If you have technical questions about the product, the number is 1-800-323-0877.
No substitute milk formula supplies immunity from disease (although the normal maternal antibodies are scarce) nor are most rich enough to supply the energy needs of the rapidly developing babies and without overfeeding them (leading to bloat.) For these reasons and the others stated, the prognosis is not good for the babies.
Infants lose the suckling instinct quickly, so if hand feeding is to be attempted, it must be started within 48 hours. Kitten nursers are much too large for the mouth of a baby rabbit. Toy doll bottles are sometimes small enough. If the baby has lost the suckling instinct, a tuberculin syringe (with needle removed, of course) can be used to carefully administer formula. Allow the babies to swallow naturally, or it may aspirate (breathe fluids into its lungs.) Be sure that the formula is warm, the babies are warm and that the bottle or syringe is sterile. Serious pathogens may be present in both the nursers and the formula, if not prepared correctly.
As Baby Rabbits Come Of Age If the babies survive BIG IF, they may suffer from chronic gastro-intestinal problems throughout their lives, including stasis episodes and bloating. Both problems are treatable for quite a long time, but expensive and emotionally draining to do.
If the mother rabbit has died, call reputable commercial breeders to find a foster mother. Rabbits will foster another's baby if they are the same of the same size and age. The breeder may charge for this service, if they are willing to do it. The breeder may also ask to keep one or more of the babies as "stock." Hand Raising Baby RabbitsSometimes you are left with no option but to try and hand raise a kit (or a litter of kits). The success rate is very small as they tend to get Enterotoxemia (bloat) and die. If you want to try your hand at hand raising baby rabbits you can try. Kits must be kept warm, dry, and quiet. You can use a Kitten milk replacer or make a formula of ½ cup evaporated milk, ½ cup water, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon corn syrup. Feedings vary from ½ teaspoon to 2 tablespoons 2-3 times per day, depending on the age of the kits. Kits start eating greens around day 15 to 18.
Hand Rearing? Read this before you start …The hand rearing of baby rabbits is rarely successful if you have not done it before. Experience is essential as the technique is quite different from that needed for other species, and most babies rabbits die as a result of accidentally feeding too fast and the milk being inhaled into the lungs. Sadly, babies affected in this way die from pneumonia within two to three days of accidentally inhaling milk during a feed. Therefore, before you even consider hand rearing infant rabbits, you must first be sure that this drastic action is justified and essential. If, for example, the babies are orphans, an alternative to hand rearing would be placing the young with another litter if they are only a few days apart in age.
A common mistake by inexperienced rabbit keepers is to assume that if they don’t see the mother paying regular attention to her litter, she must be rejecting them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mum only feeds her litter for 4-5 minutes once a day, usually during the night, and during the rest of the time she will show no interest in them whatsoever. This is probably a carry-over from wild rabbit instincts where it is essential that the mother does not lead predators to the nest site and therefore a brief visit once a day increases the chances of survival of the litter. If a baby accidentally gets carried out of the nest by hanging on to a teat, the mother will make no effort to put it back in the nest. She appears not to recognise the youngster as one of her litter, and sadly the baby is at high risk of being mutilated or dying from cold unless spotted by the owner and placed back in the nest. There is more about replacing a baby back in the nest later on. If you are absolutely certain that mum is ignoring the babies (the skin of such babies appears to be too big for their bodies, and they have a wrinkled appearance), but she appears to have milk, you could try holding the mother steady and placing one or two babies at a time underneath her so that they can feed. Let them have a good feed once or twice a day. Occasionally the stress of this procedure can cause mum’s milk to dry up, but it is definitely worth a try as at least they will have several days of proper milk before the supply dries up. If mum appears to have no milk after 2 – 3 days, an injection given by the vet may resolve the situation. If mum bunny is successfully managing to feed her babies, but one or two appear to be very small and wrinkly, it is worth taking them out briefly to let them have a separate feed from mum during the day. If this is the only reason they are undernourished, a separate feed once a day for a few days should resolve