picture of Litter

Nestbox Management for English Angoras

Reach Out and Touch Somebunny

by
Betty Chu

Leave the Doe and Babies Alone ?

When I started raising French Lop rabbits in 1981, I read everything there was about rabbits in the library. What I read about kindling does was invariably: Do not disturb the doe, leave her alone. Do not handle the babies. The doe will not take care of the young if there is too much human scent on the babies.

When my first french lop litter arrived, I followed just that advice. Sweetie Pie, my first french lop, had her babies on the wire at 10 o'clock on a rainy night. I picked up the babies and put them in her nest box and left Sweetie Pie and the babies alone. The next morning, to my horror, half of the babies were dead and the remaining few were cold and dying. I called Sweetie Pie's breeder, Cathy, asking for help. She came and put the cold babies in the warm oven. Unfortunately, all still died except one. Sweetie Pie did not know what to do with this one survivor; neither did I. Cathy's mini lop raised this one baby named Valentina, who was born on St. Valentine's Day.

It has been a long time since this happened. Sweetie Pie and Valentina have both gone to bunny heaven, and I no longer have any french lops.

Over the years, I read, I listened and I learned through my experience and my mistakes, I decided that this leave the doe and babies alone attitude is entirely wrong for nestbox management. This method probably is practical for a commercial or a meat rabbit breeder, who may have a large number of does in production and losing babies may mean a financial loss but not an emotional hardship. For an Angora fancier as well as a true animal lover, I think the reach out and touch somebunny attitude is a much better way.

Reach out and Touch Somebunny

Here is my involvement with does having babies from conception to 7 weeks old:

  1. Pick a date:
  2. I check the calendar to make sure that 31 days from the of breeding is not a time that I am going out of town or going to a show so that I'll be available for the doe when she is ready to kindle. If the doe is a first-timer or has a tendency to have difficulty in kindling, I will arrange to have her due day earlier in the week, Mondays or Tuesdays, so that it does not run into a weekend in case she needs to be taken to the veterinarian.

  3. Mating:
  4. After selecting the right combination, I check the buck's and doe's genital area to make sure that they are all clean. I take the doe to the buck's cage early in the morning. If it is a successful mating, the buck should fall over and stomp his feet repeatedly . I'll take the doe out and hold her in my arm for 3-5 minutes so that she does not urinate to flush out his sperm immediately after mating. I'll put her back in her cage and repeat the process again 7 hours after the morning mating.

  5. Signals of being bred:
  6. Most rabbit books have pictures showing how to palpate the does at14 days after the initial mating. This, once again, probably is more important to a commercial breeder than to a fancier. A commercial breeder does not want to lose two weeks of time for an empty doe to sit around and consume his feed. To me, breeding is for show, for fun, for improvement of the breed. Palpating is a dangerous process. If one is not careful or not good at it, one may squeeze the babies out of the sack and kill the babies as well as the doe.

    I do not do palpating. The doe usually tells me how she feels by her behavior. 2-3 weeks after mating, if she is bred, she picks up her sitting rag or hay in her mouth and starts to dig in the corners. I give the doe a nest box lined with clean rags, hay and/or torn paper towels on around the 26th day after mating. Also I give her some loose hay every day. In general if she is bred she'll be busy picking up the hay and whatever is in her cage and putting them into her nest box. She may even pull wool at this stage.

  7. Time to kindle:
  8. About 29-32 days after being bred, the doe kindles. Some does give me no worry. They have the babies in the box , cover them well and nurse the babies right away. Some may need help. More than once I've seen one baby born on the wire cold or dead, no babies in the nestbox. This is the time when help is necessary. Since I know the birth canal has already opened due to the birth of the first baby, 1/4 cc of Oxytocin sub-Q may be injected to help the doe to push out the babies. (Do not use Oxytocin if you are not sure the birth canal is open!) Usually the rest of the litter will come out 5-10 minutes after injection. It happens so fast that the doe sometimes is caught by surprise and does not have enough time to jump into the nestbox. I always wait around to pick up the babies and put them into the nestbox when necessary.

  9. Saving the young:
  10. If I find a baby cold but still alive, the chance of saving it is very good. I pick up the baby right away and keep it warm. I prepare a bowl or warm water (warm, not hot!), put the baby in a sandwich bag with the top open, and put the sandwich bag on the surface of the warm water. This is to simulate the mother's womb, warm and liquid. After 3-5 minutes, the warm water needs to be warmed up again. Afterwards, I place the baby in a cookie can covered with wool and place it under a lamp for a while. If one wishes to use a heating pad , it should be used very cautiously. I have heard of several cases where the bunnies got cooked. The first rule for using a heating pad is to set LOW. The second rule is to put the bunny container, such as a cookie can, half on the heating pad and half outside the heating pad. Just in case the heat gets unbearable, the bunnies will have a place to climb to. When the baby's body feels warm, put it back with the rest of the litter. If the baby is basically heathy, it will grow up as normal as the rest.

