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This section is specifically for those people who end up with genuinely accidental litters. It does not explain how to ‘mate up’ rabbits in the safest way for the rabbits.
To do your best to prevent accidental litters, it is important to
~Ensure you know the gender of your rabbits. If you are unsure, keep getting vet checks, vet nurse checks and keep checking them yourself too.
~Ensure that babies of opposite sexes are kept completely separate as soon as you start to see any hormonal behaviour (such as spraying, mounting, marking, tail up). Specifically, they need to be apart once the boys testicles descend, which can be any age from 7 weeks onwards, but is more common around 10 weeks or so.
~Ensure your rabbits are secure in their accommodation and can not escape (particularly by digging or jumping out).
~Ensure that if you are bonding a neutered male with an unspayed female, that the male has been neutered at least 6 weeks previously.
If you do end up with a genuinely accidental litter then there is information you will need to know about the various important parts and times and different things you need to do.
Some people realise before the rabbit gives birth, that there is a potential for pregnancy (such as if an unneutered and unspayed female have somehow ended up together, such as a mis-sexing).
~Any unneutered and unspayed rabbits living together need to be separated as soon as the mistake is realised. Female rabbits are most receptive to being mated within the first 72 hours after giving birth. This is very unhealthy for the mum and the kits from both litters, so it’s important that the risk of this is minimised. This can only be done by keeping them completely separate (which means also no play dates or shared time out) once you realise the error.
~A rabbit’s gestation period is anything from 28-33 days, but normally a rabbit will kindle (give birth) on day 30-31. Day 1 would be considered the day after conception. If you know there is a risk of pregnancy, then count 35 days on from when the rabbits met and by the time those 35 days are up you will know there are no babies coming. If you know they have potentially been together, but don’t know when, then count 35 days on from when the rabbits were separated, and that will also give you the all clear by the time you get to 35 days after separation.
~Give mum plenty of hay from day 21 onwards until the babies leave the nest. Giving mum plenty of hay is important, because it allows her to build what will hopefully be a lovely nest. Mummy bunny may start nest building from a week or so before kindling, or she may wait until the day she kindles, or even after she has kindled. She will hopefully add fur to the nest too- which will likely be added at last minute.
~On day 28 a nest box can be given. A nest box needs to be open at the top, be big enough for mum to turn around in, have shallow enough sides for mum to jump in and out, but have high enough sides for no babies to wriggle out. Something like a shoe box can be good for smaller rabbits. This should be placed in the bed area, or another appropriate area for mum to have her babies. It’s important to use lots of hay, but the hope is that mummy bunny will add to it and make her nest in there, which will help keep the babies safe. Mummy bunnies don’t always use their nest boxes though.
~Keep mummy bunny on the diet she is used to. You need to ensure that mum has no diet changes until after she kindles. At this point you will need to adjust the amount of food that she has (this will be covered in the later section).
~Keep all water sources well away from the nest. It’s not unheard of for babies to get dragged out of a nest or go wandering off and end up drowning in the water bowl, so however your mummy bunny accesses her water, it needs to be as far as possible away from the nest.
During Birth (and shortly after birth)
Kindling (giving birth) can be very hard on mummy bunny. It’s important to be ready and prepared.
~You need to have the emergency vets number available at all times, easily to hand. You also need to be able to get to the vets at any point.
~If you know when mum is likely to have her kittens, it is important to check her regularly to ensure she has not gotten into any trouble. Do not be invasive, or stress her out, but check her regularly, including overnight.
~Kindling, from start to finish, should take no more than 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, you need to seek immediate veterinary attention. Your rabbit may have a stuck kit, or a foetal giant, or just not be strong enough to deliver whatever is inside her.
~Mum will stand up whilst kindling, hopefully over the nest and have the babies in the nest. If mum has her babies outside the nest, then when she has finished kindling you need to move the baby to the nest. You do this by ensuring you have no strong smells on your hands (such as soap or another animal) stroking mum, and then swiftly moving the kitten (which is a baby rabbit) into the nest.
