Hand-rearing Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus spp.)
Neonatal Eastern cottontails. Click here for full page view with caption

Summary Information

Type of technique Health & Management / Mammal Husbandry and Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Rearing of Mammals and  Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations. The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "Rabbits and their Relatives: Health and Management" Wildpro volume, and is designed for the needs of Sylvilagus spp. (cottontail rabbits).
  • Note: Healthy Sylvilagus spp. rabbit kits are normally left alone during the day (normal behaviour). Members of the public may find nests of young, and mistakenly assume that they have been abandoned by their mother and are in need of care. Where possible, the public should be educated that this is normal behaviour and that such youngsters should be left alone unless they are obviously sick, injured or in immediate danger.
  • Lagomorphs are generally considered difficult to hand-rear. (B10.45.w47, B156.12.w12, B601.1.w1, B606.6.w6, B618.21.w1)
    • Sylvilagus rabbits in particular are considered easily stressed and difficult to hand-feed. (B468.8.w8g)
  • NOTE: The greatest problem, and the highest cause of mortality, when rearing cottontails is diarrhoea. Hand-reared rabbits are susceptible to the development of digestive tract problems because:
    • a) they lack the protective effect of an antimicrobial fatty acid known as "milk oil" or "rabbit stomach oil", produced by an enzymatic reaction in the stomach from a substrate in the rabbit doe's milk, which provides a degree of protection against enteric infections. (B187.16.w16, B284.10.w10, J493.100.w1)
    • b) they lack the normal gut flora which they would probably obtain from their mother's caecotrophs in the wild.
    • c) they may be fed diets too high in soluble carbohydrates, which allow the "wrong" bacteria to grow in the gut.
    • d) the effects of stress. (B604.2.w2)
  • Therefore successful hand-rearing of cottontails depends on addressing and mitigating these factors.
  • Stress can be reduced by: (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • Minimising noise and human activity in the room the cottontails are housed in.
    • Avoiding the presence (including sight, sound and scent) of predators, including pets.
    • Minimising handling and disturbance. (B338.1.w1, J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1, N35.1.w1)
      • Use deliberate, gentle movements when catching and handling; avoid chasing. (B338.1.w1)
      • At feeding time, pick up, weight, feed, stimulate to urinate then return to the box/cage; do not handle repeatedly. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
      • Note: some rehabilitators use the opposite tactic, handling small neonates a lot in the first two days to habituate them to a single caretaker - they remain wary of other humans. (N35.11.w1)
    • Provide a burrow for the rabbit(s) to hide in. (B338.1.w1)
    • Avoiding overcrowding in the pre-release period.
      • Provide a larger space, with several hides and piles of food, or cage individually. (J417.12.w1)
      • A cage 24 x 36 inches floor area, with two piles of food and two hiding boxes can be used to house two littermates pre-release. (J311.15.w1)

    (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)

Initial Care: 

General mammal information: 

  • On arrival any young mammal should be weighed, warmed (not too quickly if severely chilled), stimulated to urinate/defecate and given supplementary fluids by an appropriate route to counteract dehydration. 
  • The age should be determined if possible. (See individual species information pages, sections "Appearance - Neonate" and "Life Stages - Reproductive stages").


  • Assess, check for any injuries and warm as required - see Rearing of Mammals - Hand-Rearing (J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
  • With eyes-closed neonates, stimulate to urinate, as they may not be able to urinate without such stimulation. (J417.18.w1)
  • After essential initial care, allow cottontails to rest undisturbed for an hour or more before attempting feeding or any further care, particularly if the infant appears stressed. (J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1, N35.11.w1)
  • NOTE: The first feed given should be an oral rehydration (electrolyte) solution (e.g. Lectade, Pfizer Limited), with a gradual changeover to a milk substitute over several feeds. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
See: Rearing of Mammals and Hand Rearing of Orphaned Wildlife for further general information.

