INFANTICIDE – mutilation of new-borns

If you ask people what is the most prominent feature of a rabbit, most will answer “their ears!”.  And quite right they are too. A rabbit just wouldn’t be the same without its cute little lobes, whether upright or lopped. But would it?

I have come across many bunnies over the years with either one ear missing or no ears at all, and in almost all cases this has been caused by the mother at birth. In fact, some rabbits not only have ears missing but are also minus a tail and/or limbs!

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This non-deliberate infanticide is usually due to mum getting carried away with her enthusiasm whilst cleaning her newborns, accidentally eating ears and other appendages whilst ingesting the umbilical cord and placenta (over-loved as one visitor remarked). Thankfully, only in a very small minority of such cases does this result in the death of the baby due to vital parts of the body being eaten as well.

Most of these accidentally mutilated baby rabbits grow up to lead normal lives, even although they may look quite bizarre to us. It is a possibility, however, that if this happened to a litter of wild rabbits, they perhaps would be at a disadvantage as they need all their senses, including acute hearing, to survive, and having no ear lobes at all could well affect the ability to detect a predator in time.

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I have found that some female rabbits have a tendency towards infanticide, mutilating one or more baby out of every litter they have. Others, however, do not repeat the behaviour, the cause possibly having being linked to inexperience or environmental stress.

Our most recent example of the results of infanticide at CottonTails® rabbit and guinea pig rescue was Bella, a sooty fawn female of about 6 months old who has only one ear. This wasn’t the only surprise, however. Within a day of her arrival at the rescue centre she gave birth to a litter of seven, all intact, and all doing well. In due course she will be neutered and will be put up for adoption, accompanied by a suitable partner.

Having bits missing can prove to be a problem due to many potential adopters not wanting (as they see it) an imperfect pet. However, I have managed to find some lovely homes for our funny little bunnies in the past, so let’s hope that Bella is no exception and that she will be offered a caring new home soon where she will be valued and loved for who she is, in spite of her differences!

Below is a contribution from Doc who sent the following by email:

When I was a teenager (more than half a century ago) I raised rabbits commercially for four years as a 4H project. And, working with them every day, I learned a lot about their behavior. Does kill their newborn because they are stressed–and since rabbits are the archetypal prey animal, it doesn’t take much to stress them out. What I learned was  (as you mentioned in your article) that some does are more prone to do it than others–and I culled those out of my herd. But I reduced the problem to nearly zero by providing the pregnant does with dark nest boxes with one rabbit-sized opening, and placing the boxes in the hutch with the opening facing away from the door, so that, for the three or four days immediately preceding and following their kindling, I could quietly, with as little noise and motion as possible, and without being seen, replenish their food and water, and otherwise leave them completely alone. I very seldom lost kits to mother-culling.