the issue. If, however, the baby will not respond even to the offer of mum’s teat to feed from, there is likely something very wrong and the chances are the baby will die. Make sure that the baby is warm before trying to let it feed, as if it is cold it will not respond anyway. If you find that letting the babies feed from mum is going well, do not then give additional feeds from syringe/bottle, as this will only confuse the issue as the feeding technique used by the babies is totally different when feeding from mum compared to being hand reared and also you will upset their appetites as they are usually only fed by mum once a day. The following is an email that an owner sent me: My blind rabbit recently had a litter (much to my surprise as I thought we had 2 male rabbits!). She didnt take to the babies very well, which my vet believed was due to her being blind. My vet didnt hold out much hope of the babies surviving, however I refused to just allow them to die, without trying to help. After scouring the internet, I found the advice on your website, the most useful. I tried to avoid hand rearing them after reading your advice, so instead I would turn the mother rabbit on her back once/twice a day to allow the babies to feed. The mother was quite content, allowing me to do this successfully. I kept trying to intoduce the babies to her, because ultimately I wanted her to rear them herself. They have been in my spare bedroom since birth, along with their mother, although separated. This evening, I checked on the litter only to find that they had all crawled into their mothers cage (a small dog cage of all things!!) and they were all feeding from her, obviously without any help from me! I felt so proud and just wanted to write a quick note, to thank you for the advice given on your website. I found it very useful and I believe it saved the lives of 5 baby lionheads! Regards, Kerry If you find one or two babies out of the nest, the chances are high they have been carried out accidentally after a feed on one of mums teats, but mum will ignore them (or worse) so it is down to you to get them safely back where they belong. Make sure they are warm before you attempt to return them to the nest, and then, with mum somewhere else, smear a small amount of mums urine- soaked bedding onto the babies concerned and place them back with their littermates. Make sure mum is kept out of the area for a couple of hours afterwards, and she will be none the wiser. Mum can be out in her run all day as she will only feed them for a few minutes during the night anyway. Once you are sure that the babies must be hand reared, make sure you have all the equipment needed for the task, and are willing to spare the considerable amount of your time needed to be successful. Sometimes it is best to assume you will have losses, and any that survive are a bonus. If you are unsure that you want to take on this daunting task, contact your local rescue centre or veterinary surgeon to arrange for them to be taken in. Thankfully, in the wild, nature has decreed that by 31 days old the babies must be independent due to mum usually having another litter, so at least you know that the intensive care only lasts for just over a month, although hand reared babies have special dietary needs until 3-4 months of age (see post-weaning care, below). Baby rabbits reared normally by mum usually stay with her for about 6 weeks, however, but orphans are able to sustain themselves from about 4 and a half weeks onwards. The eyes of baby rabbits open between 10-12 days of age, although they can hear by about the fifth day. Babies in photo below are 2 hours old.
The hand rearing of baby wild rabbits is basically the same to start with, but you must bear in mind that ultimately they will need to be be rehabilitated and released as the large majority will not be at all happy in captivity and will constantly try to escape. With this in mind you must not try to make pets of them, and your only contact should be to clean and feed them. There are more details on this later on. The only exception to this is individuals that are permanently damaged in some way so as to make survival in the wild not feasible, or they become too tame, but the carer should try their best to ensure this does not happen as it is in the bet interests of wild babies for them to safely return to their proper environemnt in the wild. Milk FormulaThere are various dried milk formulas available, the best one for rabbits being milk for kittens. New versions are regularly appearing on the market so I will not list individual brands here apart from Cimicat as this is the brand I have had most experience with. However, other brands are just as good. Follow the instructions on the container for the correct dilution. Another good alternative is full cream goats milk, available fresh from most supermarkets. This is especially useful in an emergency when you are not able to get hold of the dried kitten