Where fostering is necessary the doe should be distracted with a tasty titbit and the young to be fostered gently handled with some of the nest litter or the foster mothers babies to transfer the smell.
Hand rearing should only be undertaken as a last resort and must be done with great care as the most common cause of death amongst hand fed youngsters is milk on the lungs. Goat or sheep milk can be used fresh or powdered or one of the veterinary milk substitutes such as Cimicat Esbilac or Lactol.
Use a kitten nurser for baby rabbits, it has a very small teat and allows the baby to suck. Don’t syringe or pour liquid into the babies mouth as their sucking/breathing co-ordination is poor.
The importance of colostrum
If the youngsters are orphaned at birth and are being hand reared you will help them greatly if you can obtain some form of colostrum which helps support the immune system. If you live in the country you may be able to obtain fresh or dried/powdered colostrum for lambs, kids or foals. In urban areas you will probably have to use powdered colostrum for kittens.
Colostrum is also used as a health supplement for people so you can now buy organic colostrum via mail order. Although it will not provide the same antibodies that the mother’s milk would provide, all colostrum is a rich source of lactoferrin which is very important for the immune system.
After feeding the baby must be encouraged to urinate. The mother does this by licking the babies genitals after feeding. Humans can get away with using a cotton ball dipped in warm water!
Constituents of rabbit milk
Rabbit milk is 12.2% fat, 10.4% protein, 1.8% lactose, 2% ash and 26.4% solids. In comparison goat’s milk is 3.5% fat, 3.1% protein, 4.6% lactose, 0.79% ash and 12% solids, sheep’s milk is 5.3% fat, 5.5% protein, 4.6% lactose, 0.9% ash and 16.3% solids. The fat in most milks is made up of palmitic and oleic acids, but rabbit milk fat is mainly capric acid. Rabbit milk is richer because rabbits feed their babies only once a day. When feeding substitute milk to rabbits however you will need to feed more often, 3-4 times per day, as the substitute milk is unlikely to be as rich.
Hand rearing orphaned rabbits by Dana M Krempels PhD,University of Miami
Irish Wildlife Matters rescue and hand rearing advice
In the US Wombaroo (Australian made) specialist rabbit and guinea pig milk formulae are available from Healthy Bird