Rabbits are known for their reproduction abilities, they are one of the most productive animals on the planet. Breeding rabbits is pretty easy when it goes well.
WARNING: This diary discusses housing, raising and breeding rabbits for human consumption. If this topic disturbs you, please do not proceed.
A trio of one buck and two does can produce enough rabbit to feed a family of 4 quite easily. They are able to re-breed as soon as they give birth, and with only being pregnant for one month, you could theoretically get 11-12 litters of up to 12 kits (baby rabbits) giving 144 kits per doe per year.
The reality is a little different- a more common volume is 4-7 litters per year with an average of 7-8 kits per doe. But still, that is a lot of babies.
As you know I am a fan of the colony system for breeding rabbits and my buck runs in with the girls all the time. There are some colonies that keep their buck separate (either in a buck colony or their own cage/run) and others that release the bucks in with the girls and pull them out after a set timeframe.
This way you can know when to expect babies, and hopefully have several birth at the same time which helps with fostering.
You can do what works best for you. I have a separate buck pen within my colony shed, which I will be able to remove him to if and when we get overrun with too many babies.
Want to know all about raising rabbits in a colony?
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Bucks reach sexual maturity between four and eight months of age, depending on breed and level of nutrition.
To check gender, turn the rabbit over onto it’s back, and lay it on your lap with its feet by your knees and it’s head by your belly.
From here in an adult male you should be able to see its scrotal sacks/testes if it is not neutered, immature males are not so obvious.
Rabbits hide their genitalia internally, to find them simply press firmly with your thumb just above their vent towards their belly slightly. This should make their genitalia prodrude. A buck’s penis looks like a doughnut with a circle hole in the end.
Does of medium to large size are sexually mature at 4 to 4.5 months, giant breeds at 6 to 9 months, and small breeds (such as the Polish Dwarf and Dutch) at 3.5 to 4 months of age.
As above to check their gender, turn the rabbit on to it’s back and press just above it’s vent. A female will look like a taco/slit.
Internally does have a horned uterus, meaning they can theoretically have two pregnancies on the go at the same time. Though this seldom happens and even more rarely do both litters survive, as one will often abort during the birth of the other litter.
Contrary to popular belief, the rabbit has a cycle of mating receptivity; breeding rabbits are receptive to mating about 14 of every 16 days.
A doe is most receptive when the vent is red and moist. Does that are not receptive have a whitish pink vent color with little or no moisture. Rabbits are what are called ‘induced ovulators’ which means they release eggs after breeding.
If a doe is bred during a receptive phase she has a 90% chance of conceiving, if she is bred on one of her ‘off’ days she only has a 10% chance of conception.
When to breed
It is usually recommended that you wait until 6 months for small-medium breeds, 9 months for large and 12 months for giant breeds for breeding rabbits.
However I have a different standing than most on this issue. It is often considered expected that you will loose most, if not all of a mother’s first litter.
However if you breed does at 16-17 weeks you can prevent lost first litters.
Breeding rabbits younger results in less than 1% litter loss on the first litter. Compare it to roughly 90% first litter loss on does bred later.
Once you get your does switched over to breeding younger litter losses are almost non existent. So there you go, let them breed like rabbits for best results.
For breeding troubleshooting read here.
Pregnancy usually lasts about 28-31 days. Does with a small litter (usually 4 or less) tend to have longer pregnancies than those that produce larger litters. If a doe has not given birth by day 32 of her pregnancy, your veterinarian can likely induce labor; otherwise, a litter is almost always delivered sometime after day 34, live birth rates decline steeply after 33 days of pregnancy.
Occasionally, pregnant does will abort or resorb the fetuses due to nutritional deficiencies or disease.
For the last two weeks of pregnancy I recommend you feed this pregnancy tonic:
PREGNANCY TONIC- Combine the following dried, raspberry leaf, nettle, and goats rue (Galega officinale) in equal parts, and half part Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum).
Feed: 1 Tbs. per day at feeding time, to pregnant Does beginning one week before kindling through the first month. These herbs help ease kindling, offer nutrition and support lactation.
For information on false pregnancies read here.
If your rabbits are in cages you need to add nest boxes to the cage 28 to 29 days after breeding. When boxes are added too soon, they can become fouled with urine and feces.
Rubbermaid or plastic totes, or pet carriers make great sized nesting boxes in a colony and are easy to clean at required.
