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Orphaned Wild Rabbits

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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In the spring, you may run across a seemingly abandoned nest of bunnies in the wild. Your heart may prompt you to intervene, but the best thing you can do is LEAVE THEM ALONE.

Chances are they have not been abandoned, and by removing them from the wild you greatly reduce their chance for survival. Mothers do not stay in the nest with their babies like some mammals and birds. They build a nest with fur and grasses that help keep the babies warm between feedings. Mothers will stay away from the nest during the day so that predators will not see where her nest is.

If you happen to remove a healthy baby from the wild, put him back where you found him. The mother will most likely return to feed the baby. Mother rabbits nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day – once early in the morning and again in the evening. The milk is very rich and the babies fill up within minutes. Then they can usually go 24 hours without another feeding.

Often, people find infant rabbits that appear to be too small to be on their own. The rule-of-thumb is that if the rabbits are 5 inches or longer, they are old enough to be on their own and should be released where they were found.

Baby rabbits should be picked up only as a last resort, such as when you know that the parents are dead or injured. Young rabbits are difficult to rehabilitate and more often than not, they do not survive the stress of being handled.

Do not attempt to take care of baby rabbits yourself. They require special conditions and diets that only a trained rehabilitator can provide. If you are certain that the mother is no longer able to care for the babies because of severe injury or death, contact a wildlife rehabilitation center. It is possible that they can find a foster mother – a rabbit who is nursing bunnies of the same age – to care for the babies.

The following is a brief outline of their aging process:

  • Newborn rabbits have pink bellies and the hair is slick. The ears are not erect and their eyes are closed.

  • 5 to 6 days old: The bunny is fully furred, but the ears are not erect and the eyes are still closed.

  • 7 to 8 days old: The ears begin to stand up.

  • 10 days old: The eyes open.

  • 12 to 14 days old: The bunny is able to hop and nibble on solid food.
  • 21 to 28 days old: The ears are 1 inch in length and the bunny can live independently.

    If you find bunnies with ears at least 1 inch long, leave them alone. They are able to live independently. If they appear to be less than 21 days old, keep in mind that the best chance any wild rabbit has of survival is to remain in the wild. You may think that the doe has abandoned the baby, but frequently she is nearby and just allowing the bunny a chance to explore its world. You can do the following:

  • Make sure the bunnies are not injured.

  • Cover the nest loosely with grass.

  • To be sure that the mother has come back to the nest, place several strands of string or yarn over the nest. If the string has not been moved by morning, then the mother has probably not returned and you should call a rehabilitation center.

    If you know that the mother has been killed, take the bunnies to a wildlife rehabilitation center for the best chance of survival. Of course, injured babies of any age should be examined and treated by an experienced veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitation center. There are many rehabilitation centers throughout the country. For a list of contacts, visit www.tc.umn.edu/~devo0028/contact.htm

    Feeding

    If you are unable to find a wildlife center in your area, or if you are unable to find a foster mother rabbit, you can attempt feeding and rearing an orphaned bunny. Be aware that taking the bunny to an experienced rehabilitator will give the baby the best chance of survival. Also, depending on the local laws in your area, it may be against the law for someone without a wildlife rehabilitation license to care for wild animals. For those people that decide to attempt raising an orphaned bunny, here are some suggestions:

  • Kitten milk replacer (KMR® in powdered form) is currently recommended. Goat's milk, found in the dairy section of the grocery store, is an acceptable alternative and has been successfully used by several wild rabbit rehabilitators. Fox Valley makes various wildlife formulas. You can contact them at 1-800-679-4666.

  • After preparing the KMR according to label directions (or purchasing goat's milk), begin slowly feeding the orphaned bunny twice a day as they are fed in the wild. The amount of formula per feeding depends on the age of the bunny and whether it is a jack rabbit or cottontail. Contact a wildlife organization for specific, individualized help and information regarding your orphan bunny.

    It may be difficult to feed the bunny only twice a day, but overfeeding, diarrhea and bloat are the primary causes of infant death. Trying to mimic their mother by feeding twice a day may greatly increase the bunny's chance at survival.

    Baby bunnies are unable to urinate and defecate without stimulation. Normally the mother cleans the genital area to stimulate urination and defecation. You will have to gently rub a warm moistened cotton ball around the rectal and genital area. Do this after each feeding until the bunny opens his/her eyes.

    It is extremely important to minimize contact with the bunny. An important instinct that successfully released bunnies must have is a fear of humans. For this reason, wild bunnies are not just let out into the world without preparation. Make sure you get in touch with a wildlife center before releasing your bunny for proper instruction. An excellent reference is the House Rabbit Society www.rabbit.org.

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