Monday, April 23, 2012

Reproducing like...rabbits


We love baby bunnies.  They are cute and fluffy.  They do tiny baby binkies and tiny baby bunny flops (and if you want to see a tiny flop, watch the video on our Facebook page!).  So what don't we love?  Irresponsible breeding.  Willful ignorance.  Unwanted litters who have no home.  We recently had an experience here at the rescue that will make a good teaching point for this.  Unfortunately, it’s a sad story full of unnecessary mistakes.

Baby bunnies.  It's true.  We adore them.
They're charming, especially with food on the nose.
They do ridiculous tiny bunny flops.
A few weeks ago, someone surrendered a male rabbit, a female rabbit, and 4 babies to us.  Here’s the backstory: the person who surrendered them initially improperly sexed the male bun – so they thought there were two females.  Wrong.  The first litter was born a month later.  The person asked us for advice, and we advised separation and spay/neuter for the parents (as soon as mama bun was ready) and separating the babies as SOON as they were weaned (and spay/neuter as soon as they were mature).  Later, the person had a friend inexperienced in sexing rabbits determine the genders.  Once again, rabbits were improperly sexed.  Five months after the first litter, more babies.  These were the bunnies surrendered to the rescue (mom, dad, and babies).  

Well, imagine our surprise when exactly one month after the first litter was born, another litter was born.  Poor Zaida didn’t even make a nest.  Thankfully her first litter was doing well and eating on their own after Zaida had stopped nursing them at 3 weeks.  The new litter contained 7 babies, and 2 were stillborn.  Mom and Dad bunny (who are siblings from the initial accidental litter) were clearly not separated after their first litter was born (contrary to our advice).  Despite seeming a bit freaked out by the appearance of more babies, Zaida seemed to be doing okay with the remaining five.  They were being kept under close supervision, but it all turned out to be too much for Zaida.  She rejected them, and despite the best efforts of their foster mom, they passed away one by one overnight.

So what happened?  For that, we need to talk about a bit of rabbit biology.  Rabbits are induced ovulators – meaning that the female ovulates after being mounted by the male.  Once mature, they can become pregnant at any time, including shortly after giving birth.  Unlike many other mammals, rabbits do not go “into heat” (and if you EVER see blood coming out of your unspayed female rabbit, get her to a rabbit-savvy vet IMMEDIATELY – this is NOT normal).  In Zaida’s case, she was likely impregnated hours after giving birth.  The strain of having back-to-back litters was too much for this young mother.
Zaida keeps a watchful eye on her first litter (2 weeks old in this photo).
How can you prevent this from happening?  If you have any unaltered rabbits in your home, have them sexed by someone very knowledgeable and experienced with rabbits.  Even if you are experienced with distinguishing between male and female dogs or cats, rabbits are VERY different, and can be difficult to sex (particularly when young).  When in doubt, keep them separated!  Male rabbits typically reach sexual maturity around 3 months of age, and females can reach sexual maturity as soon as 5 months of age.  

The SINGLE MOST important thing you can do to prevent accidents is to spay/neuter your rabbit as soon as he/she is mature.  Even if you are keeping them separate – rabbits are quite mischievous.  They can escape, they can jump pens – there is NO guarantee that they will not accidentally find one another!  Spaying and neutering is important for other reasons too.  Females have an extremely high risk of developing uterine cancer – spaying reduces this chance to zero.  Altering your rabbit may also help with behavioral issues such as aggression and spraying.  This blog illustrates just how quickly rabbits can reproduce.  These litters were born exactly one month apart.  The situation can rapidly grow out of control.
Exponential reproduction.  Not good.  (photo from http://daveferguson.typepad.com/daveferguson/2010/04/exponential-book-excerpt-reproducing-like-rabbits.html)

Zaida is only 6 months old.  She has been through much in her young life.  Having one litter at such a young age is a strain, but having two litters back-to-back was incredibly hard on her, and clearly became too much for her to take.  Zaida and the litters all suffered for it, and her second litter paid with their lives.  The take-home message:

  1. Spay/neuter ALL rabbits!
  2. Don’t trust just anyone to properly sex your rabbit.  Only trust someone knowledgeable and experienced in determining rabbit gender.
  3. SEPARATE unaltered rabbits.
Many parents want their children to experience the “miracle of birth”.  PLEASE don’t breed your rabbit – not even once.  Be a responsible parent.  Don’t contribute to the population of unwanted rabbits.  Rabbits can have as many as 12 babies in a litter.  What will you do with this many rabbits?  What happens when they start to reproduce in a few months?  Did you know that for each rabbit you produce, a rabbit in a kill shelter will die?  Teach your children a different lesson – show them the compassion of helping out homeless animals.  Foster in your home.  Help out at a shelter.  In fact, we're going to need foster homes for these guys as soon as they're ready.  Can you help?  We can use donations for their care and spay/neuter fund as well.

If your rabbit is unaltered, we can help point you in the direction of a rabbit-savvy vet.  You can also check out the House Rabbit Society's vet page:  http://rabbit.org/vets/vets.html  This page contains excellent information on choosing a rabbit vet, and has vet listings by state/region.  Thank you for being a responsible pet owner! 

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