(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
There's not a lot more rewarding then having a breeding be successful and discovering potential keeper stock in your litters. To know that you paired up the parents well enough to make such nice kits is incredibly satisfying. Watching them grow, knowing that you have invested so much time, energy and yes even money into improving your stock through your own effort is wonderful. So why not put the same amount of care into weaning as you did to breed the litter in the first place?
Now, there are a lot of theories into the 'right' way to wean. My opinion is, it's all relative. What works well for one breeder will not work well for another. So let's talk about different options and styles for weaning, and some of the risks and dangers as well.
Rabbits, in case you haven't been made aware yet (maybe you are new or haven't raised rabbits yet) can be incredibly, extremely delicate. Rabbits in the wild have an incredibly high mortality rate, which is why they breed so often and have such large litters. They are very much a prey animal. Today's domestic rabbits are obviously much safer than their wild counterparts, but we have bred them to continue to bear large litters. This has not bred away their thin, easily-torn skin, their delicate respiratory system, and their extremely sensitive digestive system.
Weaning is a tough process on a kit, both physically and psychologically. Physiological weaning takes place long before physical weaning does most of the time. At about 10-12 days kits' eyes open. At about 2 weeks of age, kits are confidently going in and out of the nest box. They start to really eat mom's food at around 3 weeks of age, and by 4 weeks are doing a pretty good job of running up your feed bill. Some breeders wean at this age. I do not recommend it, personally. Even though many breeders swear that kits are no longer nursing at 4 weeks of age, I do not find this to be the case. Most of my does will nurse their kits at least sporadically until I wean my kits between 9 and 10 weeks of age. Remember- just because you don't see your doe nursing her kits, doesn't mean she isn't. Does typically only nurse twice a day for minutes at a time- in the wild, does are very vulnerable while they are nursing, and so this is a defensive tactic they have developed. Rabbit milk is ridiculously high in fat so that kits get all the nutrition they need in very short bouts of nursing. The usual times for does to nurse their kits are dawn and dusk.
While kits are developing, their gastrointestinal tracts are going through all sorts of changes. They are learning first to eat mom's milk, then her cecal pellets, then her food (pellets, hay, forage, etc), and then finally learning to eat on their own without mom's help. Their guts are developing appropriate bacteria for each of these stages, and any little thing can throw that development out of whack and cause all sorts of gastrointestinal distress. A rabbits' digestive system doesn't finish developing until about 12 weeks. I would have to say that gastrointestinal (GI) issues are the number one cause of death in kits. Bloat, GI stasis, diarrhea, and/or a combination thereof can all kill a young kit within hours. Unfortunately, kits are prone to ‘weaning enteritis’ which is caused by stress and can kill young rabbits in a matter of hours. The only way to minimize the risk is to minimize the stress that the kit will go through.
Some breeders wean by removing one kit a day from the doe, some breeders remove the kits from the doe, and some breeders remove the doe from the kits. Leaving the kits in their already-familiar cage can often assist the transition process, since it’s one less thing that is changing for them. Be sure to offer your newly-weaned kits unlimited pellets, fresh water daily, and if you choose to feed hay that's a good option as well.
Kits should be weaned at least a week before they move to a new home no matter what age you wean, since weaning is stressful to baby rabbits. All young rabbits should go with a supply of the food they are used to so the new owner can transition their kit to the new food.