General Care (including warmth and hygiene):

General mammal information

  • Young mammals have poor ability to maintain body temperature and are prone to hypothermia, hyperthermia and burns, particularly when unfurred or only sparsely furred.
  • Keep out of draughts but ensure ventilation is adequate.
  • Provide a temperature range, e.g. by heating one end of the container more than the other, which, while not allowing either overheating or chilling, permits the animal to chose the position at which it feels most comfortable.
  • The container used should be sufficiently large to allow the occupant to move into a comfortable position.
  • The sides of the container should be sufficiently high to prevent the occupant falling out.
  • Bedding materials should be soft, comfortable and either disposable or easily washed. They should keep the animal dry and be changed as frequently as necessary to prevent soiling.
  • (B194, P3.1987.w5, V.w5)

Rabbit specific information:

  • Keep in a quiet area, away from constant human movement and noise. (J417.12.w1, N35.1.w1)
  • Use a completely enclosed container, not one which is open-topped.

Suggested housing includes:

  • 1) Initially a solid sided (glass or plastic) container, lived with newspaper and provided with a burrow shelter such as a cardboard box with an entry hole (discard once soiled, or between animals) or a plastic igloo-type shelter. (B338.1.w1)
    • Initially one end may be heated using e.g. a heating pad, set on low. (B338.1.w1)
    • After one to two weeks, move to a wire cage, with mesh no larger than 1 cm, allowing good air circulation and letting faeces and droppings fall away. (B338.1.w1)
      • Cover part of the floor with straw and a burrow for resting (e.g. an upturned cardboard box or plastic bucket, with a hole cut out for an entrance). (B338.1.w1)
  • 2) Initially, for neonates with their eyes closed, a small box with a close-fitting lid, but with adequate ventilation, with appropriate nest bedding. (J417.12.w1)
    • Supplemental heat may be provided at 85 - 90 F, at one end of the box only, so the kits can move away from it if they want to do so. (J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
    • Generally, a litter provided with insulating bedding which they can burrow into does not need any extra heat. (J417.12.w1)
    • Neonates (e.g. still with umbilical cords, and with translucent skin) need supplemental heat as well as suitable bedding such as cloths. Heat may be needed up to 7 - 10 days. (J417.18.w1)
    • While the eyes are closed and the infants are not urinating unaided, the blanket can just be shaken out to remove droppings, and replaced, keeping the familiar smell, which may reduce stress. (J417.18.w1)
    • Once the eye are open and they start urinating without stimulation, bedding will need changing every 12 hours. (J417.18.w1)
    • Later a 24 inch by 24 inch (60 x 60 cm) or 24 x 36 inch (60 x 90 cm) floor-level cage, 10 - 14 inches (25 - 35 cm) high.
      • Place the box in the cage while the eyes are still closed. (J417.12.w1)
      • Note that cottontail kits which have just opened their eyes can get through one-inch (2.5 cm) netting; 1 inch by 0.5 inch will stop them getting out. (J417.12.w1)
      • A low box (3 inches high) can be placed in the cage for the kits to hide under. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
        • With higher boxes there is the risk of kits falling off the box and being injured. (J417.12.w1)
      • Cover the cage with white or pale coloured sheets which allow in light but keep the rabbits secluded. (J417.12.w1)
      • Use newsprint covered with paper towels on the floor; this allows diarrhoea to be seen readily. (J417.12.w1)
      • Place a shallow water dish, and food dish, in the centre of the cage, with piles of alfalfa in two corners. (J417.12.w1)
  • 3) A 10-gallon contained is appropriate initially and an outside area 6 ft x 6 ft x4 ft (approx. 2 x 2 x 1.2 m) for weaned youngsters pre-release. (based on Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation Third Edition - Full text included)
  • 4) For kits once out of heated accommodation: cages 2 ft x 4 ft x 1ft 6 inches high (60 x 120 x 45 cm) furnished with boxes, tunnels, PVC drainage pipe and piles of hay, as well as sand trays in which the rabbits can dig and play. (N35.11.w2)
    • Having the cages elevated brings the rabbits away from potential predators and brings them closer to the level of the approaching caretaker. (N35.11.w2)
    • Pre-release: 8 ft x 12 ft x 8 ft high enclosure of 1 x 1.5 inch or 1/2 x 1/2 inch galvanised mesh, 2 ft off the ground, with the floor mainly plywood (a small are of wire mesh can be provided "for airing their undersides." (N35.11.w2)
  • 5) Initially a pet-carrier, lined with newspaper plus a soft towel. (N35.1.w1)
    • Place the box partly on a heat pad. (N35.1.w1)

Milk replacer:

NOTE: The first feed should be a rehydration solution, gradually changing to milk replacer over three or four feeds (over a period of 24 - 36 hours). (J34.17.w3, J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)

