If you are raising rabbits, understanding reproduction and pregnancy are essential. Although rabbits can breed frequently, it can be detrimental to the doe’s health. Understanding rabbit breeding will help you to keep your bunnies healthy for long life. This comprehensive guide focuses on reproduction in rabbits and the journey through pregnancy to kindling. It is a useful resource to first-time rabbit farmers as well as experienced rabbit owners.
Signs of Heat in Rabbits
Rabbits reach puberty at 4 to 5 months of age. At this point, they will begin showing signs of heat. Here are common signs of heat that are observed.
- Swelling of the vulva
- Showing aggressiveness
- Biting of objects
- Territorial tendencies
- Marking using urine
Swelling of the vulva
When a doe is not on heat, her vulva has a pale, whitish complexion. The vulva is also small, less visible, and not turgid. When the doe is on heat, the vulva becomes swollen. It changes its color to reddish-purple or pinkish-purple. The vulva will also be moist, appear turgid, and be more visible.
Rabbits are known to possess a relaxed and calm demeanor. They move around the cage or shelter gently while interacting with their surroundings as they feed. When a does is on heat, she becomes restless. Her movement around the cage increases. She will show very little interest in food or other things inside the cage.
Does on heat can be aggressive to intruders. A doe can become aggressive to an intruder accessing her space. She will express this aggression by scratching or biting. This aggressiveness results from frustration due to a mate being unavailable or in a different cage that is far away.
Biting of objects
A doe in her normal condition will mostly bite or nibble on her food. However, during heat, her biting activity will increase. She will continuously gnaw and nibble on different surfaces inside the cage.
Note that not all nibbling on surfaces represents a sign of heat. It is normal for rabbits to gnaw on surfaces as a way of preventing their teeth from overgrowing.
Naturally, female rabbits are territorial in nature. They guard their cage against domination by foreign bucks or fellow does. While this territorial nature may be subtle when the doe is not on heat, it becomes more pronounced when the doe is on heat.
The doe’s territorial tendencies become more apparent when she begins to show aggression to any visitors by biting or scratching.
Marking using urine
A doe on heat marks mostly vertical surfaces in the cage with urine. The odor of this urine is powerful as it contains reproductive hormones. This strong odor is meant to send a signal to nearby bucks that she is ready to mate.
A doe that is not on heat will urinate on a horizontal surface. The odor of this urine will not be powerful.
Selecting rabbits for breeding
Upon detecting the signs of heat in a doe, match an appropriate buck with desirable characteristics with her for mating. The quality of the offspring will depend on the quality of the doe and buck that you choose to use for breeding.
The buck should be healthy. Using a sick or deformed buck to mate may transfer diseases to the doe. Bucks or does with vices should also not be selected for breeding. Vices in rabbits include cannibalism, especially in females, and excessive aggressive behavior.
Ovulation in rabbits
Unlike other mammals that ovulate before mating, rabbits ovulate only after mating. Mating causes stimulation of the ovaries. The ovary will then release eggs for fertilization. This action is known as induced ovulation. Animals that reproduce this way are referred to as induced ovulation.
Induced ovulation implies that most of the time, a doe will always be receptive to mating, even without showing signs of heat. Lack of a normal oestrus cycle like that of other animals makes rabbits able to breed many times a year when given access to a buck.
The mating process in rabbits
It is your role to identify the most spacious cage where mating should occur. The cage should be spacious enough because there will be a lot of seduction and movement around the cage as the buck seeks the doe.
Due to the territorial nature of rabbits, both bucks and does, you can choose to use a different cage that is not owned by either the doe or the buck. If such a cage is not available, take the doe to the buck’s cage as bucks are less territorial than does. Bucks are also more receptive to females being introduced in their cages for mating than females are.
When a doe is on heat, she will be receptive to the advances of the buck. If, however, she runs away from the buck, growls, or even bites the buck, it means that she does not want to mate. You should withdraw such a doe from the cage and return her to her cage to avoid injuries.
The mating process in rabbits begins with the seduction of the doe by the buck. The doe will then lie flat by the belly on the floor. The buck will mount the doe and hold the skin on the nape of the doe using his teeth. The buck then thrusts and ejaculates in approximately 20 seconds or less.
