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Rescuing Baby Wild Rabbits - Often we do more harm than good

Rabbit or Hare?

The most common rabbit species in Texas is the Eastern cottontail. It can be identified by its 2-3 lbs body, brown or gray coat, white belly, and distinctive white tail. They are common in brushy areas from southern Canada to South America.

Cottontails are an important part of the food chain, preyed on by more species than almost any other animal. Their amazing fertility is Mother Nature’s way of compensating to ensure their survival as a species.

Orphaned Cottontail Rabbits

Cottontails feed in the evenings or at night. Their diet consists of a variety of green plants, barks, buds, and grasses.

Unlike the jackrabbit, which is actually a member of the hare family, cottontails are true rabbits.

This distinction is important, as hares are born virtually self-sufficient meaning they have their eyes open, body fully furred, and they have the ability to hop around only moments after birth, whereas rabbits are born hairless, blind, and helpless.

In addition, hares tend to be larger and more muscular than rabbits. It's hard to distinguish which is which when looking at live animals

The eastern cottontail's nest is a saucer-like depression three or four inches deep and about eight inches across. It is lined with mouthfuls of soft, dead grass mixed with hair from the mother's breast. A covering of grass and hair is used to hide the nest and keep the young warm and dry.

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Rabbit mothers nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes a day. The milk is very rich and the babies fill up to capacity within minutes. Mother rabbits do not sit on the babies to keep them warm as do some mammals and birds. They will be in the nest early in the morning and then again in the evening, which gives the impression that the babies have been abandoned.

Orphaned Cottontail Rabbits Most baby cottontails end up in human care for all the wrong reasons even though the heart of the rescuer was surely in the right spot and their intentions honorable and motives kind. If you come across a nest of bunnies in the wild and the mother is nowhere in sight, please DO NOT disturb them! By removing them from the nest you are greatly reducing their chances of survival.

There is a 90% mortality rate with orphaned baby rabbits in human care, especially cottontails. This number increases if the rabbits are very young and their eyes still closed. They are extremely hard to "save". There is little substitute for the nutrients their mother's milk provides. Often they die of bloat, improper feeding or overfeeding. Many die even when people have done everything "right".


So before you pick up a baby rabbit with the kind-hearted intention to help the little creature, remember the following facts:

  1. Mother rabbits only nurse their babies for approximately 5 minutes twice a day.
  2. The mothers return to the nest once or twice a day in the evening or at night letting the babies appear abandoned and orphaned.
  3. Rabbits will still care for their babies even if they have been touched by human hands.
  4. If you find a nest that has been destroyed, you can move it or rebuild it to a safer area within 10 feet of it's original location. Try to lay twigs around the nest so that you can see if the mother is returning.
  5. If you know for certain that the mother has been killed or the babies are in need of urgent help, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.
  6. Baby rabbits are very cute and it is natural to want to handle them. However, they are very easily stressed by handling and noise. Any undue stress can cause them to have heart failure. They are wild animals. Individuals raising orphaned babies must not treat them as pets.
  7. There is a 90% mortality rate with orphaned baby rabbits in human care.

What to do

Dog or Cat caught

If your dog or cat captures a baby cottontail and you don’t know the location of the nest, follow the instructions for preparing a substitute nest and contact a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Contact with cats is frequently fatal to young animals, even when no injury is apparent. Contact with dogs is usually less serious and a baby bunny could be returned to the nest if there has been no injury.

Wandering Juveniles

If you see a cottontail with its eyes open wandering around, leave it alone. It is exploring outside the nest and learning to forage for food. The nest is nearby and the baby will be able to find it. Do not touch the rabbit and keep pets and children away. A juvenile cottontail is at least four weeks of age (about the size of a tennis ball) and no longer requires the nurturing of its mother or the protection of the nest.

Baby Emergency Care Instructions

If the babies cannot be returned to the nest, you can take a few simple steps that will help them survive until they can be transferred to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Use a box or bucket with a lid. Punch a few holes in the container for air. Create a cup-like nest using rags, towels or paper tissues. Place the babies in the substitute nest and affix the lid securely. Even very small bunnies can escape from an open box. Place the container in a warm, quiet place, away from household sounds, odors, children, and pets.

Place half of the cottontail’s container on an insulated heating pad set on low (to insulate the pad, wrap it in a towel) or apply an overhead light. Check the container (do not touch the animal itself) every few minutes to avoid overheating. Alternatively you can fill a soda bottle with warm (not hot!) water, wrap it up in a t-shirt or towel and place it near the baby. Make sure the bottle is secure enough so it cannot roll onto the baby.

Do NOT attempt to feed babies whose eyes are sealed shut. These infants require a carefully developed formula delivered at the proper strength and amount, and feeding them anything else could compromise their survival, so please contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator before you offer anything.

An older baby whose eyes are open may be offered clean grass and clover (pulled from an area void of pesticides and herbicides), a bit of fresh apple, dry oatmeal, and a shallow dish of water. Do not hand-feed or force-feed a baby cottontail.

