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Determining when a bunny needs help is a little different from other wildlife because of a few unique physical and behavioral characteristics of Eastern Cottontails, the most common species of rabbit to enter rehabilitation here in southwest Washington state.
1. The mother rabbit only returns to the nest a few times during the night and only when she can do so unobserved.
She has no way to protect her young from predators other than to keep them hidden so she will not risk their lives by doing any behavior (such as feeding) while being observed.
2. Eastern cottontails place their nests just about anywhere (even in the middle of the yard) and carefully cover them with leaves and grasses. After feeding, she will replace every single piece of covering EXACTLY as she left it so that there is NO evidence to predators that anything is amiss in the area.
You cannot tell by looking at the nest if the mother rabbit has returned to care for her young, even if you place some marker (like a string) to see if it has been moved. A better method is to circle the nest with flour and look for paw prints in the morning.
3. The mother rabbit cannot move her babies. If the nest is discovered she will abandon the young.
If you find a nest in the middle of your yard and you have dogs and cats, consider covering it during the day to protect it and remove the covering at night to give the mother access.
4. The baby rabbits have no scent that would draw predators to them so if the nest is moved, even a few feet, she cannot find them.
A mother rabbit typically will not abandon her babies if they are handled by humans.
5. Babies are weaned and on their own at 4 weeks when they are 4 to 5 inches long. They look small, but they are perfectly capable of caring for themselves.
At that time, you may remove the nest but before you do, check deeper since it is not uncommon to find a new litter under the old one.
Links and other helpful resources to assist you in finding qualified help for injured and orphaned wildlife.
If you come across a nest of bunnies, it is almost always best to leave them alone unless you know for certain that the mother is dead. There are a few signs to check for if you are concerned.
1. A milk line. The baby’s stomach is located midway down the left side of the stomach, if you can see a white area known as the milk line, then the babies have been fed recently and are not orphaned.
2. They are warm, well fleshed, and show no signs of dehydration.
3. They are clean are relatively free of parasites. A mother rabbit will lick her babies clean and stimulate her babies to urinate and deficate as part of their regular care.
Most orphaned rabbits don’t do well in rehabilitation. It’s not uncommon to lose between 90 to 100% of orphaned bunnies turned in to a wildlife rehabilitator.
This is because of the unique digestive needs of the species that relies on a combination of factors including a sterile digestive tract, nutritional components of the mother’s milk and ingestion of cecotropes.
Unless the mother is known dead or predation of the nest has occurred, it is almost universally true that the babies have a better chance of survival if left alone in their mother’s care.
Sometimes there just isn’t a wildlife rehabilitator available or the wildlife facility is simply too full to accept in baby bunnies. If this is the case, the links below will help increase the odds of successfully raising orphaned wild rabbits.
It can be a challenge, but many novices do successfully rear to release orphaned baby bunnies.
If the mother is known dead, a predator has raided the nest (particularly cats!), one or more babies is clearly injured, or the litter is clearly unkempt indicating that the nest has been abandoned (reference, ‘How can I tell if mom is caring for them’ above), then you may have no other choice than to collect the litter and contact a wildlife rehabilitator.
While it doesn’t change their odds for survival in rehabilitation, their chance if left unattended in any of these situations is zero.
Of all of the animals we see in rehabilitation, the eastern cottontail is the most difficult to successfully rehabilitate. They are notoriously susceptible to bacteria in their digestive system and succumb quickly to bloat and diarrhea.
Eastern cottontail bunny’s have a sterile stomach with no natural lactobacillus; therefore, do not give rabbits acidophilus or other probiotics. If you are to keep them alive, you must practice superior hygiene! We have never successfully rehabilitated a bunny once bloat or diarrhea has set in from an bacterial infection within the digestive system. It must be avoided!
* Boil nipples and syringes before each use.
* Only feed fresh formula less than 24 hours after mixing.
* Wear gloves.
* Clean their environment daily.
We feed our bunny’s a formula appropriate for rabbits twice a day
but no more than 15%. If you are unable to get the bunny to eat at least 10% at each of its two feedings, add a third in the middle of the day. You should be able to see a milk like and the tummy round after each feeding. This is the only exception to the general 5% rule among wildlife. Remember to stimulate baby bunnies with eye’s closed to eliminate
* We’ve had success (and failures) with Fox Valley 32/40, Esbilac goats milk formula and KMR.
Baby bunny’s need beneficial bacteria that comes from cecotropes made in the mother’s caecum in order to digest solid food.
Reference bunny diagram above. While on milk this isn't a problem but when the baby starts on solids, it becomes an issue with digestion. The baby will have a small amount of bacteria within its body even if orphaned early on and this needs to be allowed time to build up before starting solids. When solids are provided, they must be easily digestible such as those in a Timothy pellet with greens introduced very, very slowly.
Keep the bunny on the formula as long as possible. When the bunny is ready for solids, give it only pellets made of timothy hay, not alphalpha. We’ve used Kaytee Timothy Complete rabbit pellets with good success.
Once the bunny has been completely weaned and has been on the pellets for at least a week to ten days, you can start to offer some natural greens such as dandelion greens, clover and grasses.
Take it very, very slow. Too much, too early will cause problems!
Eastern cottontail bunny’s are cute and sweet but do not make good pets because of their skittish nature. If you keep them too long, one day when you go out to feed the bunny it will be dead.
* The rabbit should be between 5 and 6 inches from nose to rump when released.
* Release near cover, like blackberry bushes, brambles, tall grasses or brush near a source of year round water.