(click on links to scroll to sections faster)
Sexing Rabbits - telling the boys from the girls
Sexual Maturity - what to expect and when from your "teen" rabbits
Putting Your Pair Together - proper introductions for success
Inbreeding, Linebreeding and Outcrossing - how the traits you want are set
baby rabbits grow fast; these are full siblings
2 weeks old and 6 weeks old
Pregnancy - what to expect when she's expecting and tips on determining pregnancy
Kindling - they're heeere!
Kits - new babies
Weaning - getting ready to be on their own
Very young rabbits are difficult to sex. The older and bigger they get, the easier it is to see what you're looking at and determine the gender. Practice helps. I begin to try to sex my babies at 2 weeks old or so and make a note of what I think they are. Then I check 'em again periodically and see if my guess stays the same.
To check the sex, put the rabbit in your lap on its back. There are two openings between the legs very close to each other. The bottom opening, closest to its tail, is the anus. The opening closest to the head looks the same in both sexes. The genitals are hidden from view within it (this is the "vent"). Put your finger just above the vent and gently push down. If you're doing this correctly, the genitals will protrude from the opening. A female has a slit that runs from top to bottom. An immature male has a tiny penis that sticks up with a tiny hole at the tip. A mature male has an obvious penis. Immature bucks and does can be hard to tell apart so be sure to check again as they mature.
Left - the genital opening looks the same in both sexes. This is a female rabbit (a doe).
Left -This is a male rabbit - an immature buck. The tip of the penis is almost touching my index finger. The anus is near my thumb. Notice the space between the penis and the anus. (*Note - the orange looking spots on either side are the scent glands. The scent glands are found on both sexes and produce a waxy substance. Sometimes the wax should be wiped out with some mineral oil and a cotton swab or the rabbit may have a bad odor).
Left - This is the vulva of a mature female rabbit. When a female is ready to breed, the vulva changes from pale pink to deep pink, red or reddish purple. Immature females (does) look the same but much smaller.
Left - mature male rabbit (buck) penis. It's normal for the penis to curve down towards the tail. Mature males have hairless, wrinkly testicles in two separate sacs on either side of the genital mound but they can be hard to find in all the fuzz.
Rabbit buck's penis from the side. Curves toward the tail. The heels of his back feet are at the upper right and lower left.
Being a dwarf breed, lionheads become sexually mature at around 4 months old. You may notice your doe becoming cranky and territorial about her cage. She might stomp at you with her front feet and grumble or growl, lay her ears back and even dart at you in an attempt to bite. You might notice either sex rubbing their chins on objects, marking them with scent glands located there. This is all normal behavior for puberty. Some rabbits are worse than others(but I haven't had any bucks behave like this). A doe can also act like this when she wants to be bred, when she's pregnant or when she has babies. This is why I recommend bucks for pets - mine haven't gone through all these mood swings like the girls. And most of my does haven't been this extreme, either. 2 young juniors, hanging out
Female rabbits are able to be bred all but a few days out of every month. They are induced ovulators, which means they release eggs after the stimulation of sex with the buck. This almost guarantees pregnancy.
A good age to begin breeding is 5 1/2 -6 months. I have had good results at this age, although a buck I tried to use this young was willing but not fertile yet.
It's a good idea to separate the sexes by age 12 weeks or so, to prevent an unplanned litter.
If you observe the doe's vent (genital opening), when she's receptive to being bred, it'll be a deep pink or purple. Always bring the doe to the buck's cage, for his safety. She might attack him if he's taken to her cage. Stick around and supervise the mating, for the safety of both rabbits and to confirm the breeding. They may engage in a little foreplay, chasing each other around the cage, sniffing each other, the buck may attempt to lick her face and ears and she may even mount the buck. Eventually, he'll mount her (and it's extremely common for him to try everywhere but where he should actually be). The doe will lie down flat on her belly, get up on her back toes and lift her rear. The act takes about 20 seconds. When it's complete, the buck will fall over on his side or backwards and might grunt or squeak. That's it. You can put the doe back in her own cage. Write the date down somewhere. Gestation (the length of the pregnancy) is usually 31 days but can be 28 - 33 days. One of my does delivered on the 29th day; she was carrying a litter of 8 kits. That's on the large side for a lionhead doe. The average litter is 3-5 kits.
Since the doe ovulates after she's bred, it's advisable to repeat the breeding in a few hours, once or twice. This should help improve the size of her litter and ensure conception. If the does refuses to breed, remove her and try again the next day.
Some does will refuse the buck after they're pregnant. I've had a few that wouldn't let themselves be rebred after the first attempt. But, a doe is capable of conceiving again after she's pregnant. Does have a uterus that has two "horns" that run up either side of her abdomen. If she gets pregnant again, the new fetuses won't be developed as far as the first ones and she could have a miscarriage or a birth with some undeveloped babies. So only try your repeat attempts for 8 - 12 hrs. and then keep them apart.