~A baby is not dead unless it’s warm and dead. Often babies get cold and still if they are born outside the nest, and can look dead when actually they are just hanging onto life. It’s important to warm up any still babies to body temperature, and if they remain still, and warm, then you can conclude they have died.
~Mum should eat all the placentas. This means there should be none around in the area, although you will need to check for them.
~Mum should return to normal relatively quickly, if everything has gone smoothly. This means she will start eating and drinking as normal and behaving relatively normal too, although she may behave in a hormonal manner, such as being territorial.
~The babies will be born with their eyes closed and with no fur. The colour of the baby depends on the genes and the colour fur that will eventually grow. You may notice spots, or large patches of darker or pinker skin. This is all normal.
~Female rabbits have two uterine horns which can mean it’s not uncommon to find your mum has had some babies and then had additional babies the next day.
~Ensure that if this was not expected and mum and dad are still living together, that you separate dad (once you have worked out which one is dad) as a matter of urgency. If you leave dad with mum then there is a very real risk of dad attacking the kits, dad attacking mum and mum attacked dad. Also, mum will be most receptive to getting pregnant up to 72 hours after she gave birth, so chances are she will already be pregnant again, but the sooner you separate them, the lesser the risk of this.
Raising the Kittens
There are things you will need to do, and milestones you will need to watch out for and situations you will need to be aware of if your mummy bunny gives birth to live kits.
~While the kittens are in the nest – Mummy bunny, by instinct will likely ‘ignore’ them. In the wild, the mummy bunny will have her kittens in a burrow especially for them, and will only go in there to feed them. The rest of the time will be spent away from them, so as not to attract predators. This behaviour has stayed with domestic rabbits, so many mums will only go near their kittens to feed them, and appear to ignore them the rest of the time. Some mum’s may fuss their babies more, but it’s ok if your mum appears to be ignoring her kits.
~While the kittens are in the nest - It is a myth that you can’t touch them. They need to be checked daily, to ensure that all are alive and to remove any dead ones, and to relocate any escapees. You need to ensure that your hands smell of nothing strong (such as soap or other animals) and then stroke mum. You can also give her a treat, and then you can have a peer in the nest. Some mums are laid back and will let you handle the kittens for a very short time (although it would be advisable to wait until after the babies have been fed to handle them). You will need to judge your bunny as to whether or not she will be bothered by them being handled. Many bunnies will not be.
~Days 0-2 – Check the babies have all been fed. Mum’s milk often doesn’t come in until 24-36 hours after birth. When mum feeds she will stand over the nest for only about 5 minutes or so and only once or twice a day (normally at dawn and/or dusk), so you are unlikely to see mum feed, especially when the kits are still in the nest. You need to check that the babies look like they have swallowed ping pong balls.
If, by the start of day 2, the babies don’t look like they have been fed, or any look significantly skinnier than the others you can assist mum. Gently pick mum up and place her over the nest. Then give her treats and stroke her to help relax her while she stands over the nest and hopefully the babies will feed.
If this does not work, the next thing to try is for one person to hold mum on her back, and another person to, in turn, hold each kitten to a nipple to encourage them to eat that way.
Some mums are not easy when it comes to encouraging them to feed their babies.
Another option is to find a foster mum for your babies. This can be done by contacting a rabbit rescue, or also looking for a reputable breeder in your area that you would trust to look after your rabbits. Rabbits can be fostered to mums with similar age kits.
If mum doesn’t feed, with any sort of help, and you can’t find a foster mum, or if mum dies, then you may need to try hand rearing.
Hand rearing is incredibly difficult, and the success rate is exceptionally low, so if you struggle, then bear in mind that rabbits are not designed to easily hand rear.
You will need tiny teats and tiny syringes. You will need to use a supplement. Currently there is no really good and appropriate supplement for baby rabbits.
Nothing that is made even comes close to what mum provides, which is why it is so important to try and get mum to feed if at all possible, or to use a foster rabbit.
