10 Day Old Rabbit Opening Eyes For First Time

Bottle Feeding A Baby Rabbit
by Pamela Alley (Jan 14 2003)

Page updated Nov 1, 2007


There's a problem, and you have a newborn kit to try and raise. What can and should you do?

Before you start, there are some facts to know. Kits chill very quickly and easily, so must be kept warm and dry. Kits have very little energy reserves and need to cat within an hour or so of birth, especially if they become chilled. The average temperature in the nest of healthy kits is considerably higher than human body temperature, so simply getting them 'body warmed' is not good enough for full recovery.

Warmth may be provided in many ways; personally, if I have the time, I will take them and a hot water bottle into bed with me and a good book. The hot water bottle gives steady heat over a larger area than a heating pad; your presence will help encourage them to move about (especially if, like me, you keep poking them to see how they are doing!).

Okay, the kit is warm, dry and starving. What next?

First of all, you should try and get it nursing from mommy, if mommy is in any shape to do so--in other words, has milk, is not trying actively to kill the kits, and is healthy all round. If she fills the bill in these ways, there are a variety of methods one may use to get the kit's tummy full of good warm milk.

Try it the 'natural way' first ... give the doe a good gentle belly rub while she sits on your lap. Massage the mammary tissue, which should feel slightly lumpy and softish, for as long as it takes for the doe to really relax. Make sure you don't stress her in the next step, or your work will be for nothing-that rubbing helps to stimulate native oxytocin production. Oxytocin is a hormone closely linked to kindling as well as to nursing, as after kindling is over, the oxytocin release helps the doe 'let down' her milk so that the kits can nurse. Prostaglandins, released by the doe under stress, counteract the action of oxytocin and prevent milk letdown, which is one reason you do not want to stress the doe who is to nurse the kits.

Gently place her in the box after lifting the hair and hay aside from the kits. Block, gently but firmly, her attempts to leave the nest until one of two things occur. Most does will allow the kits to nurse with a lot of patience on your part. If, however, the kits are cold or becoming 'dumb' and not willing to seek a teat, proceed immediately to the next step. Warm the kits well, so that they have some energy, and let's get them eating. Their energy reserves run out very quickly!

Some does will become very upset about these squirming, biting, hyperactive things under them and may stomp on and/or injure the kits in her efforts to leave the box. If this is the case, restrain her gently so that she cannot injure the kits with her struggles, and allow the kits access. Be sure to use as minimal restraint as possible, as again, we want to avoid major stress on the doe.

If, however, this route is simply not practical and both you and the doe are becoming fed up with the whole process, remove her from the box once more. Allow her a few minutes to relax while you grab a chair for the next step. Two people may be required, one to restrain the doe, and the other to put the kits on and massage the milkbar.

Place the nestbox next to the chair, or next to the person who will be handling them. The person elected to handle the doe should be the most competent handler available to you in order, again, to minimize stress on the doe. Care should be taken to avoid heatstress or heatstroke in the doe during extreme stress or hot weather.

The handler will flip the doe over and position her between their knees as for nail clipping or grooming. The head and hind feet should be firmly, thoroughly, but gently restrained to disallow what I call 'punting'...which is when an annoyed doe gives you flying kits instead of suckling kits! The two person version is highly recommended for this reason .

Once the doe has relaxed and resigned herself to this new indignity, the kit handler may begin. He/she should take one kit at a time and help it to locate and latch onto a nipple, then gently massage the area around the teat to stimulate milk letdown. As the kits become more energetic and confident in their ability to cain sustenance, the handler may increase the number of kits they place at one time. More than three isn't really recommended, since should momma decide to punt, you only have two hands ..... If even this method, which has saved many kits for me, does not produce filled tummies, it's time to take a more direct hand. You can milk out the doe if you have no formula, but this is tedious and often injurious to the mammary tissue, which may provoke mastitis. Don't hesitate to milk her out, though, if it means the kits will eat sooner! Every little bit and every second counts.

All right ... what if the doe died in kindling, has no milk, or something else is wrong that will not allow nursing from even a foster doe?

I like to keep powdered milk formula (I use a product called LactoPet) on hand at all times, just in case I need it. If at all possible, I prefer to foster. If the kits have become very chilled, I will feed them before trying to get them to nurse anyone.

To feed a newborn kit, you will need a small syringe with no needle and a small opening. A new 1 or 3 cc syringe is ideal.

Regardless of the fact that kits 'in the wild' or in the nestbox nurse upside down, the hand fed kit should never ever be held upside down, human baby fashion, to eat! The kit will aspirate, or breathe in, some of the milk formula or fluids you are giving, which can lead to pneumonia and death. Tubefeeding is not recommended for even the experienced raiser--at least not without some lessons from someone very competent at the procedure!

Feed the kit very small drops, just touched to the lips. The kit should lick and smack its mouth. Be prepared for the kit to 'pop' when its mouth is touched--sometimes they jump and squirt away like a bar of wet soap. Have also a paper towel or absorbent cloth at hand to mop any extra milk or fluid that runs up into the nostrils. Blot often!

Feed the kit very small amounts until it gets the taste of what you are giving. At this point they will often demand more ... and that's your cue to be mean and nasty ... don't give it to them! Keep the small amounts going as long as the kit will take them ... then give it a break of fifteen minutes to half an hour and do some more.