  • Milk of lagomorphs is very high in dry matter, high in fat and low in carbohydrate. (P19.5.w5, B156.12.w12, P3.1987.w3)
    • Sylvilagus floridanus - Eastern cottontail: 
      • 35.2% solids, 14.4% fat, 15.8% protein, 2.7% carbohydrates, 2.1% ash, 2.33 Kcal/mL. (J34.17.w3)
      • 35.2% solids, 14.4% fat, 15.8% protein, 2.7% carbohydrates, 2.1% ash, 2.04 Kcal/mL. (B468.8.w8d)
      • 36.1% solids, 17.9% fat, 12.5% protein, 1.0% carbohydrates, 2.15 Kcal/mL. (B468.8.w8d)
Suggested milk replacers include:
  • 6 parts Esbilac (PetAg, Inc.) liquid, 4 parts Multi Milk powder (PetAg, Inc.) (contains 1.91 kcal per mL). (B338.1.w1, B602.13.w13)
  • 1 part Esbilac powder, 1 part Multi Milk powder, 1.5 parts water (contains 2.01 kcal per mL). (B338.1.w1, B602.13.w13)
  • 2 parts KMR liquid (PetAg, Inc.), 1 part Multi Milk powder (contains 1.73 kcal per mL). (B338.1.w1, B602.13.w13)
  • 1 part Esbilac powder, 0.25 parts heavy cream, 1 part water (contains 1.93 kcal/mL). (B338.1.w1, B602.13.w13)
  • 1 part evaporated milk, 1 part water. To each cup of mixture add 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon of corn syrup. (B338.1.w1, B602.13.w13)
  • Three or four parts Multi-milk mixed with one part Esbilac or KMR, with the combined powders then mixed 1:1 with water. (J34.17.w3)
  • One part KMR powder, 2 parts water and 1.5 parts Multi-Milk powder. (J417.12.w1)
  • One part Esbilac powder, 1.5 parts water and 1 part Multi-Milk powder. (J417.12.w1)
  • One part Zoologic 30/55 (Pet-Ag, Inc) and one part Fox Valley 32/40, mixed with two parts distilled water. (J417.18.w1)
  • Esbilac/Multimilk or Zoologic 32/40 mixed with Zoologic 30/55. Mix in a blender. Note that it tends to thicken while you are feeding and may need to be made more dilute for neonates, and therefore be given more often. (J417.18.w3)
  • Esbilac powder mixed 1:1 with water. This is a bit low in energy (1.64 kcal/mL and protein. (J417.18.w3)
  • One part Zoologic 45/25 or KMR, plus 1.5 parts Zoologic 30/55 or Multi Milk, plus two parts distilled or boiled water. (N35.11.w1)
    • Note: this is still lower protein than ideal. (N35.11.w1)
    • This formula becomes very thick when refrigerated, but thinner once warmed for feeding. (N35.11.w1)
  • Note the following are NOT suitable: 
    • Liquid Esbilac is too low in calories and protein. (J417.18.w3)
    • Esbilac alone is too low in protein and too high in carbohydrates. (N35.11.w1)
    • KMR alone is too low in fat and too high in carbohydrates. (N35.11.w1)
  • Make up only enough formula for one day at a time and discard unused prepared formula after 24 hours. (N35.11.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • Discard unused formula which has been warmed. (N35.11.w1, J417.12.w1)


  • Syringe and small rubber Catac teat. (N35.11.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • The teat must have a large enough opening. (J311.15.w2, J417.12.w1)
    • Using a syringe, marked with volumes, enables accurate measurement of milk intake. (J417.12.w1)
    • A piece of gastric tubing, 1.5 inches long, can be used on the syringe as a nipple. (B468.8.w8cN35.11.w1)
  • A straight-tip syringe can be used alone or with a Catac nipple, small animal nurser nipple or a teat infusion cannula. (B468.8.w8g)
  • Keep full syringes in a container of hot water on a mug warmer to prevent the milk becoming cold before it is fed. (N35.11.w1, J417.12.w1)
  • Feeding equipment must be washed and thoroughly rinsed after each use, and sterilised e.g. by daily boiling. (B468.8.w8g, J417.12.w1)

Feeding Frequency:

Rabbit specific information:

