If you are deciding to embark on a breeding programme with your rabbits, it is important that you are doing this for the right reasons. There are thousands of unwanted rabbits clogging the shelters of England, and you don’t want to be responsible for adding to them. Baby rabbits are extremely cute, and it can be a fun and exciting experience to breed. If, however, you are seeking any monetary gain or are not looking to improve on a breed trait, it is probably not the best course of action. If you are planning on breeding though, there are some simple ways you can make it an enjoyable and beneficial experience for both you and your rabbits.
Whether you are taking your doe to a stud rabbit, or you own both male and female breeding partners, it is important that you take precautions to make sure the mating process goes smoothly. You need to make sure you have two rabbits that are happy, healthy and with no predominant health issues or concerns. It is ideal that you know the health history of their parents as well, to ensure you aren’t furthering negative traits. Your doe should be at least six months of age. Always bring the doe to the buck. Nature will take its course very quickly, and you will know the deed is done when the buck rolls off backwards. You must then immediately remove the doe.
You can check for pregnancy by palpating your doe fourteen days after mating has occurred. Gently press the abdomen of your doe with your thumb and forefingers, and see if you can feel the kits. Be careful not to press too hard, as you can injure them. They will feel about the size of the grape. If your doe is pregnant, she will require extra feeding. Rabbits are very adept mothers, but if it is her first litter, she may lose one or all of her kits through no fault of yours.
Rabbits gestate, or are pregnant, between 28 and 31 days, and the kits are usually born on the 31st day at night. Be sure you have carefully marked the dates on your calendar so you can be sure when to expect baby bunnies. With about one week before birth, but sometimes only a few days, your rabbit will begin pulling out her fur and making a nest. She will use the fur and plenty of hay and bedding to construct a nest in an area of her choosing. This is where she will give birth, and you need to try and make sure it is a separate area to her toilet, as you don’t want the kits to be born in a soiled nest. Some breeders also choose to use a nest box for their doe. This should be partially covered and big enough for the doe to comfortably lie down and turn around in. It is recommended that you place the nest box in the cage with the doe after the 26th day of gestation. Your doe will likely build her nest in there, and you can encourage this by filling it with any pulled fur and hay that may already be strewn about the cage.
Kindling is the term used to mean birthing with rabbits. It usually takes place at night, and very rarely takes place when you are watching. When your doe is due to give birth, it is important that you give her plenty of privacy, but also periodically check the nest to see if there are any new arrivals. Your doe will eat the afterbirth and clean the kits before burying them in fur and hay. Just make sure, especially if it is a first-time mother, that she hasn’t completely covered them, and that they still have access to air. Make sure she has access to plenty of fresh water following the birth. It is recommended that, unless you absolutely have to, you do not disturb the kits or the mother for the first week after the babies are born. This can be very distressing to the mother, and can be damaging to the kits.
After the first week, you need to make sure all of the kits are still alive. If one or more have died (it does happen) you must remove them from the nest. Sometimes if there is an exceptionally small kit, the mother will intentionally move him from the nest, where he will likely freeze and die. This may seem cruel, but it is nature, and the mother will probably have expected him to not survive anyhow. Some kits that are that small are known as peanuts, and possess no growth hormone, so it is impossible that they survive. Hopefully you have a nest full of happy and healthy baby buns. It is tempting to take them out and play with them, but these babies have very little fur and are still living in blindness, so it is important to disturb them as little as possible. The doe will look after them perfectly well, and it’s best to leave it to her until they are about three weeks of age. She will nurse them about once a day, and you will hopefully see a nest full of little fat babies after this has occurred.
When the kits are three weeks of age, they will have opened their eyes and begun to explore the outside of the nest. Small breed rabbits can begin the weaning process at six weeks, and should be fully weaned by nine weeks. Separate all the kits from the doe at the same time. This will allow the doe to stop lactating. It is recommended that you keep the kits together for at least two weeks before separating them, as the whole process can be quite stressful for them. The kits will likely have been experimenting with their mother’s solid food before you remove them, but make sure you are feeding them a high quality food specific for young rabbits. It is not uncommon for diarrhoea to occur during the first few days, but adding comfrey leaves to the food and keeping the kits well hydrated can manage this. Make sure you are frequently playing with and handling the rabbits, as this will prepare them for life as a happy pet.