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Handrearing: How To Guide

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Handrearing: How To Guide Empty Handrearing: How To Guide

Post by Happy Hoppers on Wed Jun 18, 2008 8:31 pm

Care and Feeding of Orphaned Domestic Rabbits
by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.
University of Miami Biology Department

The following information is for DOMESTIC RABBITS ONLY. If you are concerned about apparently orphaned wild rabbits, please link to THIS SITE on wild baby cottontails, which are completely different in their needs.


Before you take the baby domestic rabbits into your care and attempt to bottle feed them, please consider...

Unless the mother rabbit is known to be dead, there is a good chance that she is feeding her babies, even if she seems to be ignoring them. A mother rabbit does not constantly tend to her babies the way a mother carnivore does. Rabbit mamas feed their babies only twice per day, and then leave them alone. This is normal and natural: in the wild, a mother rabbit not in the process of feeding her offpsring stays as far away from the nest as possible to avoid attracting predators to her babies.

If mama rabbit seems to be "ignoring" her litter, check their condition before you interfere. If the babies' tummies are round and full-looking (you sometimes can see a whitish patch where the milk-filled stomach shows through the thin skin of the belly), they are warm, their skin is a healthy, dark pink, and not overly wrinkled, and they are sleeping calmly in the nest, then mama is feeding them. If the babies are very wrinkled, cold, bluish in color, have shrunken bellies, and perhaps are even crawling around looking for mama (instead of nest-sleeping, as a well-fed baby should), then you may have to intervene.

Before handling the babies, wash your hands well with disinfectant soap and hot water. Your hands are covered with bacteria, no matter how clean they may seem, and these can be dangerous to babies whose immune systems are not yet mature enough to control bacterial growth, should harmful microbes be ingested. Once they're clean, rub your hands in a bit of clean, fresh hay and on mama's fur to scent your hands.

If the mama bunny is healthy and active, put the babies in a secure nest box in a place easily accessible to her. The box should be shallow and long enough for mama to jump in without stomping on her babies, but too tall for the babies to accidentally crawl out. Line the bottom of the box with a soft towel (no loose strings or holes! These can tangle around tiny necks or limbs and cause life-threatening injury or death!). Place a thick (3") layer of soft, grass hay or straw on top of the towel, and make a small "well" in the hay. If the mama has already built a nest of her fur, place the fur in the "well" and gently transfer the babies into the nest. If she did not pluck any fur for a nest, and if she is calm, you may be able to gently clip some away from her chest (Not too much! A handful is fine.) and line the well of the straw nest with it.

Before you handle the nest and babies, love and stroke mama rabbit to calm her. She is unlikely to be disturbed by your activities if she is loved, and trusts you.

Make sure mama sees the babies in the nest and can easily join them. Place the box and mama in a quiet, private place (a clean, disinfected bathroom with a baby gate in the doorway is a good choice) and let her get acquainted with her surroundings and her family's location.

If the mama has been separated from the babies for more than 24 hours, and refuses to feed them, you can try to gently, but firmly hold her over the babies until they can get a meal. Stroke the mama, talk to her gently and love her, making her feel secure. After the first feeding, you probably won't have to do this again. She will take care of the babies on her own.

If the mother rabbit is very ill, dead, or exhibiting aggression towards her babies, you may have to remove them and feed them without her help. Before you take on this formidable task, consider the following:

Did the babies get any mother's milk? If not, you'll have to provide the babies with a special, immunoglobin-rich substance called colostrum. For the first few days of lactation, a mother mammal produces colostrum, which contains antibodies that help destroy foreign bacteria. Without a colostrum "starter", the babies have a lower chance of survival.
If the babies really are orphans or have been abandoned by their mother, here's a protocol that's been successful for us.

1. Keep the babies in a warm (about 75o - 78o Farenheit), quiet place in a nest similar to the one described above. (Bunny fur is the best lining, but clean cotton wadding will do as a substitute. Just be sure the babies do not get tangled in it.) DO NOT use an electric heating pad. Two or more babies usually are able to snuggle and keep each other warm if they have a good, padded nest. If there's only one baby, a warm water bottle wrapped in a soft towel can provide an excellent artificial heat source, but be sure the baby can crawl away from the bottle if it feels too warm.

2. The nest box should be at ground level, in a room where small children and pets are not allowed (at least until the babies are eating solid food and out of the nest). For the first few days, keep the room relatively dimly lit and quiet.