milk substitute. Cimicat milk substitute (powder) – other brands are available and are just as good – made by Petlife International Limited, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, available from most Veterinary Surgeries (they may have to order some in specially). There are now other similar products available, one of the newest being Lactol Gold Kitten Milk. If you do try one an alternative to Cimicat, let me know how you get on so that I can share the results with other readers. AviproPlus (probiotic) or similar product, available from your vet. Mum’s milk contains friendly bacteria that is needed to colonise the baby’s gut to prevent it being overrun with hostile bacteria that cause diarrhoea and other fatal digestive upsets. A milk substitute does not contain this bacteria so a probiotic suitable for rabbits is important and should be added with every feed, and needs to be continued until the rabbit is about 5 months old. Only add the probiotic powder to the milk just before you are about to feed the babies, as it will start to ferment if left in warm milk for more than an hour or so. Droppings from another rabbit – although some people suggest that you collect droppings from a healthy rabbit and include these in with the feed, I personally do not agree as it is a totally pointless exercise. The basis behind the suggestion is that the caecotrophs (the droppings that the rabbit eats directly from the anus) do contain quite high levels of friendly bacteria and other nutrients, but as the rabbit eats them directly without them touching the floor, you will not, with a healthy rabbit, usually find any of these to collect! Normal droppings (the ones you usually see in the hutch) have been through the rabbit twice and contain relatively little bacteria and nutrients so are completely useless. You are far better to add a proper probiotic specially made for the job, as suggested above. Equipment RequiredBox (high sided or with lid, allow for passage of air and daylight) lined with a towel/shavings with hay on top, placed in a warm area (important for newborns). This will need to be swapped for a larger more suitable cage as the babies grow and become more active, such as a plastic indoor cage sold in most pet shops. If the mother managed to pull fur to line the nest, then it is a good idea to use this to help keep newborn babies warm. Change the bedding daily or as required. You will also need another smaller box for use during the feeding routine (see below). Not essential but useful is a mug/cup warmer which keeps the milk warm throughout the feeding routine (which can take quite a while depending on how many babies there are). Be careful not to let the milk get too hot, however, as the smaller the volume of milk the quicker it will heat up, so you may need to put the cup on and off the warmer to keep the temperature just right. Methods of foster-feedingBy syringe – 1ml syringes (available from your vet or chemist shop); 2ml syringe for rabbits over 3 weeks old and feeding well (available from your vet). This size is much more difficult to use as it is harder to control the volume of milk consumed at one time. I personally prefer to use 1 ml syringes throughout, even although the process takes longer as you have to refill more often. It can be useful to use a teat from Catac Products (see below) attached to the end of the syringe, but remember to put a hole in the teat with a hot needle so the milk can come out.
By “bottle” – foster feeding set (Catac Products tel. no. Tel. 08453 70 70 40, e-mail. firstname.lastname@example.org, and extra teats (small, ST1). For the experienced handler only, nasal gastric tubing (Kruuse UK 3.5fr x 16” tel. no. 01977 681523) can be a life saving extra – attach the tubing to a 5ml syringe and cut the tubing to allow a length of about 10cm. Discard the rest of the tubing. Shallow dish – If the babies are already over two weeks old, it is easier and safer to offer them the milk in a very shallow dish, such as a jam jar top. Place the dish on something to raise it about an inch off the floor and encourage the babies to drink by dipping your finger in the milk and smearing some beneath their noses. They should get the hang of lapping the milk quite quickly, and let them take as much as they want at feeding time. More on quantities and timings later in this article. Preparation Of Milk SubstituteDofollow the instruction on the container for the correct dilution, as different formulas vary. If you find the babies develop diarrhoea, it is best to stop feeding them milk for 24 hours and offer water only, reintroducing milk again the enxt day but watered down to half the concentration for the next 24-48 hours until the droppings are getting back to normal again.
1 part Cimicat : appropriate parts cooled boiled water (follow instructions on tub).
¼ – ½ teaspoon Avipro Plus, or addition of other suitable probiotic at correct dosage according to instructions on the packet.
