Whilst many rabbits are born as the result of planned breeding, many people suddenly find themselves the unwitting owners of a new-born unplanned rabbit litter, often through no fault of their own.

Correct Sexing

Most of us know that indiscriminately breeding from any animal is unethical and downright silly.  However, what happens if we have to deal with an unplanned, unwanted rabbit litter due to no fault of our own?   The reasons for ending up in this situation can be varied, but the most common is simple and preventable – the mis-sexing of the parents.  Even some professionals can get rabbit sexing wrong, but if they are rechecked at 12 weeks, it should be possible to correctly sex them just before they are ready to breed.

Although some males are sexually mature from around nine weeks, females are rarely ready to breed before 12 weeks, so at least this second check should catch any “frauds” before any damage is done.  One common reason for incorrect sexing is that a minority of males can look extremely similar to females until they are almost mature.  However, careful examination by an experienced handler should identify such individuals, and rechecking the sex at 12 weeks is a good precaution.  For more information and photo identification examples on sexing your rabbit, do have a read of the Sexing article.

Stray rabbits

Female rabbits taken in as strays or from unknown backgrounds can be at risk of pregnancy, so it is wise to get such rabbits checked by the vet and neutered as soon as possible if the vet advises this is safe for the individual concerned.  A female who is heavily pregnant on arrival needs to be housed somewhere suitable where she can give birth and rear her babies safely and securely.

Another common reason for accidental litters is owners not realising how quickly rabbits can start to breed, and this is not helped by some vets still refusing to neuter either sex until over six months. By this time, they could already have had two litters as the male is more than capable of mating with the female immediately after she has given birth, resulting in another litter 31 days later.  This is how an unplanned rabbit situation can get out of hand so quickly.


Most vets now will neuter males at 12 weeks old, with females being accepted from 16 weeks so long as they weigh at least 1kg. If you have identified that an unplanned litter is imminent and have managed to separate mum and dad, that will prevent a second litter from being conceived.  If the nest of babies is only discovered after the birth, all that can be done is to remove the male immediately and hope that he has not been successful in his endeavours!

Arranging to have him neutered is a good move, as, by the time mum has finished rearing her babies, dad will be infertile and ready to live back with mum again.  In the meantime, letting them live in adjacent accommodation is an excellent idea as this will keep the bond between them going to a certain extent, even though they are living apart, thus making an introduction later on much easier.

Managing the litter

In the large majority of cases, Mum manages the whole thing herself, and it is normal for her to ignore her babies all day as they are only fed once a day for a few minutes, usually at night.  Part the fur once a day to ensure the babies are together in one group and look fat and content.  This can be done when mum is out of the hutch in her run, and if you leave her out for at least an hour afterwards, she won’t even know you have had a peek. Ensure that all the babies are in one place in the nest – if they divide into groups whilst still under two weeks old, the chances are high that only one group will be fed, and the others will starve.

Do be aware that if you have a double-level hutch, the chance of some of the babies accidentally ending up dead at the bottom of the ramp is high. Therefore, you either need to move the whole nest to the safer lower level or shut mum in the top level with the babies at night to prevent such accidents. If you find one or two babies out of the nest whilst their eyes are still shut, the chances are high they have been carried out accidentally after a feed on one of mum’s teats, but mum will ignore them (or worse) so it is down to you to get them safely back where they belong.

Make sure they are warm before you attempt to return them to the nest, and then, with mum somewhere else, smear a small amount of mum’s urine-soaked bedding onto the babies concerned and place them back with their littermates.  Keep mum out of the area for a couple of hours afterwards; she will be none the wiser.

Second Litter Born whilst first litter still with mum

I am often contacted by owners with two unneutered rabbits who either did not get the sex checked or were told (wrongly) that both rabbits were the same gender.  The first indication that there may be a male and a female present is usually the discovery of a litter.  Despite removing the male rabbit quickly after finding the female has given birth, the likelihood of her having another litter in 31 days is very high.  This is because the male mates the female whilst she is giving birth, so it is already too late by the time the owner has realised what is going on.

The good news is that baby rabbits can be independent by 31 days, as it is the norm for females in the wild to have many litters throughout the season.  Domestic rabbits usually stay with mum for around six weeks, but they can survive with a bit of support from 31 days onwards without her.  That means that if mum has a second litter, you can safely take out the first litter and house them elsewhere.  This is essential for the safety of the newborns, as the older litter may inadvertently trample them, dig the nest out (thus scattering the babies) or use the area as a toilet.

Take Mum out of the hutch during the process; she can go in her run or other safe area.  Set up a new space for the first litter and move them into it, leaving Mum out of the hutch for at least an hour afterwards to let things settle down.  You can sometimes allow mum and her first litter to have time together in a run during the day, so long as it is separate from where the newborns are housed, but bear in mind this will take a toll on mum as she will then have to feed her newborns as well as top up the older babies, who will greedily sneak a feed despite not really needing it anymore. Mum can be out of the hutch all day if that is what usually happens, as she will only feed her newborns once a day, usually at night.

The first litter should, by 31 days, already be eating the food that Mum eats, including hay, veg and pellets, and be drinking water from a bowl or bottle.  Do not at this stage add any new types of food to the babies, and it is important you stick to the variety they have been having.  This is to avoid triggering digestive issues, which can be very serious at any age, but especially in young newly weaned babies.  You will find more information on this in the section on gut stasis.

Hand Rearing

If mum bunny is successfully managing to feed her babies, but one or two appear to be very small and wrinkly, it is worth taking them out briefly to let them have a separate feed from mum during the day.  If this is the only reason they are undernourished, a separate feed once a day for a few days should resolve the issue.  However, if the baby will not respond even to the offer of mum’s teat to feed from, there is likely something very wrong, and the chances are the baby will die.  Ensure that the baby is warm before letting it feed from mum; if it is cold, it will not respond anyway.

If you find that letting the babies feed from mum is going well, do not give additional feeds from a syringe/bottle, as this will only confuse the issue as the feeding technique used by the babies is different when feeding from mum compared to being hand-reared. Also, you will upset their appetites as mum usually only feeds them once a day.

Hand rearing is a last resort option as it is rarely successful when tried by an inexperienced owner,n and should only be attempted if the babies are orphans or there is real evidence that mum has rejected them.  For more information about hand-rearing, take a look at the hand-rearing article elsewhere on this website. If a second litter is born around 31 days after the first one, the only option is to remove the older babies and keep them separately from mum.

Nature has made it possible for rabbits to survive without mum at 31 days, so although it is not an ideal situation, for the safety of the second litter and mum’s sanity, the first set must be removed.  However, they should not be allowed to go to new homes until 6-8 weeks, depending on how they are doing, just to be sure they are managing without mum and growing well. So take heart – if you have ended up being a surprised and reluctant owner of an unplanned litter, don’t panic, but do make sure you take steps to prevent such an event from happening again, such as neutering all rabbits concerned and having any babies checked twice for sexing, just to be sure!

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