Cottontail rabbits: frequent questions

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Caring for an orphaned bunny
It’s very hard to save an orphaned rabbit. There are many reasons why, but the most common is failure to feed them cecotropes (SEE-ko-tropes). Rabbits produce two kinds of droppings: round, dry pellets and cecotropes. The first is regular poo. But cecotropes are special. They’re produced by the cecum, a pouch located between the small and large intestines. The cecum separates digestible material out of the indigestible fibrous parts of the plant foods they eat. Cecotropes, the good stuff, are packed full of minerals, vitamins, proteins, beneficial bacteria and digestive flora. Rabbits don’t let this go to waste-they eat it.

Baby rabbits can’t produce cecotropes at first, but need them to jump-start their digestive system when they switch from milk to solid foods. Without cecotropes, they don’t have the gut flora necessary to digest foods properly, and they die a painful death. They eat their mother’s to get started, then switch to their own. It’s important to get the bunny to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible, where it will have the best chance for survival.

Is a rabbit the same as a hare?
No. The most noticeable distinctions between them are that hares are larger, with longer back legs and longer ears. Hares also are born with fur, their eyes are open, and they’re partially mobile (precocial). Rabbits are born hairless and helpless (altricial).

Caring for an injured rabbit
If you must pick up a rabbit, never lift him by his ears, it’s injurious. He won’t like being handled — even newborns will struggle against it. Be gentle, but hold him firmly to keep him from thrashing about. Rabbits have a very fragile spine, easily broken. Take the rabbit to a licensed wildlife rehabilitatator. Many veterinarians who don’t treat wildlife will still euthanize certain hopelessly injured wild animals for free.

I found orphaned bunnies
They probably aren’t orphans and don’t need help. Cottontail mothers leave their babies alone in their nest (a 6-inch, softly lined hole) except when nursing them, which occurs only at dawn and dusk. After feeding them, their mother covers the nest with grasses to hide it. She usually stays nearby, but doesn’t disturb the nest. So, it’s best to admire the little guys, cover them up with a thin sprinkle of grasses, and leave Mum to watch over them. In fact, if you look around, you may find her cautiously watching from under a nearby bush.

If you come across baby rabbits that you know with certainty need human help — they’re cold to the touch, covered with parasites or weak — keep them warm and take them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. (Be sure to get an agreement from the rehabilitator that the rabbits will not be used for food for other critters in his or her care, which sometimes happens.)

If you try to raise them yourself you’re dooming them to almost-certain, painful death. This isn’t an exaggeration — even experienced wildlife rehabilitators have trouble keeping them alive. Baby rabbits are very fragile and don’t very well tolerate handling by humans. Also, they require a specialized diet that includes immune system-building bacteria they get only from their mother. And, lastly, they’re prone to quickly dying from irreversible shock or stomach problems.

If you come across bunnies whose nest has been destroyed, perhaps by a lawnmower, simply rebuild the nest from grasses and whatever you can find of the mother’s fur and cover it up with a light layer of grasses or leaf litter. If the nest can’t be rebuilt in that same hole for some reason, build a nest as close as possible to it. Place the babies close together to keep them warm. The mother will hopefully find them. She won’t abandon the babies if she smells human scent.

You can monitor whether baby rabbits are being attended by laying a string or a couple of small sticks in an X pattern on top of the nest cover. If it’s disturbed the next morning you’ll know the mother has been there. Don’t hang around to watch. The mother won’t feed her babies if she knows you’re there. Even if you don’t see her, she sees you.

How do I get a rabbit out of my window well?
If the rabbit is an adult, throw a blanket over him, enter the well, scoop him up in the blanket and place him in a box or bucket. You might want to wear thick gloves — rabbits will bite and they have very sharp teeth. They also have a powerful kick. Once topside, just gently pull the blanket away from him. If he doesn’t jump immediately out of a bucket, just turn it on its side or even gently empty him out.

For a juvenile, wear leather gloves and scoop him up. If he won’t stand still for you to do this, cover him with a towel or blanket and scoop him up.

Top photo: (Florence Craye / Flickr; cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

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