  11. Nestbox management:
  12. After the doe has kindled, I take the nestbox out of her cage. Take out dead babies if there are any. I place a disposable diaper or clean clothes under all the hay and wool for the absorption of moisture as well as for the comfort of the babies. (I do not put the diaper in before kindling because the doe would shred it into pieces during the nest building activities. ) I cut the wool into short pieces since Angora wool is long and strong. If left uncut, the wool may wrap around the babies' feet or neck . I've known instances where babies were killed or worse, a foot was cut off. The nest materials are changed often, every 2 or 3 days in the first week, every other day in the second and subsequent weeks.

    picture of nursing At this point, my involvement with the doe's effort in baby-raising intensifies. I prepare a nursery in my family room: A carrying cage big enough for the nestbox. I put the nestbox inside the carrying cage and close the cover. This is especially important if you also have cat in the house. Every morning and/or evening, depending on the doe's preference, I take the nestbox to the doe. The doe usually will jump into the nestbox right away to release the pressure in her nipples. She finishes her nursing in about 5 minutes. I take the box out of the doe's cage and check each baby to see whether it has gotten enough milk. The ones that got enough milk have a firm and fat tummy. The ones that did not get enough are soft. If there are some soft ones, I have two choices: I can supplement mama's milk with KMR (Kitten Milk Replacement, available in feed stores or pet supply shops); or I can put mama on her back and let the babies nurse. I usually ask for my husband to help me if I choose the latter method since the doe's back feet are strong that she may kick and harm or even kill the babies.

    picture of white bunnies If it happens to be a large litter, that is, 8 or more, the latter method may not work since the doe may not be able to produce that much milk. The KMR certainly will come in handy. Hand feeding is a little messy but a lot of fun. I use a pet nurser for kittens. Making the hole is a little tricky: if it is too small , the babies do not have the power to suck the milk out of the bottle; if it is too large, the milk may come out so fast that it may choke the babies. I usually test the suitability by using very hot water. If hot water streams from the hole, it is too big, the rubber nipples is ruined; if it needs my fingers to squeeze to release the hot water, it is too small, try again; if the hot water drips from the hole, it is just right. It is a trial-and-error process, the hole that I find works well is a small cross cut with a toenail clipper.

    At times a baby may have problem in urinating. I use my finger or a wet cotton swab gentlely rub the baby's little tummy and genital area. Baby usually will respond quite quickly.

    picture of nursing One may ask why do I keep the nextbox away from the doe. The reasons are threefold: First of all, if the nestbox were placed with the doe all the time, the doe may nurse during the middle of the night. Sometimes a baby may hang on to the doe's nipple when she jumps out of the nestbox. The doe has no way of putting the baby back in the nestbox and this perfectly heathy baby usually dies of exposure. Second, the doe at times nibbles at the nest material including her own wool. Taking the nest box away lessens the chance of her getting woolblock. Third, the human touch. Since the nest box is in my house, I play with them frequently from day one. They are very accustomed to human handling. When they grow up they are usually very sweet, very attached to people. My does don't mind human scent on their babies since they were brought up exactly the same way. My does don't mind fostering other does' babies either. I do not have to use anything to divert the doe's attention to put in babies from other litters. I do it in plain view. They accept any baby readily without hesitation. I have had cases where two does shared one nestbox, one nursed in the morning and the other nursed at night. Both litters grew up fat and strong.

  13. 10 days to 3 weeks old:
  14. At 10-12 days old, bunnies' eyes open. Once a while, a bunny has problem in opening one or both eyes by itself. By the 13th day, if the eyes are still not unopen, I'll wet the bunnies' unopen eyes, lightly massage a little then use my fingers to open them. If left without help, the unopen eyes may be become blind.

    At 2 to 3 weeks old, the babies are jumping in and out of the nestbox. I still keep them separate from their mama for the following reasons: Less wear and tear on the mama and safety for the babies. At this time the babies have very small feet. They are also not very coordinated at this young age. I've known instances where a baby got its foot broken while caught in between the wires and had to be put down. I line my babies' cage with my old T-shirts or towels to prevent this possibility. Doing the same is not too practical when the doe is with the babies since the doe eats a lot and passes a lot. The cage could be a big mess in no time . In addition, I am sure we have all seen babies chasing their mama for milk. It certainly can be very stressful for the doe if she does not feel like nursing at that time. I feel that keeping doe and babies apart except at nursing time is a solution for both parties. And I am sure that they enjoy their quality time together much more.

  15. 3-7 weeks old:
  16. picture of babies Bunnies are old enough to eat solid food now. I let my bunnies eat regular pellets as well as all the treats that my adult rabbits enjoy, including fruits and vegetables. Old time rabbit raisers advise no greens, especially for bunnies. I have fed grass, fruits, vegetables to bunnies as young as 2 or 3 weeks old and never had a diarrhea problem. Grass and greens are what wild rabbits consume as soon as they are old enough to leave their warren, so why can't the domestic rabbits? I feel that my English Angora rabbits' coats are enhanced by the variety of natural food that I feed.

    At about 4 weeks old, the nestbox is removed; at about 6 or 7 weeks old, I try to separate the litter into several cages. I try not to keep more than 4 bunnies in one cage at this age. If the cage is too crowded, the bunnies' coats will not look and feel nice. Worse, sometimes they may even chew on each others wool.

    At 7-8 weeks old, my bunnies are ready to go to their new homes. In addition to their excellent background, they are also very tame and very affectionate; they are generally loved by their new owners.

    Since I've started this approach, the does that I raised are all very calm. They don't mind people in the rabbitry, they don't mind being groomed, they don't even mind people watching them mate, kindle and nurse. Best of all, I seldom lose any bunnies; they all grow up healthy and strong.


    Copyright © 1998 by Betty Chu. All rights reserved
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