What should you expect when your rabbit is expecting?
If your rabbit is pregnant, or just gave birth to a litter of kits, you probably have a slew of questions. Do rabbits eat their babies? Will the mother kill them if you touch them? Will the male rabbit hurt the babies?
These are the right questions to ask. I used to answer phone calls almost daily from rabbit owners whose bunny had babies.
No one wants to believe in cannibalistic rabbits. And, thankfully, cannibalism in rabbits is not very common. I’ve only seen it once or twice in hundreds of litters.
But even if it’s unlikely to happen, being prepared for these situations will give your litter of kits the best odds of growing up strong.
This article will answer your questions about why rabbits eat their babies and how you can stop this tragedy from happening.
Do Rabbits Eat Their Babies?
When under extreme stress, mother rabbits might eat their own babies. As I’ll explain below, this disturbing behavior is actually a survival mechanism. You can try to prevent it by giving your pregnant rabbit ample protein in her diet and a safe, quiet space in which to nest and care for her young.
Why Do Rabbits Eat Their Babies?
Here are 8 reasons why mother rabbits might eat their own young.
1. Overzealous Cleaning
In the wild, rabbits are toward the bottom of the food chain. Baby rabbits are born naked, deaf, blind, and entirely helpless. The mother rabbit knows that their best chance of survival is to stay as well-hidden as possible.
To hide her babies, a mother rabbit will clean up the birthing mess so thoroughly that you might not even see blood-stained bedding afterwards. She eats the placenta, and will clean the kits with her tongue to remove all blood and mucus.
During this process, a mother rabbit sometimes gets a little carried away and may accidentally nip off a baby’s ear or tail, or toe. This doesn’t mean that she’s vicious and intends harm to the rest of the litter.
If you see a baby with a missing appendage, but the litter seems to be resting peacefully after the birth, they are out of harm’s way.
2. Stillborn or Unhealthy Babies
If you discover that a mother has truly eaten her babies, the most common reason is that the babies were born dead.
A mother rabbit may eat stillborn babies to clean the nest and protect the living ones from discovery by predators. A mother rabbit also might kill a runt, injured, or unhealthy baby that had a poor chance of survival.
3. Predator Pressure
Predator pressure is another common cause of cannibalism in rabbits. A mother rabbit would sooner kill her babies than let a hawk or coyote get them.
Some rabbit owners have reported cannibalism after a rat or snake was hanging around their outdoor rabbits.
If you have a dog or cat, keep them far away from your pregnant doe as she nears her due date.
4. Environmental Stress
Rabbits are easily stressed by loud noises or changes in their environment. Startling sounds like fireworks or a smoke alarm could frighten your pregnant rabbit so much that she believes her babies won’t survive, and so will attack them.
Do not make any major changes to a rabbit’s surroundings when she is about to “kindle” or give birth.
5. Malnourishment or Lack of Water
Pregnant and nursing rabbits require more energy and protein in their diets than other adult rabbits do.
If a mother doesn’t have enough water or nutrition to make milk for her litter, she may eat the babies rather than let them starve.
6. Mother Rabbit is Sick
I know of a case where a mother rabbit ate her babies when she was recovering from a mammary infection.
Although the owner provided good nutrition and a safe environment, her body couldn’t handle producing milk for her babies.
7. Mother Rabbit is Too Young
Many times, people will bring a pregnant female home from a pet store without knowing that she’s expecting. Bunnies can conceive litters at 4 months of age – or even younger.
Often these bunny “teen moms” are too young to nourish their own growing bodies and a litter of kits. Their mothering instincts may not be fully developed either.
8. Mother Rabbit is Already Pregnant Again
In the case of an unexpected pregnancy, many times the buck – or male rabbit – is housed in the same cage as the doe.
You may have thought you had two male or two female rabbits, but as soon as you find out this is not the case, you must separate them immediately.
Rabbits can have back-to-back litters. They are very fertile within 24 hours of giving birth. If your female is housed with the male, she will probably get pregnant again right after kindling.
This may tax her body so much that she cannot care for her newborn babies, and, again, consider eating them to be more humane than letting them perish from starvation.
How to Stop a Rabbit From Eating Her Babies
As you can see, most cases of cannibalism in rabbits happen because the mother doesn’t believe she will be able to feed, protect, and care for her young.
Here are 5 ways to prevent a mother from believing that she needs to eat her babies.
- Give the doe an ideal kindling environment.
