This is our 5th post in our Getting Started with Meat Rabbits series. You can use the following links to catch up on the entire series:
Feed & Water
Buying Breeding Stock
Once you have successfully bred your rabbits, you have a short 31-day gestation to wait for results. A breeding doe should always live alone in her own cage. Housing her in a cage with other does will cause problems and she, or the other does, will kill the kits.
Can you check for pregnancy?
We have never been successful checking for pregnancy in our rabbits, though I have read that some people can and do. We have tried many times, but it never has worked, so we just wait it out. We feel like it is such a short gestation anyway, that it isn’t worth the risk of us being wrong one way or the other.
Feeding during pregnancy:
It is important to keep your does in good body condition for optimal breeding, pregnancy, and kindling results.
If you have an overweight doe you need to feed her one cup of pellets (1/2 cup twice a day) and unlimited hay for the first three weeks and then give her unlimited pellets and hay for the last week and during lactation. If your doe is in good condition you can feed her unlimited pellets and hay through the pregnancy. If she is underweight you should wait to breed her, but if somehow she is now bred and is underweight then definitely give her unlimited pellets and hay throughout the pregnancy.
A rabbit needs to be able to build a nest to put her babies (kits) in to keep them warm and safe. She does this with hay and her own fur. If a rabbit is not given a place to build her nest she will just do her best to build it in the corner of the cage, but it will not be ideal and will lead to a higher loss of kits. So it is important to give her a nest box in which to build her nest. You can buy nest boxes, or you can make them yourself.
We make our own nest boxes with 1 x 12 wood. We avoid plywood in case the rabbits chew on it. The finished box is 15 in x 9 in x 9 in. Each side piece is 15×9. The front piece is 4×9 so the mama can easily get in and out. The back piece is 9×9. We put a resting board for the mama on the top of the back that is 5×9. We do not make the bottom of the box solid. We use hardware cloth to enclose the bottom. This makes it easier to keep the box clean. Before we give the nest box to an expecting doe we line the bottom with a piece of cardboard cut to fit tightly. Then we can replace the cardboard as needed to clean the box, and any moisture is able to dry out because of the hardware cloth under the box. Sometimes she chews up the cardboard to help with nest building, and that 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 give the nest box to the doe on day 28 of her pregnancy. We fill the box with hay before we put it in the cage. We also make sure to keep plenty of hay in the cage from then on so she can build her nest whenever she is ready. Most does wait to build until right before they kindle, but some take a few days to perfect their nest ahead of time.
The majority of does will kindle between day 31-33 of gestation. We have had them go as early as day 30 and as late as day 35, although the late ones are always stillborn in our experience.
Signs that your doe is getting ready to give birth (kindle):
The number one sign that you should look for is what we call “hay mustache-ing.” When a doe wants to start building her nest she will gather a bunch of hay in her mouth and hop around the cage with it. The hay will be sticking out a couple of inches on each side of her mouth and it looks like a mustache.
***Hay mustache -ing is a very important thing to watch for. It has saved a few litters in our time of raising rabbits. Twice now we have had the following scenario play out: we purchased a doe that was “not pregnant.” A couple weeks later when we went to feed her we noticed she was hay mustache-ing. Knowing what that means we gave her a nest box and a bunch of hay just to be safe. Sure enough, the next morning we had a surprise litter of kits born. Thankfully, because we gave her a nest box, they were all alive. Had we not, they probably wouldn’t have survived.
That being said, we also have had a doe that hay mustaches halfway through every pregnancy. We would give her a nest box and nothing would happen for two weeks, at which time she would finally kindle. For some reason the instinct kicked in early for that one, every time. So we learned to not give her a box until later.
So keep that in mind and pay attention to hay mustache-ing behavior.***
She will begin building a nest, whether there is a box or not. Sometimes even when there is a box they will try to build in a corner. We usually try pulling the nest out of the corner and putting all the hay in the box to encourage her where to go.
Doe trying to build nest in corner.
Once she begins to build a nest it could be a couple of days or just a couple of hours until she begins kindling. Each doe is different and as you get to know your does you will know what to expect from them.
Once her hay nest is how she wants it she will pull some fur from her belly and line the nest with it. Then she will begin to kindle. It can take a few hours for her to give birth to all the kits. She will go in and out of the nest during the process, giving birth and cleaning up the kits and herself. The important thing to remember is LEAVE HER ALONE. DO NOT open the cage or mess with her. You can quietly check on her every so often, but don’t mess with her or open her cage. Rabbits have strong prey instincts and will kill or abandon their babies if they think they are in danger. So I say again…leave her alone!
The exception to the leave-her-alone rule is if she gives birth to any of the kits outside of the nest box on the wire. If that happens you quietly and carefully reach in and tuck the kit into the nest. Most first-time kindlers will have their first one or two kits on the wire before they figure out what to do. Some does will give birth to the whole litter on the wire. Either way, if you can save them and put them in the nest the mother will likely go ahead and mother them properly.
A good breeding doe, with good strong mothering instincts, should put most of them in the nest the first time, and all of them in there from then on. You can lose a whole litter if they are born on the wire and freeze to death, so try to be around when a first time doe is kindling and check on her often. If any of the kits on the wire are dead, remove them as soon as possible because some does will get overzealous cleaning up their kits and can end up eating part of them, especially when they are dead.
When she is done kindling you will find the nest full of kits and a layer of her fur over top of them.
In the cold months if a doe doesn’t cover them well enough we will help her out by pulling the loose fur off her belly and putting it over them ourselves. It doesn’t hurt her because her body lets loose that fur naturally in preparation for giving birth.
You will know she is done because everything will be cleaned up and she will be laying out resting in the cage. As long as everything looks good don’t mess with the kits yet, not even to count them. Give her about 12 hours after kindling to settle in. Then carefully check the nest, count the kits and check they have been fed, and remove any stillborns that might be in there. Don’t expect to see the mom in the nest. Does only feed their kits twice a day and usually do it in private, so don’t be worried if you never see her interacting with the kits or getting in the nest at all. That is normal.
We will discuss more about checking on the kits, how to know if they have been fed, as well as what to do with them from birth to weaning in our next post in this series.