*Note* A classic sign of a false pregnancy is a doe carrying hay in her mouth, pulling fur and trying to make a nest on the 18th day after breeding. She's not pregnant. Try breeding her again.
Candy carrying hay, building her nest 24 hrs. before the 31st day
I wouldn't use a doe for breeding anymore that has not successfully raised a litter after 3 tries. If she has them on the cage floor or refuses to feed them or eats them, she just isn't any good as a breeding doe and you don't want to pass these traits on, anyway. Poor mothering can be inherited.
Inbreeding is usually defined as breeding close blood relatives - father/daughter, mother/son, brother/sister. Less closely related breeding would be cousin/cousin, aunt/nephew, uncle/niece, half-brother/half-sister.
Linebreeding can be even less closely related animals that still have common ancestors - grandparent/grandchild, 2nd cousins, etc. The less closely related a pair is, the fewer genes they share.
Outcrossing would be breeding two totally unrelated animals.
Breeding related animals doesn't cause as many problems as common knowledge says it does. It is the way a breed is created - people see a trait in an animal that they consider desirable and to keep that trait around, they breed related animals, hoping they all have the genes for that trait. For example, a bunny appears in a litter that has a mane. The way to get more bunnies with manes is to breed that one back to one of its parents or a litter mate.
When birth defects show up, it's because the bad gene was already there. The inbreeding didn't cause the trait but when two related animals are bred and they both have the bad gene, the babies get it brom both parents and then it becomes observable or expressed. If the resulting babies only get a bad gene from one parent, it usually goes unobserved or expressed. So, unrelated animals can be safer to breed together but even unrelated animals can each have a bad gene and when they are bred together, the babies can get that bad gene from both parents. And breeding related animals is the only way to "set" the traits you do want.
So a breeder trying for a particuliar outcome in the offspring is going to need to use a combination of all of the above methods. Inbreeding can set traits you don't want, as well as the ones you do. But always breeding unrelated animals will give inconsistant results and will never set the desired traits - good body type or bunnies that keep manes. Every time an outcross is done, it adds new genes to the mix/greater diversity, and it can also throw off all the good results you were getting. If you are able to do an outcross to another line of rabbits that works well with your line of rabbits, those lines are said to "nick" well. Not all lines will nick well together.
This should be pretty uneventful. I let my does eat as much fresh pellets and hay as they want. Determining a pregnancy is often difficult because rabbits don't get noticeably larger in the belly, like some other animals do. On the 12th day, you can supposedly feel bumps when you palpate the belly. Unless it's a bigger litter, I often can't feel anything that early. I sit on the floor with the doe beween my legs, belly down, and gently feel her belly with my fingertips. This is another skill that takes practice. Feel for marble-like lumps, below the ribs, on either side of the abdomen. (Remember, a rabbit has two sides to her uterus, not a central cavity, like a human. It "forks" off into each side). Closer to the due date, you can almost feel individual, little bodies.
Your doe's behavior may tip you off, though. She can become a real cranky-pants (no, this is not how I talk in real life, but I want my website to be "G" rated! lol) and lots of mine start tearing up their cage right away, not using and throwing around the litter pan, and digging like fiends.
You should offer a nest box before the 28th day. Fill it up with some hay and make a depression in the middle with your fist. Offer her some more loose hay. Some does will be interested right away and some will not try to build a nest until right before the birth. You'll see her gathering up big mouthfuls of hay, sticking out of both sides of her mouth. She'll also pull lots of her own fur from her chest and belly to line the nest and cover the babies. Pulling her belly fur also helps to expose her nipples for access for the babies. If your doe doesn't pull fur, you can pull some from her yourself; it becomes very loose as the birth nears and comes out easily.
The birth most commonly happens on the 31st day but can occur at 28 -33 days. A day or so before, the doe may lose interest in eating. She may dig in the nest box or the bottom of her cage. She may also try to have her babies somewhere besides the nest box. If you see her trying to make her nest somewhere else, you can try to put it in the box. Or you can wait till after the birth and move everything into the box. The birth seems to happen here usually near dusk or dawn. The doe will sit very still in the box with a very odd look on her face, staring off into the distance. As the kit comes out of the birth canal, the mother will reach down to pull the amniotic sac off the baby and chew the umbilical cord. She'll also eat the afterbirth (placenta). The birth usually occurs fairly rapidly (within a hour) but can take longer.
Sometimes does have difficulty delivering their kits. If a kit gets stuck during delivery, you can try to help by wrapping a dry washcloth around the presenting part and pull gently down and toward the doe's belly somewhat - not straight back. Only pull gently when she pushes!
Baby rabbits, called kits, are born naked, with their eyes and ears closed. They're not able to regulate their own body temperature yet, so their mom pulls her own fur out from her chest and belly to cover them. The kits also help keep each other warm when they snuggle together. A single kit needs more monitoring to be sure it stays warm enough; a chilled kit can die. Kits can be dragged out of the nest box by hanging onto a teat. You should put them back in the nest. The doe will never pick up or carry her babies. Babies born on the floor of the cage or wire will die if not put back in the nest box.
