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Wild Rabbits

Wild rabbits often make their nests in areas that boggle our minds... sometimes even right in the MIDDLE of an open yard. They are "hiding in plain sight" as often the predators that they naturally fear would be too timid to enter those areas. They don't count on the family dog or cat also being a problem!

The way that a mother rabbit cares for the babies limits her time in the nest, which further makes it less likely a predator will find the nest. So if you find a nest of baby rabbits, think twice before doing anything that requires that you touch the baby rabbits or disturb the nest.

In Indiana, rehabilitating wildlife requires a license from the DNR. To find a licensed rehabber, please contact the DNR, a local exotics vet, or the Purdue University wildlife information page, which also has more information about cottontail rabbits. Links to national lists of wildlife rehabilitators can also be found in the FAQ below.

Introduction

Wild rabbit babies

Many people mean well when they contact House Rabbit Society after discovering an "abandonded" nest of wild rabbits. Often they wish to "rehabilitate" them with some advice from others. The reality is fewer than 10% of orphaned rabbits survive a week, and the care that people attempt to provide can be illegal, unnecessary, and potentially harmful. The best thing you can do is to contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area.

I/My Dog/My Cat Found a Rabbit Nest! What Do I Do?

Rabbits "hide their nests in plain view," often putting them in the open, for example in the middle of the lawn, as well as in brush piles and long grass. If you find a nest that has been disturbed, do all you can to restore and protect it rather than bring the infants inside. If a dog has discovered the nest, you can put a wheelbarrow over it, so that the mother can get to it but the dog cannot. You can also protect the nest with a wicker laundry basket with a hole cut in it for the mother to enter.

Rabbit mothers nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day. They will be in the nest or nest box early in the morning and then again in the evening. The milk is very rich and the babies "fill up" to capacity within minutes. Mother rabbits do not "sit" on the babies to keep them warm as do some mammals and birds. They build a nest with fur and grasses which helps to keep the babies warm in between feedings. Do not force a mother rabbit to sit in the nest box. You can pick up the babies and see if they are feeding by checking the size of their stomachs (should not be sunken in), the pinkness of their skin and activity level (they should not be blue in color or sluggish in movement) and the amount of time that you hear them crying (baby bunnies should be quiet most of the day....if they are crying constantly then they are not getting fed). If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and the mother is no where to be seen, please DO NOT disturb them...this is normal. By removing them from the nest you are greatly reducing their chances of survival.

I/My Dog/My Cat Destroyed a Rabbit Nest! What Do I Do?

Nests can be moved to a safer place up to 10' away from the original site and can be reconstructed if necessary. To make a new nest, dig a shallow hole about 3" deep and put into it as much of the original material as you can recover, including the mother's fur. Add dried grass as needed, and put the young back. Mother rabbits return to the nest to nurse only one or two times a day, staying away as much as possible so as not to attract predators. To determine if the mother is returning, create a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest with twigs. Wait 24 hours to see if the twigs have been removed. If they have, then the mother is coming back.

How Do I Know If the Baby Bunnies Need Help?

Very young wild baby bunnies with eyes closed and ears back rarely survive in captivity, even given the most expert human care; and so it is very important to determine whether they really need help. Try to assess whether the infants seem warm and healthy or cold, thin, and dehydrated. One test for dehydration is to gently pinch the loose skin at the back of the neck. If it stays in a "tent," the bunny is dehydrated and needs rehabilitation. Another test is to stroke the genital area to stimulate elimination. If the pee is brown and gritty, the mother rabbit has not been there to help the bunnies urinate. The brown, gritty urine is toxic, and the infant bunny must be cared for.

Older baby bunnies who are found outside of the nest may not be orphaned or in need of assistance. Baby cottontails are born without fur but develop a full coat in a week. Their eyes open in 6-10 days, and in three weeks they are weaned. At this age, they are about as round as a banana, and they may explore the world outside of the nest but return there to sleep. They are not ignored by the mother but stay with the family group until four or five weeks of age. To determine whether a bunny of this age needs assistance, perform the dehydration and urine tests. Also look for bleeding, convulsing, fly larvae, broken limbs. (Being wet does not require hospitalization, I learned!)

