It's that time of year when wild bunnies are doing what rabbits do - BREED! And, that means there are plenty of nests in yards for cats, dogs, kids and lawn mowers to disturb.
Frequently, I get frantic requests from students/ neighbors about baby bunnies. Almost always, the situation can be solved by re-covering a disturbed nest and/or moving the nest out of harms way since the mother will return for her babies even if they have been touched. UPDATE w/ ht to Statusquomustgo: If you touch one, touch them ALL so they smell the same; Mom could treat an odd one out as an outcast.
But, there are always a few times when the babies have really been orphaned, each year, and we end up with kits like this one.
This diary is about how to move a disturbed nest to a safer spot, or if you can't find a licensed wildlife rehabber in your area who will take truly orphaned kits, how we successfully raise wild kits. Oh, and this is Caesar who promptly fell asleep after feeding, this morning, before his big photo moment. He's about 4-6 days old; Mom and litter mates were killed by a pitt bull, yesterday, and he's the inspiration for this diary.
First, I want to stress that if there is ANY chance that the mother is still alive, and you know where the original nest was, you should just re=cover the nest and/ or move the nest to a close by, safer place, for the mother to find her babies. This is absolutely the kits best chance for survival!
IF you have to move the nest:
- Find a "safer place" about 10 - 20 feet away. For example, just outside your yard fence, just inside a wooded area by your yard, or just "rope off" to not mow a few square yards of your lawn for a couple of weeks.
- Scrape out a square foot of earth about 8 inches deep and scoop up the nesting material in the original nest. It should be a mixture of grass and the mother's fur. Put that in the new nest and put the babies in the new nest.
- Ideally, cover them up with sun dried, clean grass clippings.
- To check that the mother has found them and is coming back, put two colored threads forming an X over the top of the nest, so you can see if it has been disturbed by the mother coming back.
- Do not check on the nest at dawn or dusk! Mother rabbits only visit their nests 2 times a day to feed the babies at dawn and dusk. If you visit at these times, you could scare off Mom and interrupt a crucially needed feeding.
- IF after 36 hours the thread has not been disturbed, then you'll have to begin deciding whether or not to let nature take its course, or try to rescue the kits.
What to do then?
You can try getting a licensed wildlife rehabber to take them. Call your local vet for a contact or Google for one. It is illegal in most states for anyone other than a licensed wildlife rehabber to take in wild rabbit orphans ... (yada, yada). Though I strongly recommend that you go this route, first, the problem is that I have yet to find a rehabber within 100 miles of where we live who will take wild kits! I wish you the best of good fortune with finding a rehabber who will take them, since you will see that while definitely NOT impossible, there is a lot of work and finesse involved in raising wild kits for release.
Why don't many rehabbers take kits? The common idea seems to be that it is practically impossible to rescue wild baby bunnies, they always die, anyway, and that's the way of nature. Yes, it IS very difficult to raise them, but it isn't impossible. And, one could argue that trauma by lawn mower, or a pitt bull for that matter, isn't exactly the way of nature. Each year, we regularly end up with a number of these babies who have been truly orphaned, and all of the babies we take in usually make it, if they haven't been injured in the original trauma. At 6-8 weeks, they begin to "wild up," and we release them into our side yard woods.
Picture of a recent liter the week before they "wild upped," and we released them.
So, IF you can't find a rehabber, and IF you decide to take on trying to raise baby buns, here is how we do it successfully.
four 1ml syringes and four 5 ml syringes (You can get these from a vet.)
KMR kitten formula powder (NOT kitten & puppy formula - Just the kitten formula) You can get this at Petsmart or Tractor Supply stores.
sterile, filtered water source
two clean tube socks
package of long grain, white rice
supply of clean hand towels and wash clothes
2 packages of Que tips
Pedialite (clear, non-flavored)
microwave! (You really need one of these for this effort.)
How old are they?
1-14 days old - Eyes shut with tiny ears close to head and little to dark fuzz fur. They will make the transition best if you get them between 7-14 days.
14 days - 3 weeks - Eyes open, ears still laid back but starting to stand up, fits in your palm, white blaze on top of head showing, starting to get longer hair on their sides, but soft dark fur on back.