Enough milk should be prepared at a time to allow for one day’s feeds, making it fresh daily and keeping it in the fridge between feeds. Syringes, teats and other feeding equipment can be left soaking in a fresh solution of Miltons Fluid between feeds, rinsing thoroughly before use. Establishing a Feeding RegimeIt is vital that newborn babies are kept reasonably warm until their fur has grown sufficiently (around 7 days old). This is especially important for single orphans, although care must be taken not to let them overheat – the babies must always have the option of crawling away from the heat source if they need to. However, they must not be able to crawl completely away from the nest area as they may become too cold and will die as they will be unable to find their way back. The younger the baby is the more difficult it is to hand-rear successfully. There are two main factors responsible for this. Firstly, it is very difficult to control the amount of milk going into the rabbit’s mouth at a time, and if care is not taken it will breath milk into its lungs (usually confirmed by milk coming out of the nose) resulting in aspiration pneumonia which is usually fatal. This should not be confused with the accidental intake of milk up the nose as apposed to into the lungs and back down the nose – the former not usually causing major damage. Secondly, baby rabbits need their mother’s milk not only as a source of nourishment but also to supply them with the appropriate gut bacteria for them to be able to digest their food (milk) properly. Without this they fail to thrive, develop diarrhoea and die. This is the reason why probiotics are added to the milk substitute with every feed. However, if the babies have been fed by mum for at least a week or so, their guts will already contain the bacteria they need, although they will still need the probiotic to keep them colonised corectly from that point on. It is common for hand-reared babies to have poor tolerance of change of diet or the addition of fresh food such as vegetables. It must be remembered that although the mother rabbit only feeds her babies briefly once a day, the milk being fed during hand-rearing is only a substitute and is not as rich as the “real thing” and therefore you need to feed the orphans 3 or 4 times a day, spacing the feeding times as evenly as possible. It is not necessary to feed during the night unless they are not feeding well, in which case you need to feed them every few hours until they are taking a few mls at a time. The quantity of milk taken varies from infant to infant and from one feed to another. The guide below is compiled from a study I carried out when hand-rearing 2 litters of 6 orphaned babies each, to give an indication how much you can expect a baby to take on a daily basis. Whilst weighing individual babies is useful to indicate whether their weight is increasing steadily, the actual weight should not be compared with other charts as individuals vary enormously in weight depending on breed, size of litter, and general health making such comparisons meaningless. You are aiming for a slow (although sometimes inconsistent) weight increase. The following amounts are for guidance only, and actual amounts may vary depending on breed, general health, and from what point you started handrearing. They are NOT minimum or maximum amounts, just a guide.
A 1 day old baby rabbit would consume on average 2 mls of milk daily.
By 5 days the volume increases to about 12 ml. At 10 days it increases again to about 15 mls.
By 15 days increasing to about 22 mls.
By 20 days increasing to about 27 mls.
By 25 days to about 30 mls.
By 30 days of age you will expect to see a decline to about 20 mls.
By 35 days a rapid decline to less than 5 mls or weaned altogether.
Baby rabbits can take 2-3 days before they settle into a feeding pattern, and if there are several to be hand-reared it is beneficial to feed all babies once, placing each one in the smaller box after feeding as you go along to ensure that you don’t miss anyone, and then “go round again” to make sure they have all had enough to last until the next feed. It is common for a baby who has only taken a small amount at the first “sitting” to be very greedy at the next. Again, replace the babies one at a time into their “home” cage when they have had their second feed. They should have the appearance of looking content and “full”, the milk in the stomach being visible through the skin in very young babies. The appearance of nice round, full bellies should not, however, be confused with “bloat”, an extremely serious condition which is caused by the gut becoming static and with the resulting build up of gases. A rabbit with bloat will not feed normally, and in the latter stages will not eat or drink at all. Immediate assistance from an experienced vet is essential, but sadly this condition is often fatal. It is important to wipe the babies mouths and chins directly after feeding to prevent any milk from sticking to their skin and causing sores. The damp, warm conditions are ideal for fungal infections to occur around the mouth and chin area, causing the fur to fall out and the skin to go red and sore. Wiping with a non-scented baby wipe will keep the area clean and dry after each feed. Babies in photo below are 3 days old, but thickness of fur can vary depending on the breed of the rabbit.