Feeding the Babies
Formula and feeding supplies

You will need:
  • Plastic sterilizing steam bag (available at most pharmacies, these are used by women to disinfect breast pumps and other nursing materials)
  • Very small nursing nipples.
    There are many different types, and unfortunately few pet supply stores carry the smallest nipples that are best for baby rabbits. If your local pet supply store doesn't carry nipples suitable for baby squirrels and rabbits, then the ones for kittens are the next best thing.
    nursing bottle or syringes. The type of bottle or syringe you buy will depend on the nipples available in your store. They usually are paired. A variety of feeding supplies are available online from The Squirrel Store. Order them while you use the kitten supplies locally available, and you'll have better nipples and syringes in a few days.
  • Formula recipe:
    Fresh, whole goat milk - 1/2 cup
    KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer by PetAg) - 1/2 cup
    Lyophilized (freeze dried) colostrum - contents of 10 capsules, or 1-1.5 Tablespoons. This is available at most high-quality health food stores, either in bulk powder form, or in capsules. It's expensive, but will give the babies their best head start.
    Heavy cream - 3 cc (a cc is the same as one ml, or milliliter), equal to about 1/2 teaspoon.

Mix ingredients together in a lidded container, and shake very well until colostrum is dissolved. It's best to mix this a few hours in advance so that the colostrum has time to soften and suspend easily.
Heat the formula to about 105o Farenheit (you can gauge this with a common, quick-read plastic rectal thermometer (unused, or fully sterilized!) from any pharmacy) and keep it warm in a water bath while you feed the babies. They are generally more eager to accept warm formula.

Feeding Procedure
The most important thing to avoid is aspiration (inhalation) of formula by the babies. The smallest drop of formula in the lungs can cause fatal pneumonia within a few hours.

1. Steam disinfect all syringes, bottles, and nipples as per instructions on the disinfecting bag.
2. Sit or lie on the floor to feed the bunnies, using a towel as a lap cushion for the baby being fed. Baby rabbits are wiggly, and unpredictable. They jump suddenly and unexpectedly, and you must be on the floor so that they don't hurl themselves off a chair or table and injure themselves. A drop of only one or two feet can be fatal, especially if the baby has a stomach full of milk.

3. Hold the baby horizontal in one hand, and the bottle/syringe in the other. If you wrap the bottle in a washcloth or cotton pad, allowing a fold to drape over your hand with the nipple protruding, the baby will be able to "paddle" with his front feet, as he would his own mother's breast.

4. Babies often resist feeding at first, and you must overcome the temptation to force feed. If the baby spits out the nipple, then simply wet the baby's lips with a drop of warm formula so he'll lick it off. Once he's swallowed that, repeat the procedure over and over. Be persistent and gentle. If you can keep him hydrated and fed--even against his will--for a few feedings, more often than not, the baby will start to lap or sip at the drops you provide, though he may not do this on the first feeding. (If you're lucky, the baby will quickly learn the Turbo Sucktm : this can empty 15 cc's of formula in as little as 9 seconds!)

5. DO NOT SQUEEZE TOO MUCH FORMULA INTO THE BABY'S MOUTH! It's better to err on the side of caution than to have the baby inhale milk!

6. Baby rabbits may lose the suckling reflex in only a day or two. If the baby grabs the nipple and begins suckling, allow him to do so without adding any pressure yourself. DO NOT squeeze the nursing bottle or put pressure on the syringe plunger. The baby should be able to suckle with enough strength to empty the bottle or syringe (as long as the plunger is adequately lubricated in advance with a bit of pediatric simethicone suspension) without any help from you. If you provide extra force, the baby may accidentally aspirate formula that's coming in too fast!

7. If the babies do not suckle, it's not a major problem. Most will learn to lap/sip from the tip of the nipple, and this is actually safer, in terms of reducing the risk of aspiration. Try to hold the nipple sideways or downpointed, relative to the mouth, to further reduce the risk of aspiration.

8. IN CASE OF ACCIDENTAL ASPIRATION. We hope this doesn't happen, but if the baby does aspirate formula, it can completely block the airway and cause the baby to pass out. This does not have to be a death sentence, but the following "Bunny Heimlich" maneuver is the only hope of saving the little one. And it's scary.

Hold the baby very firmly between your palms, one on each side of the rabbit
stabilizing the back and neck firmly so they do not move at all, raise the baby above your head, so his nose is pointing skywards.
with a firm, downward motion (not too fast!), swing the baby downwards towards your feet, (being very careful not to come too close to the floor!). Repeat the procedure two or three times, as necessary. The weight of the baby's internal organs pressing against the diaphragm when you swing downwards ususally provides enough pressure to expel air from the lungs, as well as the drop of milk blocking the airway.
Once you feel the baby begin to move, STOP THE MANEUVER IMMEDIATELY. Consult with your veterinarian about whether or not to place the baby on prophylactic antibiotics to prevent aspiration pneumonia.

