Nest Box Management

by Skip Godfrey

Many losses of kits occurring from the time of parturition until the litter begins to emerge from the nest box might easily be prevented through a more thorough understanding of nest box management techniques.

Proper management of the doe and her litter involves much more than just handing out a nest box and depending on the doe for the rest. Not only is it important for the manager to know what type of nest box to use, it is imperative that he or she also know when to give the nest box to the doe, what nesting materials to use in construction of the nest, what goes on the inside of the nest, and even when to take the nest box away.

Once the doe is bred, certain hormonal changes within her body tell her that she needs to provide a nest for her forthcoming litter. Although many does will show absolutely no signs of pregnancy throughout most of the gestation period, some will begin to "dig" in a back corner of the cage and continue to do so almost every day throughout the entire duration of their pregnancy. Some does will do so much digging in the back of their cage that they will actually wear down their nails, and may even wear the fur off of their pads in the process. I have even seen does that have pulled their teeth out of occlusion by tugging on the urine guards. From past experience, I have found it advantageous to give these anxious does an early nest box rather than have them frustrate themselves trying to dig a hole that can never be dug in the back of their cage for thirty-one days.

Usually, these does will build a nest and once this job has been completed, they will be content to lie around for the remainder of their term. This kind of doe will usually not go into or soil her nest in any way, even if it is in the cage for the entire thirty-one days.

With other does that show no signs of nest building, I normally wait until three or four days before they are due before I provide them with a nest box. If they are given a nest box any earlier, they usually consume the nesting material or even use the nest box as a toilet. In the event that a doe does soil her nest, it is imperative that the nest box be replaced immediately with a clean one containing new nesting material. It is also important that the nest box not be placed in the corner of the cage that the doe normally uses for a bathroom. Doing so will only encourage the doe to urinate and defecate in the nest box.

Construction of the nest box itself along with the selection of appropriate nesting material is probably the most crucial part in the prevention of nest box mortality. After much experimentation with various types of nest boxes and nest building materials as well as the various methods of placing these materials in the nest box, I have adopted a system that I find works nearly one-hundred percent of the time both in satisfying the nesting instincts of the doe and in preventing unnecessary losses of kits in the nest box.

To begin with, I use only the "half -top" nest boxes for two important reasons: first, the half-top nest box resembles a "rabbit-hole" as far as the doe is concerned, because, like a rabbit hole, it surrounds her with protection and makes her feel secure. Second, the half-top nest box also affords the doe a "sitting board" to get up and away from the bunnies when they start coming out of the nest box.

I also prefer to use the metal nest boxes that have a removable wooden floor which can be taken out in extremely hot weather preventing the kits from being literally "baked alive". In the cooler weather the wooden floor offers a warmer and more natural surface for the bunnies to walk on than a metal one. Also, there is better drainage provided with this type of nest box because the urine is able to escape around the areas where the metal sides come in contact with the edges of the wooden floor.

Many of these nest boxes come with masonite floors instead of wood. Most masonite has both a smooth and a rough side. It is imperative that the rough side be placed up so that the bunnies have a nonslip surface on which to walk. If the floor of the nest box is smooth, bunnies can develop a crippling condition known as "spraddle leg", or "splay leg" as a result of their feet constantly slipping out to the sides.

Of utmost importance in nest box management is sanitation. Before a nest box is given to the doe it should be thoroughly sanitized. An excellent method of sterilizing nest boxes is to spray them with a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 5 parts water and letting this solution remain in the nest box for about twenty minutes before it is thoroughly rinsed to remove the chlorine odor. Then leave the nest box outside for a day in the sun so that the ultraviolet light can kill any remaining bacteria.

Next to sanitation, the type and arrangement of nest box material that is presented to the doe is the second most important step in preventing nest box problems. I have found that the best way to make a nest is to line the bottom of the nest box with about an inch of wood shavings and then stuff the box full of hay or straw and then "punch" a fist down through the center several times to create a tunnel. This tunnel should be at a downward angle from the opening at the front of the nest box all the way to the back and it should be completely surrounded with hay or straw - even at the top. Once I have formed my tunnel, I reach my hand all the way into the back of the nest box and pull back on the nesting material so that the end of the tunnel opens into a small "room" at the back of the nest box. This is the system that works best for me.

This type of system is readily accepted by the doe because it simulates the kind of nest that a doe would build if she were living in the wild. A doe living in the wild will find the side of a hill and dig a hole down into it at an angle of about 30 to 45 degrees. She will line the hole with grass and other material she finds and then she will line it with fur she has pulled from her belly. Both the length and downward angle of the tunnel prevent any bunnies from riding out of the nest on a nipple because they are brushed off and roll back down into the nesting material at the bottom of the hole as the doe leaves the nest. This is the reason why rabbits do not instinctively retrieve their bunnies that get out on the wire.

Once the doe has kindled it is important for the manager to immediately check the nest and remove any dead or deformed bunnies. This is also a good time to balance the litters so that one doe is not raising six bunnies while another doe only has one. Letting a doe raise only one bunny is not a good practice as it permits the single bunny to get too much milk which will cause it to grow into a much larger rabbit than it would normally be otherwise. This may be okay for a meat rabbit but is disastrous for anyone who is trying to raise any of the dwarf breeds.

Some people mark fostered bunnies by tattooing a single dot in their ears so that they may be identified at a later date. Unfortunately, these dots grow with the ears and I prefer to simply foster colored rabbits in with whites or with bunnies that are a different color from the ones being fostered. If bunnies of the same color must be fostered together, I have found that a small piece of scotch tape stuck on the bunnies' backs works very well. The mothers can't "clean" these off, and when the tape is removed at about two weeks of age it leaves an indentation in the fur that remains until the bunnies get their final coat of fur at about three to four months of age. By then they are already tattooed and I have no further need for the identification mark.

While the kits are still in the nest box, it is important to understand that a doe will only nurse her litter once a day and only for about two or three minutes. Because of this, it is possible to raise rabbits "on the shelf" by removing the nest boxes from the cages and returning them to their respective mothers for a few minutes each morning. Most does prefer the morning for nursing although some will nurse in the afternoon. Raising bunnies on the shelf can become an important management technique during temperature extremes so that litters can remain in the warmth of the house while the mothers are outside.

Once the bunnies have opened their eyes and are becoming active in the nest box, I remove the box from the cage. I feel this prevents problems with eye infections and also losses of bunnies as a result of fur blockage caused by the bunnies munching on bits and pieces of hay that are covered with fur. If, for some reason, it becomes necessary to leave the nest box with the doe for longer than two weeks, it is a good idea to substitute the old soiled nest box with a new one that has been sanitized and contains only a layer of shavings covering the floor. This should be adequate to eliminate any problems for the doe or her litter caused by ingesting fur or by contact with any contaminated nesting material.

As can readily be seen, the nest box is a far more complex system than it appears at a glance, and is one that requires continuous monitoring by the rabbit manager. Strict attention to sanitation is imperative, and simulation of the kind of nest that a rabbit would naturally construct in the wild will go a long way toward elimination many problems that can confront the manager as a result of improper nest box management.

HLRSC Official Guidebook - 5th Edition 2002