  • Feed as frequently as required to give enough food: this may be just twice a day, but will depend on the energy content of the formula. (J417.18.w1)
  • Neonates (eyes closed, not furred): four times daily. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • Five times a day may be needed for emaciated neonates which are actively seeking food (standing, head waving). (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
  • Eyes closed but furred: three times daily. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
  • Eyes open: twice daily (reducing to one when weaning). (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
  • Feed several times a day, as often as every three hours for closed-eyes neonates, but always wait until the stomach has practically emptied before feeding again. (N35.11.w1)
  • Feed one to three times daily. (J34.17.w3)

Feeding Technique: 

General mammal information

  • To encourage feeding in very small animals, place a drop of milk on lips, preferably with animal held upright. (P3.1987.w5)
  • To feed using a medicine dropper:
    • Hold the infant in one hand with its head slightly higher than its body, place the dropper just inside the animal's lips and press the bulb extremely gently to place a tiny drop of formula in the infant's mouth to encourage feeding to start. As it begins to suck or lick the dropper may be pressed very gently to assist the infant to take the formula. (B194)
    • If a bubble of liquid appears at the nose or the infant opens its mouth wide, immediately stop feeding and tilt the infant head down to allow the excess formula to drain from its mouth. Give the infant a chance to recover then start again more slowly. (B194)
    • Refill the dropper as required. (B194)
    • Some infants may feed by licking individual hanging drops of the end of the dropper. (B194)
    • Clean any excess from the infant's nose/chin after each feed. (B194)
  • A similar technique can be used with a small syringe, pressing very slowly on the plunger as the infant sucks or licks. (V.w5)
  • When feeding very small neonates it is vital that the feeding technique used provides milk at a sufficiently slow rate to minimise the risk of milk being inhaled with resultant aspiration pneumonia (V.w26).

Rabbit specific information

  • Make sure all equipment, formula etc. is ready before disturbing the rabbits. (J417.12.w1)
    • Keep the formula at about 100 - 105 F e.g. by keeping the container of formula inside a larger container of hot water, or by using a mug warmer. (J417.18.w1)
    • Place a kitten feeding nipple on a syringe. (J417.18.w1)
      • A medicine dropper has also been used to feed young kits. (J332.10.w1)
  • Feeding position
    • Sit on the floor to feed - the distance of possible falls if the kit jumps from your hand or lap is minimised. (J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
    • Wrap the kit in a soft cloth rather than holding directly with your hand. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • Place one hand over the rabbit or cover the eyes with a hand or cloth; this appears to increase the infant's comfort level, improving feeding. (B338.1.w1)
      • Covering the head with a cloth (once the eyes are open) reduces visual stimulation which may distract the infant from feeding. (J417.18.w1)
    • Or: Hold the infant in an upright position in your hand - or for closed-eyed infants , lying back at a 45 degree angle. (N35.11.w1)
    • Or: Feed with the rabbit in a sitting position. (B468.8.w8g)
    • Or: For neonates, hold the kit on its back in cupped hands - this is the normal position for nursing at this age. (B10.45.w47)
  • Technique
    • Place the tip of the syringe (or the teat) into the corner of the infant's mouth. (B338.1.w1)
    • Gently insert the nipple under the side of the top lip, then move it forwards to the front of the mouth. (J311.15.w2)
    • Place the tip of the teat against the infant's lips and expel a drop of formula onto the lips. (J417.18.w1)
      • If it grabs the teat and sucks, control the rate of milk flow, not allowing it to move too fast, to reduce the risk of milk aspiration. (J417.18.w1)
        • Milk aspiration appears not to be a very common problem with cottontails. (J417.18.w1)
      • The youngster may just take each drop, not suckle. (J417.18.w1)
      • The youngster may chew on the nipple and swallow the formula. (J311.15.w2)
      • If the infant does not initially accept the formula, leave it and try again in 6 - 12 hours. (J417.18.w1)
      • Note: it often takes at least 24 hours for cottontails to adapt to hand-feeding. (J417.18.w1)
      • If the cottontail refuses to nurse, try one of the following:
        • insert the nipple into the side of the mouth, then move it to the front of the mouth before it is dislodged. (B468.8.w8g)
        • insert the nipple into the mouth and releasing one or two drops of milk. (J417.18.w1)
        • place a drop of Karo syrup (light corn syrup or glucose syrup) on the tip of the nipple; (B468.8.w8g, J417.18.w1)
        • lightly coat the nipple with Nutri-Cal. (B468.8.w8g)
        • put a trace of e.g. banana or sweet potato baby food on the nipple. (B468.8.w8g, N35.11.w1)
        • include a small amount of applesauce or baby carrot food in the formula; (J417.18.w1)
        • add a trace of rehydration solution or of mashed banana to the mixture. (J311.15.w2, J417.12.w1)
          • try making up the formula with 50% rehydration solution: 50% water rather than just water; if this works, the amount of rehydration solution can be reduced gradually. (J311.15.w2)
        • add both banana and rehydration solution. (J311.15.w2)
        • leave the infant it for an hour, then try again. (J417.18.w1)
    • Closed-eyes infants will generally suck on the nipple, while older kits tend to lick formula from the nipple as you expel it from the syringe. (N35.11.w1)
    • Feed slowly and wipe off any milk which moves up from the mouth towards the nose. (J311.15.w2, N35.11.w1)
  • Older kits have been fed from a spoon and later drinking from a bowl. (J332.10.w1)



