British Wildlife Helpline
Back to Index

Hand rearing Wild  Rabbits

Two Experienced orphan feeders have written accounts of successful ways to hand rear wild rabbits.  As the accounts differ
in a number of important ways I offer them both, with a few pertinent comments.

1   Cotton wool is not an ideal bedding material for babies as it can become tangled around legs and even ingested
2   Rearing orphans with pet animals will get them used to dogs, cats and people and may lessen their chance of survival on release
3   Large orphans (eyes open) will not need many (if any) milk feeds so try them straight away on solid food
4   Lettuce, sugary and salty foods, chocolate and other milk products should not be given as they upset the intestinal flora
5   Water should be given in a small, shallow, heavy ceramic dish
6   During weaning they should have an outside grassy run attached to their hutch to allow them to graze
7   A "soft" release site should be arranged for them


Hand Rearing Wild Rabbits by Susan McClure

Orphans 
Can be very difficult to hand rear.  They wriggle and pull away and it can take up to three days in which to get them settles into feeding. 
Gentle but firm persuasion and persistence will be required.  They must be kept warm at this stage and as with all wildlife, kept away from domestic noises and animals. 
There is no need to 'toilet' as they will automatically 'go' during or just after feeding.  They will wee only at first then tiny pale yellow droppings will appear.
These will darken in time and as the diet changes. 
Try to keep to the same foster mum as bunnies will easily imprint.  Providing there are no problems, you will have them for approx. 4-5 weeks.

Housing
House in a secure suitable cage with constant heat, but allow space to move from direct heat at their own free will.  (A plug in heat pad is ideal) 
Line cage with clean newspaper and towel and another towel over heat pad for bunnies to snuggle into.
(Make sure there are no holes or snags in towels as bunnies can get entangled.) 
An increase in cage size and a small run will be required in time, as the bunnies will need to exercise to build up muscle.
If possible, incorporate a few wide plastic pipes and low wooden logs for bunnies to play in and jump on and off. 
Do not give them too high an obstacle as twisting of the spine can occur if the bunny falls too far. 
An outside hutch and run will be needed to house bunnies prior to release.

Cleaning
I try and use the same cage for the same bunnies throughout their time with me.  I clean alternate days for the first few days and then each day thereafter. 
I use an antibacterial detergent for 6 days then clean with diluted Trigene on the 7th day, making sure the cage is dry before returning bunnies.

I prefer to sterilize all my feeding equipment in a baby bottle steam sterilizer.

Heating
Constant heat for the first 10 - 12 days.  12-15days -  night time heat only and by 20 - 22 days no heat is usually needed, although you need to take
the weather and surroundings into consideration.  One lone bunny may need warmth for longer, for instance.

Feeding
I use Esbilac, a powder milk substitute.

With a clean towel on your lap and legs crossed so that one is slightly raised above the other, hold bunny tummy down and and front part of the body on the raised leg.
Hold head gently but firmly between thumb and middle finger; use second finger to stop head being thrown back.
Put the end of the teat just between the lips at the side of the front teeth (beginnings of tiny front teeth will be there from birth).

Rabbits feed better if both the rabbit and the milk are kept warm;  use a baby bottle warmer for the milk where possible, or place over a pot of hot water.
Allow a short time between every few mouth fulls for bunny to clear mouth and lick/clean lips.
Once the bunny gets used to feeding from you, if you are using a small bottle, he will suck quite greedily until he is full then stop abruptly and not take any more.

I prefer to use syringes throughout hand rearing, increasing the size as and when required.  I find this helps to lessen the chances of inhalation pneumonia. 
A full round tummy (not taut) and steady weight gain is a good guide to Bunny having received sufficient food.

Weighing
At first weigh bunnies daily.  Once they have settled to feeding, alternate days is sufficient. 
They may lose a few grams to start with but as the feeding pattern settles they should have a daily weight gain of about 5 grams plus.  
Weigh daily again for a few days when changing any feeding pattern i.e. reducing from 4 to 3 feeds or from three to two feeds etc. 
This will help tell you sooner rather than later if bunny was ready for the change and has adjusted to it. 
If bunny is losing weight you will need to increase feeds for a while longer. 

How old is the Bunny?  Please use the following information as a guide

1-7 days  
3-6 inches long, eyes and ears closed. Black in colour and velvety. Fur will start to grow quite quickly. 
Eyes can sometimes open at different times within the same litter, also one eye only can open with the other one opening a day or so later.