The milk should be warm but not hot (test it by putting a few drops on the back of your hand). Hold the infant with one hand whilst gently inserting the teat or syringe into the mouth with the other. They often wriggle around and jump whilst feeding so take care not to drop them! If the babies are under 6 days old you usually will need to stimulate urination. This is a straightforward task. After each baby has been fed, wet a finger or cotton bud in warm water and gently tap or stroke the genital area. Have a tissue ready! Some babies, however, manage to urinate on their own from the start, so if after several attempts at each feed you get no results, it is likely because they are managing independently. Also, be aware that sometimes the droppings can accumulate around tail area and can cause a blockage, with very serious consequences if not attended to straight away. Gently wipe away the accumulation with some moistened cotton wool to allow the baby to pass droppings normally again. You may find that a lot of droppings are passed immediately after the problem has been cleared! Make sure that you keep the mouth and chin area clean and dry after each feed. This is very important otherwise the fur will start to fall out around the mouth due to a fungal infection setting in. The babies in the photos below are 11 days old:
The babies in the photo immediately below are 12 days old, and in the lower photo the baby is 16 days old (photos supplied by Robbie and Adele Taylor):
By about 3 weeks of age the babies will start to nibble on hay, followed shortly afterwards by eating small amounts of rabbit food – this does not apply to wild rabbits – for wild rabbit advice see below. Use a good brand of food such as Burgess Excel Junior. At this point you will need to introduce a water bottle at a suitable height so they can reach it, enabling them to drink ad lib. The quantities eaten will gradually increase until about 4½ weeks where you should find that they will no longer want milk feeds at all. If you find you have one or two babies who are still enjoying the milk routine, gradually wean them off by cutting out one feed a day every few days until they are receiving no milk at all. It is common for hand-reared babies to have poor tolerance of change of diet or the sudden addition of fresh food such as vegetables. It is very disheartening to successfully hand-rear young rabbits to then lose them at 10 or more weeks old due to changing the diet suddenly. Vegetables such as celery, spring greens and broccoli can be given but this must be done extremely slowly, and by this I mean a thumb-nail sized piece of celery per litter to start with, and gradually over a period of weeks increase the levels and variety. I never give carrot or apple to young baby rabbits, especially hand-reared ones. There are some cases where you are best to hold off introducing fresh food until the babies are at least 4 months old, and even then it must be introduced very gradually. The only exception to this rule is if hand-rearing wild rabbits, as in these circumstances it is vital that they are offered a wide variety of grasses and other plants that they would normally find in the wild from about 3 weeks onwards. Stick rigidly to one type of good quality dried food, and if there has to be a change at any stage, mix the two foods together for at least a couple of weeks, gradually increasing the new variety until the change over has been made. Very little (if any) dried food should be offered to baby wild rabbits as it will aid in their rehabilitation for release in the wild if they are given as natural a diet as possible. The following film may be helpful:
Wild rabbits – For obvious reasons, wild rabbits should not be fed dried pellet food as they will not find any of this when released back into the wild. Instead, once they start to nibble on hay at around 3 weeks old, they should be offered fresh grass and other common plants that a wild rabbit would be able to find in their natural habitat. As they will not find a water bottle in the wild either you are best to offer fresh water in a small shallow bowl, placed somewhere that they won’t go paddling. The rest of the handrearing advice can be followed as above and below, bearing in mind they will ultimately have to be released. Tube Feeding (for experienced handlers only) Tube feeding (passing a tube from the mouth down into the stomach) should not be attempted unless suitably skilled to carry out the procedure as severe injury could result. It is, however, a very useful technique for very weak infants who have no energy or lack the will to feed. Nasal gastric tubing (see above for specifications) suitably lubricated and attached to a 5ml syringe provides an efficient method of feeding such individuals in the short term, aiming for a volume of about 4mls for newborns and increasing the volume for older babies appropriately. The babies in the photo below are 15 days old:
The two photos below are of rabbit 4 weeks old (photos supplied by Robbie and Adele Taylor)
Post-weaning careAs mentioned earlier, hand-reared baby rabbits are more prone to digestive upsets than mother-reared babies, and it is vitally important to stick rigidly to the type of feed used, and not to introduce fresh food suddenly, or hold off completely until at least 4 months of age. Post-weaning enteritis (mucoid enteropathy) usually kills within hours, and appears to be brought on by a change of pH (change of acidity/alkalinity) in the gut resulting in the overgrowth of “hostile” bacteria such as Clostridia and E. coli which replaces the natural “friendly” bacteria. Absorption and digestion is therefore adversely affected, resulting in bloat and/or diarrhoea, dehydration and death. Stress can also play an important part in triggering post-weaning enteritis, so care must be taken to keep this to a minimum, especially is the rabbit is re-homed before 4 months old. See the article on mucoid enteritis elsewhere on the web site. When weaning wild rabbits it is important to remember what their normal diet would be if they were still living in the wild, so instead of introducing dried food, you want instead to be introducing grass and other vegetation as mentioned above. Hay of course must always be available. Water should be offered in a shallow bowl, not a bottle. Your aim with wild babies (once they are weaned and ready) is to house them outside in a safe run with a hutch attached, your only contact with them being to provide food, water (in a shallow bowl) and bedding and to clean out their hutch. Within a couple of weeks, every time you set foot in the garden to attend to them they should be immediately running into their hutch to hide. This is good news and means that you can start planning where they can be safely released. Make sure that when you put them outside initially there is not too much of a temperature difference between where they were living inside and the outside temperature. If it is in the early part of the year you will need to harden them off gradually before leaving them outside permanently. Please do not be selfish about wild rabbits and be tempted to try and make pets of them. They are wild creatures with very strong instincts and it is extremely rare for a truly wild rabbit to be happy in captivity. If you can’t bear to rehabilitate and release it, give it to a wildlife centre who will do the process for you.
