The Bunny - From Conception to Weaning
Conception, by definition, is the fertilization of the egg(s) of the doe by the sperm of the buck and the subsequent attachment of these eggs to the uterine horns of the doe. A dwarf doe usually has an average of 4 fertilized eggs that attach to her uterine horns. This number is highly variable and can range from 1 to 8 or more. A larger breed rabbit has an average of 7 - 8 fertilized eggs, and can vary from 1 to 14 or more. The number of fertilized eggs depends on the age and health of the doe and buck, the season, the number of eggs available for fertilization, the amount of sperm deposited and its viability, the capacity of the uterine horns, the genetic backgrounds, and other factors that may or may not be controllable.
The estrus or "heat" cycle of a doe rabbit is so often that it may be considered continuous. You may see a doe mounting a buck or another doe. She may even attempt to mount another animal of the same size if it is available. It is best to keep rabbits by themselves except when you want to breed them. Don't get the idea that they are lonely, because they are not. They are territorial animals, not social. This means that they normally want their own place, not to share their lives with one another. Keep in mind, that when you let rabbits run together, they will fight. If you have one buck amongst a herd of does, you might as well consider that they will all get pregnant.
The number of eggs that can be fertilized depends on the parents' ages. The doe and buck have maximum egg/sperm production between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. After this, egg/sperm production decreases, as does the chances of conception and bringing the little ones to birth.
Temperature extremes decreases the chances of conception. At high temperatures, the buck stops producing viable sperm. When the buck is exposed to temperatures above 92 degrees, he may become temporarily sterile. It may take up to 4 weeks for him to recover. Extremely cold temperatures causes the doe not to conceive because her system is concerned with taking care of herself rather than nurturing young.
The period between October and December is considered moulting season. It is when the amount of sunlight is decreasing and the rabbit is getting ready to put on its winter coat. Just as in chickens, this decrease of daylight affects reproduction, and the conception rate usually goes way down. You may artificially stimulate the rabbit to continue producing by keeping it in a building with the lights on.
When breeding, always bring the doe to the buck's hutch. You may increase the amount of conception by rebreeding the doe to the buck 4 to 12 hours after the initial breeding. I just leave the doe with the buck for one day. Never rebreed the doe after 36 hours of the initial breeding. It may cause the estrogen/progesterone cycle to get messed up in the developing womb, causing an abortion or miscarriage. You'll see her give birth to a bunch of "blobs".
Gestation is defined as the period of time from conception to birth. This period usually takes 31 days, but may vary as much as 2 days either way. The doe gets plumper during this time. She may also get grumpy and try to scratch you. You should NOT vary her feed at this time. Keep her fed the same way you normally do. Do not give her treats if you don't normally give her treats. Do not increase the food you normally give her. Her system would be more harmed by varying her diet than if you keep things as usual. Her body adjusts to the developing babies just fine without your intervention. Just make sure she always has plenty of fresh water to drink when she needs it.
Provide a Nest Box for her on the 28th day, unless you see her pulling hair before that time. Do not put the nest box in too soon or she will sit in it and poop in it, destroying the good environment it was meant to be. A nest box can be made of 1/4" plywood. The best dimension for it is:
I find it best to fill the nest box in the following way: Put some absorbent pine shavings (not cedar!) on the bottom 1". Then put alfalfa or another good hay in the rest of the way. Hollow out a hole in the hay that she can get in and put the young.
When you put a nest box in, the doe will start taking up hay in its mouth to prepare her nest. Watch carefully to make sure that she is putting it in the nest box and not spreading it on the floor of the hutch. If she is spreading it on the floor, she is intending to have the litter on the floor instead of the nest box. This would be disastrous. I find that if you move the nest box to where she was spreading it on the floor, she may then prepare her nest in the nest box instead. Make sure you watch for this because if she has her litter outside the nest box, the odds of their surviving are very slim.
Usually, the doe will pull her fur from her upper abdomen and around the shoulders just before she is to give birth. However, on occasion, I have seen them pull fur one week before they were due. Make sure that there is enough fur pulled for the nest or the little ones may freeze (depending on the temperature). Occasionally, if a doe does not intend to take care of the litter, she will pull no fur. I always keep a box of fur on hand from earlier litters in case I need to add some or take some away.
Sometimes a doe will give birth prematurely. These babies, if they are more than 2 days early, will usually die, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Sometimes a doe will prepare the nest with fur but never give birth. This is called "False Pregnancy". You may rebreed her 4 days after she was due.
The doe will give birth any time of the day, with most births being at night. It takes about ten minutes for her to deliver all of her young. Normally, she will pull her fur just before birth, but as I mentioned, there is much variation in this. If everything goes right, she will birth them in the nest box on a bed of fur in a depression of the hay. Once she has had them all, she will cover them with fur and get out of the nest box. As long as she has had 3 or more bunnies and they have adequate fur protection in the nest box, they should survive even in cold winters. When there is only one or two, they may not be able to keep their temperatures up in cold winters and may die. If you can, it is best to let her have her litter in a heated area in the cold winter.
Babies are born with their eyes closed and nearly hairless. They must be protected from exposure and must be confined together with their litter mates. The difference in size between a dwarf and a giant is not significant, though the difference can be seen.
