What to Feed baby Rabbits without a mother

What to Feed Baby Rabbits Without a Mother

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When you welcome baby rabbits into your family, you look forward to enjoying them and watching them grow while mama rabbit cares for them. Occasionally, however, things go awry, and mama rabbit cannot or will not care for her little ones. At these times, someone needs to step in quickly before the baby buns starve to death.

What to Feed Motherless Baby Rabbits

There are many scenarios where you need to hand-raise and/or bottle-feed baby rabbits. These include:

  • Mama rabbit has died
  • Mama rabbit’s milk hasn’t come in
  • Mama rabbit becomes aggressive towards her babies
  • Mama rabbit is stressed
  • Mama rabbit is injured or sick
  • There are runts in the litter – runts have problems competing with their siblings and may need to be bottle-fed
  • The litter is too large – baby buns may require supplemental feeding because mama can’t produce enough milk

What happens when one of the above scenarios occurs, and you find yourself wondering what to feed baby rabbits without a mother? What do you feed an abandoned baby bunny (see also ‘How To Care For A Baby Bunny‘)?

If you have a mother rabbit but are concerned that she is not taking care of her kittens, inspect the kits early in the morning. They should be warm and their bellies full and round. If a kitten’s (a baby rabbit is called a kitten or kit) skin looks wrinkled, it’s dehydrated and is probably not being fed. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to intervene.

If you’re concerned about a kit’s health, get the kit checked by a vet who is knowledgeable in the care of rabbits. Check with a vet or wildlife rehabilitation specialist who’ll be able to answer any questions that you may have concerning the care of a baby rabbit.

What to Feed Baby Rabbits Without a Mother

What to feed baby bunnies without mom: Alfalfa pellets are a nutritious food source
Around two weeks old, baby bunnies begin to nibble on whole food items.

Domesticated baby rabbits need their mother until they are at least eight weeks of age. Until that time, they may not be fully weaned. Plus, their digestive and immune systems have not fully developed. The mother rabbit’s milk and her cecotropes provide enzymes and bacteria the babies’ digestive and immune systems need to function properly for the rest of their lives.

A baby rabbit’s need for its mother is so great, in fact, that it’s illegal in many US states to sell a baby bun that is less than eight weeks old.

Baby Rabbit Development Signs

It can be difficult to tell how old a baby rabbit is and knowing its age will give you some idea of what it can eat. The following phases of baby rabbit development provide some very basic guidelines to help determine the age of a baby rabbit.

  • Seven days old: fur begins to grow.
  • Ten to twelve days old: baby buns start to open their eyes.
  • Twelve to eighteen days old: baby bunnies begin to explore the world outside the nest box, running freely around their cage. Any babies outside the nest box prior to this should be gently placed back inside. They begin to nibble on the foods that mom is eating.
  • Nineteen days old: baby buns have graduated from the nest box. Time to remove it. If your cage has wire floors, add something for the baby buns to stand on such as a piece of carpet or a small piece of plastic cage liner.
  • Six to eight weeks old: stage at which baby bun is fully weaned.

How to Care for Newborn Rabbits Without a Mother

Rabbit kittens nurse and depend entirely on their mother’s milk for the first ten to twelve days of life.

What to feed baby bunnies without mom

If you find that you need to hand-rear one or more newborn kittens, you’ll need to feed each kit and help them to urinate and defecate after feeding.

What to Feed Newborn Bunnies

Hand-rearing newborn rabbits can be tricky. It’s not uncommon for them to aspirate (inhale milk into their lungs) and develop aspiration pneumonia; therefore, great care must be taken when feeding nursing buns. Other difficulties arise due to the lack of establishing normal gut flora. This enables E. coli overgrowth in the intestines and the development of enteritis around four weeks of age.

If a baby rabbit shows signs of sickness, be sure to get the kit checked by a vet. A vet or wildlife rehabilitation specialist can answer any questions that you may have concerning the care of an orphaned baby rabbit.

Fostering Orphaned Baby Rabbits

Ideally, try to locate someone who has a lactating doe to foster the orphaned or abandoned baby rabbit. A local breeder or a rabbit rescue and rehabilitation specialist may be able to help.

Fortunately, rabbits don’t make a distinction between their young and fosters. In an ideal foster situation, baby rabbits to be fostered are a few days older than the natural kittens in the litter they are to be placed.

