I read a lot, almost to a fault, on raising animals. Yet somehow in all my reading I’ve found that a lot of information that would have been good to know just isn’t there. Much of it is vital and would have saved the loss of our first few litters if we had known then what we know now. So, here’s my two cents on what anyone looking to raise litters of rabbits (whether for show, meat or fiber) should know:
1. Start with a doe & a buck
But of course. You always need to have a male/female pairing when breeding any animal. One thing that they will tell you is to always bring the doe to the buck’s hutch. What they DON’T tell you is that rabbits do not breed like rabbits. Does are often shy, reluctant or otherwise steadfastedly chaste. This can be maddening, especially if you’re hoping to knit wool hats for Christmas from baby angora wool or put some hasenpfeffer in your freezer. It might take several tries over a few days (I put them together every 12 hours over 2-4 days), but eventually it will happen.
2. Mark your calendar for 27 days from the date of the pairing
…even if you think no mating has taken place! Rabbit gestation is only about 30 days long. The mother doe must have some place to kindle (give birth), and after 27 days it is time to put in a nest box. Any earlier and the doe won’t know what it’s for and flip it over. Any later and you risk Mom having her kits on the bottom of her hutch, which will cause for them to die of hypothermia. You can spend a fortune buying a nest box, or you can do what I did and use hard plastic shelves pulled out of an unused shelf:
Bring on the hate mail. Hard plastic is not recommended as rabbits ‘will chew it up.’ But I’ve used these shelves for nest boxes for several does and they’ve never chewed the plastic. It’s easy to sterilize (unlike wood), is lightweight (unlike metal) and doesn’t get hot when it’s hot and cold when it’s cold (also unlike metal). Fill it up with a few inches of shavings and straw. Mom will line it with pulled fur (or wool, if you have Angoras like we do) to make it warmer.
The latter part of this step is huge – they don’t tell you that even if you think copulation hasn’t happened, it probably has. Our first litter of kits was lost this way as I never put in a nest box. I’d watched the entire time the prospective parents shared space, and from everything I’d seen the doe had been successful in fending off her suitor. I was wrong, and she had her kits on the wire. It was a complete loss. Additionally, leave the next box in for up to 1 week past the 30 days following that last pairing! They’ll tell you that rabbits never deliver past day 30-31. They’re lying. Smaller litters are carried longer, and larger breeds will carry longer. So do not assume that conception never occurred and take out the nest box. I also fell prey to this.
3. Inspect the newborn litter
Check to see if any are DOA and remove them, and make sure that all kits are nursing. Check out here for how to recognize a kit that hasn’t nursed and how to help it. What they don’t tell you is that you CAN handle the kits. Mom will not abandon them because your scent is there. I don’t recommend handling them frequently, especially if it’s a first-time mother that’s high strung. But daily wellness checks should be in practice. Aside from increasing mom’s rations (I add black oil sunflower seeds and oats to increase milk production), there’s nothing else you need to do.
Note: Mom will consume the afterbirth and any stillborns. This is reprehensible to us humans, but it is nature’s way of making sure the deceased doesn’t bring bacteria into the nest box or attract predators to the nest with its smell.
4. Watch out for temperature extremes
Rabbit kits are born naked, deaf and blind. They MUST be kept warm in their nest. What they don’t tell you is that rabbit kits also get too hot. Keep them out of direct sunlight and bring them inside from the barn if it gets to the 80s or 90s outside. Mom only nurses her kits once or twice a day – she won’t miss them. Just bring them out every 12 hours or so in extreme heat or cold. That said, we’ve had rabbit litters raised in our barn in positively frigid temps. A good nest will keep them warm enough, especially if it’s a larger litter where they can keep each other warm. Smaller litters (4 or less) would probably be better off inside.
5. Keep an eye on Mom
Don’t forget the toll pregnancy and nursing takes on Mom! I’ve never seen this tidbit of information anywhere, yet it’s true. Mom will lose a lot of weight. This only makes sense, as she could be nursing up to 10 kits. I let Mom eat all she wants when nursing. Now is not the time to worry about show weight. Chances are that if she’s breeding her show days are over anyway.
6. Put in a second feeder and extra water bottles after 10 days, discontinue oats and black oil sunflower seeds
This is when the kits are old enough to sample Mom’s feed. I put extra food dishes and water bottles on so I can just fill them once in the morning rather than running out to refill multiple times a day. Oats and black oil sunflower seeds aren’t good for the kits, so stop adding them.
7. Sex and separate the bucks at 6 weeks
Unless you’re experienced you can’t accurately sex a rabbit before 6 weeks. At this time I put the buck kits in their own hutch and leave Mom with her daughters so that she can slowly wean the litter. We don’t want her to get mastitis. Daughters can stay with their mom indefinitely, but rabbits (especially angoras, as the static from their wool rubbing together will cause mats) should have their own hutch when full grown.
8. Decide who’s staying, who’s going and who’s dinner
This can be a tough decision. I would start by saying any kit that displays an obvious disqualification or fault on the show table isn’t a keeper. Examples of this include nonshowable colors, bad teeth, poor wool etc. ARBA has a great showing guide for each individual rabbit breed. One benefit of raising Angora Rabbits (amongst the many) is that a rabbit that just doesn’t have the right color can go to a spinner’s home and doesn’t necessarily have to wind up in a pie.
As for deciding who’s staying… well, keep in mind that only the best of the best should be kept for breeding, showing and spinning. After all, a rabbit that produces only half the normal amount of wool eats the same amount as any other rabbit. This can be tough to assess, as wool quality doesn’t show up until the rabbit is near adulthood, yet rabbit kits can be bought and sold as young as 8 weeks. What I’ll be doing with the litter I currently have from Elinor is keeping back the best 2 bucks (I need a new French Angora buck.) You can get a general idea of who has the best wool density by 8 weeks, and who has ‘hairy’ wool rather than just wool, but length takes awhile to grow out. Also, shoulders and other aspects can take longer to develop. So, of the two bucks with the best wool density that I keep back, I’ll wait until they’re about 12-16 weeks old before making the final decision of who’s staying. I’ll probably also show them at 12 weeks at the state fair to get the judge’s opinion. Never let a judge’s opinion sway yours (as one judge may fail a rabbit on the show table while the next judge will give the same rabbit 1st prize), but at the same time if it confirms what you’ve already been thinking between the two, then it’s probably a good choice.