Since our doe, Lala, died a couple weeks ago, we were forced to assume responsibility bottle-feeding her 7, two-week-old kits.  Everything I read described how it was almost a futile effort, nearly impossible because it was so difficult to match the fat content of a mother rabbit’s milk, and that, even if the babies could survive, they would never thrive.  Everything I read implied these babies were doomed.  However, there were few details on what TO do to at least try.  I couldn’t just let them starve.  I am all for nature running it’s course, but I can’t stand to see an otherwise healthy animal just starve–particularly if there is something I might be able to do. 

Sadly, we still wound up losing 6 of the 7.  The survivor, however, is not just alive, but plump and thriving!  Although we were sad to see each one of the others die, we all learned so much–should this ever happen again.  Between what I have read, and my comparisons of the survivor to his siblings, the following is a list of what seems to be needed to increase the kits’ chances of survival:

  • First, the baby must eat enough each day.  This appears to equate to about 1 TBS of milk per week of age for larger, meat-style rabbits, or about 1 tsp of milk per week of age for smaller rabbits.  This is about what they would eat from mom.  Fresh, raw goat’s milk, seconded by kitten milk replacer is the next best thing if you want to have a chance.
  • Second, the baby needs to learn to actually suck from a bottle.  A small puppy/kitten bottle seemed to work fine, but the hardest part was teaching them to suckle.  They do not adapt well to it.  I noted a couple of things, though…the bottle should be held down, at an almost 45′ angle in order to be more like mom (who stands on top of them–they actually nurse while laying upside down on their backs).  When they truly suck (vs. just chewing on the nipple), they actually stretch way out into a diving-sort of position, and will sometimes even “knead biscuits” like a cat.  Here is what I found to be the key….with supplemental milk, they MUST get the required amount each day.  When nursing mom, they only feed for about a minute or two a day, and they are done. If they suck the bottle, they will consume most of the required intake in about a minute.  I noticed (too late, unfortunately) that those who would not suck, but rather licked the tip of the bottle, would take 10 times as long to consume the required amount.  This resulted in several things.  For one, they wore out far too quickly–usually after 1-2 minutes, and lost all interest in eating.  The other problem is that all that licking caused them to burn about as many calories as they were consuming, so they wouldn’t gain any weight.  In the case of a “licker,” you will need to step the feedings up to about 3-4 feedings each day (more if needed) to get those calories into them!  Also, it is more likely you will need to add an extra dose of calorie-rich cream or sweetener to support the extra expenditure.  Something like a few drops of maple syrup worked great, and made a visible difference in those we caught in time. 
  • Third, if you find you are using much sweetener, keep a check on their hind end.  It seemed to cause a sticky substance to be excreted, which would sometimes cake on.  We had to clean this off periodically. 
  • After about 2.5 weeks, leave some free choice feed in their box–just a little.  1-2 raisins, a few sunflower seeds, and a small handful of rabbit pellets.  As they start to nibble on these foods, it will increase their calorie intake.  Be sure to keep it fresh, as you definitely don’t want to cause a case of diarrhea!
  • Watch their weight carefully.  Our survivor learned to suck, and actually gained weight after the first week.  The others simply got thinner.  I am convinced that had I upped their number of feedings and supplemented with more cream or even syrup, sooner, more would have survived.  I just assumed too much. 

In farm life, you live and learn I guess.  I am so thankful for all my years as a vet tech, being an animal biology and pre-vet major, and opportunities for nursing so many types of animals!  I find myself using what I learned so often.  Combined with modern internet research and data, I am able to take so much info and significantly reduce the trial-and-error I have to go through personally.  Nonetheless, there is still some trial-and-error and mistakes that are part of this lifestyle. 

Now, I have a 4 week old bunny that is starting to really eat a large portion of solid foods, and he is so tamed and sweet and gentle that there is absolutely no way I can eat him (see, I really do have a heart!).  So now the debate is, do I offer him for sale as a pet, or do we incorporate him into a breeding program, due strictly to his hardiness and survivability?  His future is yet to be determined.