Rabbit mothers nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day. They will be in the nest or nest box early in the morning and then again in the evening. The milk is very rich and the babies fill up to capacity within minutes. Mother rabbits do not sit on the babies to keep them warm, as do some mammals and birds. They build a nest with fur and grasses, which helps to keep the babies warm in between feedings. Do not force a mother rabbit to sit in the nest box.
You can pick up the babies and see if they are feeding by checking the size of their stomachs (should not be sunken in), the pinkness of their skin, activity level (they should not be blue in color, cold, or sluggish in movement) and the amount of time that you hear them crying (baby bunnies should be quiet most of the day). If warm, and their stomachs are not sunken, leave them be. If they are crying constantly then they are not getting fed. If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and the mother is nowhere to be seen, DO NOT disturb them - this is normal. By removing them from the nest you are greatly reducing their chances of survival. The wild bunny mom only feeds in the middle of the night; she leaves her babies all day to not alert predators, so don’t assume she is not caring for them and take them from her!
In the rare situation that you have an orphaned bunny, such as when a wild bunny's mom is killed or when a domestic rabbit refuses to care for her young, you may try feeding with kitten milk replacer. Remember to feed ONLY TWICE A DAY. Overfeeding is a leading cause of death in these youngsters as it results in fatal intestinal disease. Provide a soft nest area in a box with clean towels, and cover the babies so it is dark. Do not provide extra heat if the room temperature is at least 65 -70°F because excessive heat can be fatal. If the room is cooler, then you may place a heating pad on a low setting under no more than HALF of the nest so the bunny can move to a cooler area if it gets too warm; however, don’t use heat for wild rabbits if they are furred. If this is a wild rabbit, handle it ONLY when feeding as excessive handling can be extremely stressful and potentially fatal, and get them to a rehabber as soon as possible.
You can use kitten milk replacer, which is available at most pet stores for the hand-feeding formula. You can use regular goat's milk until you get kitten milk replacer to mix in. Do not use Esbilac, any puppy formulas, cream, or low fat formulas. Formulas vary per region. Make it very warm.
The following is a guideline for the daily amount to feed a wild bunny or a domestic bunny that will be approximately 5 lbs as an adult. You can increase the amounts as needed for larger breeds. Take the DAILY amount listed and divide it into two feedings. Feeding of true orphans will vary so much depending on type of rabbit. FEED TWICE A DAY ONLY for healthy babies. It may be easiest to start with a 3 cc/ml syringe or an eyedropper. Feed only with the bunny sitting upright, and point the syringe down towards the bottom or side of his mouth so that if too much comes out, the baby does not aspirate. At first, they may only take a few drops at one feeding until they are not stressed and used to this.
For wild orphans, first check with your humane society and state natural resource contacts below to find a rehabber as the wild orphans really need a professional. Wild bunnies should NOT be fed at home as most will die in inexperienced hands and without the mother's milk. They need a rehabber. Try this rehabber site or search the web for “wild rabbit rehabbers (and your city or state).” Most wild bunnies fed at home should never have been picked up in the first place.
- Newborn to one week: 2 - 2+1/2 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings).
- 1-2 weeks: 5-7 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings) (depending on bunny, may be much LESS if smaller rabbit).
- 2-3 weeks: 7-13 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings). Domestic eyes open at about 10 days of age. Start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets and water (always provide greens for wild ones).
- 3-6 weeks: 13-15 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings--again, may be LESS depending on size of rabbit! A cottontail will take much less.)
Domestics are weaned about 6 weeks. Cottontails wean and release about 4 weeks and jackrabbits much later (9+ weeks).
If you have a healthy adult rabbit at home and you can collect cecotropes (the soft brown droppings that the rabbit usually eats) then these can be mixed with kitten milk replacer to give the baby bunny normal bacteria for its intestinal tract. Only one cecotrope per day for 4-5 days is needed. If you don’t have access to cecotropes, add a pinch of acidophilus (a probiotic) to the formula to promote healthy gut flora. This is particularly important for rabbits under one week of age.
After each feeding, if his eyes are still closed, it is important to try to make him defecate and urinate to keep the intestinal tract and urinary system running smoothly. This is not needed for jackrabbits or bunnies whose eyes are open. Use a cotton ball moistened with warm water and gently stroke the anal area front to tail until the bunny starts producing stool and urine, and keep stroking until the bunny stops. You are reproducing the behavior of the mother rabbit who would lick her young to stimulate them to go and to keep the nest clean.
As soon their eyes are open, you may introduce the bunnies to hay, such as alfalfa, timothy and grass hay, oat hay, and for wild bunnies--dark leafy veggies such as dandelion greens, Italian or flat-leaf parsley, carrot tops, small carrots, etc. Provide a source of water. If this is a wild rabbit, you do not need to introduce them to pellets. If this is a domestic rabbit baby, then you may introduce them to pellets at 2 weeks of age and hay (please refer to the House Rabbit Society handout “Diet” for more information. Wild rabbits (cottontails) should be released as soon as they are eating hay and greens and are approximately 5 inches in body length (depending on your region). They will be small, but the longer you keep them, the more agitated and difficult to handle they will become and the less likely their chances for survival in the wild. Jackrabbits are released much later.
Try and find a wildlife center first as wild bunnies need a professional for their survival. Many have seriously injured themselves trying to get free in the care of well-meaning people who would not get them up to a rehabber. Wild rabbits are not pets; do not treat them as such or let them see you all day, or they will not have the instincts to survive. Do not let children pet them or hold them. They should begin in a carrier with newspaper, grasses, and hay to simulate their natural environment.
Learn more from the House Rabbit Society.