For a long time, it was believed that baby rabbits only feed once a day and that repeated suckling is a behavioral disorder. But studies have found that it’s not uncommon for baby rabbits to be suckled multiple times a day.
For a long time, it was assumed that repeated suckling was only provoked by housing the rabbits in (too) narrow boxes. Studies have shown that suckling rabbits several times a day is not only typical of the species, there are also individual differences between the individual animals.
Several years of studies by Prof. Dr. Steffen Hoy from the Institute for Animal Breeding and Domestic Animal Genetics show that it is also normal for rabbit babies to be able to drink as often as they want. The investigations were designed as follows:
- The scientists at the research station set up two 150 square meter escape-proof outdoor enclosures with plastic and clay pipes as shelter.
- They included not only domestic but also wild rabbits in the studies.
- Infrared cameras were mounted above the whelping boxes, which, together with infrared emitters, emitted a light that the rabbits could not see and made recordings for 24 hours.
- The wild rabbits’ pens were sealed to ensure darkness during the day, as in a normal burrow.
Multiple suckling is normal
As the evaluation of the recordings showed, multiple suckling is not, as is often assumed, provoked by accommodating the rabbits in boxes that are (too) narrow. The individual results of the study are:
- On average, the wild rabbits (eleven litters from six females) suckled their young 1.28 times in 24 hours, the domestic rabbits (eight females from 15 litters) a little less frequently at 1.12 times.
- Both domestic and wild rabbits breastfed most often in the second and least in the fourth week.
- The more often the boys drank from their mother, the shorter the duration of drinking.
- The total suckling time was almost identical at 237 seconds per day in domestic rabbits and 228 seconds per day in wild rabbits.
- Domestic and wild rabbits gave their young to drink mainly at night: wild rabbits 84%, domestic rabbits 86%.
Differences between domestic and wild rabbits
While the domestic rabbits were mainly active between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., the wild rabbits in the study only drank after midnight. For Prof. Dr. Steffen Hoy with the light-dark cycle, which acts as a timer for the pet rabbit: “When it gets dark, the rabbit receives biological information to suckle the young. This may be due to hormones or nerve stimuli from the milk-filled teat.”. Nocturnal feeding in wild rabbits is biologically useful because it avoids alerting aerial and ground predators to the young.
“Rabbit keepers should keep this in mind when keeping their animals,” advises Prof. Hoy. “Some, for example, lock the mother animals away from the young at night. This is an intervention in the natural behavioral processes.” Therefore, parents should also explain to their children that their rabbits need rest in the evenings, especially when they have young ones.