How to tell if your rabbit is pregnant
After successful mating, females present several clues and signs of pregnancy. You will need to be observant to identify these signs. Also, good record keeping will help you to detect a pregnancy early. These are the signs of a pregnant rabbit;
- Gaining weight
- Enlarging belly
- Plucking of fur and creating a nest
- Repulsing touch
- Increased appetite
One of the first signs you will notice in your doe is that she will begin adding the weight a few days after mating for the keen rabbit owner. To be sure that she is gaining weight, you will need a weighing scale to weigh her a few days before mating. Record this weight. You will weigh her again a week after mating.
To the new rabbit owner, your rabbit’s first pregnancy is exciting news. However, do not repeatedly weigh her to confirm her weight. Rabbits should only be handled only if it is essential to do so.
If the pregnancy is positive, there will be a significant weight gain. Remember that not every weight gain is attributed to pregnancy. As animals with a high food conversion ratio, it is normal for rabbits’ weight to increase during the growing stages.
The belly of a pregnant doe begins enlarging at least 10 days into the pregnancy. For some rabbits, it may be difficult to observe this pregnancy sign. This is because the belly can enlarge in the later stages of pregnancy. Palpating the belly of the doe to feel for pregnancy bumps is not encouraged. You may apply too much pressure, which may cause pain and discomfort to the doe. If palpating is to be done, it should be conducted by the vet.
About a week into the pregnancy does become moody. For a doe that loved to be stroked and was receptive to touch, you will note she will reject your effort to show her affection. Her repulsing of touch or being held and petted result from hormonal changes in her body during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, a does’ food intake will increase. To note this increase, record the weight of the food rations she consumes before mating. You will proceed to record the food rations she will consume about 10 to 14 days after mating.
A rise in consumption may mean that she is pregnant. The doe consumes more food during pregnancy to facilitate the good development of the growing litter fetuses in her womb.
Plucking of fur and creating a nest
The doe will pluck fur from her body and start creating a nest. She will do this when she is very close to giving birth. She will mostly pluck fur from her abdomen to create a nest for litter.
Rabbits have a strong maternal instinct. Does make the nest to keep the litter as warm as possible. Because the plucked fur alone is not enough to build a warm nest, you should provide quality nesting material in the doe’s cage. This will save the doe much-needed energy for giving birth and attending to her litter.
The Gestation period of rabbits
Rabbits have an average gestation period of 31 days. You should note that this gestation period may vary depending on the rabbit breed. The table below shows rabbit breeds with their corresponding gestation periods.
|Rabbit Breed||Gestation Period|
|Flemish Giant||28 – 31 days|
|New Zealand White||28 – 35 days|
|California White||31 – 33 days|
|French Lop||28 – 31 days|
|French Angora||28 – 32 days|
|Chinchilla||28 – 32 days|
|Harlequin Rabbit||29 – 33 days|
|Blanc de Hotot||30 – 33 days|
|American Rabbit||31 – 33 days|
|Belgian Hare Rabbit||30 – 31 days|
Caring for a pregnant doe
A pregnant doe requires good care and attention throughout the gestation period. Good care will ensure that the doe will kindle a healthy litter. It will also ensure that the doe remains in a good health condition to nurse the litter to weaning. It is important to put in place the following measures if your doe is pregnant;
- A balanced diet
- Increasing food rations
- Provide quality nesting material
- A spacious cage
- Keeping the cage clean
- Provide a stress-free surrounding
A balanced diet
There is a mistaken belief that rabbits are supposed to be fed exclusively on vegetables. While vegetables like lettuce, kales, and spinach contain carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, rabbits should be given additional supplements with other more nutritious options.
Rabbit pellets are a great option to supplement the diet of pregnant rabbits. These commercial treats are packed with vital nutrients that aid in litter development. You should also provide clean drinking water for the pregnant doe. An efficient rabbit watering system will encourage the doe to increase her water intake. You can also explore using small animal watering cups if you do not wish to install a rabbit watering system.
Increasing food rations
During pregnancy, a doe will not only feed for her own body needs but also for the fetuses too. Increasing a doe’s food rations during pregnancy is therefore essential for litter development.
The doe also consumes more food to increase her energy reserves which are required during kindling. With a short gestation period of 31 days, rabbits have a relatively short period to do so.
Remember that good feeding during pregnancy also impacts the amount of milk available for the litter.