When you think the birth is finished (the doe will leave the box), you can check the babies and remove any that are dead. I find that removing the box from the cage to check babies is less distressing to the mother. You might find a baby that looks limp and lifeless. You can try warming it in your hands and rubbing it gently and vigorously with a fingertip to try to stimulate it to breathe. Don't be surprised if some of the babies don't live; sometimes a first-time mom loses the whole litter.
Dead kit on left, showing extreme bruising on the muzzle. The chunk below it is the placenta. This supplies oxygen and nutrients to the baby in the uterus. If the placenta detaches before the baby's head is out where it can breathe, it will suffocate. That's what happened to this kit, which got stuck during the birth. (You may observe the mother eating the placenta and think she's eating a baby. She cleans up by eating the afterbirth; it's instinctive for her to do this to avoid drawing predators to the nest).
Peanuts - When working with dwarf breeds,sometimes you'll find babies that are a third to almost half the size of their littermates. These are most likely "peanuts" - babies that got a double dose of the dwarf gene, which is fatal. They'll live a few days and then die. Some breeders remove them but I leave them in the nest so they can help keep the rest warm.
Left- a normal kit (black one, center) with two peanut siblings. Peanuts can also be identified by their bulging eyes, tiny ears set too far back on the head and underdeveloped hindquarters.
I recently had a litter with 3 normal size and 2 that appeared to be peanuts. One of the peanuts died as expected but the other did fine and is just a petite, little bunny. I was very glad I didn't euthanize him.
The black kit (left) on the upper left is the one who appeared to be a peanut but he ate and grew. Once it was apparent he'd live, I still didn't think he could compete with his litter mates and get enough to eat, but he did fine. Notice how much smaller he is than the other 3 kits in the litter.
Baby rabbits are called kits. They're born naked, with eyes and ears closed. In just a few hours, fuzz starts to come in and some colors can be determined in a few days. Mother rabbits only feed their babies once or twice a day, just hovering over them for a few moments. (They don't lie down for the babies to eat, like a cat or dog). Then they leave the nest box again. Well-fed babies have full, taut bellies and sleep almost all the time. If you put your hand above them, they seem to sense your body heat and will wiggle and squeak excitedly and bump your hand with their noses, looking for something to eat. They grow very rapidly; there's a noticeable difference between one day old kits and one week old kits.
If a mother isn't able or willing to care for her kits, it's possible to foster them with another doe. I try to breed 2 does at the same time, so I have a "spare" mom around for fostering. I've read that putting a little vanilla on the doe's nose helps mask the smell of the strange babies, to encourage her to accept them as her own, but I've had no problem just popping them in the box with the others. I had a mom with 8 babies and another with only one, so I gave 3 of the large litter to the other mom. I thought this would be less strain on the mom with the big litter and give the babies a better chance of getting enough to eat.
If your doe is used to you, it's fine to handle the kits. She's used to your scent and won't mind it on the babies. I remove the nest box from her cage (just in case she decides she might like to nip me; rare for any of my does) and check them twice a day. Daily handling helps socialize the babies. By 3-4 weeks, I like to let them out of the cage together occasionally, with supervision, (babies without the mom) so they can romp and stretch their legs.
Suki, black doe, nursing her black and blue tort kit, both almost as big as she is.
Those are their big back feet sticking up in the air!
Weaning means the baby rabbits stop nursing from their mother and eat regular food independantly. Baby rabbits start nibbling on the hay in their nest box around the time their eyes open (about 10 - 12 days old). As they begin to leave their nest, they'll nose around and try their mother's rabbit pellets. The transition from nursing to eating on their own is usually pretty gradual. My research says that you shouldn't offer babies fresh greens until 4 months, to avoid upsetting their digestion. The easiest method for the mother is to remove a baby every other day, to help dry up her milk, and prevent mastitis (a breast infection from weaning too abruptly). You can begin to wean babies at 6-7 weeks. They should be eating on their own for a minimum of a week before being moved to a new home. Weaning is stressful to baby rabbits! They need to stay with the breeder for a week or two before being subjected to the new stress of being moved a new home. Babies should go with a supply of the food they're used to so the new owner can switch to the food they'll use slowly (mix with the old). Weaning is stressful to babies (I'll say it again) and is a common time for "weaning enteritis" to appear. Enteritis is a severe inflammation of the digestive tract, which can cause either extreme diarrhea or digestion to slow or stop completely. It can kill young rabbits overnight. That is why it is imperitive not to fool around with their diet, by making abrupt changes or introducing food that they haven't had before. You might get away with it but you might not. I don't think it's worth the risk to my babies. As of this writing, I haven't lost any babies, other than stillborns or peanuts, so that's what works for me. I have read about other breeders supplementing with rolled oats or sunflower seeds, etc.and also losing babies so I don't do it.