The first thing to realize with handling any wild rabbit is that stress can kill. Rabbits can leak toxins into their system from fear, pain, and stress causing Septicemia. This has a very high mortality rate. Even babies with their eyes closed can suffer from stress.
!If placed in a box, the box must be deep enough that the babies cannot jump out. 12 inches is not enough if the babies have their eyes open and a shoebox is not deep enough even for eyes closed babies. If a screen is placed across the top of the box, then a towel must be placed over the screen so the babies cannot see out or they could kill themselves trying to jump through the screen. Loud noise is too stressful as is frequent handling or touching. Babies have even died of heart failure from children handling or poking them or even squealing around them. It may be a delight for the child, but it’s deadly for the babies.
CARE OF ORPHANED BABY BUNNIES
EYES CLOSED (Under 10-12 days old the eyes are closed) At 1-3 days there is no fur. Fur begins to come in around 3-4 days and continues until the baby is fully furred at about 3 weeks.
Babies with closed eyes must be urinated. They cannot pee on their own. They can defecate (poop) on their own. To help them urinate, hold them in your weaker hand (hold in left hand if you are right handed.) Hold the baby head up with the tummy facing outward. Hold the baby firmly as it will struggle, but be careful not to squeeze too hard or it will damage their internal organs. Hold your other hand out palm up. Curl your forefinger into your palm. Look at the long flat smooth area of your finger. This is the portion of your finger that is best for rubbing on the baby’s urine/genital area. (note: do not distress the baby by trying to determine gender; it is totally unnecessary at this point.) Hold the baby over a paper towel and rub briskly (fast but not hard) with the flat part of your finger to stimulate the baby to pee. Wash your hands afterward. This method is best since you can see how much liquid is dropping onto the paper towel and as long as the urine is warm the baby still has more to go. When the urine begins to feel cold, the baby is finished. (Do not confuse this with urine that is cold right from the beginning. If it is cold at the start, then the baby’s body temperature is too cold.) If the urine is brown, the baby has not been pottied for over 24-48 hours. The darker the urine, the
longer it has been. If the liquid is clear, then it has not been long since the mother last took care of it. Using a warm moistened cotton ball may work, but the cotton absorbs the liquid so you won’t know if the baby is passing enough urine. Also, you won’t know when the baby is finished. 75-100 drops is normal for a week old baby if it is taking sufficient fluid. Babies should be urinated at least once daily (twice is best) until 2 to 4 days after they open their eyes and you know they are urinating on their own.
Babies need to be kept in a warm, dry, quiet location. Very young babies (especially single babies) need to be kept warm. The new heating pod obtainable in pet stores works very well and can be used inside the nesting box. If using an electric heating pad, place a towel on your table. Put the heating pad on the towel and put another towel over the heating pad. Then place the babies’ nest box half on the heating pad. Inside the box place a folded towel for the bedding. Use another folded towel to simulate a small circle. Place another, smaller towel over it for them to hide under and stay warm. Even babies with their eyes closed have a sense
of exposure which causes them stress. Half of the box should be off of the heating pad in case the babies get too warm and want to move away from the heat for awhile. The heating pad should be set on low and kept on 24 hours a day until the babies have had their eyes open for 3 or 4 days. In cool rooms, keep heating pad on for an additional week.
Only handle babies at feeding times which should be 2 to 3 times per day. More than that can cause stress. Change the bedding towels inside their box at least once per day at one of the feeding times to reduce how often they are handled. Cleanliness is vital. A dirty box will cause sick babies.
!Most recently the best successful formula I had consisted of mixing 1 tablespoon of KMR powder into 1 cup goat’s milk. Many grocery stores carry fresh goat’s milk near the specialty milks like soy, etc. At others you may need to get goat’s milk powder.
The only formula I recommend is KMR (a specific brand of kitten milk replacer that comes in a powder.) Mix the KMR powder thoroughly into very warm goat’s milk. Remove any suds that form so you don’t get an abundance of air into the tummy. Use a 1 cc syringe with a tapered tip to start. Elongated rubber nipples can be used on the syringe, but the syringe can be used alone. It does take time to acclimate the baby to this foreign object. Each baby can take up to 20 minutes to be hand fed. Keep the formula VERY warm, but not hot, throughout the feeding. They will struggle to avoid cold formula.
NOTE: There are other formulas on the market and some of them are cheaper, but they can harm a baby bunny. One product, First Born, can actually kill a baby bunny within 24 hours and it will die screaming.
