Rabbits have to be kept singly in hutches and this means than breeding has to be undertaken deliberately, rather than letting nature take its course. Still, breeding is fun and is not difficult. Small breeds mature sooner than large, so that while a Dutch doe may be bred as early as five months, a larger breed such as the Flemish Giant should not be bred until eight or nine months.
On the average, six months is a reasonable age both for the buck and the doe. No doe should be bred from if not in good condition. If you have no buck of your own, a friend may have one which you could use. Or, you could take your doe to a rabbit breeder. Most breeders allow their bucks to be used for the payment of a small fee.
The doe is always taken to the buck; never the other way about because most does resent a buck in their cage and a fight will break out. However, bucks never object to the presence of a doe and he will almost certainly try to make friends. Now, this is where you must be on the alert. If the doe is not ready for mating, she will turn on him spitefully. She must be removed and tried again tomorrow.
This procedure must be repeated as long as necessary to achieve a mating. It is rare for a doe to refuse persistently to mate. The main cause is over fatness, believe it or not. Does which have not been bred for a long period can become too fat. If this is the situation, feed mainly green stuff and hay, no grain or mash for the time being.
When the doe is ready for mating she will indicate this by squatting on her stomach and raising her hind quarters. The buck will be greatly interested and eventually will climb onto her back from the rear. Mating occurs when the buck gives a lurch and falls sideways. He should be allowed to do this several times before the doe is returned to her own hutch.
The gestation period is about 31 days, give a day or so. The doe will give warning of the arrival of the litter by bustling around picking up mouthfuls of hay and building a nest. A few days before the event, she will pluck fur from her body to line the nest. However, some does may not do this until the very last moment. Do not handle her more than necessary once she has begun nest making and make sure that she has plenty of hay.
After the arrival of the litter, the nest should not be touched, otherwise there is the risk that the mother may eat or neglect the babies. The average litter is about six or seven young, although the number may vary from one to twelve. Smaller breeds regularly have smaller litters than larger. The babies are born naked and blind. They grow quickly, however, soon becoming covered in hair and opening their eyes. By about 14 days, the young should be clearly seen in the nest moving and fidgeting but it may be as long as three weeks before they start to venture forth for food. They will totter about on unsteady legs, nibbling at pieces of food and getting acquainted with the outside world.
By four to five weeks, there will be a marked change and the youngsters should be eating strongly. The amount of food may have to be doubled or trebled to keep pace with their ravenous appetites. Weaning should be done at six weeks or a week or two later if you are short of empty hutches. A doe may lose most of her plump condition rearing a litter and she should not be re-mated until she has recovered.
Six weeks old rabbits can be easily sexed. Hold the animal on its back in the palm of one hand and gently manipulate the vent region. Press back the skin on each side of the vent with two fingers. In the buck, a small tube will rise up (the penis, male sex organ) whereas no tube will appear for the doe. A little practice is probably required for the beginner and, in doubt, an experienced breeder will soon demonstrate the sex difference. The older the rabbit, the easier it is to determine the sex. The youngsters can be kept together until about three months but scarcely longer. Sooner or later, fighting will occur, particularly between the bucks. In addition, the bucks will commence chasing the does and litters will be produced before the young are old enough to properly care for them.
Mated does rarely make a nest until a few days before the litter is due (say, about 26 days) but some may do so much earlier (say, about 16 days). This is a bad sign, for it often means that the mating has been a failure. You can either wait out the full 31 days of normal pregnancy or you can test the doe by introducing her into the buck’s hutch to see if she requires re-mating. If so, she will usually accept him within a few days. Should you be in a hurry to have a litter, several days will be saved by observing the date of nest building.
It is not uncommon for a doe to carry wisps of hay about in her mouth, and to construct a nest, although she has not been mated. This is normal behaviour and is a sign that she would accept mating if placed with a buck. It does not mean that she must be mated if you do not wish her to have a family. The phase will pass without ill-effects although it may recur.