The words “You’re joking, not another one?” may now be familiar to most of us for political reasons, but they also describe well most rabbit rescuers’ reaction to yet another call from someone who has suddenly found themselves the unwitting owner of a new-born unplanned rabbit litter.
I think it is fair to say that most of us know that breeding from any animal indiscriminately is not only unethical but downright silly, but what happens if we find ourselves in the situation of having to deal with an unplanned unwanted rabbit litter due to no fault of our own? Bearing in mind that over 67,000 rabbits end up in rescue centres (RWAF figures) it is even more difficult to have to accept that we may have inadvertently added to this figure.
The reasons for ending up in this situation can be varied, but the most common is simple and preventable – the miss-sexing of the parents. It has to be said that even some professionals can get rabbit sexing wrong, but if they are checked again at 12 weeks it should be possible to correctly sex them just before they are ready to breed. Although some males are sexually mature from around 9 weeks, females are rarely ready to breed before 12 weeks so at least this second check should catch any “frauds” before any damage is done. I have found the main reason for getting the sexing wrong is that a minority of males present as females until they are almost mature, but careful examination by an experienced handler will identify such bunnies and will often suggest the sexing is checked again at 12 weeks.
Female rabbits that have been taken in as strays or from unknown backgrounds can be at risk of pregnancy, so it is wise to get such rabbits checked by the vet and possibly neutered as soon as possible if the vet advises this is safe for the individual concerned. Clearly a female that is heavily pregnant on arrival needs to be housed somewhere suitable where she can give birth and rear her babies safely and securely.
Another common reason for accidental litters is down to owners not realising how quickly rabbits can start to breed, and this is not helped by some vets still refusing to neuter either sex until over 6 months, by which time they could already have had 2 litters as the male is more than capable of mating with the female immediately after she has given birth, resulting in another litter 31 days later. This is how an unplanned rabbit situation can get out of hand so quickly. Most vets now will neuter males at 12 weeks old, with females being accepted from 16 weeks so long as they weigh at least 1kg.
If you have identified that an unplanned litter is imminent and have managed to separate mum and dad, that will prevent a second litter being conceived, but if the nest of babies are only discovered after the birth, all that can be done is to immediately remove the male and just hope that he has not been successful in his endeavours! Arranging to have him neutered is a good move, as by the time mum has finished with rearing her babies, dad will be infertile and ready to live back with mum again. In the meantime, letting them live in adjacent accommodation is a really good idea as this will keep the bond between them going to a certain extent, even although they are living apart, thus making an introduction later on much easier.
In the large majority of cases, mum manages the whole thing herself and it is normal for her to ignore her babies all day as they are only fed once a day for a few minutes, usually at night. Part the fur once a day to make sure that the babies are together in one group and that they look fat and content. This can be done when mum is out of the hutch in her run, and if you leave her out for at least an hour afterwards she won’t even know you have had a peek. If you have a double level hutch, do be aware that the chances of some of the babies accidentally ending up dead at the bottom of the ramp is high, so you either need to move the whole nest to the safer lower level, or shut mum in the top level with the babies at night to prevent such accidents happening.
If you find one or two babies out of the nest whilst they eyes are still shut, 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 mum’s 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.
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 from mum, 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. Hand rearing is a last resort option as it is rarely successful when tried by an inexperienced owner, and should only be attempted if the babies are orphans or there is real evidence that mum has rejected them. For more information about hand rearing do have a look at the hand rearing article elsewhere on this website.
If a second litter is born around 31 days after the first litter, the only option is to remove the older babies and keep them separately away from mum. Nature has made it possible for rabbits to survive without mum at 31 days, so although it is not an ideal situation, for the safety of the second litter and the sanity of mum the first set must be removed. They should not be allowed to go to new homes, however, until 6-8 weeks depending on how they are doing, just to be sure they are managing without mum and growing well.
So take heart – if you have ended up being a surprised and reluctant owner of an unplanned litter, don’t panic, but do make sure you take steps to prevent such an event happening again, such as neutering all rabbits concerned and having any babies checked twice for sexing, just to be sure!