Many cottontails living in backyards or other populated areas are quite habituated to people and may sit, unmoving, for an extended length of time. This may be normal behavior. Sick or injured rabbits may be identified by abnormal behaviors such as lying on their sides for extended periods of time, head tilting, falling over, or inability to run in a straight line. Injured or sick adult rabbits are extremely susceptible to stress, and the stress of capture and time spent in a travel carrier is often enough to hasten death. In addition, cottontails are prone to fractured spines when they are handled by inexperienced individuals. The best course of action when a cottontail is suspected to be injured or sick is to avoid disturbing or bothering the animal. Keep all pets and small children away from the rabbit.
The above guidelines should be followed for all rabbits suspected to be ill. Dead rabbits should be handled with a shovel and placed within two sturdy plastic bags (i.e. double-bagged). The bags can then be placed with the regular trash for pick up. After disposing of a dead rabbit, thoroughly wash and scrub your hands with soap and hot water and rinse the shovel with bleach.
Cottontail rabbits nest from March through September and may have as many as four litters per year. The average litter contains four to five babies. Young rabbits disperse from the nest at 15-20 days old. By three weeks of age, they are on their own in the wild and no longer require a mother’s care.
If you find a baby rabbit:
- Is the rabbit injured (bleeding, broken bones, puncture wounds, been in a cat’s mouth, open wounds, etc.)?
- If YES, contact your nearest veterinarian that is capable of and willing to see wildlife patients (always call the veterinarian prior to bringing wildlife to the hospital) or rehabilitator for treatment.
- If NO, see below.
- Is the rabbit fully furred with its eyes opened?
- If YES, if the rabbit is larger than a baseball and weighs more than 4 ounces or 100 grams, it is on its own and does not need human intervention.
- If NO, attempt to locate the nest (a shallow depression on the ground possibly lined with rabbit fur and/or grass, cottontail rabbits do not burrow) and put the rabbit back. Nests that must be moved (due to construction) may be relocated up to 20 feet away from the original site (scoop up and rebuild the nest with the mother’s fur and place the babies inside). Check back briefly once a day for two days. If the rabbits appear to be plump and healthy, leave them alone. Mother rabbits feed at dusk and dawn. You are not likely to ever see the mother. If the rabbits appear thin and weak, have wrinkled, baggy skin, contact a state licensed small mammal rehabilitator in your area immediately. Rabbits may be temporarily moved for mowing if they are returned to the nest before dusk. Do not attempt to mow within 10 feet of a rabbit’s nest if there are babies present. If you suspect the nest is abandoned, you can sprinkle the area with flour or cross two twigs over the nest and check back in 24 hours. If there is no sign of disturbance to the nest, you will then need to intervene.
If a wild animal has been injured or truly orphaned, locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator by calling the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ toll-free wildlife conflict helpline at 1-855-571-9003, 8:00AM-4:30PM, Monday through Friday or visit the licensed wildlife rehabilitator section of this website.