Nature is amazing, and often beautiful, but it is also hardcore. Shockingly, gorily hardcore. The brutal calculus of animal survival instinct seems to us inconceivable, and even worse when it spills over into a domestic environment.
Perhaps nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than the phenomenon of mother rabbits sometimes eating their young.
It does not make sense on any level, but the behavior, though uncommon, is quite well documented.
If it happens to your rabbits you’ll have problems and any kids that see this happen will be scarred for life. So, why do rabbits eat their babies?
Mother rabbits may eat their young for a variety of reasons: the mother rabbit could be ill, she may not have enough milk, she may have too many babies, or maybe the bunnies are sick or injured.
In the wild, a sick animal is likely to attract and be killed by predators, so it makes sense for the mother rabbit to eat her young in order to save her life or the other lives of the litter.
I know it sounds incredibly cruel, but this is what rabbits have been forced to do in the wild since time immemorial. Just because they are in our care now does not mean that behavior is erased.
I know it is tough to wrap your head around but this is something you need to know if you have rabbits, especially if you want to breed them. Brace yourself and keep reading to find out more.
Do Mother Rabbits Really Eat Their Young?
Yes, they do. This is not a troll article. It is not something that they enjoy or do lightly, but in some cases, it is the only option available to them.
If a mother rabbit feels that she is in danger, that her young are in danger, or that the circumstances around raising her bunnies have deteriorated seriously she may eat them in order to protect them.
Aren’t Rabbits Herbivores?
Yes, they are. And you are quite right to wonder about this grisly bit of trivia. Why does an animal that lives on plant matter not only suddenly turn to meat, but turn to cannibalism- and cannibalism of her very children?
The answer is simple because she is desperate, one way or another. And rabbits can, in fact, derive some nutrition from animal proteins. In a sense, she is recycling her investment that didn’t pan out.
For a mother rabbit, the act of eating her young is not an act of aggression but one of survival, plain and simple.
She might be too weak or too malnourished to feed her babies, or even to reliably find food for herself after birthing the litter. In such case, she will eat her babies to recover her strength and go on.
What are Some Reasons a Mother Rabbit Might Eat Her Babies?
It is hard to hear, but there are multiple reasons why a mother rabbit could decide to eat her babies. We will discuss all of them below.
A mother rabbit that is under a lot of stress is more likely to eat her young. This might be due to the stress of being in a new environment or one that is very dirty, or the stress of being around other rabbits (or animals) that she does not know.
If you are planning on breeding rabbits, it is important to make sure that the mother rabbit is in a calm, clean, and safe environment so that she does not feel stressed at any time during or after birthing.
2. Birthed Too Young
One of the most common reasons for the cannibalism of babies is that the mother rabbit simply got pregnant too young.
Even though a doe rabbit might be sexually mature in the sense that she can reproduce, she might not be that far along in her lifecycle to accept the responsibility and stresses.
When this occurs, it is not uncommon for the mother rabbit to eat every one of her young.
3. Malnutrition or Hunger
Another prime motivator for eating of young. All rabbits have very high metabolisms, requiring lots of energy, and mother rabbits need even more energy at all phases of pregnancy.
They especially need lots of calories and micronutrients immediately prior to and after delivery.
When the mother feels that her own resource needs are too neglected, she will often eat her some or all of her young as a way to get the extra food that she needs.
4. Lack of Milk
This is a particularly sad one. Mother rabbits know instinctively how much milk they will be able to produce under current conditions, and she also is acutely aware of how many mouths she has to feed.
If the ratio is inadequate, she may make the choice to “prune” some of those mouths from the litter to ensure there is enough milk for the rest of the babies. It’s heartbreaking, but true, I’m afraid.
5. Too Many Babies
Another common reason for a mother rabbit to eat her babies is that she simply has too many of them. A litter of rabbits can have anywhere from 1 to 12 babies, with the average being 6.
If a mother rabbit has an unusually large litter, she may not have enough resources to care for all of them, and so she will eat some in order to save the rest. Again with the brutal arithmetic of survival…
6. Ill, Deformed or Injured Babies
But the hits don’t stop coming. Perhaps worse, if a mother rabbit detects anything wrong with a bunny, anything from being deformed or having low birth rate to being sick or injured, she will often eat it.
In the wild, this makes a lot of sense- if an animal is not strong enough to survive and thrive, then it is likely to die anyway.
The mother rabbit is simply making the decision for it and putting it out of its misery and recouping some resources to boot. I am starting to think that owning a rabbit might be the most traumatic thing you can do.
7. Too Cramped in Nest
Technically an environmental stressor, but this can affect a mother unexpectedly even when mundane, non-threatening changes are made to her nest or nesting environment.
If she feels that her nest is too cramped she may decide that eating some of her young in order to have more room is the best way to make the nest more accommodating.
Believe it or not, a mother rabbit may eat a bunny completely by accident. It does not make much difference for the poor creature, but at least she didn’t do it willfully.
This usually happens when the mother rabbit is eating her placenta (a common behavior) after birthing the litter.
If a baby bunny is small enough, it may get caught up in the placenta and end up getting eaten as well.
How Can You Stop a Mother from Eating Her Young?
The best way to stop a mother rabbit from eating her young is to remove any environmental stressors that might be causing her anxiety or discomfort.
This includes making sure she is in a calm, clean, and safe environment so that she does not feel stressed at any time during or after birthing.
Also ensure she has a high-calorie, high-nutrition diet throughout her pregnancy and immediately after birth. This will help to minimize the risk of malnutrition or hunger as motivators for eating her young.
Additionally, you can try to give her more space by increasing the size of her nest box or giving her a larger enclosure to live in.
Finally, if you are concerned that a mother rabbit may eat her young, you can always remove the litter from her care and raise the rabbits yourself, or at least deal with any likely “candidates”.
This is not always practical, but it is an option if you are worried about losing any of the litter to cannibalism, and may prevent a chain reaction that could see her wipe out the whole litter.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.
Find out more about the team here.