GUIDE TO HANDREARING BABY RABBITS
Do they need hand rearing? Rabbits are born hairless, blind and deaf and remain in their nest for about three weeks before emerging fully furred and able to eat solid food. Mother rabbits (does) are very good at hiding their offspring for the first three weeks to protect them- often hiding them under the ground in a shallow scrape. The baby rabbits are only fed once a day by their mother. This is very unlike dogs and cats which nurse their young for long periods of the day. Rabbits – who need to avoid predators and need to constantly eat due to their fast metabolism do not have this luxury. Instead, they ignore their young for almost 23.5 hours a day and feed them once only. Due to this unusual nursing pattern, it is not unusual for people to mistakenly believe the young have been neglected and need to be saved. Rabbits are very unlike other species in regard to hand rearing. Most puppies and kittens who are hand reared survive – many baby rabbits do not. It is critical not to interfere and hand rear baby rabbits unless it is absolutely necessary as your interference is more likely to doom the rabbits than save them if they do not need hand rearing. Many baby rabbits succumb to pneumonia after breathing in milk accidentally during feeding, many die of bacterial infections or at the time of weaning. When they are born their stomach pH means they are susceptible to infections of the gut. These infections are suppressed by an interaction between the baby rabbit and their mother’s milk which produces an antibiotic type substance called ‘milk oil’. If baby rabbits are hand reared, this substance is not created and they are prone to getting infections. If the mother rabbit has passed away, then trying to find a surrogate mother is always preferable but this does not always work. You will need to rub the surrogate mother’s scent on the orphans to try and get her to take them but monitor closely as sometimes they will injure or kill the babies. In such cases you have no choice but to try and hand rear but try and seek assistance from someone who is experienced as it will greatly increase the likelihood of the young surviving. If the mother is still alive but with no milk take her and the litter to a vet for a check-up. If the mother is alive and has milk check for mastitis (or seek veterinary advice) if no mastitis is evident you may be able to try and hold the babies under her to encourage them to drink. If this is not successful, then hand rearing should be the last option. If you find kits out of the nest they probably got pulled out of the nest accidentally when mum left. Make sure you do not smell like a predator, wash your hands well then pat the mother before picking these babies up – warm them up and then place them back in the nest.
Environment Try and emulate as natural an environment as you can. It should be warm (28 degrees), quiet and dark with very little disturbance apart from feeding time. Inside a warm beanie or a snug pouch is ideal. If the mother created a nest (often lined with their own fur) then you can continue to use the same nest. A heat mat, heat disc or hot water bottle can be used to maintain a constant temperature but it is important that they are not too close to this or they will burn. It is better to have them in a warm room than on a heat source they cannot move away from. If discs or hot water bottles are used, they will need to be re-heated during the night. Some heat pads are only warm if they have a heavy weight on them and may not be appropriate for tiny, light baby rabbits.
Milk The best hand rearing formula is Wombaroo Rabbit Milk Replacer or Beaphar rabbit milk replacer. Full cream goat’s milk can be used in an emergency. Standard kitten milk replacers can be used - made up according to packet instructions but rabbit milk is much higher in metabolisable energy and fats and much lower in protein. To overcome this deficiency 1- 4 part full cream can be added for every 10 parts kitten milk replacer to increase the fat content (e.g. 1 - 4ml of cream for every 10 ml of milk made up). The milk should be made up fresh for each feed and fed at 35°C. Small feeding bottles and teats, pipettes and 1ml syringes can all be used depending on preference. The most important thing is to stick with either a bottle or a syringe. Sucking reflexes are lost within 2 days so trying to use a bottle after using a syringe may not be successful (although you can try). Probiotics meant for rabbits can be added to the syringe feeding formula although this can be problematic (see later). One of the biggest risks with feeding is ‘aspiration pneumonia’ or breathing milk into the lungs. This is fatal and can be avoided by being very gentle and never having the baby rabbit on their back to feed. Rabbits of 2 weeks or older can be encouraged to lap milk from a small shallow container such as a lid. This will take a few attempts before they catch on so frequent small meals of warm milk should be offered throughout the first day until they get the hang of it then feeding 4 times daily should be fine
Cleaning and Toileting It is also essential to maintain strict hygiene. Make sure containers and feeding equipment are sterilised between each feed (products suitable for human bottles are fine but rinse everything well). Rabbit offspring unlike puppies and kittens do not need to be encouraged to urinate or defecate – they can do this by themselves. It is wise to monitor for urine and faeces to make sure they are passing wastes normally.