What If the Baby Bunny Is Injured?

Either call or take him to your local humane society or animal shelter/animal control. Call first as often they will come pick up the baby. If they don't have a wildlife center, they will refer you. If after hours, contact a local emergency rabbit vet or go to www.rabbit.org and look for a vet in your area. Emergency vet clinics often are very good about helping wildlife until the baby can be transferred to a rehab facility.

The best thing you can do for an injured baby bunny is to get in touch with a skilled rehabilitator.

Great info on local rehabilitators can be found at: The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

Is there anything I can do to avoid orphaning baby bunnies?

The harsh reality is that many of us who care about wild baby bunnies may be contributing to the suffering and death. House cats who roam outside will kill about every other time they go out. And unlike feral cats who hunt because they are hungry, and kill immediately, house cats maul and torment their prey, sometimes skinning baby bunnies alive. Cat owners need to provide managed outdoor habitats for their cats - such as windowboxes or pens.

Lawn chemicals can produce convulsing death in baby rabbits. According to the Animal Poison Control Center, lawn applications that contain herbicides are not directly toxic to small animals; but they may make toxic plants more palatable to them and may make the animals sick for a few days. Products which contain insecticides, such as Dursban or Diazinion, which are added to many lawn products to control fleas or grubs in the lawn, are toxic.

The Bunny is Wild and Really Orphaned - How do I care for it?

The best thing you can do for a wild orphaned baby bunny is to get in touch with a skilled rehabilitator. In the meantime, call your local humane society or animal control and one of these vets for a wildlife referral: Rabbit Vets USA

A great directory of local rehabilitators can be found at: The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory

The Bunny is Domestic (NOT WILD) and Really Orphaned - How do I care for it?

In the rare situation that you have an orphaned bunny, such as when a domestic rabbit refuses to care for her young, you will need to feed the babies. Overfeeding is a leading cause of death in these youngsters which results in fatal intestinal disease.

Use KMR or Regular Goats milk. Pet nurser nipples on the end of a luer lock syringe, teat cannula on the end of a syringe or SIMPLY an eye dropper or 3 cc syringe can be used to feed. Feed only upright, and point syringe down towards bottom or side of mouth, so if too much comes out, the baby does not aspirate. For those who are slow to learn nursing, SC fluids may be necessary to prevent electrolyte imbalance or dehydration (check with a vet on this). Domestic buns with closed eyes should be fed 2-3x/day (but only 2x/day for wild bunnies), and the number of feedings gradually decreased until they are weaned. If their eyes are still closed, you need to stimulate their bottoms with a warm moist towel after feedings to help them to pee. (Domestics are weaned about 6 weeks; wild bunnies are weaned about 3-4 weeks for cottontails and 7-9 weeks for jacks). Bloat is commonly associated with too frequent feedings. KMR is made by Pet-Ag. If you have questions, their phone is 800/323-0877. For WILD rabbits, use Regular Goats Milk (found in the carton at your grocery) or KMR, NOT Esbilac.

Provide a soft nest area in a box with clean towels, and cover the babies so it is dark. Do not provide extra heat if the room temperature is at least 65 to 70o F because excessive heat can be fatal. If the room is cooler, then you may place a heating pad on a low setting under no more than HALF of the nest so the bunny can move to a cooler area if it gets too warm. If this is a wild rabbit, handle it ONLY when during feedings as excessive handling can be extremely stressful and potentially fatal.

You can use KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer) available at most pet stores for the handfeeding formula. You can also use Regular Goats Milk found in the carton at your local grocery store.

How much formula should I feed?

The following is a guideline for the daily amount to feed a wild bunny or a domestic bunny. Take the DAILY amount listed and divide it into proper number of feedings.

Domestic buns with closed eyes should be fed 2-3x/day, (2x/day for wild bunnies), and the number of feedings gradually decreased until they are weaned. (Domestics are weaned about 6 weeks; wild bunnies are weaned about 3-4 weeks for cottontails, and 7-9 weeks for jack rabbits). Bloat is commonly associated with too frequent feedings.

