Care and Feeding of Orphaned Domestic Rabbits

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.
University of Miami Biology Department

The following information is for DOMESTIC RABBITS ONLY. If you are concerned about apparently orphaned wild rabbits, please link to this site on wild baby cottontails, which are completely different in their needs.

Before you take the baby domestic rabbits into your care and attempt to bottle feed them, please consider...

Unless the mother rabbit is known to be dead, there is a good chance that she is feeding her babies, even if she seems to be ignoring them. A mother rabbit does not constantly tend to her babies the way a mother carnivore does. Rabbit mamas feed their babies only twice per day, and then leave them alone. This is normal and natural: in the wild, a mother rabbit not in the process of feeding her offpsring stays as far away from the nest as possible to avoid attracting predators to her babies.

If mama rabbit seems to be "ignoring" her litter, check their condition before you interfere. If the babies' tummies are round and full-looking (you sometimes can see a whitish patch where the milk-filled stomach shows through the thin skin of the belly), they are warm, their skin is a healthy, dark pink, and not overly wrinkled, and they are sleeping calmly in the nest, then mama is feeding them. If the babies are very wrinkled, cold, bluish in color, have shrunken bellies, and perhaps are even crawling around looking for mama (instead of nest-sleeping, as a well-fed baby should), then you may have to intervene.

Before handling the babies, wash your hands well with disinfectant soap and hot water. Your hands are covered with bacteria, no matter how clean they may seem, and these can be dangerous to babies whose immune systems are not yet mature enough to control bacterial growth, should harmful microbes be ingested. Once they're clean, rub your hands in a bit of clean, fresh hay and on mama's fur to scent your hands.

If the mama bunny is healthy and active, put the babies in a secure nest box in a place easily accessible to her. The box should be shallow and long enough for mama to jump in without stomping on her babies, but too tall for the babies to accidentally crawl out. Line the bottom of the box with a soft towel (no loose strings or holes! These can tangle around tiny necks or limbs and cause life-threatening injury or death!). Place a thick (3") layer of soft, grass hay or straw on top of the towel, and make a small "well" in the hay. If the mama has already built a nest of her fur, place the fur in the "well" and gently transfer the babies into the nest. If she did not pluck any fur for a nest, and if she is calm, you may be able to gently clip some away from her chest (Not too much! A handful is fine.) and line the well of the straw nest with it.

Before you handle the nest and babies, love and stroke mama rabbit to calm her. She is unlikely to be disturbed by your activities if she is loved, and trusts you.

Make sure mama sees the babies in the nest and can easily join them. Place the box and mama in a quiet, private place (a clean, disinfected bathroom with a baby gate in the doorway is a good choice) and let her get acquainted with her surroundings and her family's location.

If the mama has been separated from the babies for more than 24 hours, and refuses to feed them, you can try to gently, but firmly hold her over the babies until they can get a meal. Stroke the mama, talk to her gently and love her, making her feel secure. After the first feeding, you probably won't have to do this again. She will take care of the babies on her own.

If the mother rabbit is very ill, dead, or exhibiting aggression towards her babies, you may have to remove them and feed them without her help. Before you take on this formidable task, consider the following:

If the babies really are orphans or have been abandoned by their mother, here's a protocol that's been successful for us.

1. Keep the babies in a warm (about 75o - 78o Farenheit), quiet place in a nest similar to the one described above. (Bunny fur is the best lining, but clean cotton wadding will do as a substitute. Just be sure the babies do not get tangled in it.) DO NOT use an electric heating pad. Two or more babies usually are able to snuggle and keep each other warm if they have a good, padded nest. If there's only one baby, a warm water bottle wrapped in a soft towel can provide an excellent artificial heat source, but be sure the baby can crawl away from the bottle if it feels too warm.

2. The nest box should be at ground level, in a room where small children and pets are not allowed (at least until the babies are eating solid food and out of the nest). For the first few days, keep the room relatively dimly lit and quiet.

Feeding the Babies

Formula and feeding supplies

You will need: Mix ingredients together in a lidded container, and shake very well until colostrum is dissolved. It's best to mix this a few hours in advance so that the colostrum has time to soften and suspend easily.
Heat the formula to about 105o Farenheit (you can gauge this with a common, quick-read plastic rectal thermometer (unused, or fully sterilized!) from any pharmacy.) and keep it warm in a water bath while you feed the babies. They are generally more eager to accept warm formula.

Feeding Procedure

The most important thing to avoid is aspiration (inhalation) of formula by the babies. The smallest drop of formula in the lungs can cause fatal pneumonia within a few hours.

How much to feed?

The following information on feeding quantities are from the House Rabbit Society FAQ on Feeding Orphaned Baby Rabbits, which is an excellent source of additional information on this topic.

  • Newborn to One Week: two - two and a half cc/ml each feeding (two feedings per day).
  • One to two weeks: 5-7 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings per day). The amount will depending on bunny, and may be much LESS if the baby is small.
  • Two to three weeks: 7-13 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings). Domestic rabbits' eyes open at about 10 days of age. Start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets and water in a shallow dish.

  • Three to six weeks: 13-15 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings) As always, quantity may be LESS depending on the size of the rabbit.


    A domestic rabbit feeds her babies for about 8 weeks, gradually decreasing the frequency of feedings until they lose interest. Your baby bunnies will start to nibble on pellets and solid food at about the age of two to three weeks, but this does NOT mean they are ready to be weaned. In fact, it's even more important that you continue feeding colostrum-enhanced formula to help control the growth of potentially harmful pathogens as the babies introduce new bacteria into their systems.

    If the babies still beg for nursing by the age of six - eight weeks, you can begin to dilute the formula with clean drinking water. Start with 25% water to 75% formula, and gradually decrease the percentage of milk until the babies lose interest. It's less traumatic for you and the babies to gradually wean them this way. (And it's a great little trick taught to me by my own pediatrician father, Geza J. Krempels, M.D.)


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