Abandoned and Orphaned Wild Rabbits

Do they really need your help?

Every year, particularly during the spring and summer, HRRN
receives numerous calls about an “abandoned” nest of wild baby

While most of these babies are rescued by well-meaning individuals,
its important to realize many such human-rabbit encounters are unnecessary and
can even be detrimental. The reality is fewer than 10% of “orphaned” rabbits
survive a week and the care people attempt to provide can be illegal,
unnecessary, and potentially harmful. The following information should help you
determine whether these wild babies genuinely need your help and the level, if
any, of your intervention. Remember, a wild animal’s best chance for survival
is with its natural parents who, better than anyone else, can ensure that it
retains all of its natural faculties and behaviors for survival in the wild.

Wild cottontails deliberately avoid areas where their offspring are present. Such
“hiding” behaviors reduce the chance of calling a predator’s
attention to their young. While you may not be able to sense the presence of a
parent, they are likely close by and in visual or auditory contact with their
offspring. Wild rabbits also “hide” their nests in plain view, often
building them in the open – such as in the middle of the lawn, as well as in
brush piles and long grass. Always check before mowing long, unattended grass,
removing brush, or moving/burning woodpiles. Stop to think if the area you are
about to disturb may be home to a nest of wild rabbits.

If you should disturb a nest or find one as such, do all you can to restore and
protect it rather than bring the infants inside. If a dog or cat has discovered
the nest, keep them away from the area. Remake the nest in the same place as
best you can with grasses, hay or straw. Nests can also be moved to a safer
place up to 10′ away from the original site and can be reconstructed if
necessary. To make a new nest, dig a shallow hole about 3″ deep and put
into it as much of the original material as you can recover, including the
mother’s fur. Add dried grass as needed and put the young back. In either case,
to determine if the mother is returning, create a tic-tac-toe pattern over the
nest with straw, grasses or tiny twigs. Wait 24 hours to see if the twigs have
been disturbed/removed. If so, then the mother is returning to feed her young.

Baby cottontails are born blind and without fur. They will develop a full coat in
about one week and open their eyes in 6-10 days. By three to four weeks they
are weaned. At this age, they may explore the world outside of the nest but
will return there to sleep. Older baby bunnies who are found outside of the
nest may not be orphaned or in need of assistance at all. They are not being
ignored by the mother and will stay with the family group until four or five
weeks of age. Rabbit mothers only nurse their babies for approximately 5
minutes each day. They build a nest of fur and grasses to keep their babies
warm between feedings – early in the morning and then again in the evening. If
you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and the mother is nowhere to be
seen, please DO NOT disturb them…this is normal. By removing them from the
nest you are greatly reducing their chances of survival. Therefore, it’s
important to determine whether they really need help.
Try to assess whether the infants are healthy or cold, thin, and dehydrated.
Healthy babies should be warm and pink with round tummies, they’re active, and
will rarely cry if they’ve been feeding. You can pick them up and do a test for
dehydration by gently pinching the loose skin at the back of the neck. If it
stays in a “tent,” or does not spring back within one second, the
bunny is dehydrated. If a dog or cat has found the babies, you should also look
for injuries, bleeding, or broken limbs.

If after evaluating the situation you feel the babies are still in need of
intervention, you may be able to find a veterinary clinic willing to give
immediate care, especially for injured babies. Licensed veterinarians may possess
wildlife in Texas for up to 48 hours for emergency care. However, the best
chance for a successful return to the wild remains with a skilled wildlife
. Until arrangements have been made to transfer the babies,
provide a soft nest area in a box with clean towels, cover them so it’s dark
and warm, and keep them in a quiet place. Keep in mind that excessive handling
can be extremely stressful and potentially fatal. Never attempt to feed a wild baby bunny. Milk replacement
formulas available to the public can cause gastrointestinal distress as well as metabolic bone disease. Skilled
wildlife rehabilitators have access to the special zoological formulas needed.
Remember, its illegal to possess wildlife without the required state and
federal permits. And the next best thing to a wild baby’s natural parents
should they be truly orphaned/injured, is a skilled rehabilitator. Should you
come across wild baby bunnies in real
need of assistance, contact HRRN at 444-EARS for help in locating a wildlife rehabilitator knowledgeable about wild rabbits.

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