7-10 days  
Eyes and ears will open fully.  They will start to groom, scratch and move about the cage more. 
Fur coming through brown. Introduce solids two days after eyes open.

10-12 days  
Will start eating solids and groom itself properly.

12-18 days  
Star weaning by reducing the number of milk feeds and make them more watery. 
Ensure bunny is eating solids and not losing weight.

Feeding Amounts etc.

Supplements
1-5 days
Give each bunny 1ml warm Avipro micro encapsulated water soluble pro biotic separately from the milk feed.

Feeds
1-3 days 
Four feeds at  8am, 12 noon, 4pm, 8pm. 
Mix enough Esbilac for the day's feeds.  The best results are by mixing the Esbilac with warm water; too cold or hot water can make it curdle.
Strain if necessary.
Keep refrigerated and warm up only the amount needed for each feed. Throw away any that's left over.  Never rehear. 
Add a drop of Abidec multi-vitamins per bunny in the first feed of the day. Use within 24 hours of mixing.

Only 2-4 mls of milk will be taken at first.  If you are unable to get bunny to take this amount, introduce a fifth feed for 1-3 days. 
Bunnies 1-3 days old need to have at least 12 - 15 mls a day.

4 -7 days
Milk should increase to a daily amount of about 20-25mls plus daily, over 3- 4 feeds

7-12 days
Around 25-35 plus mls daily, over 2-3 feeds.  2 full days after the eyes have opened, introduce solids. (See below)
If bunny is eating these and not losing weight, start to reduce milk feeds to once a day, given at night, between 8pm and 9pm. 
Give as much milk as they will take in this feed.

10-15 days
If bunnies are still gaining weight and eating more solids, make the milk more watery. Bunny usually starts to take less as he eats more solids.
If he starts to wriggle a lot and puts up a fight so as not to be fed the milk, and he's not losing weight, don't force him to have it. Make sure there is sufficient grass, hay, etc.

18-20 days
They should be fully weaned, eating well and gaining weight steadily.

Solid food etc.
Fresh water should always be available now, in a shallow dish. Clean rain water, spring or filtered water, if possible.
Fresh chick weed;  dandelion leaves, flowers and roots;  fresh soft grass - small amounts until fully weaned
Alfalfa and fresh clean hay - cut hay with scissors if too long
Russel Rabbit complete food - small amounts only

Bunnies love broccoli, apple, dry brown toast, carrot, weetabix, shredded wheat and fresh sweet corn on the cob, but as they won't find all of these
in the wild, give very sparingly, just to encourage them to eat solid food. Keep their diet as natural as possible.

Once all the milk feeds have stopped and you are sure the bunnies are eating well, they can then be moved to an outside hutch with a run. 
Supply enough bedding and food for the weather conditions.

Release methods
The bunnies should be feeding themselves by day 20.  After a further 10 to 15 days in outside housing (hutch with a run on grass so they can graze
(although you may want to wire the base of the run as some bunnies will attempt to dig their way out) and you are sure they are eating well and are healthy,
they can be released when the weather is suitable.

Soft Release
This is the best option.  Set up a fox proof hutch and run by a hedge in an area where there are rabbits and feed and water them daily. 
They will either dig themselves out or you can let them out after two or three days.  They will have got to know the sounds and smells of their surroundings by
then and the wild rabbits will have scented their presence.

Hard Release
If soft release is not possible, release them between dawn and 7am in a rabbit territory.  Find the warren and let the bunnies out in the hedgerows and undergrowth nearby,
to give them shelter and security while they get used to their surroundings.  DO NOT put them in the warren as it will take time for the new bunnies to be accepted.

Susan runs "Harebells", a foster home and rehabilitation centre for orphaned wild rabbits and leverets

Return to Index

METHOD 2

Hand Rearing new-born and young Rabbits by Annette Brehaut

Warmth & Bedding

From birth until about 3-4 days after their eyes open, bed them in cotton wool. 
Get a shoe box or similar, line with newspaper, then an old towel, put loads of cotton wool in, make a nest in the middle and put the babies in. 
Cover over with cotton wool and a piece of towel.  They like to be tucked up tight but not squashed.  Put the lid on.
I have found they keep their body heat this way and do not need any other heat. 
If it’s only one rabbit, you will need a hot water bottle and a soft cuddly toy for comfort.
When their eyes are well open, line the box with newspaper, forget the towel and put good quality hay inside. 
Make a nest in the middle, line with cotton wool and cover over with a piece of towel and the lid.
Once they start to move around a lot, usually at 2 ½ weeks, take the cotton wool away and just use hay.
At about 3 ½ weeks get a pet carrier, line the bottom with newspaper, place a box at one end with a hole cut out and fill with hay. 
At the other end place a container with shredded paper in (a small cat littler tray is fine). They will use it as a toilet.  Make sure they have a cuddly toy in their bed.

