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Wildlife and Our Pets

March 8, 2016

Here Comes Eastern Cottontail, Hopping Down the Bunny Trail…

Welcome to March: the air is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, the snow is melting away, and spring is on its way! What better time than spring to talk about wildlife; baby animals are prevalent and often sharing spaces with our pets.

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The first species I will tackle is the Eastern Cottontail rabbit.  Because they are so prolific and prevalent in Minnesota, Eastern Cottontails are very familiar to our pets and us.

Rabbits are a veritable symbol of spring; their incredible ability to reproduce makes them the perfect representation of the abundance of growth and fertility during this season.  They have a 30 day gestation period and can have up to 4 litters of 4-8 kits a year.  That’s a lot of babies! Thankfully, they also grow quickly, and will leave the nest to find their own territory within 4 weeks.  Because they are so prolific, many of us are destined to interact with baby rabbits at one point or another – and here’s what you should do!

  • Check your backyard for rabbit nests periodically during the spring if you have a dog or outdoor cat, and before you mow. Rabbit nests are shallow depressions in the ground lined with fur and usually protected by brush or some other form of cover. If you find a nest and babies are present – leave them as undisturbed as possible! They may appear “abandoned”, but likely are not. Mother rabbits stay away from their babies during the day, and only check on them twice a day, around dawn or dusk to feed. Do not stay near the nest during these times, and keep pets away as well – the mother will not return in your presence.


  • There are 2 ways to check that babies are not orphaned:
    • If babies are warm and round bellied in the morning, their mother has recently visited and fed them.
    • You can place yarn or twigs in a “tic-tac-toe” pattern over the nest, or flour around the nest. If the yarn/twigs/flour has been disturbed in the morning, the mother has visited and fed her babies.

Nest check

  • Once it is determined that the babies are fed and taken care of, what about protecting them from our pets?
    • The easiest way to do this is to keep animals on leash and away from the nest.
    • If this isn’t possible, an upside–down wheel barrow or wicker laundry basket with a whole cut in it (so the mother can get in and out) can be placed over the nest to protect it.
  • If your pet has already destroyed a nest, any animals that have been harmed or in a cat’s mouth should be cared for by a rehabilitator. Any unharmed kits can be moved to a new nest up to 10’ away. Dig a shallow hole about 3” deep and put into it as much of the original material as possible, including fur. Add dry grass as needed and return the young to the nest. Observe the nest to make sure the mother returns in ~12 hours, and cover the nest and/or leash pets to prevent disturbance.

Dog and rabbits

  • As mentioned before, babies are only cared for by their mother for about 4 weeks. They are independent at about 4-5 inches, when they are hopping around and their ears are upright. Many people mistakenly think that they are lost or abandoned at this life stage, but they are really independent and should be left alone unless they are visibly injured.

Overall, only visibly injured or confirmed orphans should be removed from their nest or habitat for rehabilitation. They are extremely difficult to rehabilitate and stand the best chance undisturbed with their mother in their natural habitat. When in doubt, call a local rehabilitation center for advice!

Independent bunny

Written by Brianna Blackmon, Veterinary Assistant at Grand Avenue Veterinary Center

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