If you find a baby rabbit …

A rabbit has the best chance of survival when cared for by its mother.

A softball-sized young Eastern Cottontail sits on the ground surrounded by plants

Eastern Cottontail rabbits reproduce throughout the spring and summer, typically starting in mid-March and nesting through mid-September. Nests are found in shallow depressions on the ground (cottontails do not burrow); nests are covered with soft grasses and are lined with tufts of the mother rabbit’s fur.

A small shallow empty rabbit in the ground
A pile of at least seven young eyes-closed cottontails nestled together, surrounded by fur and grass

The average litter size for rabbits is five, though mothers may give birth to as few as one and as many as 12! Since young rabbits grow up quite quickly, “doe” rabbits may have three or four litters in a season. Mother rabbits are very secretive, so they don't draw attention to their nest; you will rarely see a mother rabbit coming and going. The doe feeds her young only twice a day—at dusk and dawn.

Young rabbits disperse from the nest at 15-20 days old. By three weeks of age, they are on their own in the wild, though are still very small—they're only about the size of a softball!

If you find a baby rabbit, do any of the following apply?

  • It is bleeding, has an open wound, or has a broken bone.
  • It's been in a cat's or dog's mouth.
  • It's covered in fly eggs (these look like small grains of rice).
  • It's cold, wet, or crying nonstop.

If YES, take the rabbit to your nearest wildlife veterinarian or rehabilitator. Do not give the baby food or water! Never chase a rabbit to capture it. The stress of being chased can be dangerous to a baby rabbit. Rabbits are a high-stress species prone to a condition called capture myopathy, which is caused by chase and stress. Capture myopathy can lead to damage to internal organs, and even death.

If NO, the next step is to identify its age to determine if intervention is needed.

Is the rabbit fully furred with its eyes opened?

If YES, if the rabbit is larger than a softball and weighs more than 4 ounces or 100 grams, it is on its own and does not need human intervention unless injured.

If NO, attempt to locate the nest (a shallow depression on the ground possibly lined with rabbit fur and/or grass) and put the rabbit back.

You will not see a lot of activity at the nest; mother rabbits stay away to avoid leading predators to the nest. If you do suspect the nest is abandoned, lay four pieces of string or twigs in a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest as straight as you possibly can. Leave the area and check back in 12 hours.

White yarn is laid out in a tic-tac-toe pattern over green plants. The center of the pattern is over a barely visible rabbit nest lined with fur.
White yarn is jumbled over a barely visible rabbit nest; there is frost on the grass, indicating that the person checked the next morning.

If the mother rabbit has returned to the nest to nurse her young, the string/twigs will be out of place. If the string/twigs are undisturbed, and the bunnies appear thin and weak, with wrinkled, baggy skin, the babies may be orphaned. The babies should be taken immediately to a state-permitted small mammal rehabilitator in your area. 

A Word About Mowing

It's a good idea to check your yard before you mow; because rabbits are in shallow nests, it's easy to mow the "top" off of their nest, possibly injuring babies. Do not attempt to mow within 10 feet of a rabbit's nest if there are babies present. You can protect a nest during mowing by placing a plastic lattice laundry basket upside down over the nest; be sure to remove after mowing.  Leave the nest area as undisturbed as possible while the young rabbits grow.

If the nest is an area that makes it impossible to protect from domestic pets, place a laundry basket over the nest during daytime hours. Ensure you are removing the basket a few hours before dawn and dusk to allow the mother rabbit to find and feed her young. The mother rabbit does not rely on scent to find her babies and uses landmarks to locate the nest. Try not to disturb the area surrounding the nest until the babies are independent. If you have a dog who has access to the nest/basket, place a very heavy rock or object on the overturned laundry basket (not so heavy as to crush the basket). Once the babies are gone,  the nest can be destroyed to prevent future use. 

Each animal's nutritional, housing, and handling requirements are very specific and must be met if they have any chance of survival. Inappropriate food or feeding techniques can lead to sickness or death. Raising a wild mammal in captivity is illegal unless you have a state permit. For information on how you can become a permitted wildlife rehabilitator, visit our Wildlife Care Academy and contact the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources or your state's wildlife agency.