Rabbits can make up an important part of homesteading. They provide an excellent source of meat and nutrition as well as fur and skin. They are fairly inexpensive to keep, raise, and breed compared with other livestock. And, they breed easily and quickly, providing you with plenty of animals each year. Even if you are not ready yet to use rabbits for all that they have to offer, getting a pair and breeding them to raise bunnies is a great lesson for your kids and you can sell the offspring for some extra money.
Breeding rabbits is not too difficult. You will, of course, need a mature male and female. After that, much of the work is out of your hands. However, there are some things you should know and some things you should do to be sure your little bunnies come into the world safely and that they are healthy and cared for well enough to grow into mature rabbits themselves.
The first thing to do when you realize you have a pregnant rabbit is to remove the male from her area. Give him another hutch to live in until you are prepared for the female to get pregnant again. The male rabbit is not a risk to the babies, but he can impregnate mom again right after she gives birth. If you are planning to produce just the one litter, this is a good time to get dad neutered. He can recover while mom brings the babies into the world.
With the male removed, make sure momma rabbit has a good living space for her and the bunnies to come. If the bunnies arrived unexpectedly, prepare the space as soon as you find them to be sure the hutch is ideal for babies. The hutch or cage that you have the mother in should be big enough for her to be able to move around comfortably. The hutch can be outside, but be sure that it is sheltered well. It needs to be protected from the elements, such as sun, heat, cold, and wind. Her hutch should also be somewhere calm and quiet. Make sure no other animals can get to them, especially dogs or wild animals.
Within the hutch, the mother will need a nest box and materials for creating the nest. You can make a nest box out of wood, buy one specially made for rabbits, or use a cardboard box or litter box. Put down a layer of bunny litter in the bottom of the box to absorb moisture. Cover that layer with grass clippings, hay, or alfalfa. Just be sure this layer is pesticide-free. Mom will take this material and make it into a nest, so you should not have to arrange it for her. Expect her to pull out some of her fur to enhance the nest as well. Keep plenty of food, fresh water, and a salt lick in the hutch for mom.
After the Babies Arrive
Bunnies generally require little care from you for the first couple of weeks of life. The mom should be doing all that is necessary to keep them warm and fed. It is possible, though, that the mother will not take care of them adequately. For this reason, you need to check on them frequently to see that the bunnies are being fed, are warm enough, and that they are safe and clean.
For the first two weeks of life, the mother’s milk is all the bunnies need. If she does not nurse them on the first day, there is no need to panic. This is a normal behavior. However, if the mother appears to be neglecting them, you will need to intervene. Watch for signs such as the mother avoiding the nest box, hiding in the corner of the hutch, or anxious behaviors. Also check the babies for signs of malnourishment. If the mother is feeding them properly, their bellies should be slightly rounded. If she is not, they will look shriveled and their skin will be baggy.
If the mother is not feeding the bunnies, you can try the confinement method. Put the babies and the mother in a pet carrier with a towel lining the bottom. Provide her with food and water and keep them inside for a few hours at a time. Let her out every few hours to run around the hutch, but otherwise keep them confined together, including overnight. This often works to get mom feeding and should only require two days of confinement before she gets the hang of it. If that doesn’t work, you will need to feed the babies formula. This is very difficult and most often leads to the bunnies dying, so try the confinement method first and formula as a last resort only.
After being sure your bunnies are getting enough to eat, check on their warmth. If you have set up the hutch and nest box such that they are out of the elements, and it is not winter, they will most likely be warm enough. If your hutch is outside and the temperatures are cold, you can put an electric heating pad under the hutch. Set it on low and be sure that the mother cannot get to it or she may chew on it and electrocute herself.
Finally, be sure your bunnies are clean and safe. Check the hutch and nest box every day to be sure it is dry. You will probably need to clean the nest box every three to five days. If it gets wet, it will need to be cleaned more frequently. Transfer the babies to another box with a towel in it while you empty and clean out their nest. Save mom’s fur from the nest unless it is soiled so she can use it to recreate the nest.
For safety, it is best to keep all other rabbits out of the hutch while they are young. Other females may kill them. Also be sure that the bunnies cannot fall through any holes in the hutch if it is raised up from the ground. Take care when handling the babies, as they can be pretty wriggly and a fall could be deadly. Pick up just one baby at a time and hold it in one cupped hand while you cover it with the other.
As They Grow
By two or three weeks of age, your bunnies will be looking for solid foods. They will probably nurse until eight weeks old, but by two weeks, make sure there is plenty of food for everyone in the hutch. By eight to ten weeks of age, mom will lose interest in her babies. This is the ideal time to find new homes for your bunnies if that is your intention. They should not be taken from mom before this time, however. They get crucial nutrition from her milk.
Between 12 and 16 weeks of age, your bunnies are already becoming sexually mature. This is a good time to get them sexed, and you may need a vet to help you because mistakes are easy to make. If you do not separate your males and females or get them neutered and spayed, you will find yourself with another kit within five or six months! For safety, keep any males that are not neutered away from each other when they are mature. They can be territorial and dangerous to each other.
Raising rabbits is rewarding and fun, but it is also simple when compared to other animals. They are a great starter animal if you are new to homesteading. They are also a good choice for getting your kids started in caring for animals. With the right tools, information, and care, you should be able to breed and raise your rabbits successfully.
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