A rabbit that is about to give birth must have a nesting box. Without a safe nesting space, she may panic and eat her babies.
Give her lots of bedding to use as nest material, and keep her protected from other pets, children, and loud noises.
- Give her alfalfa hay, a balanced diet, and lots of water.
Veterinarians advise avoiding high amounts of alfalfa hay for pet rabbits, as it is higher in protein, energy, and calcium than adult non-reproductive rabbits require.
However, a pregnant and lactating mother needs an extra helping of these nutrients. Swap some of your doe’s timothy hay with alfalfa when she gets close to kindling.
- Don’t breed unhealthy rabbits or rabbits that are too young.
We don’t recommend breeding your rabbits for pleasure, as animal shelters are already filled with rabbits waiting for adoption.
However, if you choose to breed your rabbits, make sure they are at least six months old and in the best of health.
- Give a pregnant rabbit her own enclosure or cage.
Rabbits like their privacy in general, but they are even more territorial when giving birth. Having other rabbits around – even other females – may stress a doe and cause her to attack her litter.
It’s imperative that you keep an intact male rabbit completely separate from a female with babies. It only takes about 15 seconds for the male to breed the female again. If a doe is pregnant while nursing a litter, her body may not be able to handle the strain.
- If you find your rabbit eating her litter, go ahead and intervene.
If you walk in to discover your rabbit eating her newborn babies, take action, but don’t panic.
First, look carefully and make sure she’s eating the babies, not just the placenta. Then makes sure she is truly attacking the kits, and not just grooming them to remove blood and vernix.
What Should You Do if Your Rabbit is Eating Her Babies?
If your rabbit is in fact eating live, wiggling kits, then remove all the live babies you can find from the doe’s cage.
Place them in a nesting box lined with a towel or soft bedding. Leave your rabbit in her cage and call a veterinarian for advice.
The veterinarian will most likely tell you to give the doe some quiet space to calm down.
Avoid handling your doe, but watch her to make sure she is not still in labor. Sometimes a difficult birth or stuck kit may cause a doe to panic and eat her other babies.
Make sure there are no scary animals, children, or noises around her. Give her a high-protein, high energy treat (like alfalfa pellets or sunflower seeds), and leave her alone for a while.
Leave the babies in a warm box and wait for 8-12 hours. Make sure the box has high sides so the babies cannot escape! Mother rabbits only feed their babies once or twice a day, so the kits will not starve while you wait for the mom settle down.
After several hours, you can try to introduce the babies to the mom again. By this time, she will probably be more peaceful and will accept the kits.
Place the babies back in the nest box, but be ready to step in if the mom turns violent again.
If she doesn’t accept the babies this time, you will have to shelf-rear the litter. This means to keep them in a separate nest and return them to the mom only for feedings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will the male rabbit kill the babies?
No, the father rabbit will probably not kill the babies. A male rabbit’s first impulse is to breed everything in sight – I’ve even seen a buck try to mount newborn kits.
Even though the father won’t eat the babies, he will breed the mother rabbit again right away. Remove the buck from the doe’s cage before she kindles.
Will a rabbit kill her babies if I touch them?
Human scent on baby bunnies will not make the mother rabbit kill them. Domestic rabbits are used to human smells and don’t see them as a threat.
Why is my rabbit stepping on her babies?
When a doe feeds a litter, she will jump in and out of the nest box. Babies may get underfoot, but it’s unlikely that a mother rabbit will intentionally step on her babies.
If they are in a nest with soft bedding, they won’t be harmed. As the baby bunnies grow, you will need to move them to an enclosure with room for them all to exercise without trampling each other.
Newborn rabbits’ only chance of survival is to stay well-hidden. If you think your rabbit gave birth but you can’t find the nest, don’t jump to the conclusion that the mother ate the babies!
Look carefully for newborn kittens in every corner of the room. Baby rabbits, if they stray from the nest, can wander amazing distances right after birth.
If your rabbit did eat her babies, I am truly sorry for your loss. Rabbit cannibalism is a terrible thing to witness. The only comfort I can offer is that your rabbit probably did this because, due to her wild instincts, she believed it was in her babies’ best interest.
To prevent this from happening again, we encourage you to consider spaying your female rabbit. This will not only prevent surprise litters, but it will greatly increase her life expectancy.
If this guide has been useful, please share it with your friends! If you have any questions about preventing cannibalism in rabbits, feel free to drop them in the comment section below.