When placing the foster kitten(s) in the nest, distract the mother with a treat. Next rub the foster kit(s) with pulled fur from inside the nest. Then place kit(s) to be fostered under the existing natural kits (towards the bottom of the nest). The foster kit(s) will take on the smell of the nest and natural kittens. The mother rabbit typically accepts them with no problem.

Bottle-Feeding Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Rabbits

If you cannot find a foster mama rabbit for the baby rabbit(s), then you’ll need to take on the task of feeding them yourself. There are some major difficulties when it comes to feeding baby rabbits. These include:

  • There is no perfect replacement for rabbit’s milk
  • A rabbit’s nipple is very small
  • Baby rabbits aspirate easily when artificially fed and then develop pneumonia

Therefore, great care must be taken if it’s to be done successfully.

Before handling the baby rabbits, always wash your hands using hot water and disinfectant soap. If handling more than one litter, wash and disinfect between litters as well. In addition, check with your trusted veterinarian.

Formulas for Bottle-Feeding Baby Rabbits

There are many formulas on the internet for feeding baby buns. You can also purchase a formula designed specifically for baby rabbits, however, easily ensuring they get the right nutrients. Never feed a baby rabbit cow’s milk. Consult with your trusted Veterinarian.

Wombaroo rabbit milk replacer, sold by All Things Bunnies, is designed specifically for baby buns and comes closer to meeting a baby rabbit’s requirements than something you mix up yourself.

If for some reason you’re unable to find formula specifically designed to be nutritionally complete for baby rabbits, you will need to mix up your own. You can use one of the following recipes. You can also contact a vet or rehabilitation specialist in your area for suggestions. They may have formula available for sale that they use when feeding baby rabbits or a formula recipe they recommend.

Basic Recipe for Rabbit Formula

  • 1 c. KMR (kitten milk replacer) liquid
  • ½ c. Multi-Milk
  • 1.5 T. freeze-dried colostrum

Second Recipe for Rabbit Formula

This recipe is a little more complicated than the first but is more calorie-dense, making it more like rabbit’s milk.

  • ½ c. KMR
  • ½ c. whole goat milk
  • 1.5 T. freeze-dried colostrum
  • 1/2 t. sugar-free heavy cream

Both of these recipes contain colostrum which is filled with antibodies and immunoglobulins which help to fight off bad bacteria in the baby bunny’s gut.

Prepare only enough formula that is to be used at one time. The formula should be heated to approximately 105 °F. Since warm formula is more readily accepted, place it in a warm water bath while you feed the kits. This allows you to add warm formula, instead of cold, to the next bottle or syringe.

Bottles for Feeding Baby Rabbits

Many people don’t have the supplies on hand to feed a baby rabbit and find themselves scrambling when they need to do so. If you have a mama rabbit, it never hurts to have the supplies on hand. If they need to be ordered, they will not come in time for the kits to survive.

Many rehabilitators use a syringe and nipple set similar to the one sold by Chris’s Squirrels and More. The nipple is small and works very well for newborn rabbits. You can use their Miracle® Nipple Collection to adjust to a larger size nipple as the kitten(s) grow.

In a pinch, you can try to use a doll bottle with a soft nipple to feed a baby rabbit. Unfortunately, kitten (cat baby) nursing bottles are too large for a baby rabbit.

A medical syringe can be used. Allow the kit to suckle, however, not forcing the liquid into the kit’s mouth because dispensing too quickly leads to choking or aspiration. This often causes the development of pneumonia and then death.

If a kit shows signs of illness or distress, get the kit checked by a vet. A local vet or wildlife rehabilitation specialist will be able to answer any questions you may have.

Amount of Formula to Feed a Baby Rabbit

Formula needs of a baby rabbit change quickly as they grow. For breeds that will be five pounds when fully grown, you’ll want to feed the following at each of two feedings, morning and evening.

  • Newborn to seven days: 2 – 2.5 cc
  • One to two weeks: 5 – 7 cc, depending upon their size, feeding smaller rabbits less
  • Two to three weeks: 7 – 13 cc, depending upon their size, feeding smaller rabbits less. Begin introducing alfalfa pellets, hay and water to their diet. It’s still too early to wean kits.
  • Three to six weeks: 13 – 15 cc
  • Six to eight weeks: Begin weaning kits by diluting their formula. Start with a 3:1 ratio, formula to water. Gradually increase the amount of water until they’re no longer interested in suckling.