Sometimes a doe will give birth on the cage floor. Be vigilant and watch for this. Unless you gather up the babies in enough time and put them in the nest box, they will die from exposure. Once in the nest box, the mother will care for them. The position of the babies is very important. The mother will NEVER move the babies anywhere. If they are on the cage floor, on the cage floor they will remain, unless YOU intervene. Even in the nest box, they have to be in the right place and it is up to you to make sure of this. Make sure that they are lying on fur in a good depression in the hay where they cannot climb out of the nest box. If they climb out before their eyes are open, their chances of survival are slim. Remember! The mother will NEVER move the babies anywhere! YOU must ensure that they are in the right position.
Check the babies soon after birth to count them and to eliminate runts and deformed babies. Believe me, it is hard to kill a bunny that's just been born. But it is necessary. If the bunny is allowed to get older, it will eventually die of the complications of its birth defect. The other bunnies could have been healthier if they did not have to share their nutrition with one that was going to die anyway.
The doe may not feed her bunnies for 2 days after she gives birth. This is normal. Check on the bunnies every 1-3 days to make sure they are doing ok. Their bellies should be rounded. This shows they are getting adequate nutrition. Don't worry about handling babies. Just don't frighten the mother.
One thing to check for is eye infection, which is very common in new borns. Their eyes don't open until the 10th or 11th day, so you can't do anything before that time. If the baby is born with bad eyes, eliminate it immediately. But after the 10th day, you may treat the eyes with Neosporin droplets that you can get a prescription for. Do not use the Neosporin salve that feed stores sell. It's worthless. You must treat eye infections as soon as possible or the rabbit will be blind in that eye as it gets older.
When a rabbit loses its litter, you may rebreed her one week after birth. This means that if she loses her litter on the 8th day, you may immediately rebreed her. If she loses it on the 3rd day, wait four days and then rebreed her.
As bunnies go from birth to 10 days, they get more and more of their own fur. They are born almost hairless, but develop enough fur to keep themselves warm by the ninth day. On the tenth or eleventh day, their eyes are open and sometimes they will come out of the nest box. They will start to eat solids between the 11th and 14th days.
It is between the period of birth and 12 days that you can transfer babies around to different mothers, if necessary. Perhaps one mother gave birth to only two and another gave birth to three. As long as their ages are within 4 days of each other, you may transfer them from one mother to another, and the other mother will take care of them as if they were her own. You will have problems if you transfer them after they are 12 days old. Their scent is different and the foster mother may attack them.
Domestic does will foster wild baby bunnies in the same way. The things you have to watch out for, though, is the possible transmission of lice, fleas, or disease to the domestic rabbits.
When the weather is nice, above 60 degrees, you may remove the nest box on the 14th-16th day after their birth. Allow them to stand on a piece of plywood until the 18th day. On cold days, remove the nest box on the 18th-20th days. It is necessary to remove the nest box before the 21st day because they poop and pee in it, which makes it harbor a lot of germs that they can easily become infected with.
Between the 14th day and two months, you may notice an increase in mortality. The vast majority of deaths in these young rabbits is related to their intestines. For some reason, they are very susceptible to inflammation of their intestines and they may or may not get diarrhea, and simply die for no apparent reason. Many rabbit raisers put Terramycin in their drinking water for two weeks, starting the 14th day, in order to curb the alarming death rate. It is met with some success, but, unfortunately, enteritis, as it is called, is a big killer. It's also a big killer of cattle and pigs at the same age. In them it is called scours. They are treated in the same way as rabbits. I think the reason for intestinal disease at this age is the change from milk to solid food. The intestines become somewhat allergic to the new foods it is processing and sets up a reaction that can lead to diarrhea or constipation, in any case, causing intestinal inflamation. Terramycin helps by keeping bacterial build up from killing its host. I believe there needs to be more research in this area.
Since the bunnies start eating solid food between the 11th and the 14th day, they continue to grow and may be weaned as early as 4 weeks after birth. Usually, it is best to keep them with their mother until they are 6 weeks old, but you may wean them at 4 weeks without complication. Some breeders allow them to go 8 weeks before weaning. This maximizes their nutrition and growth. NEVER let them continue with their mother after they are 3 months old.
Weaning simply means taking them away from their mother. Sometimes, it is best to take all of them away except for one, which you would take away one week later. This is supposed to give the mother's breasts time to acclimate to not having to nurse, causing less pain.
At the time of weaning, you should sex the bunny and separate the males and females into their own cages. At the same time you sex them (see my other web page on sexing rabbits) you should check their teeth. This is very important. While the bunny is on its back, spread its lips apart sideways and note how the teeth are set. The upper teeth must overlap the bottom teeth. If the upper teeth meet the lower teeth or the lower teeth overlap the top teeth, this rabbit has malocclusion or "wolf-teeth". This disqualifies it for show as well as breeding or pet purposes. The teeth will eventually grow out to look hideous and the lower teeth may dig into the upper gums, or worse, the rabbit may not be able to eat.
If you find a rabbit with wolf teeth, do not sell it to a pet store except as a feeder rabbit for snakes. The wolf teeth trait can be passed down to offspring, and no one wants a rabbit with wolf teeth. Sell the rabbit for meat but never for breeding or to be someone's pet.
You may keep the rabbits you've weaned together, separated by sex, until about 4 months, at which time they need to be totally separated - one rabbit per cage.
This concludes the discussion on raising rabbits from conception to weaning. For more information on breeding, see the breeding page.
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This page last updated on 6/1/99