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Gestation and Birth

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Gestation: the Most Confusing Stage

The reason I say this is because it is very hard to tell if your doe is pregnant. There is even an event that can cause a doe to act like she is going to have babies up to the point of trying to build a nest, but no babies appear. I'll explain everything.

How Long Gestation Lasts

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Have you ever heard the saying "[It multiplies] like a rabbit"? It's true. A rabbit's gestation lasts for only a month. Yes, you heard me. Around four weeks. And the time flies by. The most important thing you can do while breeding is to keep records. You need to record when you bred the rabbits, keep track of time until 28 days have gone by, and then put in a nest box and bedding (inside the nest box, that is). If the rabbit doesn't have babies in 36 days, call the vet, because the babies can't stay inside the doe. It will make her very, very sick and die.

A typical wooden nest box.

Telling if She's Pregnant

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This is just about the hardest part of the gestation issue. Something that will give you a good hint about if she's going to have babies soon is if she starts carrying hay around in her mouth trying to make a nest out of it. You should, however, try to figure out if she's pregnant before that. People will tell you many ways to see if a rabbit's pregnant or not, but only one way really works. Palpation. Palpation is an art of the skilled. My mother can't even do it. (I can, though.) I will explain palpation in a minute, but first, I want to warn you about some really corny pregnancy tests.

Hoax Pregnancy Tests

The first corny test I'll explain is called check mating. This is when you put in the doe with the buck again 2 weeks after the first mating. This is what is supposed to happen: if the doe is pregnant from the first mating, she will refuse the buck. If she is not, she will take him. This can be very bad, because the doe can accept the buck even when she is pregnant, and then she would have two litters that were two different ages inside of her, and since they would both be born at the same time, one litter would be too old and die, and the other would be too young and die. Also, the doe could refuse the buck even if she wasn't pregnant.

The second way that doesn't really work is weighing your rabbit just to see if it is pregnant. It is very good to weigh her solely for records, but it just doesn't do the trick when you are trying to see if she is pregnant or not. I've had does that gained weight while not pregnant after being mated, and pregnant does that actually lost an ounce or two. Most just stay the same weight throughout most of the gestation period. You also can't tell if their stomach gets bigger, because, to tell the truth, it doesn't.

Palpation

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Palpation is the best way of telling if a doe is pregnant or not. This is the method of feeling her abdomen to see if there are any babies inside. For beginners, this method is most easily done at two weeks after breeding or more. I will explain how it's done in the following list, with assistants of pictures.

  • Take out the rabbit and place it on a surface with high traction, such as a carpet.
  • Hold the rabbit back on it's hindquarters so it doesn't back up while you are trying to palpate it.
  • Reach with your other hand (it should be your dominant hand, if you are right-handed, use your right hand and vise versa) underneath the rabbit's abdomen.
  • Start squeezing and pinching the rabbit's abdomen between your fingers and your thumb between the last rib of the rabbit's rib cage and the pelvic bone. At around two weeks of gestation, the baby bunnies should feel like little marbles. At three to three and a half weeks, they should feel longer and you may even be able to distinguish their heads from their bodies.
  • NOTE: The reason why many people have a hard time palpating is because they are afraid of squeezing to hard, because they think it will hurt the babies or the mother. Well, it doesn't, because of a bubble-like sac around each baby called the amniotic sac, which is a small pouch of fluid in which a baby rabbit develop. You can squeeze pretty hard, and the rabbits will come to no harm.

Me palpating a rabbit. Notice how I hold her in place.

 

Birth and Development

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After about 28 days, you should start checking your doe's nest box about twice every day. Since you need the exact day they were born on your pedigree, you need to keep meticulous records on all goings-on with your doe, such as mating date(s), the date you successfully palpate your doe and feel that she has babies, birth date, and weaning date.

Babies in nest.

When you do peek in and feel around and there are little tiny babies in the nest box, carefully count them, inspect their color, hunt the box for any dead ones, pick them out, and throw them away, and then leave the mother alone for the rest of the day. Make sure there are no very loud noises around the mother and babies, and make sure no one touches them too much. Both of these could cause both a scattered litter, which is when the mother kicks her litter out of the nest box and they are helplessly scattered around the cage and left to die, or cannibalism, which is when the other eats one, some or all her babies because she thinks danger could be near and she doesn't want to leave her litter there because it could lead her "predator" to her more easily.

