Annually, rehabs across the Midwest take in thousands of baby cottontails. Most of these are not really orphaned, but were “kidnapped” from their nests by well-meaning people. Cottontails are the most challenging animal for rehabilitators to care for because of their delicate physiologies, and so it is crucial to recognize whether or not a baby is legitimately in need of help before bringing it to a rehabber. Bunnies in rehab have approximately a 50% success rate, compared to 80-90% in the wild. Rehab centers try very hard to keep them alive, with wound care, formula recipes that include a dozen ingredients in the attempt to get as close to mother’s milk as possible, constant care from volunteers, dark and quiet isolation rooms, and all the medicine we can afford to throw into the mix. Even then, 50% of the time, we fail. They are extremely fragile little critters, and they can die of pure fright. If you hold a rabbit the wrong way, they can wiggle to get free and accidentally snap their own spine and die. Rabbits can hear a passing truck outside honk its horn and get so terrified that they die from the startle. It is an extremely difficult job to raise, successfully, any wild rabbits to release size.
Cottontails are easily stressed and are notorious for literally dropping dead from fear. With this in mind, baby cottontails should be handled as little as possible.
Cottontails nest in shallow depressions in the ground. Because of the rather conspicuous locations of these nests, dogs and cats frequently discover the babies and destroy the nests. Cottontails are ready to leave the nest when they are about three weeks old (although they continue to nurse). The following paragraphs will explain how we get our rabbit calls and what to do and not to do if you find yourself staring into the adorable eyes of a bunny someday.
Note: Cottontails can carry a disease called tularemia that can be transmitted to people. Wash your hands well after handling the cottontail. This is also a good reason to keep children from handling “cute babies.”
My dog/cat just brought me a baby bunny
Our dogs and cats often find the bunny nest in the back yard far more easily than us humans can. Hopefully your pet did not injure the bunny, but either way, see if you can get your pet to take you to the nest wherever it might be in your yard. The nest will look like a small, shallow hole in the dirt, sometimes in the middle of the yard with nothing protecting it. There will be some of Mom’s fur in the hole, covering the babies like a little blanket, along with some grass and leaves. The hole itself is about the size of a softball. If the baby that your pet brought you is uninjured, return it to the hole with the others, and recover it with the hair and grasses. It is okay that you touched the bunny. Mom does NOT care about your scent. That’s just something our Grandmothers told us so we would leave the bunnies alone. Now that your pet has found this nest, we need to cover it better so that the dogs will leave the bunnies alone in the nest. DO NOT RELOCATE THE NEST. Mom finds her babies via GPS in her head, not via scent or sight. If you move the babies even a couple of inches from its original location, mom will not find them and they will DIE. You must leave them where they were. You can cover the nest with an upside down wheelbarrow so that your dog cannot get to the hole any longer. You could also use a lawn mower. Just roll the lawn mower on top of the hole and Mom can slink under the mower while your dog cannot. Depending on what size dog you have, sometimes a normal laundry basket can work just fine.
If your pet did injure the rabbits in any way, or the rabbit is wrinkly, dehydrated, lethargic and not screaming at you, or trying to wiggle away, it probably still needs a rehabber. Download our care sheet for rabbits, and give us a call to find a rehabber nearby.
If you cannot cover the hole, you may need to keep your pet out of the yard for a short period of time. Rabbits nest for 2-3 weeks at maximum and unless you found these babies on the day they were born (and that is uncommon) you have a very short period of time before they move along to another area.
Depending on the age of the bunnies, they sometimes will venture out a bit from their nest, making it much more difficult to keep your pets away from them. Mom bunny does not seem to teach the kids to stay away from humans, cats, dogs, or anything else for that matter. This seems to be knowledge that a rabbit has to learn on their own, and is not passed down from Mom. Because of this, rabbits often walk right up to people, dogs, cats, as if to just say hello. They DO NOT need assistance or rehabilitation many times in these circumstances. The rule is if they have their eyes open, ears unattached from their backs, and are golf ball size or larger, they are perfectly fine on their own. They might not be very smart yet, but they have to learn it on their own. It’s time to sink or swim, and I’m afraid they are very low in the food chain. Some bunnies just aren’t supposed to make it to adulthood, as callous as it sounds.
Found Rabbit Nest
Mom only visits the nest after dark each night. She lies on top of the nest, with her nipples above the nest, stretched out on the ground. Because of this position, she prefers to do this at night when the hawks cannot see her as well. She lies down, lets everyone eat, and then hops off to do other bunny things. It happens very fast, and for the rest of the day and night she is nowhere to be seen. The rabbit that you saw dead on the road down the street could be their mom, but there are so many rabbits in one area, there’s no way of knowing for sure if it was THIS rabbit that died, and the babies are never going to tell you. To determine if the babies are truly abandoned, pick up one or two of the babies and see if you can tell if there is a white spot on their belly. If the babies are not completely furred yet, you will be able to see right through their skin and see the milk that it is still in their belly from the last feeding. if they are fully furred, it will be much harder to tell.
You can use regular cooking flour around the den edge so that you can check in the morning to see if Mom has been back. If she has, the flour will be disturbed. You can also take two pieces of string and create an X over the top of the nest, so that if Mom comes back, you will see the X disturbed and know that she is still around. If Mom truly has abandoned these babies, please call the wildlife hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP for further instruction.
Law Mower Ran Over Nest of Rabbits
You’re mowing the law, minding your own business, and all of a sudden you hear these high pitched, terrible screaming sounds from out of nowhere. You have inadvertently gone over a bunny nest, and the kids are screaming, and probably at least one is hurt. Stop the mower and look around the find the rabbits that were pulled from the nest. If any of them are bleeding, or otherwise injured, call the wildlife hotline to be directed to your nearest rehab facility. DO NOT REMOVE ALL OF THE OTHER BUNNIES. If they are not injured, leave them in the hole and mow around the hole for a few weeks. Again, bunnies only stay in the nest for 2 weeks or so, making it very easy to ignore them until they are ready to move on. The other bunnies will be perfectly fine with Mom, and a rehabber can assist you with the injured one. Until you get the baby to a rehabber, download our rabbit care sheet to learn how to transport these animals.
We touched the bunny. What now?
It is okay that you touched the bunny. Mom does NOT care about your scent. That’s just something our Grandmothers told us so we would leave the bunnies alone. Give the bunny a big old kiss and put it right back where you found it!
Rehabs Have Reached Capacity
Because of the sheer number of rabbits that rehab centers take in, many centers reach a point where they just cannot take anymore. Space, time, and supplies start to run low and rehabbers are forced to set a limit on the number of rabbits to accept. Rabbits grow up quickly though, so check back with the rehabs in your area every day to see if they have any openings yet. The Wildlife Hotline will try to find someone close to you who can accept the rabbits, but sometimes this means a very long drive to find someone who is not full. Your other options are to take the rabbits to a local veterinarian in the hopes that a local vet tech or assistant will want to raise them for you, or to allow the veterinarian to put them down, or raise them yourself until there is an opening locally for them in rehab.
In the meantime, Download our Rabbit Rehab Guide to help you keep the rabbit alive until it can be accepted to a rehab facility.
If you have any other questions or concerns about the rabbits in your area, please feel free to call the Wildlife Hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP to speak with a wildlife specialist.