For those of you unfamiliar with rabbits, kindling is the word referring to them giving birth. Cows calve, horses foal, pigs farrow, sheep lamb, and rabbits kindle.
Our rabbit gestations have ranged from 31-33 days. We have found that whatever gestation a doe has with a certain buck she will always have the same gestation when bred to that buck. If bred to a different buck it might change. Of course, we always keep a close eye on a doe as she closes in on the date we think she will kindle, just in case something happens and she goes early.
We feed our does 1 cup of feed a day during the first 3 weeks of pregnancy. The last week of pregnancy and after they kindle they are fed unlimited feed until the kits are weaned (how we handle weaning will be discussed in a later post).
We build our own nest boxes. We make them 15 in. x 9 in. x 9 in. We put a top on the back section to give the mama a place to get away from demanding kits once the kits are able to get out. That little area measures 5 in. x 9 in. The bottom of the nest box is not wood, it has screen material stapled onto it. We then cut cardboard sized appropriately for the bottom of the box. We cut several of them at a time and have them ready for when we need them. They are used to line the bottom of the box over the screen. This makes it easy to clean and sanitize the boxes between litters, and the screen allows any moisture to drain (if any bunnies urinate in the nest box – though yes it does get absorbed into the cardboard too). Sometimes the mama chews up the cardboard and adds it to her building of her nest, which is fine. But be aware: we did have one litter end up directly on the bottom of the box with no hay, fur, or cardboard between them and the hardware cloth despite an intricately built nest by the mama. Unfortunately, on a night that the temperatures dropped to 35F they all froze to death because there was nothing insulating them underneath. It has only happened to us once in all the years of building our nests this way, but it is worth noting.
We put the nest box in the cage on day 28 or 29 of gestation. We load it full of hay before we put it in. Most of our does just eat the hay and ignore the box until they are 12 hours or less from giving birth and then they rush around using the hay to build the nest. RIGHT before they give birth (and after they give birth as well) they pull fur off their bellies to line the nest with and cover the kits with. If a doe doesn’t pull fur to cover the kits we will pull it for her and put it in the nest. This doesn’t hurt them as something in their bodies allows this fur to be easily released for this exact purpose.
Sometimes does use the nest box as a bathroom in the days before giving birth. This is annoying. But this is the benefit of the cardboard bottom – we can change it out daily so that when the time comes she has a clean box.
When a doe is getting close to giving birth we check on her often. Especially first-time mothers. We do it quietly so as not to disturb them. We usually try to plan to be home the day a doe is due (and for sure a first time doe) and we go out to the barn quietly every 30 minutes or so. If she is pulling fur and seems to be in labor we will go every 10 minutes. We do not mess with her at all. We let her do her thing. The reason we check on her so often is to prevent kits on the wire.
Every single first-time kindling doe we have had (except one), and even some non-first timers, have given birth to at least one baby on the wire before she figured out what was going on and got into the nest. That baby is unable to get into the nest and the mother is unable to put her in the nest. It is not like a dog that can pick up the baby and put it where it goes. Kits on the wire will freeze to death within 10 minutes to 1 hour of being born depending on the temperature of the cage. The mother won’t cuddle it or try to save it at all. This is why it is important to check so often, especially with first-timers. If/when a kit is found on the wire we pull it out and check it over. If it is alive we warm it up quickly by putting it against our body heat. Once it is warmed sufficiently (and once there are more kits either in the box or having been warmed by us) we tuck it/them carefully into the nest with the others and cover them all with the fur.
Sometimes a doe does not build her nest, does not pull fur, and gives birth to all the kits on the wire. We have found in these situations that if we catch it soon enough and save the kits, build the nest for her, put them in the nest, and cover them with her fur, she will nurse them and take over mothering them. That has always been the case for us, but I know a lot of people whose rabbits will just reject them entirely. So they must be watched carefully to be sure they aren’t rejecting the kits. Which brings me to the next step in this process, checking to be sure the doe is feeding the kits.
Once she has given birth and all the kits are tucked away nicely in the box we do a quick count and remove any stillborns. We try to do this with as little distress to the mother as possible. Then we leave them alone to settle until the likely time the mom will feed them.
Does only feed their kits twice a day. They do nothing with them the rest of the time. They hop in the box sometime in the evening (we have found that with ours that happens usually between 7pm and 10 pm) and feed them, then cover them back up. They then feed them again in the morning (for us that usually happens between 6am-10am) and cover them up again. That is the full extent of the mother’s time with the kits in the nest box.
So we check on the kits after what should be their first feeding to see if they have what we call “frog bellies.” If a kit has been fed it is obvious as it will have a big, round tummy. For the first few days we check the kits morning and night for frog bellies to be sure the doe has accepted them and is feeding them. When we are checking we don’t even usually take the nest box out of the cage (though we have done that with no problems). We pull it to the door and do our check right there with the kits in the box and mama watching. We have never had issues with the does being upset by our checks or being aggressive with us. But I have heard that it is possible.
Sometimes you will find that one of the kits does not have a frog belly but all the rest do. We will discuss what we do in this case, as well as go into how we manage the litter from birth until weaning in the next post in this series.
See our updated series: Managing Rabbits Series Round 2
I’m trying a link-up this week, from “Our Simple Farm.”