When the belly is tense, they've had enough until they urinate..... or until the tenseness vanishes and they are showing signs of hunger again. Since most nursing formulas are lower in nutrient content than doe milk, it is important to keep the kit full and well-hydrated. The formula may even be cut with more water than recommended, or even with a simple electrolyte solution like Pedialyte.

Dehydration in the kit is common and can be very rapid. Skin which has pleats that will not 'snap' back to their normal position is your primary indicator that the kit is losing more fluid than you are getting into it. If you see badly dehydrated kits in the nestbox, remove them, give them a 'booster' of electrolytes--a bellyfull will help--and check your doe. The condition of the kits may be your first indicator of trouble. Kits in very poor condition or on a doe which shows illness may have to be removed and bottlefed.

As time goes on, the kit will require larger amounts of formula per feeding. Again, through all of this, it is most important to keep the kits quite warm and toasty, as they cannot maintain their body temperature without help. In the nest, this is done by the combined waste heat of the kits held in by a good insulation of nesting material and fur; once out of the nest, it's up to you.

It is true that does normally nurse only once a day, but this varies from doe to doe. When you are bottlefeeding, all bets are off. The feeding clock runs by the kit's demands. Average when I bottlefeed is twice an hour for the first few hours; then every couple of hours for anywhere up to eight to ten days, gradually working up to four times daily as they get older.

A handy trick I have found to use when they are old enough to stagger reliably around the cage (on towels, of course) is to fill a small standard water bottle about 1/2 way with diluted formula. At about fourteen to eighteen days they will learn to use this to satisfy their hunger through the day-which is an incredible relief for the nurse!

If you do use this route, antibiotics should be put into the milk (usually a sulfa drug, never tetracycline) to minimize bacterial growth and also to help the kit's gut flora gain its adult balance, which may also be aided by putting a few fecal pellets from a healthy doe in the kit's area for them to nibble.

Through this whole growing procedure, the formula must be cared for well-do not allow it to become old--change the water bottle three times daily; don't mix more than you will use within 8-12 hours; and bleach or otherwise disinfect all feeding tools..... just as you would a sensitive human baby. Milk is the best possible breeding ground for bacteria, and the kit is not equipped to repel invaders until much later in life. Using a new syringe each day is an excellent way to minimize contamination.

The kits will usually urinate and defecate on their own, especially if they have nest mates. The normal kicking and shoving that goes on is sufficient to stimulate these actions if there is no doe to instigate it. If you raise only one kit, poke, prod, and 'groom' gently with the tip of a finger over the entire body.

If a foster doe becomes available during the raising of a bottlefed kit, with a litter of suitable age and size (smaller than the bottle kit is preferable), use her! There is nothing quite like mother's milk in the raising of kits. If you do have a foster doe, it is advisable to bring the kit inside in cold weather and at night or allow it to suckle only under supervision. It's sad to see a kit you have worked so hard on die from hanging onto a nipple too long and being dragged out of the box.

At about two to three weeks of age, the kit begins to nibble and use its teeth on anything that catches its fancy. This is the time to begin supplying solid foods.

Acceptable solid foods are fresh parsley, rolled oats, crimped oats, grass or oat hay, rabbit pellets, the formula and nothing more. An overabundance of'feeds may cause major gastrointestinal disturbance which can result in death very rapidly.

The kit will pick and choose its own diet from these; a kit which is reluctant to eat the pellets should be given only parsley, hay and pellets until they accept the inevitability of pellethood through their life.

Some human soy-based milk replacers, although useful if nothing else is available, will result in the kit going utterly bald and being potbellied from three to about six or eight weeks of age. The use of parsley or avian liquid vitamins in the formula seems to counteract this tendency, but these formulae should be avoided if any other substitute is available.

In the sidebar at right is a list of formulae and sources of acceptable formulae, in approximate order of usefulness.

I hope this article helps those of you who, for whatever reason, wind up bottlefeeding a rabbit kit!

PS ... works for cottontails, too; but remember most are illegal to possess .... PA

Formulae for Rabbit Kits

In approximate order of acceptability and success rate, the following formulae may be used in the raising of rabbit kits.

Fresh doe's milk--nurse the doe out into a very small container; feed fresh and collect often.

Fresh goat's milk--frozen whole milk may be used; must be pasteurized.. Use as a sole formula.

Powdered pet milks: (most powders may be frozen until needed)

Lacto-Pet: formerly VetALac, an excellent substitute for doe's milk; mix in a bottle with hot water and shake very well. One heaping tablespoon to the ounce.

VetALac Puppy or Kitten: either will do, although not as well as the LactoPet. Mix as directed; watch kit hydration closely. Again, hot water and shake very well.

Esbilac Pet Formulas: not tried by the author; good results reported with puppy formula.

KMR Liquid or Powder: A product with variable reports of success; author has had very poor results. Liquid very perishable and both forms quite expensive.

First Born or other puppy and kitten formulas: Again, variable reports of success and failure. Not tried by the author.

Soyalac, Liquid or Powder for humans: Good emergency formula since most stores which are open late at night and on weekends will have this or a similar product. Variable results; does not seem to be sufficiently balanced for long term use. Mix as directed.

Lacto-Pet was available through BENEPET Pet Care Products, PO. Box 8111 St. Joseph, Missouri 64508; this is really the most successful of the products the author has tried, bar doe's milk. Sadly, this product is no longer available. The VetALac Puppy formula is closest in composition.

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