With newborns I also obtained some freeze dried colostrum from a health food store and mixed in 1⁄2 capsule with each batch of milk. It does not mix well so be sure there are some colostrum crystals on the syringe tip when feeding the babies. Once prepared, formula is only good for 24 hours, but a can of KMR powder will stay fresh in the freezer for several months. Make only as much as you need for each 24 hour period and keep leftover amount refrigerated during that 24 hours. Also, note that the first feeding should be more diluted with sterile water as the babies are likely to be dehydrated and it also helps the system to adjust to a new substance.
Rabbits are born with a sterile digestive system. They need their mother’s digestive bacteria to help them which is why so many die shortly after being fed new foods. If you have a rabbit you know is free of coccidian and can obtain some cecatropes to offer to the babies it can help provide good digestive bacteria to the babies.
Adding a touch of Bene-Bac or ProBios on the syringe (or nipple) tip can add necessary digestive bacteria. The babies really seem to like this and even though it doesn’t perfectly duplicate the digestive bacteria they would get from the mother, it does seem to help their digestive track. Do once daily for the first two weeks, but in very tiny amounts. Too much of a good thing can also cause problems.
Adding one drop of Albon once a day for one week can also help with coccidia (an internal parasite) which can frequently be deadly for babies which have no mother’s milk to aid their immune systems. If you have access to Marquis this is even better and .01 CC can be given for three days in a row.
A newborn may only take 1 CC formula in a one CC syringe per feeding to start. This is normal as they are not happy and know the syringe is not mama. Be careful about forcing liquid into the mouth. If it goes down into their lungs they will aspirate and die and this can happen quite easily. As they adapt to eating from the syringe they will usually lick the drops off the end of the syringe as you are feeding and they will increase how much they take and how quickly they take it. Any excess that goes on the nose should be quickly wiped off.
Start with feedings four times per day. The mother usually only feeds once or twice per day, but the babies take in enough in one feeding from their mother to swell their entire tummy. They won’t usually take that much from a syringe and the formula is not a perfect replacement for the nourishment from mother. Also, 1 CC syringes with tips on them (not the screw tip kind) are better for feeding Cottontails than infant animal nursing bottles. It is far too easy to aspirate them using nursing bottles. However, the long tapered orphan nipples will slip over the syringe tip and are much better than the bulb shaped nipples. Because rabbits quickly bite into rubber, these are not always the perfect solution to nursing. Note: It is also easier wrapping and holding the babies in a dry cloth (like a dish rag) while feeding for security in holding them. They will wiggle a lot so wrapping them in a cloth helps contain them better and quickly provides something for wiping off excess formula on their faces.
At about 1 week of age the feeding frequency may be reduced to twice per day if they are taking sufficient amounts at each feeding. By the time they are 12 days old they may be taking between 7 to 10 CCs per feeding.!
After the eyes are open 2-3 days (be sure they are in a deeper box as they can jump much higher than you expect and if they fall they break their backs very easily) begin putting a 1⁄4 teaspoon of dry OLD FASHIONED Quaker Oats or other brand (I like Bob’s Red Mill) in the box on the towel or in a very shallow dish or baby food jar lid. I know this goes in the face of not giving rabbits starch/sugar, but this works well for getting them started on something solid and when not providing excessive amounts it works very well. Be very careful of the amount and watch their stools.
Begin placing formula in a small, very low sided dish for them to begin eating on their own. After two days reduce the hand held feedings to once per day. By the time their eyes have been open for five days, they should be eating and urinating completely on their own. Discontinue the hand feedings as it only causes increased stress as they get older. At this point they can also begin getting a variance in diet. The following is a suggested schedule:
Eyes just opened – Hand feed three times per day.(Each feeding can take as long as 20 minutes per baby)
Eyes open for 2 days – Place 1/4tsp. dry oatmeal on the towel per baby.
Eyes open 3 days – Place formula in low dish (enough for 20 CCs per baby) twice per day and reduce hand feeding to once per day. Add 1⁄2 tsp. baby food applesauce per baby in low dish in box with morning feedings. Baby food applesauce does not contain added sugar like ordinary adult applesauce.
Eyes open 4 – days Add baby food squash to the diet. They can start with one tablespoon per bunny and build in amount. Often a full jar per day will be consumed by a litter as the babies grow. This is a good source of fiber. Place a small amount of grass hay in their house for them to start nibbling.
Eyes open 5 days – If formula in dish is being consumed, stop all hand feedings and be sure babies get a good amount of fresh formula with each morning feeding and each evening feeding. They can have as much formula as they will consume. (Dishes can be left in box/crate until the next feeding to give them time to eat.) Also, start keeping a small dish of fresh water available to them at all times.
