It was totally unplanned. I had gone in for my induction for my new job at a large pet retailer when one of the managers asked if I could help with hand rearing some baby rabbits as a matter of urgency. There were 7 newborn babies that had been brought in by a member of public who had unwittingly handled them and now the mother was rejecting them.
Of course I said yes. The babies were being split amongst three staff as bottle feeding a litter of seven was a lot for one person alone. None of us had done this before, and ideally, there would be a greater chance of survival if mother rabbit could be coaxed to nurse her babies again. But the owner did not want to bring her in, so hand rearing was the only option. We understood that the chances of survival for these baby rabbits were extremely slim. They were only born the day before – they won’t have had much of their mother’s milk.
My husband was waiting to pick me up after my induction. He eyed my cardboard pet carrier suspiciously as I got into the car. “I can explain!” I bleated. Prior to starting my new position, my friends had joked about me bringing animals home. I couldn’t believe I was doing it on my first day!
Being new to this experience, I did my research on hand rearing rabbits and took on board information from various sites (although some of the advice differed greatly from each other). Normally, the mother would only feed the kittens twice a day – her milk is super rich and also means that the less she visits the nest, the less likely predators will know its there. As I am using a replacement milk powder (Beaphar Kitty Milk), I will need to feed 4 times a day to ensure that I will be providing as much nutrients as their mother would. I mixed 1.5 scoops powder to 35ml boiled water, cooled to body temperature. During the early days, as they would take very little, I mixed half this amount.
However, I was having problems with the bottle teat. Despite having pricked it several times with a pin, there seemed to be very little coming out. I even cut a slit into it, but again I couldn’t be sure the babies were receiving anything. I decided to switch to using a 1ml syringe. Luckily, I have accumulated a few unopened ones from previous vet visits. I got better results from using a syringe and could also gauge the amount taken, but I had to be careful to feed the rabbits slowly, in case milk gets in their lungs which can cause death. Its a very slow job, and I was grateful that I only had two to nurse. Feeding them four times a day was exhausting and a big commitment – it took me back to the days when I was a mother myself! In addition to feeding, I had a SnuggleSafe Pet Heat Pad to keep them warm, plus an old flannel for them to snuggle under, as well as hay for bedding. As they were so small and inactive, I kept them in the cardboard pet carrier.
The first week was crucial. This was the week when the rabbits would either survive or die. Sure enough, one of my colleague’s babies passed away two days later, followed by another…and another… With the news of each one passing away, I worried in case the bunny grim reaper was going to visit. He didn’t, thank goodness, but all the other 5 rabbit kits went to rabbit heaven that week.
We were not out of the woods, and it seemed we would be at risk until the babies were weaned. This could be as soon as 4 weeks according to one website but even that sounds like ages away when you are arranging everything to fit round 4 feeds a day. 5 feeds sometimes – when I felt that the rabbits hadn’t taken much, my paranoia set in, and I would offer an extra feed late at night. At first, they would take a miniscule amount – less than 1ml at a time. As the days went on, there would be an increase as they got better at feeding, and of course, as we got better at feeding them. By now, I had sorted out a back up team to help with feeding duties while I was at work. This consisted of my husband Steve (I had NO pets when he married me – he certainly got more than he bargained for!) and my sister, Yausan and her husband Derek.
My sister was an obvious choice to babysit the rabbits. She lives 5 mins away and has had various rabbits in her life. Each one was special to her. However, she currently has two rescued bunnies and was a bit surprised when I called on her to help handrear the babies. Like most people, she had no handrearing experience either. “Feed them really slowly. And don’t get attached!” I told her. Within that first week she named them Sage and Onion. I would go to her house to pick them up after work and see Yausan and Derek each with a happily fed rabbit asleep on their lap while watching TV. I hoped even more now that they would survive.
A few websites recommended the use of Avipro, a powdered probiotic useful for stressed, ailing animals. I have used it before with good results on sick chickens so I fed 1ml daily to the rabbits in the morning. Then I read in another website that I could add a small amount of powder to each milk feed, which made life a bit easier! Also, after each feed, you should encourage the rabbit to poo and wee by stroking their nether regions with warm moistened cotton wool to imitate the mother washing them. More often than not, the babies would obligingly wee, and wow, it was quite a lot of wee! Old towels were quite useful when it came to feeding them, not only for cuddling them to keep them warm, but also for the milk and wee spills!
At the end of their first week, the babies grew furrier and their ears got longer. Around 10 days is an important occasion as that’s when the eyes open. Onion’s opened first, and it happened after a feed!
Sage’s eyes opened the next day. He is slightly smaller than Onion but he is a strong feeder.
With their eyes open, they became more active and curious. The bathtub when lined with a towel, became a good place to let them have a run, and as they are producing more wee and poo, a plastic brooder type box seemed more practical than cardboard. They were taking increasing amounts of milk, and also nibbling at hay. We dropped to 3 meals a day. I was looking forward to them coming off milk and bought them some junior rabbit pellets.
However, Sage and Onion didn’t appear interested in the pellets till they were almost 5 weeks old. I had also bought a hay based junior rabbit food (Nature’s Touch) to try to tempt them, so now they are on two types of rabbit food, the spoilt bunnies!
Apparently, hand reared rabbits can be prone to tummy problems, so its recommended not to introduce any fresh veg to them till 4 months of age, and even then to introduce tiny amounts. Perhaps it was the weaning, but one morning Sage wasn’t taking his milk as usual and seemed quieter. I didn’t waste any time getting a vet appointment as young rabbits can go downhill quickly. As it turned out, by the time we packed the rabbits into the car, Sage was back to normal, but we continued to the vets for a once over. He confirmed Sage was ok, and that he was a buck and Onion was a girl! As soon as Sage’s testicles appear (approx 4 months), he and Onion will be neutered to avoid any unwanted pregnancies.
Now the rabbits are eating well, milk feeds dropped to two, and then one feed in the evening around 7 weeks. I had expected to stop feeding milk by now, but Sage and Onion had other ideas. They loved their milk feeds and where they were once helpless and had to be encouraged to feed, they were now jostling for the syringe, which has now upgraded to a 2.5ml size. They can take anything from 20-35ml in a sitting and I was hoping that they would become disinterested in milk. In the end, I made the milk thinner and reduced the amount available till we eventually stopped feeding milk at 8 weeks. One website had mentioned that mother rabbits would actually continue feeding babies till 8 weeks which made me feel better about it.
Sage and Onion continued to grow; their coats grew increasingly fluffy and their ears lopped (their mother was a Lionhead cross). Being hand reared they were very friendly and would make amazing pets for the right person. I had enjoyed the experience of bringing them up against the odds but the perfect home was waiting for them all this time. My sister had fallen in love with them and had looked after them at weekends – with no cats in the house, and no chickens in the garden, she could offer a better environment than me. I will be sad to see them go, but as she is local and will need a rabbit sitter when she goes on holiday, it won’t be a complete goodbye.
Sage and Onion at their new forever home, taking residence on the settee!
So…handrearing baby rabbits. Where possible, get mummy rabbit to do it as its hard work for humans and often unsuccessful. Avoid handling newborn rabbits as this causes them to be rejected in the first place, but if this happens, there’s a chance that the mother may accept them again if her scent is rubbed over them, using her soiled litter. In the event you need to handrear, here are some websites that I found useful. Good luck!
Also, have a look on my Facebook page for some video footage!