IMPORTANT: IF they are the size of a man's fist, with ears fully up and regular fur all over, with a cotton tail, then set them free right away! They have been weaned and should be on their own. They could actually break a bone trying to get away from you. Put them back where you found them, since they are part of a warren and need the adult bunnies to finish teaching them the tricks for staying alive when you're at the bottom of the food chain.
Infant Box and Immediate Care:
- Nest Box - Use a 12x12x12 inch box, if possible. Do not use a shoe box. The sides are too low. The baby's eyes will open sometimes while you aren't looking, and they will climb out.
- Fill the tube socks with 2 cups of rice each. Knot the ends. Microwave them for 1 minute on high. This will incubate the box and the kits will snuggle into them. The socks should be warm, but not so hot that they could burn. They will hold the heat for about 2 hours, and you can just re-microwave the same ones for about 3 days. If they get dirty or you begin to smell cooked rice, replace with clean socks and new rice.
- Put a clean towel in the box and put the two socks at each end.
- Put the babies in and put a washcloth over them.
- DO NOT put any grass or greens or water source in the box!! You do not want the kits nibbling on grass or greens until you have followed the Weaning Steps below. Putting greens in could cause them to nibble on them and die a horrible death, if they have not had a chance to eat some of their mothers's nighttime CT poops which contain special bacteria needed for bunnies to digest greens in their gut! More on weaning, later. Until weaned, they do best with regular changes of clean hand towels and washcloths.
Feeding Infants: WASH YOUR HANDS, FIRST!! And yes, I'm using caps to yell this. You must practice extreme cleanliness and rinse your hands free of soap before you ever touch the babies. Be obsessive about washing well before and after dealing with the babies.
1. Timing - Every 2 to 3 hours! Ignore website directions to only feed at dawn and dusk like mother rabbits do. Mother rabbit milk is so concentrated that this works for them. Replacement formula is not nearly as nutritious and the infants will need feeding every 2-3 hours. You may be able to make through 6 hours at night, but we usually do round the clock for the first 3 days, at least.
2.Formula - Mix 1 1/2 parts sterile, hot water with 1 part dry KMR kitten mix. For the first few feedings, we add a drop of honey. Do not over do the honey. Too much sugar content will give them diarrhea. The honey seems to do 2 things: 1) they like the sweetness and tend to accept the formula better; 2) honey has some antibiotic factors so it can help if cat/ dog/ mud from the orphaning event has introduced some infection. TEST formula temp on your wrist just like you would for any baby.
3. Feeding - Begin with the 1ml syringes. Expect them to eat 1-2ml of formula with each feeding. IMPORTANT! Feed very slowly. Let them begin by licking it off the end of the syringe. DO NOT force feed or the formula will go in their little noses and into their lungs. They will catch pnuemonia and die. Have a Que-tip ready if a drop gets on their nose.
You can hold them GENTLY in your hand and sometimes they will lick the formula off your fingers, at first. Or you can use the rice socky as a support and mimic a mother rabbit squatting over the nest. DO NOT TURN THEM on their BACK or let them drink this way. The formula could go into their lungs. Only let them eat in a walking/ hopping position.
Emergency Substitute for no KMR formula: You can use plain evaporated milk in the little cans to make sure you are always using fresh. Do NOT use regular cow milk or sweetened condensed milk.
4.Clean-up and Stimulating Peeing and Pooping - Yep. No kidding. You have to help them pee and poop. Dip Que-tips in sterile water and clean up chin, paws, and where ever else they have formula on them. Then, turn them over and use a clean, moistened cue tip on their genitals to stimulate them to pee and poop. They may not do this every time, but make sure you regularly do this after every feeding.
5.Handling - Go ahead and pet them using a dry Que-tip! It makes them happy, and it will make it easier to handle them when their eyes open.
Singing to Them! I have found that by singing a lullaby to them as they are fed and pet classically conditions the song to eating and relaxing. Just before I feed them, I begin singing, and they learn to be ready to eat. Also, if something startles them when they get older, I can sing to them and they calm down instead of hopping frantically against the side of their cage, which is how they could break something. So, I strongly encourage you to choose a song and sing to any kits you try to rescue.