  • Energy intake (kilocalories per day) = 200-250 x weight(kg) 0.83. (P19.1.w5, P3.1987.w3)
    • Based on daily milk energy intake in nursing infants at the time of peak lactation. (P3.1987.w3)
  • Energy requirement is approximately 2 x (70 x (bodyweight kg)0.75). For a 30 g neonate this would be 10.1 kcal per day. (B338.1.w1)
    • i.e. 2 x basal metabolic rate - see Food and Feeding for Mammals - Convalescent diets / Nutritional support
    • If the formula contains 2.01 kcal/mL, then (10.1 divided by 2.01) = 5.02 mL (5 mL) per day would be needed for a 30 g neonate. (B338.1.w1) This would therefore need to be divided, giving 2.5 mL per feed at each of two feeds. (B338.1.w1)
  • Feed approximately 10% body weight per day, divided between the number of feeds given. (J34.9.w1)
  • The maximum amount (volume) that can be given at any one time is determined by the stomach capacity. This is 100 - 125 mL per kg bodyweight (1 mL per 10 g bodyweight). [2002](B338.1.w1)
    • 100 - 250 mL per kg per feed. (J34.17.w3) J34.9.w1, J34.17.w3

Practical feeding:

  • Avoid overfeeding. 
  • Feed so that, looking from above, the sides appear to have filled out, but not so much that the belly is round and taut. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
  • Feed so the stomach is slightly rounded and slightly firm, but not taut or hard. (N35.11.w1)
  • Note: for the first 24 - 36 hours, the cottontail's intake may not reach the intended daily energy intake. (J417.18.w1)


  • Most infant mammals require gentle stimulation of the ano-genital area (using e.g. a damp cotton bud, damp cotton wool or damp soft paper towel) in order to urinate and defecate. This should be done when the animal is first presented and at every feed until voluntary elimination is observed.

Rabbit specific information:

  • Cottontail infants may not require simulation to defecate. However, they do need stimulation to urinate, until a few days after their eyes open. (J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
  • Stimulate infants with their eyes closed to urinate and defecate after every feed (they may defecate unaided, but should still be stimulated). (N35.11.w1)
  • Stimulate to urinate and defecate until they are a week old. (N35.1.w1)
  • Use a cotton bud, tissue or cloth to lightly stimulate the anogenital area. Once urination starts, the bladder should empty in about 15 - 25 seconds. (J417.12.w1)
    • Urine is clear or yellow in neonates; it becomes cloudy once they are on solid food [containing more calcium]. (J417.12.w1)
    • Stimulate before each feed. (J311.15.w1)
  • When the eyes have been open for a few days, stop stimulating but monitor, checking that they do not have full bladders. (J417.18.w1)
  • If an infant does not urinate with normal stimulation but has a full bladder (visible dark patch above the genital area), hold it in warm water and massage the abdomen for 15 minutes. (J417.18.w1)
  • Note: when a Sylvilagus audubonii - Desert cottontail, foster-reared cottontails, the female stimulated them while they nursed. She provided extra, repeated and vigorous stimulation to neonates admitted with bloat and diarrhoea. (J417.24.w3)


Rabbit specific information:

