Does that Rabbit really need Rescuing?

If you have found a kit it is very important to accurately determine if the animal needs your help. Sometimes it is obvious, such as when the bunny is dangling from the mouth of your cat. Sometimes it is not so obvious, such as when you find a nest of babies and the mother is not present.

It is time to INTERVENE if the bunny is

Abandoned, Sick or Injured . . .

How to Determine

If a Litter has been

             ABANDONED …

             ABANDONED …


Every year well-meaning people ‘critter-nap’ healthy kits that have not been abandoned and take them to a Rescue. Bunny survival rates are significantly higher if the babies can stay with their Mom.  As a result, it is very important to correctly identify when a bunny actually needs your help.

Neonate Exception:  if you find a cottontail with eyes closed (neonate) alone in the nest, he needs your help even if the mother is still around. Single neonates do not have enough fur to be able to withstand temperatures under 18 degrees Celcius (65 degrees Farenheit) for extended periods of time (for example, overnight or during a rain storm). They need siblings to generate heat or the single neonate will die of hypothermia. Single neonates need to be removed immediately, kept warm and given to a Rescue immediately as there is no chance that they will survive in the wild. (Please visit Caring For Abandoned Wild Baby Bunnies for information on how to treat the baby until you can drop him off at a Rescue.)  A second option is to find another Cottontail nest containing babies around the same age as the neonate you have found. The single neonate can then be put in this new nest. Don’t worry, the mother will accept him/her. The second option should be chosen only if the single neonate is uninjured and healthy.

Unless the mother rabbit has been killed, it is very unlikely she has abandoned the litter in a nest.  It is normal behaviour for a mother rabbit to leave her litter alone for many hours each day. Normally, she will visit the nest to feed her babies once in the morning and once in the evening. Otherwise, mothers usually leave their babies on their own. Because of this behaviour, humans often mistakenly think the mother bunny has abandoned a nest they find when in fact she has not.

Is Mom Around?

If you did not witness the mother’s death you will need another method of determining if the babies in a nest have been abandoned.

Traditional Method:  first carefully cover the nest with a little grass and/or twigs in a pattern you will remember. Then snap a photo of the pattern so you have an accurate record of it. Now leave the area. Please do not stay to watch the nest even from a great distance. If you do the mother will probably not return. 18 to 24 hours later, check if the grass and twig pattern placement has been disturbed. 

Please note:  do not use string, thread or horse’s mane or tail hairs when covering the nest. These items can get tangled in the babies’ limbs and they will not be able to free themselves. Also, birds may use these items you left on the ground for their nests which poses the same danger of entanglement to their babies too. Only use ‘natural’ items (such as small twigs) that you find in their environment.

If the grass and twig pattern has changed, then mom is still looking after her litter and does not need your help. Therefore, you can leave and please keep your dog and cat away from the nest too. Do not mow the grass in the nest’s vicinity until the babies have matured and left the area. 

However, if the grass and twig pattern has not changed this does NOT mean the mom has abandoned the nest. She could have fed the babies without disturbing the pattern.  The same is true if you are using a trail camera. Many times trail cameras do not trigger so it gives a false impression that mom has not visited her nest.

Better Method:  to determine if the babies need help, put on sterile gloves, carefully pick one baby up and look at the belly. If the belly is full, mom is still looking after them. If in doubt, snap a picture of one baby’s belly and send the photo to a wildlife rehabber for evaluation.  If you are having trouble contacting a wildlife rehabber, wait a day and look at the baby again 24 hours later. If he is losing weight, the litter needs assistance. Be very careful when you put the baby back in the nest. Be sure to re-cover the litter with nesting materials. There is no need to disturb everyone in the nest. If one baby’s belly is full, then they all are.

If you determine the babies have been abandoned, it is time to Contact Us and visit Caring for Abandoned Wild Baby Bunnies. 

How to Determine

If a Kit is Sick or Injured

Similar to other wild animals, rabbits are very talented at hiding symptoms of an illness or injury. As a result, we often won’t realize they are sick or injured until the very late stages of an illness or unless the injury is severe.  By that time the animal is in serious trouble.

Be very careful when handling a sick or injured baby rabbit.  Always wear protective gloves for his sake and yours.

Be gentle!  This animal is in pain.  