Feeding technique •Make up your milk replacer and keep it warm in a hot water bath. Keep a thermometer with the milk to test the temperature •Weight each baby before their first feed of the day •Keep the baby warm while feeding – cold babies do not eat. •Be very gentle and don’t put the rabbit on its back to feed – this is unnatural and increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia •For the first feed, gently place a small amount of milk on the lips to encourage a licking response. Never force milk into the mouth. •If you are using a bottle and teat – remember to puncture a small air hole in the tip (they have no hole when first purchased) Don’t make the hole too big or you will drown the baby - too small and they will not get enough milk. •A second hole can be punctured at the side of the teat (a little higher up) to allow air to enter the bottle during suckling. The holes are best made using a large sewing needle heated over a flame but rinse the teat well afterwards so it doesn’t taste of burnt rubber. •It may take a few attempts before the baby gets the hang of it so be patient! •After feeding record the amount fed •Gently remove any milk from around the face using a soft clean cloth and place back into the warm nest.
Frequency of feeding Although rabbits naturally only feed once a day you will struggle to get them to take in enough at one meal. Some litters need feeding every hour just to survive initially. You should not have to feed overnight and once a feeding pattern is established most feeds can be reduced to 1 – 3 times daily depending on weight gain. The weights of the rabbits need to be used as a guide and meticulous records of weights and amounts of feed consumed at each feed are essential. Try and maintain a steady pattern of feeding times at regular intervals. For the Wombaroo product the following recommendations are given and can be used as a guide:
Caecotrophs and weaning Weaning of baby rabbits usually takes place between 4 – 6 weeks under natural circumstances. Solid food including pellets suitable for young rabbits (NOT MUESLI) as well as good quality hay can be offered from 2 - 3 weeks. Water should be provided in a dripper bottle at the correct height or a shallow bowl. Rabbits should be fully weaned by 4 – 5 weeks. This can be done gradually by reducing the feeds offered while keeping a close eye on their weights and the amount of solids they are eating. As mentioned before, under normal circumstances the pH of a baby rabbit’s stomach is about 6 but an adult rabbits stomach is really acidic (pH 1 – 2). Sometime around weaning a complex series of events occurs where the stomach pH becomes acidic making it more hostile to bacteria. These changes must occur but not before the baby rabbits consume some of their mothers caecotrophs (a special type of poo). Caecotrophs are then thought to provide the essential bacteria used to colonise a baby rabbit’s caecum which is the part of the gut behind the stomach. This bacterial colony allows rabbits to digest grasses and solid foods. The timing for all this is tricky and there is no way to know exactly when this should happen when we are hand rearing.
If we provide caecotrophs too soon and we could cause a bacterial infection by introducing bacteria into the gut too early. Too late and the pH of the baby’s stomach may have become too acidic for the bacteria to survive its passage to the caecum. This is part of the reason why so many baby rabbits struggle at the time of weaning. Some people mix in a caecotroph from a healthy rabbit to the milk at the time of weaning (caecotrophs can be obtained if you place a soft buster collar on a healthy adult rabbit). It is important to know the difference between normal rabbit faeces and caecotrophs. Normal rabbit faeces is not suitable. If this is not possible to do – or as an additional precaution a rabbit probiotic can be added to the milk at each feed although these products usually only contain a sample of 4 – 6 types of bacteria from the hundreds that would normally be in a healthy rabbit’s gut. There is no consensus on which technique is better and both have their advantages and disadvantages.
It is not unusual for baby rabbits to lose weight around the time of weaning. This should be monitored carefully.
