Can baby rabbits drink cow milk?
Cow milk is a rich source of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and, most notably, calcium. However, it is less calorically dense and contains less protein and fat than rabbit milk. The lactose content in cow’s milk is also higher than in rabbit’s milk. These variations in the nutrient profile are due to the differences in the two species’ growth patterns and biological requirements.
In this article, we will let you know if rabbits can drink cow milk, the risks involved, the alternatives to cow milk for orphaned or abandoned baby rabbits, and much more.
Can Baby Rabbits Drink Cow Milk?
Baby rabbits should not be given cow’s milk as a substitute for their mother’s milk.
Cow milk is inappropriate for baby rabbits due to its significantly different nutrient content.
It is less rich in proteins and fats and has a higher lactose content, all of which are not suited to a baby rabbit’s digestive system and nutritional needs.
Overview Of Baby Rabbit Nutritional Needs
Rabbits, particularly newborns or kits, have specific dietary requirements for survival, growth, and development.
The first milk that a mother rabbit produces, known as colostrum, is exceptionally nutrient-dense.
The mother’s milk is the cornerstone of a baby rabbit’s diet for the first few weeks of life. The milk is laden with proteins, fats, and essential antibodies for the kits.
The proteins found in rabbit milk contribute to the growth and repair of tissues in the body.
The high protein content helps the kits grow quickly, supporting the development of muscles and other bodily tissues.
Rabbit milk is also packed with beneficial fats. Compared to many other mammals, rabbit milk has a remarkably high-fat content.
These fats are a concentrated energy source for the rapidly growing kits. They also aid in developing the nervous system and serve as a source of essential fatty acids.
In addition to proteins and fats, rabbit milk contains antibodies. These antibodies are produced by the mother’s immune system and passed onto the kits through her milk.
They play a crucial role in helping the newborn’s immune system fend off diseases and infections.
Colostrum is also a natural laxative, helping expel the kits’ first fecal matter, meconium.
Risks of Feeding Cow Milk to Baby Rabbits
As stated, cow’s milk is not a suitable substitute for a baby rabbit’s mother’s milk. The inherent differences in nutritional composition between these two types of milk can cause several potential health problems.
Here we will discuss the risks of feeding cow milk to baby rabbits.
1. Digestive System Disturbances
A baby rabbit’s digestive system is designed to process rabbit milk, which is quite different from cow’s milk in terms of nutritional content.
Cow’s milk has higher lactose levels than rabbit milk, and baby rabbits lack sufficient lactase, an enzyme required to break down this lactose.
This discrepancy can lead to various digestive disturbances, such as diarrhea, gas, bloating, and constipation.
Diarrhea, in particular, can be fatal to baby rabbits as it can lead to severe dehydration.
It can also disrupt the balance of the gut flora, leading to a condition called “enteritis,” or inflammation of the intestines, which can be life-threatening.
2. Nutritional Deficiencies
Cow’s milk contains fewer proteins and fats than rabbit milk, which are nutrients essential for the rapid growth of kits.
Regular intake of cow’s milk can lead to nutritional deficiencies in baby rabbits, compromising their growth and health.
For instance, a protein deficiency can hamper muscle and tissue development, while a shortage of necessary fats can impact energy levels and the development of the nervous system.
Also, the lack of antibodies in cow’s milk can weaken the immune system, making the kits more susceptible to various diseases and infections.
3. Milk Aspiration Risks
Baby rabbits are accustomed to a particular feeding position and rhythm while nursing from their mother.
There’s a risk of milk aspiration when fed with cow’s milk, especially using unfamiliar feeding methods such as syringes or bottles.
This occurs when milk is inhaled into the lungs instead of the stomach, which can lead to a severe condition known as aspiration pneumonia. This is a potentially fatal condition.
4. Long-term Health Implications
Beyond immediate risks, there may also be potential long-term health implications for baby rabbits fed on cow’s milk.
Given the vastly different growth rates and development patterns between cows and rabbits, cow milk’s nutritional profile may not support the optimal development of baby rabbits, potentially leading to health issues down the line.
Alternatives to Cow Milk for Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Rabbits
In unfortunate situations where baby rabbits are orphaned or abandoned, finding an appropriate alternative to their mother’s milk becomes necessary.
As we have established, feeding cow’s milk is not a safe or effective solution.
Here we will discuss suitable alternatives to cow milk for feeding orphaned or abandoned baby rabbits.
1. Commercial Rabbit Milk Replacers
Commercial rabbit milk replacers are the most suitable alternative to a mother rabbit’s milk.
