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SquirrelWorld   Wild Baby Rabbit Care Part 1

DIARRHEA-FREE!

Successful Wild Baby Rabbit Care/Rehabilitation(Part 2)
Text by Lou Rea Kenyon; photos by Frank Slansky

 
 

In a previous article (Kenyon, 1999), I introduced a protocol for the successful rehabilitation of orphaned wild infant cottontail and marsh rabbits that avoids the often-fatal diarrhea commonly seen during wild rabbit rehabilitation (Evans, 1983; Reese, 1992).This approach includestwo features:(1)habituating('taming') the rabbits to captivity through early frequent handling, and (2) providing the infants with 'soft feces' (also termed cecotropes) from an older wild rabbit to help establish their gut flora prior to weaning them to solid food.My previous article addressed initial care for the rabbits, making an incubator and formula feeding.Here I describe the remaining components of this protocol, including weaning to solid food, caging and release procedures.

WEANING

Weaning-onset diarrhea is a very common occurence in wild baby rabbits that have been separated from their mother prior to their eyes opening.Once such diarrhea begins, I know of no way to stop it, and it usually is fatal.To avoid this, within a day or two of the eyes opening and BEFORE ANY solid foods are offered, begin the following probiotic (microbe supplying) regimen. Obtain fresh cecotrope material (hereafterreferred to as CTs) from an older healthy wild rabbit.There are two forms that can be used. The most common is the CT "packet", the clump of closely clustered grape-like 'soft feces' that are expelled by the rabbit during the night or dawn hours. CTs are dark brown to black, soft and moist, with a strong odor, in contrast to the individual, lighter colored round pellets that are excreted (these are also harder, drier and less odorous than CTs).Rabbits usually eat CTs directly from their anus, and thus they are not readily found in a rabbit's excrement.The best way to obtain CTs is to put an Elizabethan collar on a domestic rabbit overnight. The rabbit should be in an elevated cage with clean newspaper underneath to catch the CT material.Analternate method for obtaining CTs is to get the cecal sac from a butchered healthy rabbit. It does not matter what age or sex the rabbit donor is.What does matter is that it is healthy, without parasites, and that it is not on any type of medication.Remove 2-3 of the soft pellets and offer them to the rabbit.Some bunnies will readily lick these off one's finger.Otherwise, mix them into 1cc of formula and syringe feed.In either case, make certain that all of the material is eaten. Feed this once each day for 3 or 4 days.If fluid from the cecum is used, withdraw this directly into a 1cc syringe and feed 1/3 cc per day on the same schedule.Experimental studies (i.e., controlled double-blind, etc.) need to be done to determine the precise CT dosage and schedule. For example, smaller doses over a shortened time may be adequate.However, since 1987 I have used the protocol described here with complete success on dozens of rabbits, and thus I strongly recommend that it be followed until additional data are available.Because of the difficulty in obtaining CTs, it would be helpful if these could be frozen for future use.Thus, studies also need to be done to determine whether and how long the CTs remain viable under freezing or other methods of preservation.I have frozen the cecal sac liquid and based on microscopic examination after thawing, it has appeared to remain 'alive' for at least a few weeks.Once this schedule of CT feeding has been completed, weaning onto solid foods can begin.The weaning diet should consist ofhigh quality, name brand rabbit pellets and high quality, well washed natural vegetation (e.g., grass, clover, dandelions and plantains) that you are certain has not been sprayed with, or was not in a drift area of, pesticides or fertilizers.Also include high quality alfalfa hay.It is imperative that the hay be completely dry and stored in an air tight container to avoid the risk of molds.A good transitional food is raw rolled Quaker{R} oats.Bunnies are always eager to eat this and will continue to favor it; thus you must wean them off the oats inorder to get them to eat the pellets.

Although rather young wild rabbits may be seen outside their nest during weaning, this does not necessarily mean that they are weaned from their mother's milk (Reese, 1992). For example, I have observed a wild mother rabbit (one that had previously been rehabbed and released), near her nest nursing babies that were a few weeks beyond eye-opening.In fact, cottontails are not fully weaned until 4-5 weeks of age (Chapman et al., 1982).Thus, you should continue to feed formula during the weaning process.To avoid spoilage, do not add liquid formula to the oats or the pellets.Also, do not put formula in a dish, as the bunnies will step in and run through it, getting it all over themselves and contaminating it.Trying to clean formula from bunny fur is very stressful both for the bunny and you!As the bunny gets older, you can offer a dish of liquid formula and see if they can drink it without making a mess.However, do not leave a dish of liquid formula in the cage formore than about 30 minutes because of potential bacterial growth.

