Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
A few months ago, I had a ornery rabbit doe whose milk had not come in to feed her newborn litter of kits. This was not her first litter — in fact, she was an experience breeder, but for some reason, she was not lactating like she should have been. Unlike many other mammals, rabbit mothers only nurse their young once, maybe twice, a day and always when you're not looking. So, most of the time it seems like a rabbit is neglecting her young, when actually her instincts to stay away from her litter for their own safety have kicked in. The only time you really need to worry that the kits, or baby rabbits, are not getting the milk they need is if they do not appear to have been fed within the first 24 hours.
Rabbit kits that have been fed will have obviously full bellies, almost as if they have eaten a giant grape and are about to burst. A kit that has not been fed will be skinny, withered, and wrinkled. Generally, if you have to ask if a rabbit is full, it isn't.
So, that's where I was with this litter of six rabbit kits. They were over 48-hours-old and their mother hadn't fed them yet. When I held one of them, they sniffed around my hand looking for that much-needed milk. The first thing I tried was to flip the doe over and set each kit on her belly to see if the kits would latch onto the doe's nipple. Every kit tried his best, but their dam just was not lactating and they certainly seemed frustrated.
I needed to do something to feed these kits before they became too weak to nurse should the doe's milk come in later. After having tried and failed with the more natural of my options, I decided to try my hand at mixing up some sort of rabbit milk supplement or formula.
After consulting a few rabbit-y friends, I conjured up an odd concoction and fed it to my litter of six baby rabbits. Albeit adorable, it sure was a pain to feed their tiny little mouths three to four times a day. After four very long days of hand-feeding the kits and giving them time with their mother, just to keep prompting her milk to come in, their dam finally started lactating. From there on out, she nursed her babes like a champ!
It sure was close, and had I not supplemented their milk for those four days, they would have most certainly perished. Although I consider my rabbits “livestock,” I don't think anyone who raises animals could afford a loss of an entire litter. I am definitely glad I took my chances hand-feeding them.
Using my own experience and complementary information from other rabbit-raisers who have gone through this, I have come up with a method and formula for hand-feeding kits. This can be a guide for you if you ever have a doe die after kindling or just isn’t nursing her kits for one reason or another.
Rabbit Kit Formula
Canned evaporated goat's milk can be found in most grocery stores and markets next to the canned cow's milk and baking goods.
Heat to body temperature by placing a jar of the formula into a bowl of hot water. You will need to change the water between each kit or two in order to keep it at body temperature.
Using an eye dropper or small syringe, feed each newborn kit 1/2 teaspoon (or 3mL) twice daily or as much as they will eat. If you are feeding older kits, expect to increase the feeding amount as they grow. One drop at a time is about all their little mouths can handle as newborns.
Wrap each kit in a warm towel so that the do not cool while you’re feeding them. If a kit stops eating, try re-warming the milk in the syringe and try again. Kits don’t like cool milk.
It helps to mark the rump of each kit with a permanent marker so that you know you have fed each rabbit. By marking the kits you can also track whether a kit is falling behind or refusing to eat. Even while supplementing the kit's milk with your homemade formula, you should keep trying to get the doe to nurse. A rabbit doe's milk will always be far superior to a goat milk formula.