These are common things I hear while working at my job. (A wildlife rehabilitation shelter):
"I was mowing the grass and accidentally went over a cottontail rabbit nest!"
"My cat just brought home with a baby bunny!"
"I just found a baby bunny and the mother seems to have abandoned it!"
If you just happened to stumble on a nest, you need to understand that nursing wild mother cottontails only feed the babies intermittently during the night and in the early morning hours. That is the only time you will see the mother at the nest. So you might falsely assume that the mother is neglecting her litter or that she has completely abandoned them when these babies are actually in no danger.
Also, young cottontails can live independently at a surprisingly young age.
If the one you found is that size, it can do quite well on its own. Do not attempt to pet or tame the baby. No matter how "cute" you think it is, it must remain fearful of both humans and domesticated pets in order to survive in the wild. Here is an age chart for you:
Baby’s naked or only thin fur or fluff 1-7 days
Baby’s ears are still closed 1-7 days
Baby’s eyes open at about 5-7 days
Baby’s ears stand erect 9-12 days
Baby has a complete hair coat 14 days
Baby’s show interest and begin nibbling on items about 12 -15 days
Babies become more active and begin leaving the nest to explore about 15-20 days
Baby 5-6 inches long at 17-22 days
Baby is nervous, jumpy, spooky, respond to sudden noises, ears erect = 21 days +
Baby cottontail eyes open at 6-8 days. Mothers wean their offspring at 4-5 weeks of age. If it is over six inches long from tail to nose, re-release it where it was found, the mother has not abandoned it. Or better yet; simply do not touch it. Leave it be. Over 3/4th the baby cottontails brought to my shelter really didn't need to be rescued at all, they simply look small and helpless when in reality they are surviving just fine. If you had to run after and corner the bunny (and it appears to be uninjured), take it back where you found it. If there are too many cats and dogs there, take it to a brushy area at the edge of a grassy meadow or area of woods and release it there.
Many times people ask, "Well this rabbit truly looks like it's in trouble. How can I know for sure?" If the babies tummies are plump and full, the mother is doing her job. If the babies are cold, dehydrated, or weaker than they were the previous day, THEN you will need to remove them if they are to survive.
One incorrect fact that many people still believe is that if the babies are touched, the mother will not accept them. That is not the case. Rabbits have an excellent sense of smell; but predators and humans pass through their environment constantly. A mother's maternal instincts are strong and it is not a threatening scent but a threatening presence that cottontail rabbits try to avoid. However, if a dog had dug the said babies up, a lawnmower has destroyed the nest, etc: that is when the mother will more than likely not come back to care for her young.
Baby cottontail rabbits are the most difficult of all furry wildlife orphans to successfully raise or rehabilitate. Successfully raising these bunnies is a major commitment in time and dedication. You can not rush it, you can’t work it into your schedule around other commitments. Some people seem to naturally have this nurturing talent while others who love wildlife just as much do not. Some people are just too giving and over-feed these babies. Those people can do more by just offering support to others that are more successful at it. Regardless of whether or not you believe you have this skill to raise the cottontail babies, only a trained professional who is licensed should attempt to do so.
People who raise orphan cottontail rabbits loose them in three ways:
The earliest, die from trauma and harsh exposure before they were brought to rehabilitation centers. Baby bunnies do not have reserves to fall back on when they are deprived of food, warmth and shelter for more than a day. Animal captured bunnies tend to die mostly from shock and infections.
The second group of babies die due to lack of their mother’s protective antibodies passed on to them through natural rabbit milk.
The third and most common cause of death is failure to establish normal rabbit flora (bacteria) in their intestinal tract at the time they are weaning.
Of course, a lot of other things can go wrong. Improper temperature, poorly concocted diets, over feeding, bad sanitation, and stressful environment all do in baby cottontails.
On top of the fact that it is nearly impossible to raise a wild cottontail baby without training, it is highly illegal in most, if not all, states across the USA (and other countries) to raise or keep a cottontail as a pet. (I would post links to each state's fish and wildlife laws, but that would take up way too much time. If you want to know your state's laws, then please feel free to research it yourself.)
Back on the topic of attempting to rehabilitate a baby cottontail on your own. Many people try to feed the baby KMR (kitten milk replacement formula) or things such as goats milk. Many times (thought it is done with a well intentioned motive to help!) this can lead to early mortality due to lack of colostrum and natural milk factors.
This is particularly a problem in babies that are under 2/3 weeks of age.
Cottontail mother’s milk has protective ingredients that artificial milk replacements cannot duplicate. Some call these ingredients “stomach oils”. Their first milk (colostrum) is very rich in an active form of vitamin A called retinol, which is something not found in replacement formulas but essential for normal development. KMR and goats milk contrary to popular belief are not good substitutes for mother rabbits milk. Real cottontail milk is very thick and rich, 33% solids. It is about four times as high in protein and fat as cow’s milk and is richer than cow’s milk in vitamins.
Baby bunnies receive protective antibodies from their mothers while they are still in the womb. But during the next 10-12 days of their lives, this antibody is lost. Mother rabbits milk also contains these same antibodies (immunoglobulins) that help protect baby during its first 12 days. Hand-raised bunnies are at a major disadvantage in not receiving them in that they are more susceptible to infections.
Antibiotics are not a solution to this problem. They may prolong the baby’s survival by a few days but they cause more harm than good by destroying protective good bacteria along with the bad. (Link to more information on this is: http://journals.cambridge.org/action...03356100007194
) There are also more factors to this such as cecetrophes, dysbiosis, over feeding, etc: that are too extensive to go over in this post.
The bare basics of what I'm trying to convey is: There is no doubt in my mind you care very deeply about a little cottontail rabbit and want what's best for it. And what is best for the baby is being taken to the closest wild life rehabilitator. Do not attempt to raise it yourself, that will end in heartbreak 90% of the time. Cottontails are, again, so very difficult for even trained professionals to raise. So please, if you have found a baby cottontail: either leave it be for the mother to come back to or take it to a wildlife shelter.
(Information for this post was accumulated from personal experience as a wildlife rehabilitator and also from the works of Ron Hines DVM PhD, all for educational purposes only.)