Keep fresh water available at all times, preferably in a water bottle (vs. a dish) for cleanliness (note that bunnies reared with a water bottle readily convert later to a dish or natural water source).Make certain that all babies are eating the weaning diet.Weigh them every 3rd or 4th day, and continue to monitor fecal quality.Offer supplemental foods (well washed fruits and vegetables) only after the bunnies are routinely eating the rabbit pellets.Keep in mind that supplemental foods should comprise no more that 10% of the total diet-- they are treats.Some suggestions for these are broccoli (stems only), carrots, endive, kale, romaine lettuce, water cress, cauliflowerand occassionally blueberries, strawberries or raspberries.Add one small piece of supplemental food at a time, and then wait a couple of days so that if a problem develops, you know which food may have caused it.Keep a heavy dish (for stability) of rabbit pellets available at all times, and feed the greens at dusk and early mornings, the normal foraging times for rabbits (Harrison & Harrison, 1985).

CAGING

Once the wild rabbit babies leave the incubator, they can be housed in a standard2' x4' x 1 1/2' commercial rabbit cage as long as the cage is inside a protective enclosure.Outfit these cages with hiding places, including boxes, tunnels, tubes made of pvc drainage pipe and piles of hay.Also provide dishpan-sized sand trays for digging and play.Do not use these cages outside as predators(e.g., raccoons and cats) can reach through them and grab a bunny, and snakes can crawl inside.Do not use screening for rabbit enclosures, as raccoons and dogs can break through screening.It is important to house bunnies in an enclosure with only bunnies, or with only bunnies and squirrels.Make certain that they cannot see, hear, or smell ANY potential predator.Keep in mind that their senses are much more acute than our own.Reese (1992) suggests keeping cages near the ground because rabbits are ground-dwellers.This is good logic, but in my experience I have found that a person rising high above caged rabbits tends to scare them.Therefore, I recommend that cages be elevated; also, an elevated cage will bring the rabbits above the eye line of an outdoor predator.

Bunnies at this stage are relaxed, curious, and playful, both with each other and with their foster mom. I have observed wild-born litters that have left the nest playing vigorously with each other, as well as playing by themselves, and even trying to engage their real mother in play.Play is a critical part of developing the predator-avoidance skills of speed and jumps that result in a 180 degree turn.It is a tragedy to allow a baby rabbit to remain so frightened throughout its early development that it never is at ease enough to play, and that it has to be confined in a very small cage so that it doesn't injure itself, as some rehabbers have suggested. When the bunnies begin to pace, dig and chew the wire, or fight, it may not mean that they are ready for release but rather that they need to be moved into a larger enclosure.It is important at this stage to try to keep the group of bunnies no larger than what is dictated by the size of the cage.Continue to observe them, especially at night, for signs of fighting (e.g., clumps of fur on the floor or scratches on the bunnies) and be ever alert for signs of stress.If these problems occur, and you do not have a larger enclosure, you can intervene by separating out an aggressive bunny, or by releasing it.

Enclosures for outside should be made of galvanized 1" x 1/2" welded wire (preferred), or galvanized 1/2" x 1/2" welded wire, elevated 2 feet off the ground with the bottom area under the cage closed off to prevent predator access, and two sides should be visually blocked to a height of18 inches.The enclosure that I have for my outside bunnies is8' x 12' x 8' tall, and has a plywood floor, with a small area with a wire floor for airing their undersides (which they like to do), and for excretory purposes.They are very easy to 'potty train' to a specific area by using urine-soiled newspaper.In this enclosure bunnies are content, unstressed and playful, and they come to greet me when I enter!

RELEASE

Rehabilitators seem to be aware that typically, most orphaned wild baby rabbits get diarrhea and die soon after their eyes open. Many assume that the diarrhea is due to stress, which can be one cause, but more commonly the likely cause is enterotoxemia from pathogenic bacteria in their gut (Cheeke, 1987).The high frequency of diarrhea has led to the establishment of protocols, based on erroneous beliefs, to cease giving formula and to release the animal shortly after the rabbit's eyes open, or when it begins eating solid foods.Described by Reese (1992) as a common mistake, and as I have heard others mention,the goal of many rabbit rehabilitators is to release the animals before they die in captivity,using the reasoning that'It doesn't matter, anyway, because they are just going to be eaten by a predator.'It is certainly true, at this very young age that, without a nest in which to hide, and without much savvy of the dangers in the wild, they will soon be eaten, and if not they will most certainly die from diarrhea!Given such a self-fulfilling prophecy, one has to ask "Why bother 'rehabbing' them?"

