by Patty Greene
Small, compact body, large head under 4 pounds... the very anatomy and size of the Holland Lop, spells potential trouble at kindling time. The seasoned breeder is well acquainted with the various pregnancy problems inherent to Hollands, and the novice breeder becomes quickly introduced to them. While any breed of rabbit can have difficulties kindling, many of these problems occur more frequently in Hollands and other dwarf rabbits.
My initial experience in attempting to raise Hollands was discouraging. Out of several liters, three litters were born dead, one litter was cannibalized, and the fifth litter was scattered on the wire. Finally, from the last litter, one live baby was saved; not a very good start, but fortunately since then my luck has changed.
Frequent missed conceptions ("misses"), miscarriages, "stuck" babies, and tiny "peanut" babies carrying the fatal Dwarf gene are just a few of the things that can go wrong.
To improve the odds that a doe will conceive and not "miss", there are several steps a Holland breeder can take. Before breeding a doe, I check to see that she is healthy and in good physical condition. She should not be going through a moult, should not be overweight, nor too thin. If she looks fine, then I check her vulva. Here I want to see a nice shinny dark red coloration. If this checks out, I will introduce her to the buck. If the vulva is pale or light pink, chances are she will not willingly breed. In the past, I have tried forced breeding techniques, but have experienced less than 50% conception rate. If the doe is not receptive to the buck, I will make sure I return her to the buck every day for at least five consecutive days. When the buck breeds the doe, I will wait four to six hours and return her to the buck. I have found if I wait 10 to 12 hours (the number usually suggested) the doe more often refuses a second service. By using this method, I rarely have misses and frequently have litters of four, five and six. I then test breed 14 to 19 days later. Approximately one week before due date, I will palpate for movement by placing both hands on the doe's side and slightly underneath her. At this stage of pregnancy it is easy to feel the babies kicking and moving around inside her.
Another way to improve the conception rate is by making sure that the does and bucks are kept in the best possible environment. This means that during the summer they should be kept cool (a dry basement is excellent). Remember, it your buck is exposed to temperature over 85 degrees for five successive days, he may become temporarily sterile, or at the very best have a low sperm count.
Although Hollands can withstand cold temperatures with less stress than very hot temperatures, they will also breed more readily in moderate temperatures during the winter. Another important factor to consider in the winter is lighting. I turn the lights on in my rabbitry at 7:30 a.m. and often they do not go off until 10:00 p.m. This additional light improves my conception rate.
To decrease litter and maternal mortality due to hot or cold temperature extremes, I move the does into my basement approximately one week before their due date with no ill effects. Moving the does at this time does not seem to stress or upset them in any way. Cold temperatures slow down the birthing process, making it difficult for the doe. Likewise, extreme heat may cause heat exhaustion in the doe or result in a dead litter.
Approximately two to three days before the due date, I put the next box in the cage with the doe. I feel this gives her plenty of time to adjust, but does not encourage her to start soiling it. I like to use wooden boxes. These need to be disinfected and allowed to dry in the sun for a few hours between uses. The next box is lined with a disposable piece of cardboard, a layer of shredded sugar cane, or clean wood shavings, with straw on top. The day the doe is due I usually add a little more straw in the morning to replace any that was eaten.
Babies on the Wire
At times, for reasons unknown, a doe will choose not to use her next box for delivery. If you use a solid bottom floor with wood shavings and straw, this will not be a serious problem. However, if your doe has the litter on the bottom of a cage with a wire floor, and you are not lucky enough to find them within minutes of the delivery, you will lose the babies. If you do find them and they are just barely alive and ice cold, do not give up hope as I have successfully brought them "back to life" several times. I take the cold baby and rub it vigorously but gently with my hands. I then place it under warm running water, being very careful not to scald it. After I have dried the kit with a towel, I finish the warming process with a blow dryer set on low. Within minutes the virtually "dead" animal is wriggling in my hands looking for its first meal. I then foster the baby into a recently born litter where the doe has pulled a good supply of fur. I always feel great saving a life, and have had excellent results using the above procedure. Other Holland breeders also use heating pads and lamps to warm chilled babies.
