When I started raising rabbits in the third grade, I had eight does (mother rabbits) and one buck (father rabbit). There was always a doe that had just given birth, and always one or two does that were pregnant.
The reason bunnies were busting out my rabbit hutches was that rabbits only need 30 days of pregnancy, on average, to bring their kits to term.
But let’s start with an important clarification.
Not all does are pregnant for exactly 30 days.
The breed makes a difference. The gestation period of wild rabbits is about 27 days, while pregnancy in larger breeds, like Flemish Giants, may last 35 days.
The mother rabbit’s diet and general state of health also makes a difference.
But the bottom line about pregnancy in rabbits is that the females can stay pregnant nearly all the time.
Anytime you have an unspayed female with a reproductively intact male in the same cage or hutch, baby bunnies may be in your future.
In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about managing reproduction in rabbits and keeping the kits, the baby bunnies, as healthy as possible.
How Soon Can Female Rabbits Get Pregnant?
A female rabbit of one of the dwarf breeds (such as Brittania Petites, Dwarf Hotots, Himalayans, Netherland Dwarf rabbits) can get pregnant when it is just 14 weeks (3-1/2 months) old.
Larger breeds may not be capable of reproducing until they are six months old, but there will be a few female rabbits of almost any breed that will be capable of getting pregnant at the age of 14 weeks.
Your vet will probably want to wait until your rabbit is 20 weeks old before attempting to spay her.
That’s because the horns of the uterus in a growing female rabbit are very tiny, and hard to locate during surgery.
That means there are about six weeks when a young female rabbit, still growing, can get pregnant, if it is housed with reproductively active males.
This means that you need to separate young females from young males at the age of 3-1/2 months, to keep them from getting pregnant before they are even fully grown.
Also read: What Are the Signs of a Pregnant Rabbit?
Why are female rabbits capable of getting pregnant before they reach maturity?
In nature, most rabbits are killed by predators. A rabbit must reproduce early to have a chance of reproducing at all.
But it is always better to wait until a doe is fully grown before attempting to breed it to buck. Young rabbits may give birth and then not know what to do.
Young mother rabbits may just hop away and forget they have babies.
It is best to wait until a female is 8 or 9 months old before breeding her.
Older does have better maternal instincts. Their bodies do not compete with their unborn young for nutrients.
Older rabbits are also at lower risk for a disease called hepatic lipidosis during pregnancy, which we will discuss a little later.
Also read: Can Rabbits Give Birth Days Apart?
How You Can Tell Your Rabbit Is Pregnant?
There is a relatively easy way to tell that a doe is pregnant.
Pregnant female rabbits get cranky.
They don’t want to be petted as much. But they usually want to eat more.
Like other pregnant animals, pregnant rabbits gain weight. Their bellies get larger.
Ten to 12 days after breeding, you can feel little lumps if you stroke your rabbit’s stomach. These fetal rabbits will continue to grow for 15 to 25 days until your rabbit gives birth.
Nesting Behavior in Pregnant Rabbits
Mother rabbits will start pulling out their fur to make a soft bed for their kits two to five days before they are born. Even before that, the mother rabbit will start building a nest.
In nature, the mother rabbit will dig a hole underneath a shrub or tree to give her young some protection from predators.
You take care of this task for your rabbit by giving her a nesting box.
You can also cut the side out of a large Tupperware container so your rabbit can easily go in and out, lining it with hay.
Wooden boxes are harder to clean. Any nesting box should have a top, so the rabbit feels snug and secure.
Your nesting box should be large enough to make a home for up to 17 bunnies, although most rabbits just have one to eight kits per litter.
Where should you put the box?
If you keep your rabbit indoors, place the nesting box in the middle of your rabbit’s play space. This way, it will be easier to check on your baby bunnies.
If you keep your rabbits outdoors, make sure the nesting box is protected from predators but connected to a space where the mother can get food, water, and exercise.
Also read: How To Tell If Rabbit Mating Is Successful?
What Do You Feed a Pregnant Rabbit?
Pregnancy is one of the few times that alfalfa hay and alfalfa pellets are a good choice for feeding your rabbit.
Ordinarily, alfalfa is too rich in calcium and protein for your rabbit’s kidney health. During pregnancy, however, the extra nutrients go to the developing kits.
Add alfalfa to your rabbit’s diet gradually. About 70% of your rabbit’s diet will still need to be timothy hay, and your rabbit will need constant access to fresh water.
Also read: Can You Touch/Handle a Baby Rabbit?
Dealing with Pregnancy Problems in Rabbits
Rabbits usually do not need any help with kindling, the process of giving birth.
Rabbits usually give birth in the early morning. Labor only lasts about 15 minutes.
The mother rabbit will start nursing her young about 24 hours after they are born, feeding them once a day.
There are two problems that can occur when rabbits give birth.
Sometimes the babies just won’t come out. This problem is known as dystocia.
There may be a brownish-green discharge. Contractions may be persistent.
If your rabbit strains to give birth for more than 30 minutes, your veterinarian will have to help her.
The other problem that can come up in rabbits giving birth is hepatic lipidosis.
The mother rabbit usually does not eat for a day or two before going into labor. Then her body starts making milk.
The rabbit’s body releases stored fatty acids from body fat, but the fatty acids in her bloodstream can overwhelm her liver.
When a rabbit that has just given birth is not interested in eating and doesn’t poop, hepatic lipidosis may be the cause. Ask your vet about feeding her with a syringe until she recovers.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pregnancy and Birth in Rabbits
Q, How can I tell my rabbit is about to give birth?
A. Mother rabbits start pulling out belly fur to create a comfortable lining for their nests four or five days before they give birth. Ideally, you should give your mother rabbit a nesting box, so it can create an enclosed, safe space for their litter.
One or two days before giving birth, the mother rabbit will stop eating.
You still need to make sure that your rabbit has access to hay and water, even if they temporarily stop eating. It is very important for the mother rabbit to have access to food and water as soon as possible after giving birth to avoid potentially fatal stress to its liver.
Q. Why do some mother rabbits eat their young?
A. Mother rabbits sometimes eat a baby bunny, or several baby bunnies, to save the lives of others.
One of the traumatic events I experienced in the third grade with my pet rabbits was a particularly cannibalistic doe.
One day, I counted 17 baby bunnies and a very thin mother rabbit in their hutch. When I got home from school, I had no baby bunnies and a mother rabbit with a swollen stomach.
A mother rabbit cannot nurse 17 kits. The maximum is about 12.
On some level, the mother rabbit realized that she could not nurse her litter and both she and her young would starve., so she ate her young. I was very upset, but she had another, smaller litter about six weeks later.
Mother rabbits sometimes also eat kits that are stillborn or die shortly after birth. This way, their bodies do not decay and give away the location of the nest to predators.
Q. Can a pregnant rabbit give me LCMV?
A. LCMV is an abbreviation for lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. It’s an infection that pet rabbits can get from contact with mice.
The problem with LCMV isn’t when the rabbit is pregnant. It’s when the owner is pregnant.
Human babies exposed to LCMV while still in the womb can experience severe problems with neurological development during the first two years of life. Adults exposed to the virus are not as severely affected.
Pregnant women should not cuddle with pregnant rabbits, or any other rabbits. They should wear gloves when handling anything from the rabbit’s litter box.
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