Eyes open 6 days – Have timothy and/or alfalfa hay accessible to them at all times and provide fresh daily. Begin placing a high quality pelleted food (no seeds, nuts, or corn in it) in a dish accessible to them. Many will nibble on this and it will provide extra nutrients. They can also continue to have their other items as well.
Eyes open 8-9 days – Begin adding fresh green rough age to their diet very slowly. Start at about 3 weeks old with just enough for them to nibble (quarter to half dollar size) and increase the amount slowly if they are adjusting well and stools are still well formed. Leaf lettuce and Romaine lettuce works well for this as does bags of spring mix. They can have green or red leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, endive lettuce, fresh green feathery carrot tops. Timothy or alfalfa hay should still be available at all times.
4 weeks old Begin adding outside edible grasses very slowly and well washed. Getting them acclimated to the foods they will have in the wild is important, but without their mother’s milk they will not have had a “pre” introduction to these things to help their digestive system. Watch stool production carefully. Loose cecals or true diarrhea can be deadly and must be treated immediately.
Baby bunnies can get loose cecals and/or diarrhea from a sterile gut, distress, poor food, not enough food, too much starch/sugar in the diet, or too much green roughage too early. If you are offering a small bit of fresh fruit, like a tiny bit of apple, then do not give baby food applesauce.
If diarrhea continues, the bunny will need immediate fluid replacement with hand feeding and drinking to ensure proper intake and taken to a veterinarian immediately. Finding healthy cecotropes to feed from someone who has a healthy, coccidia free, domestic rabbit can also help stabilize the baby’s system.
CHANGING TOWELS AND SETTING UP A CAGE
Prior to the eyes opening, it is only necessary to have a soft towel covering the cage/box floor and a soft small towel for them to hide under. Even with their eyes closed they prefer to burrow under something for comfort, warmth, and security. Do not use dirt, grass, or leaves. Change the bedding daily at a time when the babies are fed to reduce handling stress.
After the eyes open, to reduce stress, it is best to give the babies larger housing and an additional place to hide. An old shoebox with the lid removed and turned upside down with a door cut out or a small box with a door cut out serves quite well. It’s best not to have a floor to the box as it would just get messy and cause poor hygiene. If the box does have a floor, be sure to put a small towel or cloth in the box to cover the floor and change as needed to keep the box clean. If the babies get too big for their little house, replace it with a larger one. When they are 3 -4 weeks old it is best to have two houses (one at each end of the cage) as babies can start becoming territorial at a very early age and the more submissive littermates may find themselves chased out of the cardboard house. With nowhere to hide, the stress can take its toll on these particular babies.
Keeping the box/crate/cage on a table can make the babies just a bit less fearful of their human caregiver; possibly because the person is not towering over them like a predator.
Havingacleantowelpre-folded,rolledupandready. Removethecardboardhousingatoneendofthe cage so that all babies go to one side to hide. They will be more interested in hiding than in being
territorial at this point. Begin rolling up the dirty towel at the end of the housing away from the babies. Right behind it begin unfolding the clean towel. This allows for clean space to put back down the empty cardboard house. When the folded dirty towel and unfolded clean towel are very close to the house where the babies are hiding, list that house and let them scurry over to the other side where they can hide on the clean side while the cleaning is finished. Then replace the 2nd house so that once again there are two places to hide.
RELEASING ORPHANED COTTONTAILS
If the babies have been kept indoors, it’s best to place them near an open window with a screen to begin acclimating to outside temperatures and noises. Housing them outside in a cage without protection is inviting disaster.
It is best to release them at 6 to 8 weeks old. In the wild they can be out of the nest at 4 weeks old, but, like most young things, they are still clueless, not as quick, and very prone to fall to predators. At 6 – 8 weeks old they are a bit more savvy and nimble. However, past 8 weeks is also inviting disaster as they begin to stress over their captive environment. Once again, stress can kill.
A location with plenty of available, good grass, adjacent to heavy undergrowth for hiding is the best place for release. This allows a place to hide that is close to an available food source. Nearby water is a plus. Release in late afternoon into the undergrowth. This allows the rabbit to hide during a time when they would normally be hiding anyway while getting a bit used to his surroundings. By dusk he will be ready to start exploring and eating as well as looking for a place to shelter. Optimum temperatures are 50o – 80o during a 24 hour period. Too hot and dry leaves the rabbit without enough moisture from dew and roughage. Too wet and the mud doesn’t allow them to dig a shelter.
The most we can do for any of them is to give them the care they need and the best chance possible for survival.
For additional information please call Joy Gioia (636-349-0606 home) or e-mail at TomJoyGioia@sbcglobal.net