Wild newborn bunnies are kept in small, shallow nests in grassy areas near woodland, bushes, or out in the open. While an open space might seem like a dangerous place for a rabbit to set up home, predators are less likely to venture to exposed areas. So, when you stumble across a nest, it’s worrying to see a group of baby rabbits alone.
To keep a wild baby rabbit alive, you must determine whether the mother is around. Mother rabbits only return to the nest twice a day to feed their kits. If they are orphaned, you will need to provide a nest, maintain the right temperature, and provide a healthy diet. You will also need to stimulate urination and defecation and source nutritious cecotropes. Injured bunnies will need immediate veterinary care.
Fewer than 10% of orphaned wild rabbits survive longer than a week. Attempts to care for orphaned rabbits often do more harm than good, so proceed with caution if you find a nest with no mother in sight. You don’t want to intervene until you know that your help will make a difference.
How to Help A Wild Baby Rabbit Survive
Most wild baby rabbits aren’t orphaned. While your immediate reaction may be to call for help, this isn’t always necessary. A doe will never abandon her kits by choice. Death or environmental issues where the nest can’t be accessed are the only reasons why she wouldn’t be around.
As described by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, cottontail doe rabbits only return to the nest a few times a day to deter predators. Baby rabbits don’t have a scent until they get older. As predators can sniff out the doe, her presence puts her babies in danger.
The doe will leave her babies hidden and camouflaged in the nest to protect them, returning between dusk and dawn to feed her young.
Feeding is quick and only takes between 2-3 minutes, making it difficult to tell whether the baby rabbits are orphaned or not. If you suspect that a baby rabbit is orphaned, look out for the following signs:
- A sunken stomach, which indicates that the bunny isn’t feeding. Well-fed rabbits should have a full, rounded abdomen.
- The bunny doesn’t try to run away from you but seems sluggish and unhealthy.
- A healthy pink skin tone. Bunnies with wrinkled or thin, blue skin are likely to be starving.
- Vocalization indicates that the baby rabbit is frightened and hungry. Healthy rabbits are usually silent because they know that noise attracts predators.
To be sure whether the baby rabbits are orphaned, carry out the string test. For this, you’ll need a few pieces of cotton or string. Place them over the nest in a pattern you can easily remember (or take a picture) and leave it overnight.
If the string has moved in the morning, the mother rabbit has been back to feed her kits. If not, the bunnies are likely orphaned. At this point, you’ll need to call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
Build A Nest
If you know the mother is still caring for her babies, leave the nest alone. If you disturb a nest and discover that the doe is still around, remake it and leave the baby rabbits where you found them. Despite some misconceptions, a mother won’t abandon her kits if you touch them.
On the other hand, if the doe is no longer around, you’ll need to provide a nest for the baby rabbits to survive.
The nest’s primary purpose is to keep the kits warm. A mother rabbit builds her nest using fur, dry leaves, and grass. She then covers it using more dried grass and hair. Baby rabbits only live in the nest for three weeks, so you don’t need to provide a makeshift nest for long.
The University of Miami advises that creating a nest as close as possible to the one a mother rabbit would make is best. Use a shallow cardboard box and fill it with clean cotton wadding or bunny fur (if you can find some). Then, cover the top of the box with a small, light towel, allowing a little gap for air to get in.
Multiple orphaned bunnies will snuggle to keep warm, so you mustn’t use an electric heating pad as they can be dangerous.
However, if your orphaned bunny is on its own, you can provide heat using a warm water bottle wrapped in a soft towel. Ensure that the bunny can move away from the bottle if it gets too hot.
Maintain the Right Temperature
A baby rabbit’s body temperature is higher than ours. Bunnies need to feel warm to survive. If they get too cold too quickly, they will become unwell and may even stop moving.
To keep your orphaned bunnies healthy, keep the nest at 95-98 degrees for the first 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, you can lower the temperature by 3-5 degrees each day until you reach room temperature, which is around 68-72 degrees.
As a wild bunny grows older, protect it from extreme cold and heat. As described by Vetstream, rabbits are unable to sweat or pant and cannot dissipate efficiently. As a result, high temperatures can lead to life-threatening hyperthermia.
Feed the Wild Rabbits
Where the doe isn’t present, a baby rabbit will need hand feeding. Rabbits rely on milk to survive, so they should be fed kitten milk replacer or Meyenberg goat milk.