9. Until they open their eyes (at about the age of 10-12 days), handle the babies as little as possible when you're not feeding/grooming.

Last edited by Sooz on Thu Nov 17, 2011 3:29 pm; edited 2 times in total
Happy Hoppers
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Handrearing: How To Guide Empty Re: Handrearing: How To Guide

Post by Happy Hoppers on Wed Jul 30, 2008 8:54 pm


How much to feed?
The following information on feeding quantities are from the House Rabbit Society FAQ on Feeding Orphaned Baby Rabbits, which is an excellent source of additional information on this topic.

Newborn to One Week: two - two and a half cc/ml each feeding (two feedings per day).
NOTE: Many newborn mammals cannot urinate/defecate on their own. The baby bunnies will require the stimulation of the mother's grooming tongue on their bellies and ano-genital region in order to release a stream of urine and those pinhead-sized poops. Fortunately, you do not have to use your tongue.
Use a cottonball (or even a very clean and disinfected fingertip) moistened with warm water, and gently tap/rub the urogenital area until you feel the baby's abdominal muscles tense and get that rewarding stream of warm pee! (Now you see why we suggest you use a towel on your lap.) Getting a urination response may take 15-20 seconds of stimulation, or even more. Many sources recommend doing this before feeding, and if it works--fine. However, sometimes the stimulus of a full stomach makes this easier. If the baby will not urinate before feeding, try again after feeding, and you will likely get a good response.

Failure to stimulate the babies to urinate/defecate can in the death of the baby (the bladder can actually rupture if it is not stimulated to empty!), so be sure you do this procedure diligently, gently, and patiently! It may take a couple of weeks before the babies are able to urinate and defecate on their own. Watch for signs of redness/irritation around the anus and uretrhal opening, which indicate you are stimulating too vigorously. Back off on the pressure, and apply a bit of soothing calendula ointment (available at health food stores) to heal the irritation.

If the feces come out liquid or "smeary", it's a sign of potentially serious trouble. Consult your rabbit-experienced veterinarian at the first sign of diarrhea, as this can be fatal in only a few hours in a baby rabbit.

One to two weeks: 5-7 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings per day). The amount will depending on bunny, and may be much LESS if the baby is small.
NOTE: Do not allow a baby rabbit overfeed at one sitting! Once a baby learns the Turbo Suck (tm), he can suckle so quickly that it's possible for him to ingest a volume too great for his little tummy. Although it's unlikely for the stomach to rupture, stretching it too taut can cause pain, gas, and make the baby sick. It is better to underfeed slightly than overfeed. If in doubt, let the baby rest for about a minute after feeding, then offer the nipple again. This gives time for the stretch receptors to respond and let the baby know he's really full.
Two to three weeks: 7-13 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings). Domestic rabbits' eyes open at about 10 days of age. Start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets and water in a shallow dish.

Three to six weeks: 13-15 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings) As always, quantity may be LESS depending on the size of the rabbit.
NOTE: At the age of about three weeks, babies will begin to experiment with solid food. Not only is it important to continue enriching the formula with colostrum, but at this stage it is time to inoculate them with normal rabbit bacterial flora from a healthy, parasite-free adult rabbit. Start to scout for a potential cecotrope donor when you first take the babies into your care. When they're about 2.5 - 3 weeks old, obtain a fresh cecotrope and mix it into a small quantity of formula. You will probably have to feed this as if it were medicine, as most babies do NOT enjoy this "special" formula. But it will help to establish their normal flora at a time when the stomach pH is likely not to interfere with proper colonization of healthy bacterial flora farther down the intestinal tract. Inoculation for 2-3 days in a row seems to be sufficient for establishment of normal flora.


A domestic rabbit feeds her babies for about 8 weeks, gradually decreasing the frequency of feedings until they lose interest. Your baby bunnies will start to nibble on pellets and solid food at about the age of two to three weeks, but this does NOT mean they are ready to be weaned. In fact, it's even more important that you continue feeding colostrum-enhanced formula to help control the growth of potentially harmful pathogens as the babies introduce new bacteria into their systems.

If the babies still beg for nursing by the age of six - eight weeks, you can begin to dilute the formula with clean drinking water. Start with 25% water to 75% formula, and gradually decrease the percentage of milk until the babies lose interest. It's less traumatic for you and the babies to gradually wean them this way. (And it's a great little trick taught to me by my own pediatrician father, Geza J. Krempels, M.D.)

This Document is Copyright © Dana M Krempels Ph.D. University of Miami Biology Department. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Happy Hoppers
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Number of posts : 6477
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