If you have an obviously injured rabbit, please call one of the licensed rehabilitation facilities on our wildlife emergency page.
The Eastern cottontail rabbit is the most widely distributed species in the U.S.; these animals nest in shallow depressions in the ground. The nest is usually lined with grass and the mother’s fur. A female cottontail may have up to five litters each year from February through October. They are born in litters of two to eight animals, hairless and helpless with their eyes closed.
Many cottontail rabbits are presumed to be orphaned because the mother normally avoids the nest in daytime, feeding the young between dusk and dawn. The eyes open at one week and within three weeks they are weaned and totally independent. A small rabbit with its eyes open, ears standing up and approximately five inches long is self-sufficient and does not need your assistance.
A rabbit’s nest that is in an inconvenient place (like a yard or garden) should be tolerated, if possible, for the short nesting period. An infant Eastern cottontail is in the nest for approximately three weeks from birth to weaning. If you have a nest in a place that you are afraid might be disturbed by pets or vehicles:
Moving the nest is extremely risky to the life of the bunnies. It is recommended that the nest be moved as a last resort only if the nest is in danger of being destroyed.
Laundry Basket Technique:
- Provide protection for the nest against a dog in the yard (or wandering neighborhood cat) by placing an upside-down laundry basket over the nest during the day. Place a heavy object on top of it such as a brick or a rock.
- Just before sundown, remove the laundry basket and bring the dog inside so the mother rabbit has access to her young.
- Replace the basket the next morning.
The longest anyone will have to do this is three weeks since the rabbits will be able to leave the nest at that time. If the babies in the nest already have their eyes open, they are at least a week old. They will need the laundry basket for two weeks or less.
If removing and replacing the laundry basket for two to three weeks is absolutely not possible, cut a softball-sized hole in the basket. This will keep out most dogs, though probably not smaller cats. Laundry baskets are ideal because they offer shade in hot weather, shelter from rain or sprinklers, are well-ventilated and will not fall apart if they become wet. If there is no laundry basket available, a box can be used. You can also use a plastic milk crate or cardboard box. Cardboard boxes, however, are not durable in the rain and you will have to cut extra holes into it for ventilation, especially in warm weather.
If the nest must be moved, it should not be moved more than one or two feet in any direction or the mother rabbit will not find the nest. The mother might abandon the nest in this instance. Another less desirable option if the laundry basket technique won’t work (against very persistent, strong dog breeds) is to designate a secure container in a safe location and place the bunnies in the box in the morning and replace them in their exact nest location at dusk. Again, this is LAST RESORT and puts the bunnies at risk of abandonment.