Many people purchase or adopt rabbits from sources that do not insist on
spay/neuter beforehand, and even though the unsuspecting folks are assured
that "they're both boys" or "they're both girls", and that the mounting
behavior they observe is "just play"--we get surprises. If you come out
one morning to find that your rabbit has given birth to a litter of babies,
there are several steps you must take to ensure her health and the health
and survival of her babies.
Step 1. Separate the parent rabbits so that the male can
see/hear/interact with his mate, but not mate with her.
- Keep the male
nearby and able to nuzzle his mate through a physical barrier, if
possible. Rabbits form very
strong bonds with their mates, and separation can not only create unwanted
stress and sadness for the rabbits, but also make it difficult to
reintroduce the parents once they are spayed/neutered. Be sure mama and
papa are able to interact, though they must not be allowed to mate again.
Rabbits are "induced ovulators": the very act of mating induces ovulation,
and makes pregnancy almost assured.
- You're separating papa not because he might harm the babies (many
rabbit fathers are very gentle and loving with baby rabbits), but because
he can impregnate the mother again within hours after the birth. Because
rabbit gestation is only 28 - 31 days, this means she'll give birth again
before her first litter is weaned. It doesn't take much math to figure
out that this is not good for the mother's health, nor that of either of
Step 2. Provide mama and her babies with a quiet, sheltered
place where they will not be disturbed.
Step 3. Check the national House Rabbit Society web site's VETERINARIAN REFERRAL
LISTINGS, find a rabbit-experienced vet near you, and set up an
appointment to have papa neutered ASAP.
- A seldom-used bathroom with a
darkened corner for the nest box is ideal.
- If mama has pulled her fur, it's
because she is planning to use it to line the nest. If she hasn't made the
nest yet, you can do it for her, and then place the babies in the nest.
If mama has already made a nest, then leave it intact, and simply move it
to the nest box.
- A covered litterbox (the type used for cats) makes a good nest box. It
should be lined with a towel on the bottom (but make
sure the towel has no loose
strings or holes, since babies can get tangled and strangled!) topped with a layer
of soft hay or straw. The babies in their nest should be placed on top of
the hay. Make sure mama sees where her babies are, and then let her
choose what to do.
- The box should be high enough so that the babies can't crawl out, but
low enough to allow mama to easily hop in to nurse and hop out when she wants
to get away.
- NOTE THAT MAMA WILL NURSE ONLY ONCE OR TWICE PER DAY, AND THEN
THE BABIES. This does not mean that she has abandoned them. She is
merely following her instinct to stay away from the nest to avoid
drawing the attention of predators.
- Don't assume that because you don't see her feeding the babies that
she has abandoned them. It is her natural instinct to stay away from the
nest. If the babies are warm and wiggly, and their bellies are round, you should not
Bottle feeding almost invariably does more harm than good!
- If the babies seem cold, shrunken, lethargic, and are more bluish than
a healthy, pink color, mama might not be feeding them. Only then should you
consider what to do about feeding an orphaned litter.
Step 4. Make sure mama has a varied bounty of unlimited
food and water.
The sooner he's neutered, the
sooner he'll be healed and ready to rejoin his family.
- Be sure to keep
papa separated from mama until there's no further danger of pregnancy:
viable sperm can live in his internal reproductive tubes for three weeks
(some vets believe it may be even longer!).
Step 5. Give mama a few weeks to recover from nursing once the babies are
weaned, and then have
her spayed by a competent rabbit vet.
- Feed mama unlimited pellets, leafy green vegetables and grass
hay, and be sure she always has a plentiful supply of clean, fresh water.
- The babies will begin to nibble at solid food as early as two
weeks of age. However, they must not be weaned for a FULL EIGHT WEEKS
- As rabbits begin to wean (between the ages of four to five
weeks), they begin to ingest bacteria that will eventually become part
of their normal gut "flora." At the same time, the pH of the intestine
is changing, and the babies are ingesting many potentially harmful
- Mother's milk is designed to provide the babies with antibodies
to kill pathogens (disease-causing agents) they ingest, and its pH
changes as the babies get older. It is perfectly balanced to allow
- Babies who are weaned younger than 8 weeks suffer a very high risk of
enteritis (inflammation of the intestinal lining, resulting in fatal
diarrhea), especially when stressed (as by the separation from family and
introduction into a new home!). Don't subject the babies to an early
death simply because they are "cute" at four weeks, and more appealing to
potential adopters. A serious adopter will not mind waiting until the
baby is fully weaned and ready to start life away from mama.
Step 6. Buy a copy of The House Rabbit Handbook by Marinell
It's available at most major bookstores for under $10, and is
the most accurate, up-to-date rabbit book available. For more information
on rabbit care, visit the House Rabbit
Society, where volunteers are online to answer all your rabbit-related
- Bring papa along for the ride, since
the shared stress of hospitalization will help seal their bond and make it
easier to reintroduce them at home. Spayed/neutered rabbits live longer,
healthier lives, and can live together in snuggling bliss without the risk
of unwanted litters or the constant stress of sexual frustration if only
one is neutered or spayed.
- Unspayed, unbred female rabbits have a very high risk of
uterine/ovarian cancers, so even though papa is neutered, it is best
to have mama spayed, too. Just give her plenty of time to recover
after the babies are weaned.
- Depending on breed, rabbits reach sexual maturity at the age of 3-5
months (males) or 5-8 months (females). Even before this time, however,
some will begin to exert their more dominant personalities, and will fight
with their littermates. When fighting starts, it's time to spay/neuter.
- Males can be neutered as soon as the testicles descend (usually at
the age of 3-4 months).
- Females can be spayed as young as five
months of age, but I personally prefer to wait until they are at least nine
months old, since estrogen is involved in the normal development of the
skeleton. Although no data exist to link early spays with osteoporosis
later in life, I personally prefer to err on the side of caution until we
know more about this potential problem.
Return to RABBIT HEALTH CENTRAL
Visit the H.A.R.E.
Visit the National House Rabbit Society