Greens – when and how No matter how good a job you do with hand rearing the digestive function of a hand reared rabbit is going to be abnormal - although it will improve with time. It is impossible for them to immediately establish a normal bacterial population in their gut as a parent reared baby rabbit would do – this will take them a lot longer (months). This means some restrictions need to be placed on what grass and green vegetables should be offered to hand reared babies to avoid gastrointestinal upsets – and in extreme cases diarrhoea and death. I have had hand reared rabbits take a full 10 months before their digestive function was normal (producing abnormal pasty caecotrophs for several months before normal caecotrophs were produced) which I believe was due to the need to develop a population of normal bacteria in the gut over this period of time – although this is hard to prove.
Under no circumstances should you feed muesli, fruits or carrots – these foods are high in sugars and will promote the growth of bacteria which are detrimental to your rabbit. The glucose in these foods can be converted to toxins by some bacteria which can kill your rabbit – especially a hand reared rabbit which is likely to have a poor population of bacteria already. First offer pellets (these are not essential in adult rabbits but are in babies to help with growth) and good quality hay – alfalfa, meadow or timothy hay (alfalfa hay is not advised in adult rabbits due to a high calcium content but is fine for babies up until 5 months of age). From 2 weeks greens can be offered. Choose one type fresh grass or weeds would emulate a more normal diet and feed small amounts twice daily every day while monitoring for diarrhoea. If commercial greens are fed then avoid lettuce and choose something like chard, spinach, broccoli or kale small amounts only. If they tolerate that for a week then add in another new green in small quantities for the second week and gradually add in new items feeding the same thing several days in a row to avoid sudden diet changes etc. A little bit of pasty poo is not unusual – just make sure they remain lively and eating but if liquid diarrhoea appears this can lead to rapid dehydration which can be fatal so seek veterinary advice if this occurs.
Developmental stageAge Ears open5 days Eyes open10 – 12 days Fully furred7 – 10 days Eating solidsFrom 3 weeks Fully weaned6 weeks Sexual maturity4 months(Female) 5 months (Male)
Trouble shooting Rattling when breathing or milk from the nostrils If you see milk from the nostrils during feeding or if breathing becomes laboured or noises occur when breathing these are all possible signs of aspiration pneumonia – a rapidly fatal condition. This occurs when a small amount of milk goes down the wrong way and enters the airway instead of the stomach. The rabbit should be taken to the vet for supportive care including antibiotics.
Won’t feed If you have a rabbit who will not accept the milk, then patience is key. Initially some members of the littler may need a little bit of encouragement by increasing the frequency of feeding and just aiming to get smaller amounts in. You may want to try the following: •Check to make sure the milk is not too hot/cold •Try a different shaped teat •Make sure the baby is not too cold •Make sure they are checked and deemed healthy by a vet •Feed that orphan first and if they do not eat much offer them a second feed after feeding the others – sometimes they will eat better if given a second chance.
Not passing poo As mentioned rabbit babies do not need to be stimulated to pass urine or faeces but you can gently wipe the rectal area with a warm moist cotton ball to stimulate this if you are worried. A change in diet may cause problems so 24 hours of not passing faeces is worth keeping a close eye on. Most kits will urinate and defecate at the edges of the nest as an instinct to keep the area clean and dry so check on the outskirts for wastes. If they are not passing poo for longer than 24 hours, then have them checked. Ongoing weight loss An orphan who has ongoing weight loss with or without a good appetite is of concern. If they have a good appetite, then increase the frequency of feeds until they gain weight. If they have a poor appetite or continue to lose weight, then get them checked by a vet. Diarrhoea This is a common problem and can rapidly lead to fatal dehydration. Offer warm water instead of milk every second feed to maintain hydration if they are not accepting milk or water they need to be seen by a vet. Bloat This is a rapidly developing, painful condition characterised by sudden, extreme abdominal distention. It causes difficulty breathing and rapidly progresses to death. Immediate veterinary care is advised although sadly many rabbits die before they can be helped. This occurs if the gut bacteria produce excessive quantities of gas and foods high in sugars such as fruit and carrots or carbohydrates such as muesli mix are often implicated and should be avoided although the underlying cause is likely to be more complex than that.
As difficult as it is to accept; don’t expect all the litter to survive. Rabbits are a complex species to hand rear and it is unlikely all of them will make it despite your best efforts. Try and stay objective and identify which rabbits are struggling/weak/not eating/showing signs of ill health. Seek veterinary care early and don’t let the rabbit suffer if putting it to sleep is the kindest thing to do. Remember they would have had no chance at all if it wasn’t for your hard work.