The original version of this article by Dianna Orr can be found at the Wild Rescue website Diana is a Wildlife Rehabilitator specializing in the eastern cottontail and other native lagomorph/hare species in Copper Canyon, Texas. This version was adapted by HRC member Morgan Avery-Sispodis, a wildlife rehabilitator in Manhattan, who claims her move to NYC is not as counter-intuitive as you may think. This article is designed to point you in the appropriate direction for the care of injured or orphaned wild rabbits — their lives depend on it. Thank you for taking the animal to someone who is trained to care for it.
I found a nest of orphaned eyes-closed baby rabbits. What should I do?
First of all, if the babies’ eyes are still closed, they are under 10 days of age. If the nest is intact, if the babies look plump and are nestled snuggly next to each other, if there seems to be no immediate danger to them, then leave them alone! You can check to see if the mother rabbit is coming back by crisscrossing the nest with two or three strands of dental floss or thin string. If the string is pushed back out of the way in the morning, then you know that the mother has returned to her babies. If, after 24 hours, the string is still in place, then it is time locate emergency care for those babies (see below).
I have picked up the babies. Won’t my scent keep the mother away?
No — the mother will not abandon her babies just because the scent of a human is on them. If you are doubtful, then wash your hands and rub them in the grass and soil around the nest and gently replace the babies, making the nest up as it was before you disturbed it. Leave the site as soon as possible. Yes, the babies are cute, but they are not toys or pets. They can easily die of stress and fright — right now or later on. Please do not pick them up unless you are very sure they are orphans or if they are injured (see below).
My cat/dog just brought in a baby cottontail. What should I do?
A wild rabbit that has been in the mouth of a cat is in great danger. The saliva of a cat carries life-threatening bacteria and a bunny that has been in the mouth of a cat usually dies if not given antibiotics within 8 hours of the attack. Puncture marks are often nearly invisible, so don’t rely on a visual once-over to assess damage. Moreover, even if there appears to be no external wound, the teeth of a cat or dog may have easily crushed a vital internal organ. Get the baby to a wildlife rehabilitator right away. Also, please monitor your pets. Keep your cats indoors and watch your dog during baby bunny season. Take periodic walks through your yard to make sure there are no nests your pet can disturb.
The nest has been torn up and the babies have no cover. What should I do?
If the nest has been destroyed by you, a lawnmower, dog, etc., you can actually recreate a nest for the babies on or a few feet away from the original nest site. Gather dried grasses and scoop out a similar shallow form in the earth. Replace the dried grasses and bits of rabbit fur (the mother always pulls fur from her chest and abdomen to line the nest for her babies). Rub your hands in the grass and soil around the nest and gently replace the babies. Do not move the nest more than a few feet from the original site because the mother might not be able to find it again.
Why can’t I feed the babies?
Rabbits require a very specialized formula, feeding, and rehydration schedule. You must be trained to determine levels of dehydration and amounts of formula to feed — you cannot make an educated guess.
- Feeding them before they are thoroughly rehydrated will kill them.
- You cannot use water, milk, or Pedialyte to rehydrate or feed a bunny.
- You run the risk of aspirating the bunny (filling the lungs with fluid and drowning it) if you do not know how to feed it.
- Baby rabbits are incredibly fragile and do not take handling by humans well at all. Keep wild rabbits away from children, household noise (such as vacuum cleaner and so forth), domestic pets and bright light. Do not carry the rabbits around or show them to your friends, etc. A rabbit that seems “calm” is usually too scared to move or is in shock as a result of trauma (cat, dog, lawnmower, or even simply being picked up from its nest). Wild rabbits do not know you are just trying to help. They think you are going to kill them. This fear, as well as improper feeding/rehydration, will make their stomachs shut down, which will lead to an extremely protracted, painful, and unnecessary death.
IF any of the following are true:
- The nest cannot be reestablished or
- The babies are in imminent life-threatening danger or
- There is no sign of the mother (at least over 24 to 48 hours) or
- The babies are injured
THEN contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away. If you need to transport them to a rehabilitator, do the following:
- Line the shoebox with a clean soft cloth.
- Place the babies inside the shoebox and put a rubber band around the box and lid, securing it for the ride.
- Use a small container such as a shoebox. Punch air holes in the lid BEFORE putting the bunny in the box.
- Babies must stay warm (a rabbit’s body temperature is usually 101 degrees Fahrenheit). For a portable heating pad, fill a clean tube sock with uncooked rice and tie off towards the top of the sock with a piece of string. Place the sock into a microwave and heat for 1-2 minutes. Place the sock inside the shoebox and make sure the sock is not so hot as to burn the babies. The babies will crawl next to the warmth of the sock and stay there for the ride to the rehabilitator. Another option is to put a wet washcloth (wrung out) into a Ziploc baggie and microwave until warm but not hot.
If it is going to be a length of time before you can get the babies to a rehabilitator, please do the following:
- Follow the instructions above as per the shoebox or other small container.
- If you have a heating pad, set it on low and place the pad on a non-conductive surface (a bathroom counter or washing machine lid).
- Place the container with the babies half-on and half-off the heating pad. This allows the babies to move away from the heat if they need to. Or use the sock idea above, checking it hourly (be quick and quiet) to make sure it has not cooled down.
Can I keep a wild bunny as a pet? Or care for it until it can be released back into the wild?
No. It is illegal to care for or keep any wild animal – even baby bunnies – unless you are licensed with your state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Wild rabbits are one of the most difficult species to rehabilitate. The suffering of all orphaned and injured wildlife should be kept to an absolute minimum. Not knowing how to rehabilitate them will only exacerbate their suffering. And although there are books on the subject, many that you will find in stores and libraries are extremely out-of-date and filled with incorrect information. Following them will only make the situation worse.
It is cruel to keep a wild animal as a pet. They need much more room than a cage, and they need to be surrounded by others of their own kind. If you want a pet, there are thousands of abandoned animals living in shelters – you would be doing a very kind thing by adopting your next pet from a shelter or humane society.
The most helpful thing you can do is to bring injured or orphaned wildlife to an experienced rehabilitator as quickly as possible.
Your local police department or animal control officer should also be able to put you in touch with a rehabilitator.
To learn more about becoming a rehabber:
In Connecticut, contact the DEP at 860-424-3963 or visit the Dept. of Environmental Protection and read up on their Wildlife Division.
In Massachusetts, contact MassWildlife at 617-626-1500 or visit The Dept. of Fish and Game.