The joy that comes with welcoming a litter of newborn rabbits can be tempered by their sudden death. The baby seemed fine that morning, and then suddenly died. What went wrong? These fragile creatures can be intimidating to care for (See our full guide). However, with a proper understanding of the reasons behind sudden deaths in baby rabbits, you can keep your baby rabbits thriving and growing into their potential.
Why did my baby rabbit die? Sudden death in baby rabbits is generally caused by a few main conditions. This includes heart attacks, cold temperatures, GI Stasis, and hazardous ingestion. But it can also include, dehydration, blunt force injury, unsanitary conditions, insufficient milk production, parasites, and pneumonia. Thankfully, many of these causes are preventable and allow you to informally diagnose and address them with simple awareness of their development.
Rabbits are known for their sensitivity, which is an important survival instinct for the wild, but can cause issues in captivity. Their reactive nature is apparent with the prevalence of heart attacks among baby rabbits. Heart attacks are most commonly caused by fright, which is any type of intensely startling moment. Often, predators are the culprits responsible for instilling fear in the baby rabbits.
To address these “fright” attacks, it is important to keep the enclosure in a safe area away from dogs, cats, or wild animals. Unfamiliar people, animals, and foreign objects can cause your rabbit to panic. Encourage small children to not chase rabbits with their hands or try and catch one to hold who seems afraid. Baby rabbits that feel as though they are being trapped will quickly become panicky. In addition, the smoke from your neighbor’s bonfire or loud gunfire or fireworks might make your rabbit’s heart stop.
Occasionally, heart attacks happen due to natural causes. This occurs when a rabbit is born with a weak or underdeveloped heart. While little can be done to prevent genetic deformities, keeping the mother healthy and well-nourished is beneficial to ensuring the baby’s hearts are fully developed and strong.
The environment baby rabbits are kept in is very important for their well-being. Although rabbits are designed for cold weather, baby rabbits cannot withstand extremely cold temperatures. That’s because they are born hairless and unable to retain their body heat long enough to keep their internal systems operating properly.
Does, or female rabbits, (for our purposes “mama” rabbits) sometimes don’t realize the danger of giving birth in an open area. There’s danger even if that area is just the outer side of the enclosure away from the shelter of the hutch. A cool breeze can chill a tiny rabbit’s body quickly. If you live in a cold area, it is best to keep the rabbits indoors until they are older and their bodies hardier. While cold is the main struggle for baby rabbits, extreme heat should be avoided as well.
GI stasis is a common condition in all rabbits, even baby ones, but can be quite serious if not addressed quickly. In GI stasis, a rabbit’s digestion process slows way down, making it difficult for food particles to move through the system. As this occurs, bacteria start to compile in their gut, which causes them pain and makes them feel bloated.
Because they don’t feel good, they don’t feel the need to eat or drink as they normally would, which then leads to issues like dehydration to complicate their health.
Since too many carbohydrates such as those found in pellet feed are the leading cause of GI stasis, it can be prevented with dietary adjustments in older rabbits. However, with baby rabbits, monitoring their milk, water, and then food intake is important to know if something is off intestinally.
At around three weeks, even though they are not weaned, you will likely notice your rabbit chewing on solid foods. They are becoming curious about dietary options and ready to add some new things to their palate. In this phase, their curiosity can be especially dangerous as they often ingest poisonous objects or sharp objects.
Poisonous objects include seeds and pits from fruit, iceberg lettuce, rhubarb, and avocados. Sharp objects can be splintered pieces of wood or even cardboard or plastic from their cage. Even if it does not appear sharp, something with an unusual shape or texture could prove very sharp against a baby rabbit’s throat and stomach and may get lodged during a swallowing attempt or create a blockage after being swallowed.
To prevent this from occurring, “baby (rabbit) proof” the area where your litter is kept to limit their ability to reach poisonous or foreign objects. Like human children, their eyes are now open and they are ready to explore without realizing the consequences.
During the first few weeks of your rabbits’ life, they drinks only their mother’s milk. But, they will soon need water as well. Sometimes they don’t consume the amount of water their body needs. When this happens their overall health rapidly deteriorates.
To prevent dehydration, consider how you are providing water to your rabbit. Some rabbits won’t drink out of a water bottle at all. Others require some encouragement. Smear banana onto the nozzle as an enticement. Other rabbits won’t drink the water if it isn’t fresh, or don’t like it to be warm.
If your baby rabbit is listless, has crusty eyes, dark-colored urine, or hard feces, they are likely dehydrated. Consider giving them some Pedialyte to help get their fluid level back to normal. The unflavored Pedialyte diluted with water is a good option to prevent stomach upset as the dilution will balance out the sugar content in the Pedialyte.
If you’re unable to access Pedialyte and need a quick solution, adding salt and sugar to water will also work. Depending on the state of your baby rabbit, you will likely need to use a medicine dropper to administer the fluid to them.