Diseases Associated With Litters/Kindling

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CANNIBALISM

This is not a disease, but it is something to watch out for. Clues that would tell you this is what happened are scattered remnants of flesh around the cage and nest box or missing young from the box (if there are any missing young but no blood, check the cage thoroughly to make sure it didn't just tumble out of the box). You can't do anything to stop this, but you can help prevent it by not allowing any loud or disturbing noises around the doe, and preferably no dogs or cats (or any other small animal predator) right in the animal's face. This doesn't mean that you can't have these animals if you want to breed rabbits (I have two cats and a dog and thirty-six rabbits), just don't allow them right in front of the doe's cage. Do not save any young does from a cannibalistic doe's litter for breeding purposes because this trait could easily be passed down to the young.

CAKED UDDER

Does that are heavy milk producers are more easily affected by this problem. Again, I don't know if I would call this a disease, just an illness. The way you can identify this problem is by checking the doe's teats, or nipples. They will become red and inflamed, and the udder, or the part of the stomach around the teats, becomes hard and hot to touch. This is caused by the doe not letting enough milk flow. This can be caused by a very small litter on a doe with too much milk, or weaning the babies off the mother too soon and suddenly, leaving the mother with too much milk left. If the doe's litter is too small, add some babies from a doe with a larger litter to her litter. If you only bred one rabbit, that could be bad. It is ALWAYS a good idea to breed two or more does at a time for reasons like this. If the babies were weaned two early, stick a couple of the babies back in with the mother to empty out her milk. If they are cracked and sore from the mother hitting her belly on the rim of the nest box too often, rub some antibacterial cream on it to soothe the bruising and to soften the skin so it will not bruise so easily. Also, if left alone, it may lead to a form of mastits due to pressure from milk buildup.

COCCIDIOSIS

This is a very serious disease which occurs quite often in young, weaned rabbits. It is caused by a protozoan, so to prevent this disease, keep your rabbit's living area very clean and well-kept. Symptoms of this disease would be a pot belly, loss of appetite, thinness, and diarrhea. Upon examination, the liver would be spotted white and the small intestine would be inflamed. The coccidia parasite grows in the intestine after being ingested by the rabbit. They very easily grow in dirty water and unsanitary living conditions, so that's why almost all of my rabbits drink out of water bottles and are cleaned once a week. If your rabbit drinks from a bowl, make sure to rinse it out every evening and give the rabbit fresh water to drink. If you have very large rabbits,you should clean them about twice a week. If you have smaller rabbits, once a week will do. The use of sulfa solutions in the water is a treatment for this disease. Use the solution as directed on the package for poultry.

MASTITIS

This disease has one cause similar to caked udders. This disease is caused either by bruising the milk glands while jumping over the side of the nest box or a bacterial infection, which cows also get. You will see tender, sore or swollen milk glands with a bluish coloring to them. If a doe has infectious mastitis, do not put her young in with another mother that is uninfected. The young could pass on the bacterial infection to their new mother. A good practice is to sanitize the nest box and hutch after each litter each doe has. Remove any sharp objects within the hutch, and check that your nest box has one side that is considerably lower than the other three so that the doe can easily jump over the edge without hurting herself, but the young cannot get out themselves yet. They will probably not try to get out of the box until much later, but you should always be cautious.

Fostering Litters

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Fostering litters is a very important thing to know how to do. Like I said before, you should always try to breed two does at a time, because you can foster their babies to each other if you needed to. If you don't have two does and you don't want two does or two litters, then you'll have to let the litters die naturally if anything goes wrong, such as the mother not feeding them. But if you do have two or more litters, then you should know how to foster babies.

The first thing to do is to rub the little babies down with vanilla extract that you keep in your kitchen. If you are a kid, ask your mom or dad, and they can probably get you some. Have you ever noticed how strong vanilla extract smells? Well, that's why you use it. Does can be hostile to babies that don't smell like them, so rubbing vanilla all over the babies is the thing to do, because then they wouldn't smell like the other doe. "But," you say, "the baby still wouldn't smell like the other babies or the mother!" Well, along with rubbing down the other babies, also put vanilla on the new mother's litter and rub it on the new mother's lips and nose. Everything she smells will smell like vanilla for quite a while, especially the babies. When the vanilla finally wares off, the other babies will have smelled like the new mother's nest by now, and the mommy won't notice a thing. Don't worry, rabbits can't count.

Situations where you would want to foster off babies to another mother would be:

  • If the mother ate all of the litter except one or two when they were perfectly healthy (cannibalism). Move the remaining babies, if any, to a new mother, and don't use the little does for breeding.
  • If the doe is not feeding them and they are very skinny.
  • If the doe is mean to the babies, or if the doe is so mean you cannot remove the babies easily. I have a doe like this.

On to Litter Growth and Development!

                                               

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Date last modified: 7/11/99