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Rearing orphan rabbit kittens

Handrearing a rabbit kitten or kittens can be an extremely rewarding experience but is not a job to be taken on lightly. The task ahead is difficult, exhausting and there is no guarantee of success. However hard you try, you are a poor substitute for a kitten's natural mother and despite the best efforts of human volunteers the death rate among orphaned kittens is often high.

Your questions answered

When is it right to hand rear kittens?

Rabbit kittens can require hand-rearing if they are true orphans due to maternal death, or because the mother is unable to feed her kittens. Kittens only suckle once every 24 hours, at night and only for 5 minutes or so - they are left in the nest for the rest of the time and ignored by their mother. This avoids drawing attention to the nest (a survival strategy).

Mothers with a new litter can take 24 hours to start producing milk. If the kits have not been fed for 48 hours then mis-mothering can be diagnosed. Unfed kits will have thin tummies and wrinkled skin. Check also that the kits have pink rather than blue skin colour. They will also cry if they are not being fed.

When is it wrong to hand rear kittens?

Occasionally a mother will abandon one or more kittens in the litter. The kitten may look perfectly normal but the chances are that it has some serious defect which would prevent it from living a full and active life. Letting it die may seem cruel but it is nature's way and in these situations it may be kinder to ask your vet to put the kitten to sleep. If a litter of wild baby rabbits is found, it is wrong to assume that they have been abandoned - the mother is probably out hunting or watching from a hiding place. Leave the kittens where they are. If you disturb them or move them from the nest, you will reduce their chances of survival.

What can go wrong with hand-reared kittens?

The most common causes of failure and death are pneumonia due to inhalation of milk into the lungs and diarrhoea due to failure to establish a normal gut flora (the mother's milk is not only the best source of nourishment but also provides the gut bacteria essential for their digestion).

What equipment will I need to hand rear kittens?

Kits under 7 days will need to be kept at 27-30°C (an airing cupboard will do). Their fur will grow when they are about 7 days old. Baby rabbit's eyes open between 10 and 12 days and they can hear by the fifth day. Place kits in a box, eg a shoe-box, lined with hay, maternal fur (rabbits will pull their fur before giving birth to make a nest), soft cloths or fleece veterinary bedding. Temperature can be lowered after 7 days if the kits are thriving.

What milk should be used and how is it given?

Rabbit milk is highly concentrated and commercial substitues available are Esbilac, Climicat and Lactol (although full cream goats milk and evaporated milk (eg Carnation) diluted 50:50 with water have also been used). Ask at your vet for supplies. The commercial preparations are recommended and should be prepared according to the manufacturer's instructions. A probiotic (beneficial micro-organisms) and multivitamins should be added to the milk, following the manufacturer's instructions. Made-up milk can be stored for 24 hours in a refrigerator but the milk should always be given at body temperature and can be tested on the back of the hand before it is given. Use Milton's fluid to clean teats, bottles and syringes, rinsing in water before use.

Feeding regime

Nursing bottles with teats available for kittens, or syringes can be used. Teat feeding is best as it carries less risk of aspiration pneumonia. If fed by syringe you cannot generally revert to teat feeding as the suckling reflex is lost after about two days. If using a syringe, administer the milk very slowly to minimise the possiblity of aspiration.

Hold the kit on your lap with its head gently restrained between the thumb and second finger, and the first finger placed on the top of the head. If using a sryinge, this should be gently inserted through the side of the mouth behind the incisor teeth. Stop between mouthfuls to allow swallowing. Once accustomed to being fed, the rabbit will refuse milk when it is full.

Feed the baby rabbit between 3-6 times a day. 4 times a day is usually adequate with a break of 6-8 hours overnight. Weigh the kit regularly and increase the volume and/or frequency of feeds if they are failing to gain weight. As a rough guide, new born kits consume about 2 ml/day, increasing to:

  • Day 4: 10 ml/day
  • Day 7: 13 ml/day
  • Day 10: 15 ml/day
  • Day 14: 22 ml/day
  • Day 21: 27 ml/day - starting to nibble hay and use water bottle
  • Day 27: 30 ml/day - eating hay
  • Day 30: 20 ml/day - well established on hay
  • Day 35: weaned! Eating mainly hay, and a small amount of solids (concentrates) and wild plants/vegetables.

A water bottle should be introduced when the kits are about 3 weeks old. Probiotics should be added to the water.

How can kittens be kept clean?

Afer each feed, wipe the kit's bottom with a damp cloth or cotton wool to stimulate urination and defecation (the mother's tongue usually does this). This will need to be done until the rabbit is about 10-14 days old.

When can kittens be weaned?

Weaning is a critical period and it is important that only hay is introduced first. The rabbits should be well-established on hay before small amounts of solid food (concentrates) and vegetables are introduced.

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