After you have fed the baby, you will need to use a warm, damp cloth (or a cotton bud soaked in warm water), and wipe it from head to toe to stimulate the kitten to pass urine and faeces. Keep going until the baby passes both of those.
~Days 0-4 - Gradually increase mummy bunnies pellet food until she is being given unlimited pellets. She will need unlimited pellets so that she can produce all the milk that she needs to feed her kittens. If mummy is also used to fresh food, she can have increased amounts of this too, if you know her tummy will tolerate it.
~Days 0-10 - Check that no babies have an infected umbilical wound. The babies will have a tiny little wound on their tummy where the umbilical cord was joined to them. It is important to keep an eye on this to ensure it is healing well and is not getting infected.
~Day 7 onwards - You might see the babies ‘tasting’ the hay. It’s perfectly normal and ok to see any of the babies appearing to suck on the hay in the nest around them. They are just exploring their surroundings.
~Days 10-14 - The babies eyes should open. The babies eyes will likely open on day 11 or 12, but it can be as early as day 10. You might also find that one eye opens on one day, and the other does not open until the next. If either eye, or both eyes, have not opened by day 14 then you can try holding a warm, wet compress onto the eye to see if that will help. If it doesn’t, then you will need to take the babies and mum to the vet.
You also need to watch to ensure that all eyes that have opened, remain opened. If any eyes close again, then you will need to take the babies and mum to the vet. Conjunctivitis is very common while the babies are in the nest so it’s very important to keep the nest as clean as possible, whilst retaining its smell, and also to be vigilant with the eyes and act promptly if you notice any changes.
~Days 10-14 - Clean the nest for the first time. It’s important when the babies open their eyes, to clean the nest to minimise the risk of conjunctivitis. It’s important to save as much of the nest as possible, especially the fur, so keep anything that is not soiled. Keeping as much of the nest as possible means that both mum and babies will know where the nest is and it will retain its smell.
There is no set way to clean a nest, you just need to make it as stress free for mummy as possible. Sometimes having a spare shoe box made up into a nest can be useful to put the babies in whilst removing all the soiled nest material from the original nest. After the first time, you can clean the nest whenever you feel it needs it, always saving as much of the nest material as possible.
~Days 14-21 - The babies might start to leave the nest. Once the eyes are open you are likely to see the babies start to be more adventurous (with or without mum’s blessing). They may start to leave the nest. They may start to share mum’s food. This is completely fine and ok. If it is fresh food then they seem to get an immunity for it through mum’s milk.
You might find, at this point, some mums get distressed if they feel their babies have left the nest too early, or they are being harassed by them, or they need time out. Giving mum a place she can get to that the babies can’t, can be useful; such as a shelf she can get on.
It is important to still keep the nest intact though.
~Days 25-33 - A rabbit’s gut changes. At roughly 4 weeks/28 days, a baby rabbit’s gut will change from that of a baby, to that of an adult. This can be a time when the babies may be more likely to have stomach problems, so it is important to be extra vigilant, and any change in behaviour or output or intake needs to be taken seriously. It will become far more acidic which can cause problems.
~Days 25-33 - Weaning starts. It is around the time that a babies gut changes to an adult gut, that mum will start to wean her babies and feed less. They will also start to increase their intake of hay and pellets.
~Days 25-33 onwards - Mum might react hormonally to her babies. If there is any possibility that mum is pregnant again then she may start to try and drive her babies away in preparation for her next litter. Mum won’t always try and drive them away, but often instinct dictates that they do.
If this happens, the older babies need to be kept together, kept on exactly the same diet, kept in the same routine and have their stress minimised. It can also be beneficial to move their nest with them, and also to provide heat sources such as SnuggleSafes to help them stay warm and feel snugly. At this age, because their gut has changed to an adult gut, they do not need a supplement so can have a basic adult diet.
For the new babies you need to go right back to the start and start again.
If mum is not having another litter and is comfortable with her babies, then they can stay with her. Mum may start to regain her hormones even if she is not pregnant and may be ready for her babies to leave earlier than the recommended 8 weeks, so you will need to watch her behaviour if she is struggling to tolerate them.