Diarrhea!! This is a real life threatening situation for kits. IF this happens, we go to a 1 1/2 hour feeding schedule with smaller feedings and on-going fur clean-ups. We also add .1 - .3 ml of Pedialyte to each feeding schedule and add the drop of honey to the formula mix. We've had very good luck with coming through what is often called "dirty butt," and rarely ever lose a baby to this. This happens about 1/2 the time we get the little ones as they transition to formula from mother's milk. Don't give up. They may get lethargic while they eat, so just let them lick the formula and go slow. Watch carefully that they don't get it up their little noses. Have that Que-tip ready to wipe the little nose, and we usually do this as a two person exercise. One feeds and the other mops up errant drips of formula.
Eyes open and they are 3 - 4 Weeks Old - WEANING!
This is where many people suddenly lose babies. At weaning, rabbits undergo a dramatic GI switchover to be able to digest greens. In the wild, the mother poops in the nest a special night dropping called CT's that are rich in the bacteria needed to digest greens. The wild kits find these very stinky droppings in the nest and nibble on them to innoculate their guts. If you feed baby rabbits greens before their intestinal tract are properly filled with the right flora, they will die a terrible death. So, do not put greens in with the baby buns until you follow these weaning directions.
- BEST! Get CT's from someone who has a domestic rabbit. Tell them you need some stinky, night droppings. They should know what you mean. These can be put in a baggie and refrigerated for 3-5 days. We have a wonderful house bunny who regularly provides us with the CT's we need.
- Benebac. You can order on-line or get Benebac at some pet supply stores.
- Mix a tiny bit of the CT's, or follow the Bene-bac directions, into the kits formula for 3 days. If you have CT's, you can also put the stinky stuff on your finger, and they will lick it off! They seem to like the taste. You can also put a bit in their next box and they will find it.
- On day 4, you can safely begin weaning by putting them in a cage with some safe greens: washed dandelion greens or clover leaves and flowers. NO GRASS. You can also put some commercial hays in the cage. Do not feed carrots or other things that they will not find naturally when they have to go wild. You want them to be very used to the food they will need to find on their own.
- Weaning Cage Time - The cage bars should be less than 1/2 inch spaces since baby kits can get through extremely small spaces.
- Put a small box inside for them to jump up on and hide in. Use Aspen shavings (not Pine) or the shredded paper type beddings you can get at pet stores. Cover the cage on three sides with a towel to prevent drafts and keep them from feeling at risk on all sides. Daytime: We put ours out on our screened in porch for them to hear natural sounds and get the smells of the outdoors. BUT don't do this without a screened in place. We have heard stories of snakes and birds of prey trying to attack baby bunnies in cages. Night time: We put a warm rice socky in their box. They usually snuggle in there to sleep.
- Continue formula! You should continue to offer them formula using the 5 ml syringes through the cage bars. Timing? Dawn, noon and dusk. Ours usually just come over, nosing each other out of the way to get at the formula syringes. After about 6 weeks, they are usually at 100% eating the greens and hay.
They will grow much bigger with their ears straight up.
You will know when it's time to say goodbye. The previously snuggly babies who came to your lullaby and for pets behind their ears begin to "wild up." They begin to spook away from you and "human sounds."
And, they begin to look longingly outside their cage.
- Rabbits are social animals, and released babies will need adult wild bunnies to learn all they need to know to survive predators and dig burrows, etc. Rule: If there are big bunnies, that's probably a good place to let them go.
- We put a number of 2 foot PVC pipes filled with greens near the release location for easy hiding and initial feeding.
- Put the cage at the release point. Open the door. Say goodbye. Just leave the cage with open door for a few days. They will find their way from there.
We release in our yard since we have a partially wooded lot, and we have an established warren on-site from wild bunnies and our regular releases of small rabbits. At dusk, I sometimes sing to "our" bunnies who are out feeding on the hill on our lawn. Sometimes, some of them hop closer and look up to our screened-in porch, groom themselves in response, and we wiggle our noses to say hello to our former guests.
The BEST thing you can and should do if you run across baby bunnies is to re-cover or move a disturbed nest to a close by, safer spot. That's how you can BEST care for them.
If you have true orphans, you can try a rehabber, but first, ask them if they use CT's or benebac for weaning. If they say they just let them go as soon as they open their eyes, I wouldn't leave them with them. Yes, this takes A LOT of work, per se, but it is far from impossible. And, they really are cute visitors who can grow up and become a wonderful part of your backyard wildlife.