HAND REARING of Rabbits

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.

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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.

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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 it is up to the carer to make sure that this does not happen!

Detailed below is the equipment required to hand-rear baby rabbits.  If you have any queries or need advice at any point, then contact me on (01373) 864222 and I will do my best to help.   Good luck!

Milk Formula

There 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.
Avipro Plus (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 in 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 and utterly useless.  You are far better to add a proper probiotic specially made for the job, as suggested above.

Equipment Required

Box (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-feeding

By 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.

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By “bottle” – foster feeding set (Catac Products tel. no. Tel. 08453 70 70 40, e-mail. [email protected], 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 Substitute

Do follow 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 Regime

It 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.

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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:

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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):

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By about 3 weeks of age the babies will start to nibble on hay, followed shortly afterwards by eating small amounts of rabbit food.  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:

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:

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The two photos below are of rabbit 4 weeks old (photos supplied by Robbie and Adele Taylor)

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Post-weaning care

As 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.