Wild bunnies should be fed kitten KMR or KMR and regular Goats Milk. Do not use Esbilac for wild rabbits as we found they do not do well on that. It is okay for domestics.

  • Newborn to One Week: 2 - 2+1/2 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings).
     
  • 1-2 weeks: 5-7 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings). (depending on bunny..may be much LESS if smaller rabbit).
     
  • 2-3 weeks: 7-13 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings). Bunnies whose eyes are still CLOSED need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate before or after each feeding. Again, seek a professional on this. Domestic eyes open at about 10 days of age. Then start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets and water (always add fresh greens for wild ones--dandelion greens, parsley, carrot tops, grated carrots, all fresh, watered down). See below for detail.
     
  • 3-6 weeks: 13-15 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings--again, may be LESS depending on size of rabbit! A cottontail will take so much LESS--about half of this!.)
     

These small ones (if eyes closed) all need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate prior to and following feeding. (Except Jack Rabbits do not). This can be done by gently running a wet cotton ball (warm water) over the urogenital area. All orphans with open eyes should be offered rolled oats, (whole oats also for wild ones), commercial rabbit pellets, leafy alfalfa, clover, dandelion greens, and some leafy greens. It is IMPORTANT FOR WILD BUNNIES to have mostly OAT HAY, as well as TIMOTHY HAY AND ALFALFA HAY. The idea is to offer a variety. Some formula may also be placed in a stable dish to encourage self-feeding but discard in a hour or so if not eaten.

If you have a healthy adult rabbit at home and you can collect cecotropes (the soft green droppings that the rabbit usually eats) then these can be mixed with the KMR to give the baby bunny normal bacteria for its intestinal tract. Only one cecotrope per day for 4-5 days is needed. This is particularly important for rabbits under one week of age. Also good is to sprinkle acidophilus powder from human capsules in the milk a little each time for healthy flora.

After each feeding it is important to make the bunny defecate and urinate to keep the intestinal tract and urinary system running smoothly (only until their eyes are open). No need to do this for jack rabbits; they go on their own. Use a cotton ball moistened with warm water and gently stroke the anal area until the bunny starts producing stool and urine and keep stroking until the bunny stops. You are reproducing the behavior of the mother rabbit who would lick her young to stimulate them to go to the bathroom and to keep the nest clean. The stool will be soft and may be varying shades of green and yellow.

As soon their eyes are open, you may introduce the bunnies to hay, such as oat hay, alfalfa and timothy, and dark leafy veggies such as carrot tops, parsley, dandelion, romaine, collards, Swiss chard, (apple for wild ones), etc. Dandelion greens are extremely important for jack rabbits. If this is a wild rabbit, you do not need to introduce them to pellets. If this is a domestic rabbit baby, then you may introduce them to pellets at 2 weeks of age (please refer to the handout Care of Rabbits for more information on diet). Wild rabbits should be released as soon as they are eating hay and greens and are approximately 5 inches in body length (cottontails). They will be small, but the longer you keep them, the more agitated and difficult to handle they will become and the less likely their chances for survival in the wild. Release ONLY at dusk or dawn. Jack rabbits will be much larger and are released after 9 weeks when ready. Make sure they get exercise daily.

The exception is the length/age rule is the jack rabbit. They are best released around 9 weeks of age, as they mature much slower than the brush/cottontails and need to develop strength. If they are ready, earlier, they will let you know.

Jack rabbits really enjoy being raised together, whereas cottontails/brush bunnies may fight and do fine alone. Give them a carrier as their place of privacy with plenty of fresh hay, dandelion greens, carrots, carrot tops, whole oats. Brush bunnies/cottontails wean themselves pretty early after a few weeks. Jack rabbits continue on formula much longer, and most are weaned about 7-9 weeks. Replace the formula with cut-up banana or apple.

Sources: Caring for Cricket - What Not To Do When You Find a Wild Baby Bunny by Julie Smith and Handout by Midwest Exotic Animal Hospital, and wild bunny info by M. Wilson (rehabber/HRS).

For more information, please read Caring for Orphans or email wildbunnyrehab@yahoo.com. This is an e-mail account at the national chapter that specializes in answering questions about wildlife needs.





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Indiana House Rabbit Society