Blunt Force Injury
Unfortunately, the mothers are sometimes the cause of death for baby rabbits. Doe’s who are experiencing their first litter may not have great instincts about how to navigate life with babies. Especially in the early days, baby rabbits can be squashed by a mother’s foot or crushed by her body. They can be suffocated by being backed into a corner of the closure behind her body. Occasionally, external objects will fall on and crush a baby rabbit. But, mothers remain the leading cause of blunt force injury to baby rabbits.
To prevent this, monitor your doe and her babies closely. Consider building an enclosure that has ledges around the sides down low so that she cannot squish them directly up against it.
Unsanitary conditions are the root of all evil when it comes to baby rabbit health. It breeds parasites, disease, and in connection death. Baby rabbits are highly susceptible to illness when their bodies are first adjusting to the world.
When urine builds up, ammonia builds. That’s dangerous for rabbits in the same way the fecal waste is. There are many different cleaning products on the market now to help with this process as well as cage liners and other time-saving tools.
Daily cleaning is important and should include washing out water containers, picking up leftover food, and emptying any waste. Bedding should be changed frequently and should be purchased from a reputable source as bacteria can live in bedding as well. Once a week the whole cage should be deep cleaned with a rabbit-safe cleaner. While this may seem like extra work, it will save you money in vet bills and likely save the lives of your baby rabbits.
Insufficient milk production
A mama rabbit’s milk is full of nutrients needed for the baby rabbit to grow and thrive. However, most mother rabbits don’t produce much milk in the first few days after giving birth. Your mamma rabbit should have enough milk for her litter to feed once every 24 hours and stay alive.
Rabbit milk is extremely high in calories. By the fifth day, her milk production should increase greatly. However, if it is a large litter or the mother is malnourished there may not be enough milk.
To prevent insufficient milk production from occurring, be sure your mama rabbit is well nourished and hydrated and has plenty of access to leafy greens and vegetables. Make sure you are not overbreeding her. Don’t breed her at too young or too old of age. If you are unsure of your rabbit’s age you can get your veterinarian to estimate based on her teeth and nails. If you have a doe who does not produce enough milk, it may be best to remove her from your breeding program.
Pay close attention to ensure the babies are nursing and appear healthy and satisfied. If you suspect they are not getting what they need, it is important to intervene. Rabbit milk suppliment is very hard to find.
But, a kitten milk replacer is a good place to start. To balance out the calorie content you can add heavy whipping cream. As the babies get older, solid foods like Timothy hay can slowly be introduced.
Not only can baby rabbits become parasite carriers on their own, but they can also get a parasite from their mother during the pregnancy. Coccidiosis and E. Cuniculi are two common parasites. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that produces the bacterium E. coli.
These parasites initially live in the intestine but in severe cases will travel to the liver. While some rabbits succumb to death by parasites rapidly, others show few symptoms and can overcome them.
How do I know if my rabbits have parasites? Rabbits that struggle with parasites may show signs. These signs to look for include blood or mucus in the feces, lack of appetite, diarrhea, lethargy, stomach pain, and pale gums. Dehydration usually occurs due to loose stools and loss of fluid.
When you have multiple babies in one area, it is more difficult to monitor waste and know who has the concerning stools. If one rabbit appears sick, separate it immediately and monitor the others
Coccidiosis can infect a baby rabbit by transmission through pregnancy but is mainly spread through fecal contact, which is often due to unsanitary cage conditions. The buildup of waste and wet bedding is a breeding ground for bacteria, and living among bacteria means they are quickly internalized in air, food, and water. Even the way rabbits clean themselves can sometimes lead to bacteria transmission.
There are ways to prevent the spread of coccidiosis including feeding hay from raised containers or racks and getting quality bedding for the cage. For all parasite prevention, it is important to quarantine any new rabbit before adding them to your existing rabbit enclosure.
Diseases and viruses also kill rabbits, with pneumonia being the most common. Pneumonia plagues baby rabbits in three forms: bacterial, viral, or noninfectious.
Bacterial pneumonia is caused by the presence of a bacterium such as chlamydia, staphylococcus aureus, or Pasteurella multivitamin. Viral pneumonia is caused by a virus such as the herpes virus, myxoma virus, or pleural effusion disease. Non-infectious pneumonia has its roots in allergies, dirty environments with high levels of ammonia, and air debris such as smoke, dust, or aerosols.
Baby rabbits battling pneumonia will be lethargic and have pale or bluish gums. Some will display coughing, sneezing, signs of anemia, open mouth breathing, and reduced appetite. Rabbits hide their weakness to protect themselves from predators. So, by the time symptoms are noticeable, pneumonia has already set in and caused the characteristic inflammation of the lung.
Preventing pneumonia is directly related to maintaining a sanitary environment. It is affected by a nutritious diet and ensuring baby rabbits are protected from cold and wet temperatures.
All ten of these common causes of sudden death in baby rabbits are closely linked. Some lead to each other, like unsanitary cage conditions and parasites, or GI stasis and dehydration. Others can occur indirectly and be easily avoided, like cold temperatures and heart attacks. Remember that with aggressive symptoms you should consult your veterinarian to ensure the situation does not continue to escalate.
Regardless of your situation, familiarizing yourself with these issues can help save your baby rabbits’ life, and likely keep their mother and any other rabbits on-site healthier and happier moving forward.