  • Daily weighing is very important; any weight loss indicates problems. (J311.15.w1)
  • Accurate, regular weighing allows progress to be monitored objectively and can give an early warning of problems. (B284.10.w10)
    • Regular weighing is also needed to calculate the amount to be fed. (B338.1.w1)
    • Later, weighing every second day is sufficient, but return to daily weighing for more accurate monitoring for a few days during major changes such as reducing the number of feeds per day. (W729.Dec08.w1)
  • In general, a steady weight gain should be sought. Occasional lack of weight gain for 24 - 48 hours may occur; longer lack of gain is abnormal. (B338.1.w1)
    • If weight gain is inadequate, recalculate the caloric requirements, check the infant's general health, and if problems with weight gain recur, consider changing to a different milk replacement formula for future rearing. (B338.1.w1)
  • Also note body condition, which should be kept good or average. (B338.1.w1)
  • A single drop of coloured nail polish on a paw or the tip of an ear allows individual identification; this needs to be replaced every few days as it wears off. (J417.18.w1)
  • Masking tape ear tags can be placed on each rabbit, individually numbered and placed on both ears to maintain identification if one tag comes off. (J311.15.w1)


Provision of caecotrophs

Development of the normal gut flora is extremely important for weanling cottontails. This can be encouraged by use of caecotrophs from adult rabbits (can be from domestic rabbits). (B338.1.w1, N35.11.w2)

  • Caecotrophs can be collected from a healthy [domestic] rabbit by putting an Elizabethan collar on it overnight. (N35.11.w2)
    • If the rabbit is in cage with a wire mesh floor, the caecotrophs will drop through and can be collected from clean newspaper placed under the cage. (N35.11.w2)
    • Alternatively, the caecum can be taken from a healthy freshly butchered rabbit. (N35.11.w2)
    • There may be one or two caecotrophs hanging from or under the floor of adults housed in wire-floor cages in the morning, without using an Elizabethan collar. (B338.1.w1)
    • The donor must be healthy, free of parasites, and not receiving any medication. (N35.11.w2)
  • One or two caecotrophs can be offered to the infant to eat directly. (N35.11.w2)
  • Or caecotrophs can be mixed into 1 mL of formula and fed to the rabbit. (N35.11.w2)
    • If using fluid from the caecum, draw up 0.3 mL directly from the caecum into a 1 mL syringe. (N35.11.w2)
  • Give two or three caecotrophs per infant daily for three to four days before starting to give solid food. (N35.11.w2)
  • Give caecotrophs two or three times a week in the pre-weaning period. (B338.1.w1)
  • Note: Active yoghurt (containing Lactobacilus acidophilus) (N35.1.w1) or probiotics (J417.12.w1) have been used with the aim of promoting a healthy gut microflora and avoiding overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria. However, caecotrophs provide a much more normal gut flora for lagomorphs. (B284.10.w10)
  • Note: when a Sylvilagus audubonii - Desert cottontail, foster-reared cottontails, the female dropped caecotrophs and hard faeces for the infants, which they ate. (J417.24.w3)

Suggested weaning protocols include:

Kits will eat green grass and dandelion leaves from "a very early age". (J332.10.w1)