Without a doubt, the Holland Lop breeder will experience the problem of "stuck" babies at some time. This occurs when the doe has an undelivered fetus lodged in the birth canal or in utero. The doe with such a problem can be seen sitting hunched and straining in the next box or on the wire. Sometimes they will try for hours to deliver the babies until they become exhausted. "Stuck" babies may be attributed to a narrow pelvic opening, a small, narrow birth canal, or oversized babies. Often this problem occurs with first time mothers, and the following litters will be delivered without problems. However, sometimes, it is a chronic problem with a particular doe. Does with pinched hindquarters or short cobby bodies are potential candidates for kindling problems. If this is the case and the doe has had three or four unsuccessful litters, she should be given away as a pet and not used for breeding purposes.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the majority of "stuck" babies are found to be breech births; that is, the hindquarters are delivered first. Although it is not a pleasant task, the breeder can physically help the doe if a portion of the baby is visible. However, the utmost care must be given to try not to break or tear the fetus while still in the birth canal. Such an occurrence could cause an infection which could be fatal to the doe. To help the doe, lubricate around the opening with glycerine, K-Y Jelly or a similar lubricant. If two people work together, one can hold the doe over a towel or even in the nest box, while the other gently pulls down on the fetus. The direction of the pull is critical and should be down and out at a 90 degree angle to the body line of the doe. Usually the doe will feel this and help by contracting. Try to pull with her contractions and avoid one long continuous pull. After a few contractions with this help, the baby will usually pop out. The most difficult part of a breech presentation often occurs upon presentation of the forelegs which are usually folded and stick out at the elbows. If one carefully removes one foreleg at a time from the cervical opening, the rest of the fetus will come out easier. Due to elongation of the fetus, additional lubrication may facilitate your "midwife" effort. After removing the fetus, clean the doe with a warm wet washcloth. Although probably not necessary, I also like to apply a topical antibiotic to the vent. Later, after returning the doe to her cage you may observe parts of the placenta or afterbirth on her cage floor. Do not remove this debris as the ingestion of it by the doe will bring about normal hormonal releases and is actually beneficial to the doe's health.
If the fetus is not visible, but you can palpate the fetus in the birth canal, and the doe appears near exhaustion, you may chose to take the doe to a veterinarian and ask him to give her a shot of oxytocin. This is an abortive drug and is recommended only through a veterinarian. The recommended dosage for Hollands is 0.2 cc, injected subcutaneously. In fact, oxytocin should be administered anytime the doe delivers a dead litter. It should not be given if one suspects there is still a fetus in either of the uterine horns.
Fatal Dwarf Gene
The fatal Dwarf gene is just the opposite of oversized babies. Here is a tiny "peanut" baby, about half the size of normal babies. The gene responsible for this phenomenon is semidominant and incompletely lethal. Genetically, it is the result of the fetus carrying two Dwarf genes, whereas a regular Holland has one Dwarf and one normal gene. These tiny double Dwarf babies, with their bulging eyes and bubble-like heads, always atrophy or shrivel from the hindquarters forward and die by the second or third day.
Miscarriages and Abortions
If, at any time during the gestation period, you see blood or other matter on the cage floor, your doe has probably had a miscarriage. Why this happens occasionally is difficult to diagnose. A doe may have one miscarriage and then no further problems. Recently, I had a doe abort the fetus one week before her due date. I returned her to a regular cage and noticed she was acting strangely. Wondering if there were other retained feti, I palpated her, and to my surprise, I felt babies kicking about inside, very much alive. One week from the date of the miscarriage, she delivered two more babies. In this case the aborted fetus may have been in the uterine horn opposite the horn where the live feti remained.
Miscarriages are usually quite rare; however, if it is a chronic problem in the rabbitry, it may be an indication of occult vent disease. When this occurs, a spirochete attaches to the uterine horns and disrupts the flow of blood to the fetus, and also reduces the fertility of the doe. If you suspect this to be a problem in your rabbitry, and your veterinarian agrees, a treatment program of oxytocin and penicillin should alleviate the problem in the does. The bucks should probably also be treated since sexually transmitted diseases frequently affect both partners.
Raising Holland Lops probably requires greater patience than almost any other breed of rabbits; however, these wonderful Hollands continue to be one of the most popular breeds of rabbits raised. In this article I have discussed just a few situations that can go wrong during the kindling process. We can all easily recognize what occurs when everything goes "right" in the genetic process. Then we are rewarded with a beautiful "typey" Holland closely resembling our Standard. These are the animals we so often see winning Best of Breed honors on the show table. During the past few years, competition has become more keen and the quality of the Holland's continuously improves; this due of course to the successful breeding programs, efforts, and patience of new and old Holland breeders. My advice to anyone interested in raising Hollands is to talk to the "seasoned" breeders, you will find them a very friendly and helpful group of people, truly concerned with improving their breed of rabbit.
HLRSC Official Guidebook - 5th Edition 2002