If you are colony raising your rabbits will have some sort of den/nest box available to them already. And if you are super awesome, they will have a pile of dirt in the middle of their run to dig their own burrows to nest in.
Provide hay or straw or similar items for the mama doe to be to build a nest with. A day or so before giving birth, the doe pulls fur from her body and adds that to her nest.
Rabbits are expert birthers. Usually you just need to leave them well alone and let them do their thing.
Very rarely a kit can become stuck, or a mother will retain a kit after all the others are delivered. Given time nature usually sorts it out.
If the mother is distressed I suggest a trip to the vet. You can help the mother develop stronger contractions by feeding some high calcium foods like kale or some tums/quikeeze.
A soapy water mixture will help lubricate a dry kit, but as bunnies are so tiny, there is not much you can do to help like you can with a sheep or a cow.
Herbal options for a stuck kit, slowed labour or retained placenta include Blue cohosh – start with 2 leaves or 1/4tsp dried leaf per hour, once things are up and running ease off giving it, Raspberry leaves, Lavender (flowers in very small amounts only).
Young does may kill and eat their young for a number of reasons, including nervousness, neglect (failure to nurse), and severe cold. Dogs or predators entering a rabbitry often cause nervous does to kill and eat the young.
Cannibalism of the dead young occurs as a natural, nest-cleaning instinct. If all management practices are proper and the doe kills 2 litters in a row, she should not be used for breeding. There is more information on cannibalism on this page about rabbit diseases.
Caring for the Kits
Kits are born hairless and helpless. They start growing hair after 2-3 days and their ears and eyes are open at day 10.
For the first 3-4 weeks the kits will live solely inside the nest. The mother rabbit only feeds the babies 1-2 times per day, so don’t panic if you don’t see her in there.
Sometimes in a colony a doe will make her nest in a bed with another doe and they have a shared nest. They will often take turns at motherly duties.
Check on the babies everyday but minimise handling them too much so you don’t stress the mama out.
Count the kits after the birth and remove any dead ones or soiled bedding. Once they are counted and clean just cover them up and leave them alone.
24 hours later have a look at them again and check that they all have nice round full bellies. A kit that isn’t being fed with be thin, weak and wrinkly.
Mama rabbits only have 8-10 nipples, so if she has more than 8-10 babies she may struggle to feed them all.
You can foster some babies on to another mother, you can wipe a little strong smelling food essence (vanilla or almond) on her nose so she doesn’t smell the difference between her babies and the new ones.
Most does will happily foster extra babies, sometimes even if there is a week or so in age difference.
Hand Raising Baby Rabbits
Sometimes you are left with no option but to try and hand raise a kit (or a litter of kits). The success rate is very small as they tend to get Enterotoxemia (bloat) and die.
If you want to try your hand at hand raising baby rabbits you can try. Kits must be kept warm, dry, and quiet.
You can use a Kitten milk replacer or make a formula of ½ cup evaporated milk, ½ cup water, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon corn syrup. Feedings vary from ½ teaspoon to 2 tablespoons 2-3 times per day, depending on the age of the kits. Kits start eating greens around day 15 to 18.
Mothers will naturally wean their babies, when exactly varies depending on several factors. If she is pregnant again, she will wean earlier (about 4 weeks) however some super mums will happily feed two litters at once.
Kits are usually ready to be weaned at 4-5 weeks. Some does will continue to feed the babies to 6-7 weeks, but they don’t need it by this time as they are growing and eating real food by that age.
You can leave the grow-outs (weaned babies) with their mothers in a colony or move them out to a specific growout colony/tractor to allow the mother some recovery time before her next litter.
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 imperative not to change their diet, by making abrupt changes or introducing food that they haven’t had before in large quantities. All new foods should be added a teaspoon per rabbit at a time to allow their guts time to adjust to it.
Kits that are being sold should be kept until 8 weeks old to ensure they are eating well and thriving on real food. If you are sending the grow-outs to ‘freezer camp’ then you should do so about 8-14 weeks of age, while they are still very tender.
The usual idea is to process them once they reach 2.5kg/5lb. If you are keeping them as breeding rabbits, ensure they are with the buck/does you want them to breed with by 12 weeks of age incase they mature early.
Terms and Meanings
Abort – premature birth of partially formed fetuses.
Conception – the beginnings of a pregnancy with babies
Vent – a female rabbits external genitalia also known as vulva
Colony – The natural way to raise rabbits in a group together.
What about you? Are you breeding rabbits? What is your setup?
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