These products are formulated to mimic rabbit milk’s nutritional content as closely as possible, containing essential proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in appropriate ratios.
They may also contain probiotics to support healthy gut flora.
However, these milk replacers may not be readily available in all areas. Moreover, the quality and composition can vary among brands, making it necessary to consult a rabbit breeding expert before choosing a product.
If you are within our area, we can recommend some for you, which we have tried in our rabbitry.
2. Kitten Milk Replacers
If rabbit milk replacers are unavailable, kitten milk replacers are often used as the next best alternative.
Kitten milk replacers are usually easier to find and have a nutrient profile closer to rabbit milk than cow’s milk.
They contain lower lactose levels and higher amounts of proteins and fats, which are crucial for fast-growing kits.
However, you should note that even though kitten milk replacers are a better choice than cow milk, they still do not perfectly match the composition of rabbit milk.
3. Goat Milk
Some rabbit caregivers suggest using goat milk as an alternative. Goat milk is easier to digest than cow’s milk due to its smaller fat globules and lower lactose content.
But like other alternatives, it does not precisely match the nutritional profile of rabbit milk, so care should be taken if choosing this option.
How to Make Homemade Rabbit Milk Replacer
Here we will list the required materials, recipes, and processes involved.
- A lidded container
- Sterilized steam bag (typically used for disinfecting breast pumps)
- Tiny nursing nipples (if you can’t find nipples designed for baby squirrels and rabbits, opt for the ones made for kittens)
- Nursing bottle or syringes (the type you purchase will depend on the nipples you have access to)
Ingredients for the Formula:
- Fresh, whole goat milk – ½ cup
- KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer, it can be gotten from PetAg or Foxvalley) – ½ cup
- Lyophilized (freeze-dried) colostrum – contents of 10 capsules or 1-1.5 Tablespoons (available at health food stores)
- Heavy cream – 3ml, which is about ½ teaspoon
- Combine all the ingredients in a container that comes with a lid. Secure the cover tightly and shake it well until the colostrum is dissolved. Prepare the formula a few hours before feeding time to allow the colostrum to soften, dissolve, and mix well.
- Warm up the formula to around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a quick-read plastic rectal thermometer (that’s clean and sterilized) to check the temperature. You should maintain the formula’s temperature by placing it in a warm water bath during the feeding session. Baby rabbits typically prefer their formula warm.
Note: This rabbit milk replacer, or any rabbit milk substitute, does not perform as well as real rabbit milk.
How to Feed the Formula to Baby Rabbit
Feeding baby rabbits with the formula involves some steps:
- First, ensure all your feeding equipment, such as syringes, bottles, and nipples, are thoroughly sterilized using a plastic sterilizing steam bag according to the instructions on the bag.
- To begin feeding, sit or lie on the floor with a towel on your lap. This positioning prevents accidental injury to the baby rabbit if it jumps or moves unexpectedly.
- With one hand, cradle the baby rabbit in an upright position. In your other hand, hold the bottle or syringe. If you wrap the feeding bottle in a washcloth or cotton pad, leaving a fold over your hand with the nipple sticking out, the bunny can “paddle” with its front feet like it would on its mother’s breast.
- At first, baby rabbits may resist feeding. Don’t try to force-feed them. If the baby rejects the nipple, dampen its lips with a small amount of the warm formula. The baby will instinctively lick it off. Repeat this process until the baby starts feeding willingly.
- Be cautious not to push too much formula into the baby rabbit’s mouth. It’s better to be extra careful to avoid causing the baby to inhale milk, which could lead to a fatal condition known as aspiration pneumonia.
- If the baby grabs the nipple and starts suckling, let it do so naturally. Avoid applying extra pressure on the bottle or syringe, as it could cause the baby to aspirate the formula.
- Some babies might not suckle but learn to lap/sip from the tip of the nipple instead, which is safer. To further minimize aspiration risk, try to hold the nipple sideways or point downwards relative to the baby’s mouth.
How Much To Feed
The quantity of formula you feed a baby rabbit depends on its age and size:
|Amount per Feeding (ml)
|Newborn to One Week
|One to Two Weeks
|Two to Three Weeks
|Three to Six Weeks
Note: They should be fed twice daily, and at two to three weeks, you can start introducing them to timothy and oat hay, pellets, and water in a shallow dish.
There are some precautions to note to avoid casualty when feeding or caring for these newborns.
1. Feeding Techniques
Proper feeding techniques are crucial when hand-feeding baby rabbits. Incorrect feeding can result in aspiration, a potentially fatal condition where milk enters the lungs instead of the stomach.