Cow’s milk might seem like a healthy choice, but it’s full of hormones, blood, pus, lactose, and traces of medication, which baby rabbits can’t digest. Rabbits are unable to vomit and, as a result, their sensitive stomachs can’t remove toxic substances from the body.
Milk is all a rabbit will consume for the first two weeks of its life. At two weeks, a bunny will start eating solids. From 4 weeks old, a bunny will eat the same food as its mother. However, milk will still play a vital part in the diet for the first six weeks, so make this a staple part of the bunny’s diet.
How to Make A Substitute Bunny Milk Formula
If you don’t have access to kitten milk replacer, you’ll need to make an orphaned bunny milk formula. It’s easy to do following this recipe:
- Mix one cup of goat milk with 56 grams of powdered goat milk.
- Add one tablespoon of sugar-free whipping cream to make the formula richer and contain more calories.
- Heat the formula to 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Leave the formula to cool slightly before feeding the rabbit.
While a pre-mixed milk replacement is much easier to use, the above recipe is a nutritious alternative when a ready-made formula isn’t available. It also contains the same vital nutrients as the mother rabbit’s milk so will help the bunny grow up strong and healthy.
How Many Times to Feed
Baby rabbits should be fed the following volumes of milk twice a day:
- Newborn to one week: feed between 22 ½ ml of milk per feeding.
- 1-2 weeks: feed between 5-7 ml of milk during per feeding. If the rabbit is particularly small, reduce the amount of milk to suit the size.
- 2-3 weeks: feed between 7-13 ml of milk per feeding.
- 3-6 weeks: feed between 13-15ml of milk per feeding.
Pay attention to how much the baby rabbit feeds as you may need to adjust the amount of milk given. Also, feed the baby rabbit at the same times each day to help form a solid routine.
How to Feed
Baby rabbits lay on their backs while feeding from their mothers. To help a baby rabbit to survive, you’ll need to replicate this process.
Before feeding, wrap your rabbit in a soft cloth or hand towel and lay it gently in your gap. Ensure the baby rabbit isn’t laying straight back but is sat slightly upright so that the fluid doesn’t fill its lungs.
The first and easiest way to feed your baby rabbit is by syringe. 1ml syringes are best for newborn kits, while 2ml syringes are suitable for rabbits over three weeks old. To use, simply draw the right amount of milk out and release it slowly into the corner of its mouth.
However, you might find that the baby rabbit takes to a bottle better. When using a bottle, make sure it is completely sterile before use and place the nipple into the corner of the rabbit’s mouth. Slowly release the milk quantity to the correct level – you mustn’t overfeed.
Finally, a small, shallow dish is ideal for bunnies over two weeks old. Raise it about an inch off the floor and encourage the bunny to lap the formula by placing a drop or two onto your fingers. Never leave the dish out as the bunny could drown.
Whichever way you choose to feed, be careful to go at the rabbit’s pace as feeding it too quickly can lead to suffocation.
Stimulate Urination and Defecation
Baby rabbits can’t release urine or feces until they open their eyes after ten days. In the wild, a mother rabbit stimulates her baby’s belly and anogenital region with her tongue. Where a doe is absent, you’ll need to help the rabbit relieve itself each time it’s fed. Follow these steps to help your orphaned rabbit urinate and defecate:
- With sanitized hands, wet a cotton ball with lukewarm water.
- Pop the bunny on its back, keeping it secure, and gently rub its genital area and abdomen. After a little while, the rabbit should begin to relieve itself.
- Clean up any urine or poop with a new, clean cotton ball.
- Make sure the bunny’s urine and feces look healthy and regular. If not, seek help.
After the bunny opens its eyes, it will begin to urinate and defective for itself. But this step is an important one, as newborn rabbits can become unwell if it’s unable to empty its bladder and bowels.
Cecotropes are an essential part of any rabbit’s diet. They’re grape-like droppings formed in the cecum and provide a range of nutrients and good bacteria that protect against pathogens.
Immediately after producing them from the anus, rabbits eat the cecotropes. While unpleasant to us humans, this is entirely normal. If your bunny is producing and consuming them naturally, there’s nothing else for you to do.
However, if no cecotropes are being produced, sourcing them from a healthy adult rabbit provides a rich source of nutrients to help the bunny grow strong and healthy.
To get them into the newborn bunny’s digestive system, mix them with kitten milk replacer and feed the rabbit as per the recommended amount for its size and age.
Caring for An Injured Wild Baby Rabbit
Finding an injured rabbit adds another layer of complexity. An orphaned wild rabbit’s survival rate is already low, so you’ll need to move quickly to save the rabbit from further pain and distress.