There exists a fragile line between increasing food rations and overfeeding a pregnant doe. Ideally, the increase should not be more than 30% of the normal ration given to a doe that is not pregnant. Overfeeding rabbits may result in obesity, a condition that can permanently affect the performance of rabbits.
Providing a spacious cage
Provide a pregnant does with a spacious cage that allows her to move freely. A doe will require at least 12 square feet to 15 square feet of space. Such a cage will allow the pregnant doe to exercise through frequent movement. Exercise is a great reliever of stress in rabbits.
A spacious cage also provides room for the litter. The cage should be sizeable enough to allow a nest box for the litter to fit in. Having a spacious cage that is well-ventilated is a preventive measure for rabbit diseases like coccidiosis and snuffles.
Keeping the cage clean
A pregnant doe is housed in a clean cage. You should clean the cage daily. Remove droppings and remains of food during cleaning.
You should also change nesting material frequently to avoid a build-up of pathogens in the cage.
The cage should be disinfected frequently so that the litter is born in a clean environment. At birth, the litter has weak immune systems, and a dirty cage increases their chances of getting sick.
Provide quality nesting material
Nesting material helps to keep the doe comfortable in the cage. This is especially so on cages that have wired floors.
As the pregnancy progresses, the weight of the doe increases. Her body pressure will exert more pressure on the floor of the cage. This creates a pressure point between the sole of the doe’s feet and the cage floor. Without comfortable nesting material, this can be a predisposing factor for sore hock.
When the doe approaches kindling, she will start plucking fur from her body to build a nest for her litter. If no nesting material is provided, she will pluck more fur to make the cage comfortable enough for her litter. With nesting material in place, the doe will not pluck a lot of her fur.
Provide a stress-free surrounding
The pregnant doe will require a safe, quiet, and stress-free environment. Because of her territorial nature, it is proper that the doe be housed in a cage alone. This way, she does not have to get into territory fights with her cage mates.
External parasites and insects are other stress factors to eliminate. Use recommended insect control products eliminate them. External parasites and insects cause discomfort to the doe and are vectors of myxomatosis, a viral disease that attacks rabbits.
Needs of pregnant rabbits by breed
While the needs of pregnant rabbits are fairly standard, some rabbit breeds may require additional care. These additional needs may be associated with size, weight, and amount of fur on the body.
Large rabbit breeds like the Flemish Giant require twice the amount of space required by other smaller rabbit breeds. A well-kept Flemish Giant rabbit has the ability to clock up to 25 pounds.
Pregnant Flemish Giants should therefore be housed in larger than normal cages. Their nest boxes should also be twice the size of normal nest boxes. Because these large breeds exert more pressure on the cage floor, the floor must be designed to avoid injury or cause a predisposition to sore hock disease.
Fluffy rabbit breeds that are pregnant during the summer have an advantage as they do not require additional warmth material. In the summer, however, you should trim their fur to help them to regulate their body temperatures. These breeds include the Angora rabbit and the Jersy Wooly rabbit.
Pregnant rabbits that are known to have short fur need more warmth material during the summer. These breeds include Belgian Hare rabbit and Dutch rabbit.
Caring for a pregnant rabbit in the winter
Pregnant does need special care during winter. While most rabbit breeds have fur coats that keep them warm, these fur coats alone are not enough during winter.
Wild rabbits have burrows that protect them against harsh elements of winter weather. Burrows are fairly warm regardless of the season.
Domesticated rabbits do not share this advantage that wild rabbits have. They rely on human-made cages to shield them from the winter cold.
You can use the following tips to care for a pregnant doe in the winter.
- Repair cages before winter
- Adding warm material in the cage
- Placing the cage indoors
- Maintain access to fresh vegetables and fresh hay
- Use of heat pads
Repair Cages before winter
Before winter, check the condition of the cages, with more emphasis on cages that will house pregnant does.
A damp environment is not good for the health of all rabbits. To this effect, your cage design should provide good ventilation. Good air circulation is necessary during winter as it helps to contain dampness.
If the cages are dilapidated beyond repair, purchase a spacious cage that will house your pregnant doe during winter. A good cage is secure from harsh elements of weather.
Adding warm material in the cage
Pregnant does need more warmth during winter. Straw or hay is good bedding material for the doe’s cage. If these materials are not readily available on your farm, you can purchase them before winter.