Wild rabbit babies in my care are usually 1/2 to 3/4 grown before I release them, and therefore they are not going to immediately become a meal for a predator; their speed and avoidance techniques by this time are well honed!Although they are comfortable around me, they are frightened at the approach of other persons.To release them, their enclosure is opened and they are free to leave whenever they are ready.If they have not left by nightfall, the door is closed to prevent predators from entering, and opened again the next day.They do not disappear in a panic retreat, but rather leisurely explore their new freedom, sometimes returning to their enclosure, and generally staying in the area for months and sometimes several years, and are periodically watched by us at feeding and/or watering stations, with their own babies, etc. On at least three occasions a mother rabbit had her babies under the 'Critter Hut', the enclosure from which she was released.

In general, for on-site releases, slow release methods are preferred as they allow, the bunny to leave when IT is ready, rather than when the rehabilitator is ready, and this allows the rehabilitator to keep track of the animal and provide assistance if needed.Following is a list of questions to consider before releasing rabbits that have been rehabbed:

1.)What is the weather like and what is the forecast? Is the rabbit in good enough physical condition to withstand these conditions?

2.) Is the rabbit at normal body weight for its age (i.e., not too thin, with good muscle tone, etc.?

3.) From what injuries did it recover? Can it run properly? Does it have good strength and stamina? Does it have normal vision?Can it hear?Are the stools normal? Is it good general health?

4.) Does it have a dense coat of fur?

5.) Is the release site in the proper habitat: woodland with thick undergrowth, brush piles and a meadow area, with ample food and fresh water (creek, stream, pond or lake)?Iffood is seasonally sparse, will you be able to continue to offer handouts?

6.) Is there evidence that some rabbits are living in the release habitat? If not, figure out the reason-- it may be ominous!Are there too many predators in the area, human hunting or trapping, etc.?

7.) Does it recognize its predators, from the air as well as the ground?Is it afraid of persons other than yourself?

8.) Is it acclimated to the outside ambient temperatures? This is critically important.

9.) What are the hunting and trapping seasons of the area? Try to wait until hunting season is over!What about plans for construction? Don't release in an area that is soon to be bulldozed!Always obtain permission from the owner before releasing animals on property other than your own.

CONCLUSIONS

In this and my previous article (Kenyon, 1999), I have described a protocol for successful rehabilitation and release of infant rabbits.I have developed and applied this protocol over the past 12 years with dozens of cottontail and marsh rabbits.Prior to this, rabbits that were brought in for rehabilitation beforetheir eyes opened (some were newborns), and had developed entirely normally to this point, would invariably get diarrhea and die soon after I began weaning them to solid food. Now, by habituating them to captivity and handling, AND by feeding them CTs prior to weaning, my bunnies do not get diarrhea, they thrive during rehabilitation and they are successfully released.Subsequent observations on these rabbitsin the wild confirm their long-term survival and reproduction, essential components of successful rehabilitation.

References

Chapman, J. A., J. G. Hockman & W. R. Edwards. 1982.Cottontails, pp. 83-123 in "Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Economics"; J. A. Chapman & G. A.

Feldhamer (eds.). Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore.

Cheeke, P. R. 1987. Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. Academic Press, Orlando.

Evans, R. 1983. Management of diarrhea related problems in cottontails. WRC J. 6 (#4); 13-16.

Harrison, K. & G. Harrison. 1985. America's Favorite Backyard Wildlife. Simon & Shuster, New York.

Kenyon, L. R. 1999. Diarrhea-free! Successful infant rabbit rehabilitation. Wildlife Rehabilitation Today11 (#1): 4-9.

Reese, E. 1992. Cottontail feeding problems: Part II "The big D". Wildlife J. 15 (#4): 7-11.

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Lou Rea Kenyon has a B.S. degree in nursing and is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in Florida,She has been rehabbing for over 17 years and specializes in rabbits, squirrels, and opossums.She is owner of Nutkin's Nest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.You can contact LouRea by email

at mailto:rabbit@nutkinsnest.com

 

SquirrelWorld          Wild Baby Rabbit Care Part 1

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