Using a small syringe for feeding can help control the flow of milk. As said earlier, the baby rabbit should be in an upright, natural position during feeding, not on its back, to reduce the risk of aspiration.
In case of accidental aspiration, perform the “Bunny Heimlich” maneuver as described below:
- Firmly yet gently grasp the bunny with your hands, positioning one on either side of its body.
- Keep the rabbit’s back and neck stable and unmoving, then elevate the rabbit above your head so its snout is facing upward.
- Execute a confident yet controlled downward swing towards your feet, being very mindful to avoid being too close to the floor.
- If necessary, do this swinging action two or three more times. This action can force the rabbit’s internal organs against its diaphragm, creating enough pressure to push air and any aspirated formula out of its lungs.
- As soon as you detect movement from the rabbit, immediately stop this swinging action.
- Following this, you should contact your vet to discuss the possibility of preventative antibiotics to avoid aspiration pneumonia.
2. Supplemental Care
In addition to feeding, orphaned or abandoned baby rabbits may need supplemental care.
This could include assistance with eliminating waste, as baby rabbits typically stimulate their mother’s licking to urinate and defecate.
A warm, soft cloth can be used to gently rub their genital area after each feeding to encourage elimination.
3. Handle Carefully
Until they open their eyes (at about 10-12 days), handle the babies as little as possible when you’re not feeding/grooming. You can read more here: Can You Touch a Baby Bunnies?
Here are some frequently asked questions.
[sc_fs_multi_faq headline-0=”h3″ question-0=”Can Baby Rabbits Drink Human Baby Formula?” answer-0=”No, baby rabbits should not drink human baby formula. The nutritional content of human baby formula is not suitable for rabbits. Suppose a mother rabbit isn’t available to nurse the baby rabbit. In that case, it should be fed a replacement milk formula specifically designed for rabbits or other small mammals, such as Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR).” image-0=”” headline-1=”h3″ question-1=”Can Baby Rabbits Drink Almond Milk?” answer-1=”No, baby rabbits should not drink almond milk. Almond milk does not have the necessary nutrients for baby rabbits and can cause digestive issues.” image-1=”” headline-2=”h3″ question-2=”Can Baby Rabbits Drink Cat Milk?” answer-2=”In an emergency, baby rabbits can be fed with a kitten milk replacer, but this should not be a long term solution. The mother rabbit’s milk is the most appropriate food for baby rabbits. Still, if this is not possible, a suitable small mammal milk replacer can be used.” image-2=”” headline-3=”h3″ question-3=”When Do Baby Rabbits Stop Drinking Milk?” answer-3=”Baby rabbits, usually start to wean off their mother’s milk around 4 to 5 weeks of age. This is when they start to eat solid food, such as alfalfa hay and young rabbit pellets. However, they should still have access to their mother’s milk until they are at least eight weeks old.” image-3=”” headline-4=”h3″ question-4=”Can A Baby Rabbit Drink Water?” answer-4=”Yes, baby rabbits can start to drink water once they begin to eat solid food, which is typically around four weeks old. However, while they’re still nursing (before four weeks of age), they get their hydration needs from their mother’s milk, and supplementary water is usually not necessary.” image-4=”” count=”5″ html=”true” css_class=””]
While cow milk might be a nutritional powerhouse for some species, it’s unsuitable for baby rabbits.
Its significantly different nutrient content compared to rabbit milk can lead to serious health complications in kits.
If a baby rabbit cannot access its mother’s milk, specialized commercial rabbit milk or kitten milk replacers should be used as a substitute under professional guidance.
Care and nurture in the early weeks are vital to a rabbit’s development, setting them up for a healthy life.
We hope this article helped you know if baby rabbits can drink cow milk. If you have questions, comment, and we will answer them.
1. Chankuang, P., Linlawan, A., Junda, K., Kuditthalerd, C., Suwanprateep, T., Kovitvadhi, A., Chundang, P., Sanyathitiseree, P., & Yinharnmingmongkol, C. (2020). Comparison of Rabbit, Kitten and Mammal Milk Replacer Efficiencies in Early Weaning Rabbits. Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 10(6). DOI: 10.3390/ani10061087. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7341243/
2. Yukio SYUKUDA. Rearing of Germfree Rabbits and Establishment of an SPF Rabbit Colony, Experimental Animals. 1979. Volume 28, Issue 1, Pages 39-47. DOI: 10.1538/expanim1978.28.1_39. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/expanim1978/28/1/28_1_39/_article/-char/en