Placing the cage indoors
Despite having a quality cage plus additional warm material in the cage, the pregnant doe could still be affected by shallow temperatures during the winter. With rabbits’ preferred temperatures ranging between 10°C to 20°C, a cage placed in the outdoors during winter may prove too harsh to your pregnant doe. In such cases, it is recommended that you move the cage indoors. This could be in a secure barn or any other well-ventilated room on the farm.
Maintaining Access to fresh vegetables and hay.
Fresh vegetables and hay play a big role in a pregnant doe’s diet and nutrition. Fresh vegetables and fresh hay are more available in the summer than in the winter. This does not mean that your pregnant doe will go hungry during winter.
There are other great options like Timothy hay which is actually more nutritious than other types of hay. You can also find ways of growing fresh vegetables for your rabbits.
Use of heat pads
A heating pad is a fluffy electronic pad that is used to provide warmth to rabbits in cages during winter. Use it alongside other warmth materials.
To keep warm, the pregnant doe will simply sit on the heat pad connected to an electricity source near the cage. Heat pads bear a resemblance to a mat. Heat pads are chew-resistant and safe to use in rabbit cages.
Caring for a pregnant rabbit in the summer
With the summer comes an increase in daytime temperatures which may cause heat stress in your pregnant doe. Temperatures exceeding 20°C may necessitate intervention measures from you. To help your pregnant rabbit to cope with the summer heat, you need to carry out the following management measures;
- Fur trimming
- Availing drinking water
- Placing the cage in a shade
- Provide cool surfaces – i.e., ceramic tiles
During the winter, rabbits grow extra fur to help them preserve more body heat and fight the cold temperature. When this excess fur is carried over into the summer, it becomes a problem for the rabbits as their temperature will be too high, leading to heat stress.
This informs the need for fur trimming. Trim pregnant rabbits fur early in the pregnancy. The doe can also be trimmed days before mating to avoid unnecessary handling during pregnancy. Since rabbits have soft skin that can cut easily, trim fur carefully.
Availing drinking water
Water helps to regulate the body temperature when the temperature is high. The pregnant doe must have access to clean drinking water at all times. Change water every day if watering cups are used instead of an automatic rabbit watering system.
Placing the cage in a shade
A pregnant doe can have access to the sun for one hour during the morning. After that, place the cage in a shaded area. The best place is under a tree with good shade. Here, there is good air circulation in the cage. Locating a cage in a very sunny place for the entire day can cause heat stress for the pregnant doe.
Provide cool surfaces in the cage
Another method of regulating high temperatures inside your pregnant doe’s cage is to provide cool surfaces for the doe to lie on. Ceramic tiles are the best option. The tiles should not be spread out in the entire cage but only on a small section. The pregnant doe will make its way to the ceramic tiles at her own pleasure.
Pregnancy after birth in rabbits
Rabbits are very fertile animals that can get pregnant immediately after birth if a pregnant doe and a buck are housed in the same cage. This is possible because does experience induced ovulation.
To prevent this from happening, a pregnant doe must be housed in a cage alone. It is not a healthy practice to mate the doe immediately after birth or even a few days after birth. The recommended wait period for a doe to be mated after kindling is 4 to 8 weeks.
Within this period, the doe is allowed to regain her strength. It also allows the doe to focus on the litter. The food that she consumes will help her produce enough milk for the litter.
Impregnating the doe immediately after birth strains her body because her body will direct the food towards fetus development and breastfeeding. Consequently, the doe is likely to experience low milk production. The doe is also likely to give birth to a weak or low-quality litter. As such, breeders should avoid pregnancy after birth in rabbits.
How many pregnancies can rabbits carry in their lifetime?
With an average gestation period of 31 days, rabbits can carry many pregnancies in their lifetime. Different breeds of rabbits live for a varying number of years. Their lifespans will therefore determine the number of pregnancies in their lifetime.
The lifespan of most rabbit breeds is between 5 years to 10 years. With puberty beginning at the 4th or 5th month of life, rabbits can breed about 6 times a year, spacing at least 4 weeks between pregnancies.
During their first year of life, it is recommended that they carry no more than 3 pregnancies. Cumulatively, domestic rabbits can carry about 27 pregnancies to 50 pregnancies in their lifetime. This number will be significantly less for pet rabbits as they are not bred for meat or fur.