Cottontails of any age usually become very stressed in captivity. Do not handle or pet them and keep the container covered at all times. Being confined in a limited space with an open top or sides may cause the cottontail to panic and literally traumatize itself to death. If using a cage or other see-through housing, cover it completely using a sheet, towels, or newspapers.

Do not hold, pet, or talk to the cottontail. When confined, older cottontails may appear to be calm and tame; in reality they are scared to death, frozen in fear. Cottontails have also been known to suffer heart attacks due to the trauma of confinement and handling.

In the rare situation that you have an orphaned bunny, such as when a mother rabbit is killed by another animal or in the road, or when a domestic rabbit refuses to care for her young, you may try feeding with Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR), but they need a professional rehabber - do not feed at home).

GENERAL FEEDING OF ORPHANED RABBITS Age + Amount (This WILL vary depending on type of rabbit.) Use KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer). Add a pinch of acidophilus (AKA Probiotic capsules) to all formula to promote healthy gut flora. Other formulas vary depending on the region of the country.

  • Newborn to One Week: 2 - 2+1/2 cc/ml each feeding (2 feedings daily).
  • 1-2 weeks: 5-7 cc/ml each feeding (2 feedings daily).
    (depending on bunny..may be much LESS if smaller rabbit).
  • 2-3 weeks: 7-13 cc/ml each feeding (2 feedings daily). Bunnies whose eyes are still CLOSED need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate before or after each feeding. Again, seek a professional on this. Domestic eyes open at about 10 days of age. Then start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets and water (always add fresh greens for wild ones--dandelion greens, parsley, carrot tops, grated carrots, all fresh, watered down). See below for detail.
  • 3-6 weeks: 13-15 cc/ml each feeding (two feedings--again, may be LESS depending on size of rabbit! A cottontail will take so much LESS--about half of this! .)

Cottontails wean and release about 3-4 weeks and jackrabbits much later (9+ weeks).

Feed only twice a day up to these TOTAL amounts. You may find an eyedropper or syringe easiest to use. Feed them upright, and go slowly watching them lick and swallow so they do not aspirate.

For domestic rabbits, if you have a healthy adult rabbit at home and you can collect cecotropes (the soft chain-like droppings that the rabbit usually eats) then these can be mixed with the KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer), to give the baby bunny normal bacteria for its intestinal tract. Only one cecotrope per day for 4-5 days is needed.

This is particularly important for rabbits under one week of age. Acidophilus capsules for humans, opened and sprinkled some in formula, works well too.

After each feeding it is important to make the bunny defecate and urinate (until their eyes are open) to keep the intestinal tract and urinary system running smoothly. Use a cotton ball moistened with warm water and gently stroke the anal area until the bunny starts producing stool and urine and keep stroking until the bunny stops.

You are reproducing the behavior of the mother rabbit who would lick her young to stimulate them to go to the bathroom and to keep the nest clean. No need to do this for jackrabbits.

As soon as their eyes are open, you may introduce the bunnies to hay, such as oat and timothy hay, some alfalfa, and pellets, and for wild ones, add dark leafy veggies such as dandelion greens, carrot tops, parsley, grated carrots, etc. Keep the greens fresh, moist, and stand them up in a heavy mug of water.

Change greens often. If this is a wild rabbit, you do not need to introduce pellets. If this is a domestic rabbit baby, then you may introduce plain alfalfa pellets at 2 weeks of age (please refer to the handout Care of Rabbits for more information on diet).

Wild rabbits should be released as soon as they are eating hay and greens and are approximately 5 inches in body length (for cottontails) and are afraid of you (about 3-4 weeks).

Jackrabbits are released much later (9 weeks up). They will be small, but the longer you keep them, the more agitated and difficult to handle they will become, and the less likely their chances for survival in the wild. They may be easily injured in your care as they attempt to get free.

From the diary of a Wildlife Rehabber who is determined to save closed-eyed Cottontails:

I started rehabbing because I was an intern at a wildlife center that euthanizes all eyes closed bunnies that come in. The first time I was there and a tiny little tyke came in and I found out they were going to euthanize it, I just knew I had to help, so I took him home. He lived for 14 days and then died... doing well and then fell suddenly sick and dead within 24 hours.

The following year, I got a litter of 5 and 4 of them survived. I was ecstatic and determined to continue helping cottontails and to understand what was happening to the ones that didn't make it.

I tried researching online but just about everything said they didn't survive well in captivity and pretty much there wasn't any hope for the eyes closed guys that came in. I got lucky and found the answer I needed when I researched treatment for diarrhea and came across this website: http://www.squirrelworld.com/RabRehab.html .

Before reading that I didn't even know that bunnies did the cecotropes (feces only expelled at night or early morning hours containing necessary nutrients to aid digestion and is consumed by the animal itself) at night, I knew nothing about it. The following year I started adding the cecotropes (I already had a domestic rabbit) to their formula once a day for 3 days after their eyes opened and shortly after I got the litter of 5 where 4 survived.

