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Wild Animals/Sudden death wild baby bunnies--rabies?


Dear Dana,

I recently took in and cared for two wild baby bunnies. I know, I know, I should have left them alone, but where I live we often find dead rabbits in our shed from the many local barn cats, and farmers here shoot them on sight--so I didn't feel bad about keeping then, though I probably think differently now.  They were hiding in grass about 10 feet away from their nest and about 6 inches long.  They ate fine--grasses, clover and organic dandelion that I bought (the wild grasses had no poisons that I knew of on them).  We handled them often to tame them and at first they didn't like it, but then they calmed down and would be fine with my husband and I handling them (but not new people, which was severely limited).  They ate a LOT of grasses and they pooped like crazy. I cleaned their cage (actually an old cat carrier--maybe bad) twice a day with water and all natural non toxic soap.  They both died of the same thing, apparently.  The first died after two weeks and the second died a week later.  I noticed something wrong with the first when I held it in my hands and it bit me, twice...not hard enough to break the skin or anything and my hands did smell of food.  I let it go and I noticed it holding a leg strangely.  I put it away in its cage.  Later that evening I took it out again and it would hop and almost tumble forward each time.  Then it rapidly deteriorated.  It would fall over and lay on it's side and then kick it's legs like it was running, then it would stretch it's neck back.  It did this for another few hours, slower and slower, then died.  The next bunny seemed great for a week, then I noticed it in it's cage with it's back legs splayed out behind it, then it pulled the legs back in.  It would flop over and soon, exhibited the same signs as the first bunny (seizures? convulsions?), then it died.  I noticed there were no droppings in it's cage from that day it's belly looked strange--a little bloated?  The second bunny was always fatter than the first, and I did not notice similar abdomen issues with the first and actually the first seemed under weight.  This second bunny ate like crazy and several days leading up to it's death I noticed it's belly always felt very large and full (and all the grass I'd put in was mostly eaten).  It had been pooping fine until the day it died. The only other thing I can think of, was I was giving them a commercial dried grass and flower mixture.  It seemed all natural and was not in pellet form.  The mix had little tiny pine cones in it which the container said was for their teeth.  The bunnies never ate them, that I knew of...everything else would be eaten excpet for them.  The day my second bunny died, I had not fed it yet that day and all the food was gone including one pine had gotten so hungry and ate it I think.  I never knew if the first one ate a pine cone.  Maybe those tiny pine cones were poisonous?  Though why would they be in the food mix?  But maybe they weren't supposed to be eaten, just knawed on?

My question is:  Could they have died of rabies that was passed on from their mother?  The problem seems neurological.  Did the first one bite because it wasn't feeling well or is that an indication of rabies? I touched their poop and pee each time I cleaned the cage. I disposed of both their bodies, though the one that died a day ago is still wrapped in a plastic bag in the trash.  Is it worth taking out and having tested? Or are their signs of illness consistent with the ways wild bunnies normally die in captivity?  I know their survival rate is very low in captivity, so maybe this is a common malady they share with other baby bunnies.  These were eastern cottontails, by the way.

I really aprreciate your help in this matter!


Dear Lauren,

Sorry for the delay in answering.  I was off line due to Tropical Storm Fay, but we're back on now.

I am sorry about the loss of the baby bunnies, but now you see why I always discourage people from trying to raise baby cottontails.  It nearly always ends in sad failure.

Without a necropsy on a fresh or very well preserved (refrigerated) body, there is no way to absolutely know the cause of death.  I very much doubt it was rabies, as wild rabbits usually don't survive an encounter with a rabid animal.  The convulsions you saw were typical of the agonal phase of any animal before death.  

Baby rabbits are highly susceptible to the bacteria on human hands (E. coli), and this could have contributed to the bloating and death.  It is vital to completely disinfect your hands before handling a baby rabbit--well into it's "teen" months, until the immune system is up and running.  And for this, they almost always need mother's milk.

It's also possible that they ate something (pine cone?) that was just not digestible, and it caused a blockage.  But again, only a necropsy would reveal this.

I am sorry about the loss.  I hope you were able to bury the babies in the garden, so at least their little bodies can go back to the earth from whence they and their ancestors came.

Hope this helps.


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Dana Krempels, Ph.D.


I'm an evolutionary biologist with a passion for animals. Ask about natural history, behavior, ecology, evolution. PLEASE NOTE:

If you have found an "orphaned" or injured wild animal or bird:
Please don't waste time asking questions on the internet, as the answers may come too late. DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL, and DO NOT HANDLE IT unless it is in imminent danger. (Many wild "orphans" are not orphans at all!) If you are absolutely sure it is orphaned, keep it warm and quiet, and find a LICENSED WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR HERE. Don't try to raise a baby yourself, or rehabilitate an injured anmal. Many a well-intentioned rescuer will do more harm than good, especially with baby birds and baby rabbits.

Without geographic location, time of day and habitat, I can't help. A clear picture is always best.

It's impossible for me to I.D. an animal call without hearing it myself.

I'm not an expert on comparative strengths of different animals (more complicated than you might think!) nor bite forces.

I refuse to answer "Which of these two animals--X or X--would win in a fight?".

These hypothetical matchups range from impossible (Grizzly Bears and Gorillas don't even occupy the same continent.) to ridiculous (Someone asked me "Who would win a fight between a Great White Shark and a tiger?").

The vast majority of animals--even the fierce and powerful--are not as warlike as Homo sapiens, and it's childish to project our aggressiveness onto them.


I have been the fortunate caregiver to a group of Black-tailed Jackrabbits rescued from the Miami International Airport, and not releasable in this area because they are not native. I also have rehabbed and released Eastern Cottontails, and am in contact with many very experienced wildlife rescuers who regularly handle injured or orphaned rabbits and hares.

House Rabbit Society

Exotic DVM journal

I have a Ph.D. in Biology, with main areas of expertise in evolutionary biology, genetics, botany, and ecology.

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