The rabbit needs your help if he displays any of the following symptoms: 

  • dehydration, emaciation, or weakness;
  • active bleeding, swelling, or lesions;
  • not breathing properly;
  • unusual discharge is coming from his eyes, mouth, ears, nose or butt;
  • shock (animal appears sleepy, tame, or non-responsive);
  • neurological problems such as seizures, head tilting, circling, or loss of balance;
  • not acting ‘normal’ such as, for example, approaching you;
  • covered in insects like flies or ants;
  • foreign objects are stuck on or in his body;
  • foreign substance (such as oil, grease, or glue) is on his fur;
  • apparent or suspected blindness;
  • appears wet but it is not raining;
  • handled by a dog or cat who may have caused internal injuries to the rabbit;
  • no use or impaired use of one or more of his limbs; or,
  • missing part of any limb or tail. If the injury is healed over and the animal appears to be functioning normally, consult a wildlife rehabilitator for further advice prior to intervention.

If the rabbit you have found is sick or injured, please visit our Network to find an appropriate organization that will accept him. Or, you could take him to a local veterinarian (who specializes in rabbits/lagomorphs) yourself and then Contact Us. Although we don’t currently have the resources to accept sick or injured animals that have not received medical treatment, as authorized wildlife rehabilitators we are very well equipped to nurse them through their recovery, rehabilitation and release phases after they have been seen by a medical professional. 

When to NOT Intervene

The cottontail rabbit in the photo on the right is ready for release. Although he is still quite small compared to a full grown rabbit, he is an adult. Rabbits that have reached 100+ grams (about the size of a woman’s clenched fist) are ready to survive by themselves. Unless he is injured, please leave any rabbit of this size alone. If you try to catch him the stress may kill him.

The photo was taken on this rabbit’s release day.  The blue and white container that he is exiting is an average sized cat carrier. Thus you can see that a young adult rabbit who is ready for an independent life in the wild is fairly small.

Rabbits respond to the presence of predators by either freezing or running. Therefore, very young adult rabbits, like the one in this photo, tend to freeze if you spot them in the wild. Again, there is no need for anyone to ‘rescue’ a rabbit of this size so there is no need to approach him.  

Please do not stress wild rabbits by following or chasing them. If you do, there is a high chance they will suddenly die of shock in their attempt to get away from you. Or you may step on one as he darts in one direction, then another.

Please do not allow children, cats or dogs to approach wild rabbits either. There will be no happy ending if you do. 

When to MAYBE Intervene

What do you do when you see a baby or litter that is in imminent danger?  For example, when a predator is nearby, or the baby is located near a high traffic area where humans and their pets frequent.

You will have to use common sense as each situation is different. You could simply scare the predator away. Leash your cat or dog and lead them away. Or cover the nest with a box (ex. an empty recycling bin or laundry basket) while the danger is near. Please cover the nest for short periods of time only and only while you are present. You must remain in the area because the cover WILL attract curious predators (dogs, cats, crows, etc.) and your presence will stop these predators from checking out the nest. Any item used to cover the nest must allow air to freely flow to the nest. Do not leave the cover over the nest when you leave the area. Do not cover the nest if it is very hot  or windy outside. Do not cover the nest just because it is going to rain. Rabbits perfected nest construction long before humans roamed the earth and do not need our help to protect it. Do not try to block the nest from predators as this may cause the mother to be too nervous to return, or may allow a predator to corner her when she visits the nest in the blocked area. 


Cottontail washing his face


If the problem is that the nest is in the middle of your lawn in the path of your lawnmower, just leave it alone. If you don’t mow too closely to the nest, the babies will be fine. Kits stay in or close to the nest until they are between 3 to 4 weeks old and then they leave. Therefore, you will not be inconvenienced for very long.

Please note: it is best to never move the nest even a very short distance from its origin because the mother will NOT be able to find it. However, if you do move the nest, use a small part of the mother’s fur from the nest to create a scent path the mother can use to find the nest’s new location. Moving the nest should only be done in the most dire circumstance as this scent path can also be used by predators to find the nest. It is imperative that you immediately remove this scent path once the mother has found her nest.

If you have to put the babies back in the nest because they were disturbed (but are otherwise uninjured), first put on sterile (latex) gloves. Then recreate the nest as best you can. Use materials from the old nest when possible. Finally, place the babies back in the nest and cover them up.

Now you will need to verify that the mother returns to this newly-formed nest to look after her young. Please follow suggestions made in section “Is Mom Around?” to determine whether or not this litter has been abandoned.

rescuing rabbits

Next steps

If you have now determined a wild neonate or juvenile rabbit really needs your intervention because he has truly been orphaned or abandoned, please visit Caring for Abandoned Wild Baby Bunnies. Here you will find guidance on the initial steps you can take to help this animal. Then please Contact Us to make drop-off arrangements.