Helping Baby to Go to the Bathroom

What to feed newborn bunnies: helping bunnies go to the bathroom
After feeding, newborn bunnies need help with defecation/urinating.

After the kits have suckled, mama rabbit would begin to groom the kits and stimulate their need/desire to urinate and defecate.

You’ll need to do this as well or the baby rabbit could die. Hold the baby securely in the palm of your hand, belly-side up. Using a cotton ball moistened with warm (not hot – test on your wrist like a baby’s formula) water and gently stroke their anal area in one direction until they begin to urinate and defecate. Keep stroking until the kit stops defecating/urinating.

Warning: This can get very messy. You might want to hold the baby rabbit over a towel to catch the overflow.

Helping the kits to urinate and defecate is very important. Failure to do so can result in death. In fact, their little bladders can rupture. Kits may need assistance for a couple of weeks before they can go on their own.

If you notice redness or irritation around their urethral opening or their anus, this may mean you’re stroking too hard. Apply a natural calendula ointment (can be purchased in health food stores) to the area to soothe and heal the irritation.

If the kit’s feces becomes like liquid or “smeary”, this means the kit has developed diarrhea. This often indicates a serious illness has developed. Consult a veterinarian immediately as death can occur in just a few hours.

By the time they open their eyes, baby rabbits are typically able to defecate and urinate for themselves.

Tips for Bottle Feeding Baby Rabbits

If you find you need to hand-rear and feed an orphaned baby rabbit, the following tips may be helpful.

  • Baby rabbits quickly lose their suckling instinct – within 48 hours; therefore, if hand-feeding is required, it must commence quickly.
  • Make formula just prior to use to reduce the chances of developing a bacterial infection and the development of enteritis which is fatal. Use sterile syringes/bottles/nipples and boiled water to mix up the formula.
  • Feed twice daily, morning and evening. A kit can fill up quickly. Don’t overfeed. Overfeeding can lead to gas and discomfort and can even make the kit sick. It’s always better to underfeed. Their bellies should be nice and round but not overly extended. The amounts provided earlier in this article should help to prevent overfeeding.
  • Make sure to help the kits urinate and defecate after feeding.
  • Around ten to twelve days of age, baby buns begin to nibble on what their mother is eating, including her cecotropes, or night poop. If you have access to the poop of an adult rabbit, collect cecotropes and feed them to the kits. This introduces beneficial bacteria into the kit’s gut. This is the same as humans taking probiotics to help their gut. Cecotropes look like small clusters of grapes rather than the individual pellets of normal rabbit defecation which look like Cocoa Puffs. Cecotropes can be added to the formula for kits that will not eat them. Add them twice a week at equally spaced intervals.

What Do Wild Baby Bunnies Eat

What do wild bunnies eat: wild and tame bunnies’ diets are very similar
Wild and domesticated bunnies’ diets are similar, but wild bunnies must find their own.

Wild bunnies eat much the same as their domestic cousins except they must find their own food. Just like domestic mothers, wild mama rabbits feed their kits twice a day for about five minutes and then take care of their toileting needs. At ten days of age, wild baby rabbits open their eyes and begin to nibble on the grass and herbage near their nest.

Unlike domestic rabbits, however, which are weaned at six to eight weeks, a wild baby cottontail is fully weaned in half the time – three to four weeks of age. A jackrabbit, on the other hand, is weaned at about 9 weeks of age.

Just like domestic kits, wild baby rabbits are herbivores (they eat vegetation). Their diet is made up of mostly grass, twigs, shrubs, leaves, fruits, and vegetables.

Typically, if you see a baby wild rabbit out and about on its own, it hasn’t been abandoned by mama rabbit. If they’re active and appear healthy, they’re typically fine and should be left alone. Young wild rabbits are small, after all, they can be weaned at three to four weeks of age, but they learn early to take care of themselves.

Bottle feeding wild baby rabbits is typically left to rehabilitation experts because kits easily aspirate while bottle feeding. Once the wild buns reach two weeks of age, water, and appropriate vegetation should be incorporated into their diet.

Wild baby rabbits should be weaned over the next two weeks, slowly increasing the amount of water added to the formula (as advised above in the section above, Amount of Formula to Feed a Baby Rabbit).

Further Reading: When Bunnies give Birth to Dead Babies

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