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You have a doe with a nest full of hay, fur, and newborn kits. Now what do you do?
Once she has had time to settle after giving birth, usually about 12 hours, you need to check on the kits. Some does are more tolerant of this than others. Be careful, be quiet, and don’t make sudden movements. We usually pull the nest box to the front of the cage and pull the fur out of the way to see the kits.
If it is cold out you need to be careful not to let the kits get chilled. They stay warm with a combination of cuddling together for body heat, and the fur covering them. So uncovering them, and separating them from the warmth of one another are ways you might accidentally chill them. So if it is cold, work fast and try to keep them in groups.
The kits are usually in a clump way at the back of the nest. We pull them out one by one, checking them and piling them together in a clump at the front of the nest. Then we move them back to the back again and cover them back up.
As we pull each one out we are counting them and checking to see that each one:
- is alive
- doesn’t have any injuries
- has been fed
Is Alive: It is common for rabbits to have stillborns, or to have kits die in the first few days. When we find a dead kit in the nest we remove and dispose of it immediately to keep the nest healthy.
Doesn’t Have Any Injuries: Sometimes an overzealous doe will accidentally chew on her kits when she is cleaning them after delivery. The most common place is on the ears of the kit, but there can be other places as well. If a kit is injured a decision needs to be made as to the extent of the injury and the chance of survival. Sometimes the best thing for the animal is to be put down so it doesn’t suffer. Minor injuries just need to be kept clean and given a chance to heal. But putting ointments/medication on the wound could make the doe reject the kit, so it is best if you can avoid it.
Has Been Fed: Does feed their kits twice a day, usually about 12 hours apart, in the morning and evening. We find most of our does feed around 9-10 pm and 9 am. The kit will have a very round belly if it has been fed, called a “frog belly.” It is easiest to see the frog bellies if you check the kits soon after you think she has fed them, but they should be apparent for up to a few hours after.
If you find you have a kit that is not being fed you might have to force her to feed it. We do this by taking the doe out of the cage onto our lap or a tabletop. Then we put the kit belly up underneath her and make sure it latches on and gets a chance to eat. Some people do this in the opposite way, with the doe on her back and the kit laid onto her belly. We find the does really hate this and the battle is not worth it. It has always worked well for us to do it with the doe right side up. Plus, the kits are naturally used to eating on their backs, so it seems the best way to feed them.
Sometimes, if a kit is continuing to not get fed you will have to do the force feeding for a few days in a row. But most of the time one or two feeding is enough to get them going and vigorous enough to eat themselves.
We check on our kits every day for the first 4-5 days to be sure they are all eating, healthy, and growing well. It is amazing to see how quickly they grow and change.
We do not hand rear orphaned or injured kits. Kits under two weeks of age have an extremely low chance of survival when hand reared. I have never heard of or seen one that survived, and that is from experience with both domestic and wildlife rehab kits.
But there is an option of what to do with orphaned kits. We purposefully breed two of our does within 24-48 hours of each other so they will kindle very close to the same time. We have had excellent success with fostering kits over from one mother to another mother as long as the kits are within a few days of the same age. As you can see they change and grow quickly so you have to be careful not to try to foster if there is a big difference in size.
We also foster over if one doe has a very large or small litter. For example, sometimes we have had first time does that only have 1-2 surviving kits. A litter that small will have a very hard time staying warm. So if we have another doe that kindled close to the same time we will foster those kits over to that mother and let the other mother’s milk dry up and then re-breed her. Or, sometimes we have a doe that has a huge litter of 13, and another doe kindles the next day with only 5. In that case we will foster 4 kits over so that each litter has 9 kits in it. It will help ease the pressure for the doe to have to feed so many, and they will grow more evenly.
To foster a kit over simply take the kit you want to switch over and gently rub it across the side of the new mother to get some of her scent on it and then tuck it in with her kits in the nest and cover them all with her fur. We have never had a doe reject a kit put in her nest in this way. But we always do the foster move-over in the first few days of life.
For the most part, once they survive the first few days they are likely to survive to weaning. So after day 4 or 5 we stretch out our checks to twice a week or so. By one week of age, they are fully covered with fur, but their eyes are still closed.
On the 9th day it is time to clean out the nest box. Quite a bit of mess can gather in the first 9 days. Their eyes open on day 10 and it is good to have them opening in a clean environment. To do this bring a dishpan, or properly sized box to the cage. Take all the clean fur out and put it in the box, then put all the kits on top of it. Careful moving the kits, they are surprisingly hard to keep in your hand. It is best if you have two people for this process, one to clean the nest, the other to take care of the kits. Kits have very sporadic and spastic movements and can easily jerk themselves right up and out of a box. Remove all the dirty hay and fur from the box. If you are using a cardboard nest liner like we discussed in our Pregnancy and Kindling post then remove that as well. Put a new cardboard liner in and then using fresh hay create a nice nest with a recessed area in it for the kits to go in. Carefully move the kits back over and re-cover them with the fur you saved. If it is cold you need to move very quickly so the kits don’t get chilled.
When their eyes are opening sometimes they can get a bit crusty or stuck shut. If this happens just take a warm wet cloth and gently wipe it over the eye to moisten the crust and help it open.
By two to three weeks the kits have entered the oh-so-cute phase. Plan to spend a lot of time standing in front of the cage adoring how cute they are – it’s good for your soul. ;-)
Around 4 weeks of age (depending on the weather) they will be spending little to no time in the nest and the box can be removed. In colder weather leave it longer, in warmer weather maybe shorter. Let the kits behavior decide. If they are never in it and it is just taking up needed space then it should definitely go. They will still cuddle together for warmth and comfort.
At 5 weeks of age, give your doe a physical exam, if she is in good health and at a good weight then you can re-breed her. Sometimes, waiting too long between re-breedings can make it difficult to get the doe pregnant again. However, an unhealthy or underweight doe should NOT be re-bred at 5 weeks postpartum. She needs time to regain weight and get healthy before she is re-bred.
Once the kits reach 6 weeks of age the cage is getting very crowded and they are eating and drinking on their own. It is time for them to leave their mama.
We will discuss how to wean your rabbits in our next post in this series.