Rabbit expert Karen Patry shares her knowledge on palpating, housing and feeding pregnant rabbits.
Palpation, which should be learned if you plan on breeding rabbits, can be performed on the doe 10 to 12 days after mating.
Illustration by Elara Tanguy
The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver (Storey Publishing, 2014), by Karen Patry, addresses questions and concerns about housing, feeding and breeding rabbits at every stage in their lives. From choosing productive meat and fiber breeds to preparing a proper nest box and coaxing a fussy bunny to eat, you’ll find proven answers and humane solutions to your rabbit-raising quandaries. In the following excerpt “Is the Time Right?” from Chapter 7, “The Pregnant Rabbit,” Patry teaches you how to determine whether your doe is pregnant and how to house and feed her if kits are on their way.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver.
“Is my rabbit pregnant?” is the question in every pet owner’s or rabbit breeder’s mind. I know you’re dying of curiosity, but rest assured that if your buck and your doe have rendezvoused, a litter will almost certainly follow. Rabbit pregnancies are amazingly predictable. Just about 99 percent of the time, the doe will kindle her litter in the evening of the 31st day after being bred.
So you may as well mark two dates on your calendar. Okay, three dates, if you’re looking for an answer asap.
• Day 12: Palpate your doe’s abdomen for telltale signs of pregnancy.
• Day 28: Give your doe a nest box stuffed with nest-building materials.
• Day 31: Expect kits in the late evening. That might be the same thing as the morning of day 32, which is when you’ll jump out of bed and race to your rabbit’s cage to see if the blessed day has indeed arrived.
Don’t panic if there are no bunnies, however; a few does can be quirky and might just be hanging on to those kits just to make you wait a few extra days.
There is, however, a pesky, annoying little thing called a false pregnancy. This is when your rabbit fools you into thinking she might be pregnant. She might even build a wonderful nest. And then . . . nuthin’.
The whole scoop is right here in this chapter.
Q. How can I tell if my rabbit is pregnant?
A. The only sure way to know if a doe is pregnant, aside from a blood test, is to palpate her belly. As the kits grow, they form bulges along the twin horns of the rabbit’s uterus. With a little practice, you can distinctly feel these bulges by the time the rabbit is 10 to 12 days along. Here’s how to palpate:
1. Place the doe on a flat surface in front of you with her head closest to you.
2. Secure her rump with one hand (so she can’t back up) and reach under her with your other hand, palm up.
3. The backbone line divides the abdomen into two halves and marks the inside boundary of both halves.
4. Using your fingertips on one side and the tip of your thumb on the other, you can examine, or palpate, both halves of the lower abdomen at once.
5. With enough pressure to lift the doe’s hind end partly off the table, move the tips of your fingers and thumb cautiously and gently along the length of her belly.
You are looking for grape-sized lumps, not along the center but toward both sides of the abdomen. Small, hard lumps along the center line of the rabbit’s belly are fecal pellets lined up single file on their way out of the rabbit. A tiny tangle of soft “spaghetti” right in front of the pelvis is usually an empty uterus.
Q. How early can I tell if a rabbit is pregnant?
A. During the first week of pregnancy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain for sure whether or not your doe is pregnant. If you are familiar with your doe and have gone through several litters with her already, you might be able to discern those subtle, subjective behavioral changes that indicate rising pregnancy hormone levels. Otherwise, simply palpate at day 10 or 12 and see what you find.
Q. How can I tell when my pregnant rabbit is due?
A. The calendar is your best friend. Mark when the doe was bred and count forward 31 days. If you don’t know that date, then a careful palpation may help reveal the size of the fetuses and hence give you a ballpark idea of about when she might kindle.
• Marble-sized at day 8
• Olive- or grape-sized at day 10
• Quarter- or half-dollar-sized at day 14
• The size of a small egg at day 21
By the time the fetuses are egg-sized, it becomes harder to distinguish them from the guts. But you should be able to feel that the abdomen is unusually full. Additionally, the pregnancy is quite advanced if you can see or feel the kicks of tiny feet from the outside of the doe’s abdomen or flanks. If you can’t determine exactly when she’s due, it’s safest to simply give her a nest box packed with nesting materials and leave her alone so she can do her thing.
Q. How long does a rabbit pregnancy last?
A. The gestation period for rabbits is almost exactly 31 days. That said, rabbits might occasionally kindle anytime between 28 days and 35 days, with a scant handful of rabbits ever waiting beyond 39 days to kindle. The longest a rabbit has ever been in kit is unknown, but the longest I’ve ever heard of for the delivery of a live litter was 42 days. Litter size also influences due date: larger litters tend to be kindled sooner and small litters, later.
The occasional individual rabbit dances to its own tune. For example, a given doe might always kindle a day early or a day late. Nevertheless, you can nearly always take day 31 to the bank, no matter what specific breed of domestic rabbit you’re raising.
Q. When will my rabbit start showing signs of pregnancy?
A. The answer depends entirely on the individual rabbit. Many normally friendly rabbits become cranky within a few days. Whether or not you recognize behavior or mood changes as a sign of pregnancy is perhaps a separate question. A few other rabbits remain their pleasant selves for weeks. The only sure way to tell is by palpating around day 10.
Q. Aside from palpating, how can I tell if a rabbit is pregnant?
A. Without palpating, you can rely only on the calendar and on various signs in the doe triggered by her changing hormones. An early sign is that the doe might get moody, cranky, aggressive, even mean. In the second and third week, she will gain around a half pound, depending on her breed. She could also start scratching in the corners of her cage or destroying the carpets in the corners of your bedroom with her teeth and claws.
During the third and fourth week you might start seeing the “hay mustache.” This is when the doe stuffs hay and straw in her mouth in huge quantities and carries it around the cage looking for a perfect spot for a nest. Late in the pregnancy, you might observe short jerky kicks of the babies in her belly; the doe may also pull a few tufts of fur from herself and rest up for the big day.