  • Wean gradually. (J417.12.w1)
    • As the eyes start to open, offer solid food and provide a shallow dish of water. (J417.12.w1)
    • Offer fresh wild green foods such as grasses, clover, dandelion, plantains, and ragweed, also alfalfa, timothy hay, rolled oats, apple, commercial rabbit pellets. Carrots and fresh corn can be offered occasionally. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
      • Do not use lawn clippings or greens from an area where artificial fertilisers and/or pesticides are used. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
      • Picked wild green foods can be rinsed thoroughly then kept in a plastic bag in a refrigerator for 2 - 3 days. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
      • Replace uneaten food twice daily, before mould can start to grow. (J417.12.w1)
      • By the time of release, wild greens should be making up most of the diet. (J311.15.w1)
    • Provide a piece of salt lick. (J417.12.w1)
    • Do not leave a bowl of formula in the cage. (J417.12.w1)
    • Give a probiotic daily to encourage beneficial gut flora. (J311.15.w1)
    • Once the rabbits are eating solid food, feeds of formula can be reduced from twice to once daily, then reduced in volume to wean. (J417.12.w1)
  • Wean gradually:
    • When the eyes open, initially offer first-year baby food carrots, sweet potato or unsweetened applesauce, provided in a shallow container (jar lid). (J417.18.w1)
      • Replace every 12 hours. (J417.18.w1)
    • After three days, offer green food such as dandelion leaves and grass. (J417.18.w1)
      • Avoid adding too many different foods too quickly; give the digestive system time to adjust. (J417.18.w1)
    • From about two weeks old, start adding apple, carrot, small amounts of rolled oats and second-year or third-year baby food. (J417.18.w1)
      • Do not give too much rolled oats; if they eat too much of this, remove it, as excessive amounts may lead to diarrhoea. (J417.18.w1)
    • Increase the amount of green food offered - if all is eaten, provide more so that some is always available. (J417.18.w1)
    • Provide a source of minerals such as potting soil or soil from a clean area outdoors. (J417.18.w1)
    • Give probiotics once solid food is being offered. (J417.18.w1)
    • Start diluting the formula - initially three parts formula to one part water, then equal parts prepared formula and water, then one part formula to three parts water - rabbits will soon self-wean. (J417.18.w1)
  • Wean onto wild green vegetation: (J417.18.w2)
    • Initially offer freshly picked dandelions and clover, then add ragweed, crabgrass etc. (J417.18.w2)
    • With taller plants, choose relatively young plants (e.g. ragweed 12 - 24 inches (30 - 60 cm) tall. (J417.18.w2)
    • Keep picked greens in the refrigerator for a few hours if not using immediately. (J417.18.w2)
    • Replace the food given to the rabbits twice or three times a day. (J417.18.w2)
    • If necessary, supplement with cultivated green foods such as kale, spinach, or another dark green leafy vegetable. (J417.18.w2)
  • Wean onto a selection of green leafy vegetables plus grass hay, provided from a few days after the eyes open. (B338.1.w1)
  • Offer a large pile of green vegetation from about one week old. (J34.17.w3)
  • Wean onto high-quality, well-washed natural vegetation (grass, clover, dandelions, plantains etc.), plus good quality named-brand rabbit pellets. alfalfa hay, and rolled oats (e.g. Quaker oats). (N35.11.w2)
    • Provide water in a water bottle as this is less likely to be spilt than a bowl. (N35.11.w2)
    • Avoid leaving formula in a dish with the rabbits. (N35.11.w2)
    • Offer additional vegetables such as carrot, kale, romaine lettuce, watercress, cauliflower and occasional raspberries, strawberries or blueberries. Add these to the diet gradually and only in small quantities. (N35.11.w2)
    • Continue feeding formula; wean gradually. (N35.11.w2)
  • Sylvilagus palustris - Marsh rabbit: Wean onto grass, clover, bits of apple and thinly-sliced carrot from about 1 - 2 weeks old. (N35.1.w1)
    • Grass and clover can be misted with water pre-feeding; in the wild, food would often be dew-covered. (N35.1.w1)
    • Change the food twice daily. (N35.1.w1)
    • Over a small shallow container of water (small jar lid). (N35.1.w1)
    • Wean at two to four weeks old. (N35.1.w1)
  • See: Rearing of Mammals