I used that technique for the rest of the year and had about a 33% success rate, which wasn't good, but not horrible considering I only took in eyes closed bunnies. My 3rd year of rehabbing, I decided to try using the probiotics instead of the cecotropes because my domestic bunny was getting older and not donating (that is what I call it :) ) all the time. Plus it was gross to mix it into the formula and I didn't have my own rehabbing
space at the time and was heating it in the microwave and storing it in the fridge in the kitchen, so my mom wasn't too keen on that.

I used LA 200 made by Fox Valley and it worked sort of. Some of the older eyes closed bunnies survived on it and even a couple 3-4 day olds, but my success rate dropped to 25% and they just seemed to be lacking something. So, I decided to go back to the other technique.

I would take a big chunk of the cecotropes and mix it into a tiny bit of formula to make a very thick cecotrope/formula mix (I call it chocolate milk :) ) and gave each bunny 1 cc of the mixture. I did this once a day for 3 days starting the day the last bunny opened his eyes. After the three days, I would start them on clover, dandelion, plantain, oats, and timothy hay. This technique seemed to work well and my success rate went up gradually over the next two years to about 60% success. I was happy with this but still saw a lot of room for improvement. It was by chance that I came across what I think is the life savor for the tiny tiny little guys. I got in a tiny little gray guy as I call them in the fall of 2007.

He was about 2-3 days old and came with 5 other bunnies who were all 6-7 days old, just a couple days from opening their eyes. I had always thought that giving the babies the cecotropes too soon could cause gut issues, but the other guys were ready to get it and I didn't want to make them wait for nearly a week to get it in case there was a time frame after their eyes open that they needed it. I was at a loss with the tiny little gray guys at this point anyway (I had taken in over 10 over the years and none survived), so I decided to give the tiny little guy the cecotropes with the other guys and started doing alternate days cecotropes and LA 200 (because it takes forever to hand feed the "chocolate milk" to them).

This worked well and all of the little guys survived. I overwintered the tiny little guy and he made it until release the following May. He was big and happy and healthy. So, the mystery of the tiny tinies had been solved.

Now that I give the cecotropes from day 1, my success rate has increased to about 75% living to be released. I am quite happy with that, but still don't feel I fully understand the cottontail. They are unusual little tykes and I don't know we will ever quite know what happens with them.

I think stress and a sensitive stomach come together and are just too much for some. I find the way they interact to be quite interesting too.

You will get some that are the best of buddies and are always together and if something happens to one, I have seen the other die of complete shock about a minute after his buddy goes. Then there are the ones that are loners. Fine with the others but not with any real buddies that they play with, just kindof hang out by themselves but peaceful. Then their are the ones with attitude that end up having to be separated because they beat the living daylights out of every other bunny, even siblings. Some are friendly to me, others will kick and bite me, freak out when they see me. You just never know what you will get.

The other thing that I think effects bunnies in captivity is the stress. I have seen bunnies freak out and die, usually ones that come in older, but not always. You can just see it in their eyes. I used to hand feed my bunnies and the would struggle and not want to eat. I did my internship when I was in college and after taking in the first few bunnies and struggling to feed them all summer long, I realized there was no way I could continue rehabbing and go to school in the fall or rehab and work with how long it was taking me to feed each bunny. They got some little guys in one day and I refused to take them because I didn't have time.

They didn't have anyone else to take them and asked if I knew how to tube feed. I didn't but the head of the center gave me a quick 5 minute lesson in tube feeding. That made my life so much easier and I have never had any issues with tubing bunnies. The only time they are difficult to tube is if they are dehydrated, then it is like their esophagus narrows or something and the tube won't go down. After they are rehydrated it is easy though, and I never have any issues. I now tube all my bunnies, it takes just 3 minutes to tube and pittle (stimulate them to pee) each bunny, which is so quick and easy and allows me to rehab about 100 bunnies a year.

Something else I have done to reduce the stress is put green pillowcases over their aquariums when they open their eyes. This seems to calm them because they can explore their area, but don't see out to places where they can't explore (I think seeing places and realizing they are trapped and can't go where they want to stresses them out) and they don't see me walking around and feeding everyone else. When they are older and move to a bigger cage, I use a light blue sheet and put that over their cage.

The green is for the grass which is about all the little eyes just opened bunnies would see in the wild and then the light blue is like the sky which is what the older guys would see. This seems to calm them and has worked quite well for me.

As for amounts that I feed and formula... I feed 10% of their body weight (only up to 6 cc's though, anyone over 60 grams just gets 6 cc's because they are usually about ready to start on greens and I don't want to overfill them if they have eaten some greens) 3 times a day.

They go down to 2 times a day formula feedings when they are 70 grams, then 1 time a day when they are 80 grams, and I wean at 90 grams. This has worked well for me.

Lynn Dunlap


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