In any case, calling a wildlife rehabilitator is essential. In the meantime. follow these care tips for the most common types of injuries:
Rabbit Is Dragging Back Legs
If a wild orphaned bunny is dragging its back legs, it’s likely suffering from a spinal cord injury, paralysis, or hind leg weakness. Though, muscle failure is attributed to old age, so this is an unlikely cause of a newborn bunny’s poor back leg function.
If you know the bunny hasn’t suffered a broken spine, the following causes are possible:
- A disease, such as cancer and spinal osteoarthritis, which can wear down the spine over time.
- Parasitic, bacterial, or fungal infection. Encephalitozoon cuniculi is one of the most common types of parasitic infection.
- Natural and human-made toxins.
- Trauma to the spine. This could be from a predator or someone unknowingly stepping on the nest.
If you’ve already determined that the mother rabbit is no longer around, you’ll need to take the bunny to the vet to be checked over. Prognosis depends on the amount of damage that has occurred.
If the damage is irreversible, the rabbit won’t be able to survive in the wild and may need constant human car. Sometimes, euthanasia is the kindest outcome where the rabbit has no quality of life.
Rabbit Keeps Falling Over
A newborn bunny may fall over for a variety of reasons. Muscle spasms, bacterial and parasitic infections, ear infections, and trauma can cause a rabbit to develop head tilt. Head tilt often gives the illusion that the rabbit is drunk as it struggles to stand.
One of the biggest problems with head tilt is that the bunny struggles to eat on its own. Head tilt caused by E. cuniculi is incurable. Medications can help manage the disease, but it is contagious, so the litter must be separated.
Head trauma and infections are other common causes of unbalance in baby rabbits. The latter is likely to cause problems throughout the bunny’s life, whereas bacterial and parasitic diseases are usually easy to treat with antibiotics.
Contact with wild rabbits or dirty and unsanitary conditions are the most likely causes in newborn rabbits. While rarely fatal, it is serious and must be treated by a vet.
Rabbit Is Lethargic
Dehydration and starvation are the most common causes of lethargy – especially if the mother has been gone a while. Similarly, if a baby rabbit refuses to eat, lethargy is likely to follow.
Without proper nutrition, baby rabbits have little energy and will spend most of their time resting to conserve what they do have. When this happens, you won’t see the bunny move very often, which is a case for concern in itself.
Statis, which is the slowing of food through the GI tract, is another cause of tiredness and low energy. Symptoms include excessive gas and soft stools or diarrhea. The bunny might also exhibit signs of pain, like teeth grinding and a hunched posture.
Lethargy is also an indication of other, more serious health problems, so have the bunny checked over in case of something else is going on.
Rabbit Isn’t Moving
If the orphaned baby rabbit you’ve found isn’t moving, check to see if it’s still breathing. If the rabbit has its head arched back and mouth open, it’s probably too late to save it. However, if the bunny hasn’t reached this state, it’s possible to revitalize it.
The first step is to keep it warm, especially if the animal is cold to touch. Keep it close to you to transfer your body heat or wrap it in a soft hand towel until it starts to wriggle and show signs of life.
Once the bunny has perked up, place it back into the nest to recuperate. If there is more than one rabbit, they will huddle together to keep warm. Otherwise, provide extra heat using safe methods to help the bunny maintain a healthy body temperature.
If the mother is still alive and you’ve carried out the above steps, place the bunny back into the nest and cover it with grass. Touching the nest won’t cause the mother to abandon the babies. Instead, she will return to feed them as nature intends.
Rabbit Has Been Attacked
Occasionally, you might find that a predator has attacked a baby rabbit. Even if the mother is present, the bunny will need help to prevent the wound from becoming infected; otherwise, it will only worsen.
If the wound looks fresh, it’s possible to clean it using an antiseptic solution to prevent infection. But if the injury appears old, swollen, yellow, or is oozing pus, it’s best to take the bunny to a vet for antibiotics.
Once the injury has been successfully treated, it should be safe to place the baby rabbit back into the nest. The vet will provide the bunny with milk to tide it over until the mother returns.
Caring for wild baby rabbits is a challenging task and requires around the clock attention. Newbies shouldn’t attempt any form of care without expert advice – and even then, success isn’t guaranteed. If the rabbits are orphaned, they’re unlikely to survive without their mother. However, some baby bunnies with health issues simply need a helping hand.