  • Release when they are three to four weeks old, eating a lot of green food, have reached adequate weight (e.g. 120 - 150 g) and are showing independent behaviour. (J417.18.w1)
    • "Independent" behaviours include digging, standing on the hind feet, "boxing" and attacking your hand while the hutch is being cleaned. (J417.18.w1)
    • Consider body weight, body condition (not too thin) and muscle tone, also whether it has a good fur coat. (N35.11.w2)
    • Check the rabbit is in good general health, with normal vision and ability to run from predators as well as a normally-functioning gastro-intestinal tract (normal faeces). (N35.11.w2)
    • The rabbit mush be acclimatised to outdoor temperatures. (N35.11.w2)
    • The rabbit should recognise potential predators and be afraid of humans other than its own caretaker. (N35.11.w2)
  • Release Sylvilagus palustris - Marsh rabbit at three to four weeks old. (N35.1.w1)
  • Consider also: 
    • Appropriate release location, whether it will provide adequate food i.e. available, reachable vegetation (and water). (J417.18.w1)
      • A good release site is a briar patch or dense hedgerow next to a mowed meadow or lawn and by a woodlot for winter forage. (J311.15.w1)
      • Woodland with thick undergrowth, brushpiles, grass areas, ample food and fresh water. (N35.11.w2)
      • Release into an area where other cottontails live. (J311.15.w1, N35.11.w2)
        • If cottontails are not living in the habitat, consider why not, such as too many predators or trapping by humans. (N35.11.w2)
    • Likely weather and temperatures for the few days following release. (J417.18.w1, N35.11.w2)
    • Presence of potential predators. (J417.18.w1)
    • Permission must be granted from the landowner before release. (N35.11.w2)
    • Check the area is not about to be developed. (N35.11.w2)
    • Avoid releasing during trapping/hunting season. (N35.11.w2)
  • Release at dawn or dusk, by placing on the ground under appropriate cover. (J311.15.w1, J417.18.w1)
  • See: Release of Casualty Rabbits and Hares J311.15.w1, J311.15.w2, J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1. N35.1.w1, N35.11.w2
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Wild animals should not be taken for hand rearing unless they are definitely orphaned or abandoned, injured/visibly unwell, or in immediate danger.
  • Preferably have only one person rearing/handling the orphan. (J23.35.w2)
  • An ordinary outdoor thermometer may be used to indicate the temperature in the container used to house the orphan.(B194)
  • Routine records should be maintained of daily weight, times of each feed, quantities of milk consumed, urine/faeces production and general condition/demeanour. Such records provide an objective means of assessing progress and provide useful data for improving rearing methods. (V.w5)
  • Infants from different litters with their eyes closed may be put together. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1, J417.18.w1)
  • It may or may not be possible to mix older infants:
    • Once their eyes open, putting unfamiliar rabbits together is likely to result in fighting. (J311.15.w1, J417.12.w1)
    • Youngsters of about the same age (no more than a week's age difference) and not too close to release age, may be put together if the area is large enough and separate hiding boxes are provided. (J417.18.w1)
  • If the litter is very large (more than 5 or 6), splitting it may be preferable, so that kits are not repeatedly disturbed by the carer's hand reaching in to remove and feed each individual. (J417.12.w1)
  • Weight at a given developmental stage may vary markedly depending on the size of the litter (individuals in large litters tend to be smaller) and the time of the year when they are born. (J417.18.w1)
  • Sylvilagus sp. rabbits found in a nest have been hand-reared on cow's milk (J332.10.w1) but this would not be recommended as an ideal milk substitute.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Rabbits and hares may be difficult to hand-rear. (B156.12.w12, D24)
  • Risk of injury due to severe flight reaction when transferred to a larger enclosure after weaning. (J23.35.w2)
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • KMR (Pet-Ag Inc., Illinois USA).
  • Esbilac (Pet Ag, Kruus UK Ltd., Unit 17, Moor Lane Industrial Estate, Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire, LS25 6ES) (PetAg Inc, Illinois, USA).
  • Welpi (Hoechst UK ltd., PO Box 18, Hounslow, Middlesex TW4 6JH). Available from pet stores.
  • Multi-Milk (Pet-Ag Inc., Illinois, USA).
  •  Zoologic 30/55 (Pet-Ag, Inc.)
  • Abidec multi-vitamin drops (Parke-Davis, Pontypool, Gwent, UK. Available from chemists).
  • Milupa (Milupa, White Horse Business Park, Trowbridge, Wiltshire BA14 0XB, UK): from supermarkets, chemists etc.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Not easy to hand-rear. If the carer does not have experience with these species advice should be sought from experienced rehabilitators and other people with expertise with these species. 
  • Considerable time commitment involved.
  • Manual dexterity is important for caring for these small individuals.
  • Requires empathy, observation skills and the ability to "read" the animals' body language.
  • Experience with hand-rearing is useful and is likely to greatly increase the success rate.
Cost/ Availability
  • Products and equipment all widely available, not particularly expensive.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Hand-rearing should not be started unless the carer is prepared to give the time and effort required for rearing to release, or to ensure that appropriate care will be continued through to release.
  • For free-living individuals, consider whether hand-rearing is the best option for the individual compared to leaving it in the wild.
  • Consider whether euthanasia is a more humane/kinder option for the individual than attempting hand-rearing.
Author Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Tiffany Blackett BVetMed MRCVS (V.w44)

Return to Top of Page