Q. I saw some fur in my rabbit’s cage. Could she be pregnant?
A. Possibly. If your doe was bred about a month ago and is now pulling fur, it’s time to give her a nest box. However, fur pulling can be a sign of a false pregnancy.
Q. Is a rabbit pregnant if she is humping her female companion?
A. Pregnancy hormones alter many behaviors in a doe, but in this case your doe is just showing the other doe who is boss. Instead of humping, a pregnant rabbit is more likely to attack an offending cage mate that is not already a good buddy. Unless you’re keeping your rabbits in large colonies, it is safest to house a pregnant rabbit in her own cage, where she will have room to raise her litter in peace.
Q. Does a pregnant rabbit’s belly get tight?
A. Well, it definitely gets fuller than usual, though the change isn’t always visible under all that fur. Unless she’s having a very large litter, she may not look very pregnant until the last few days.
Q. Do pregnant rabbits grow even bigger throat fat?
A. That “throat fat” is called a dewlap, which is less fat, and more a roll of skin and fur. The dewlap doesn’t necessarily get bigger with pregnancy, but it achieves its full size when the doe is mature. The purpose of the dewlap is thought to be to provide additional fur for the doe to pluck to line her nest. Dewlap fur tends to be denser and somewhat longer than the rest of the coat. As does age and gravity takes over, the dewlap often begins to sag. Then you can actually see a neck under all that fur.
Q. Should I give my rabbit a nest box if I think her pregnancy is false?
A. Yes, because what if you’re wrong? And there’s no harm done if you’re right.
Q. Do rabbits pull fur only when they are pregnant?
A. Usually, but rabbits also pull their fur at the end of a false pregnancy.
Q. Will a rabbit bleed during a false pregnancy?
A. No. And rabbits don’t typically bleed during the course of a normal pregnancy, either. The actual delivery is what produces bleeding.
Q. Why would my doe make a nest two days after mating?
A. She may have been in the middle of a false pregnancy when you bred her. If so, the chances are high that the breeding did not result in conception. It would still be wise to mark the calendar with the nest box and kindling dates for the breeding, just in case.
Q. Can I keep other rabbits with a pregnant doe?
A. Sharing a cage is likely to create more stress for a pregnant doe. Unless the cage is enormous, it is safest not to house your pregnant doe with other rabbits.
Q. Can I keep two pregnant rabbits together in a big cage? Would they nurse their litters in the same hutch?
A. The answer depends heavily on the individual rabbits. If the two are both dominant females, they may resort to fighting and could hurt each other or their babies. If they are already housed together and get along very well, you could certainly try leaving them together. I’ve heard of does that have kindled their bunnies into the same nest box and then taken turns caring for all the kits, though this isn’t typical. If either of them turns aggressive, however, be prepared to separate them until both litters are weaned.
If you do keep them together, you will need a cage large enough to accommodate two does, two nest boxes, and a whole gaggle of kits until they’re a few weeks old. The bigger the cage, the better the chances for peace between the two does.
Q. What is the best food to give a pregnant rabbit?
A. Commercial pellets are ideal, increasing from the normal ration to full feed between day 14 and day 21 of the pregnancy. Additionally, add a teaspoon of whole oats or black oil sunflower seeds to the ration to help supply the pregnant doe’s need for extra fats. (Sunflower seeds are better than oats once the doe starts lactating due to their ability to boost milk production, because they are high in fat and lower in carbs.)
If your rabbit is used to eating people food, maintain your usual feeding routine as you increase her rations. However, pregnancy places additional stress on a rabbit’s body, so completely avoid any sweet fruits in order to avoid upsetting the doe’s digestive system or level of health.
But just for the record, you don’t have to feed anything else other than full-feed pellets.
Q. I’ve heard that if you give a doe meat or bacon to eat, she won’t eat her babies. Is that true?
A. This is an old wives’ tale. A few people give meat to their soon-to-kindle does; the does eat it and, voilà, don’t eat their babies. So the owners then swear it was the bacon that spared the kits. But who can say what is coincidence and what is fact, when no studies have been done to prove cause and effect? How do you know the doe didn’t eat the bacon strictly for the fat content so that she could make more milk?
The truth is, rabbits are herbivores. Their digestive systems are not designed for meat, and in the wild they never hunt another animal to eat. They would have to be literally starving to even think of gnawing on roadkill or carrion. Their gastrointestinal tracts aren’t designed for eating their babies either, which they do only when the fear of death, real or imagined, ignites their genetic survival instincts.
Here is another truth: A doe won’t eat her babies if she feels secure in her cage. So make sure that her environment is safe, quiet, and predator-free: no coyotes, raccoons, or rats sniffing around the barn; no people banging around or kids yelling; no pet dogs or cats drooling outside the cage. It’s as easy (or as difficult) as that.
Q. What should I do if a pregnant rabbit is not eating?
A. A pregnant rabbit may seem to stop eating shortly before giving birth, or at least eat far less than usual. Part of the reason might be the pressure of her full abdomen on her stomach. Or perhaps she decided that since you were so generous with the nesting materials she’d eat some of them. No worries — it’s all good.
Leave feed in her feeder and give her extra grass hay. Her appetite will pick up once she has kindled the litter. Ensure that she doesn’t run out of water.
Want to learn when you should breed your rabbits? Read The Raising-Rabbit Problem Solver to learn when you should mate a doe for her first litter.
Excerpted from The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver (c) by Karen Patry, Illustrations by (c) Elara Tanguy, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: The Rabbit-Raising Problem Solver: Your Questions Answered About Housing, Feeding, Behavior, Health Care, Breeding, and Kindling.
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