Feeding and Weaning

1 scoop Cimicat : 3 scoops boiled, slightly cooled water and a pinch of pro biotic in every other feed.
Baby rabbits lose the art of sucking if they haven't suckled from Mum for more than 12 hours, but will learn again so be persistent. 
The amount they take and how often varies from one rabbit to the next. 
If I have one that is difficult I always make sure (new-born) they have between 5 – 10 mls at least 5 times a day between 8am and 12 midnight. 
Then I leave them until 8am next morning.
If I have an easy feeder I let them have as much as they want. 
When they are full they will simply refuse to take any more but I still offer them milk 5 times a day. 
The reason it’s 5 times is because Mum’s milk is so much richer than formulas so they need more when hand reared.  
Stimulate to go to the toilet until you notice they are going in their bedding.
The first solid food can be introduced at about 3 weeks – try Milk thistle or young dandelion leaves, which are easy to digest and well liked, also some toasted brown bread.
You will have to use your own judgement as to when to offer commercial rabbit food, wilted carrot tops and greens.  
When they are eating, continue to give them milk 4 times a day.
At this stage it’s a good idea to put a water bottle up for them.
Even when they are drinking water, offer them milk 4 times a day, cutting down to 3 times a day at 6-7 weeks. 
By now they should be eating well.
Please, please remember the milk is very important.
Never push them into going without their milk, no matter how old or big they are; they will refuse it when they don’t need it any more. 
When mine have finished with their milk, their diet is:  
Rabbit food, milk thistles, dandelion leaves, grasses, apple, strawberries in season, grapes, toast, cucumber, lettuce, cornflakes, allbran, weetabix
and for a treat, white chocolate bunny drops!  Don’t give cabbage.

Late arrivals

If a baby wild rabbit comes to you and is about 3 weeks old, you will find if offered milk it will feed. 
I usually give them a quick look over and put them in a wicker picnic basket with cuddly warm blankets and a cuddly toy and leave them for an hour. 
Then I get them out, wrap them in a blanket with with just their nose poking out and feed them. 
I do this for 2 or 3 days then put them in a box in a pet carrier as described before.

Bonding  -  Breaking the bond  -  release

I have been rearing wild rabbits for years now and strongly believe that if you bond with them and cuddle them they feel safe and come on in leaps and bounds. 
Some people think they will become imprinted by too much human contact but if done properly it’s not the case. 
My wild ones live in the dining room on the table and get used to all the house hold noises. 
They come to the bars to see us and love to be spoken to and petted. Some of them fall asleep on my nap after a feed while having a tiddle. 
You see they are no different to any other baby and if they look at me as mum they will come to me to be safe, which means they trust me, feed well and become strong and healthy rabbits.
I don’t start breaking the bond until they are finished with their milk.  I move them into the conservatory and still give them a cuddle but not as much as before. 
Then I put them into a hutch outside and start putting them in a run on the lawn during the day and bring them in at night.
All this can take up to 10 weeks from birth.  Some are quicker but I will never release till they are at least 1 to 1 ½ lbs in weight.  
When they are in the hutch all I do is change their tray and clean and feed. 
The only contact is putting them out and bringing them in.
I find they become more nervous and tend to dart into their bedroom area when we go outside and it’s then they are ready if their weight is right.
My husband does the evil deed and claps his hands and shouts if needed, but more often than not the shoot off without a glance back. 
I do not leave any food because for the last few days they only have their natural food to eat.

Things not to do:

Don’t treat them as wild
Don’t wean them too quickly
Don’t stop the milk feeds until they are ready to stop
Don’t release until they are a good weight (1-1 ½ lbs)
Don’t be tempted to cuddle them once they are outside in a hutch.

Printed with the kind permission of: Annette Brehaut, Guernsey. You can ring her for help on: 01481 234053, or contact her at: handrearing@feralcatssanctuary.com

Top of page
Back to index