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Your_Majesty's avatar

Is the myth about 'touching baby rabbit will cause rejection from mother rabbit' is really right?

Asked by Your_Majesty (8215points) June 24th, 2010

I had answered a question in other site where the OP asked why her rabbit disown her own babies,so I said one of many reasons it might because that she has touched the babies and left her strange smell on the babies so their mother will see this scent as a threat. Other answerer support this idea by giving their own experience when they’re in the same situation but another answerer said that this is just a myth and domesticated animals will lost this particular behavior.

According to what I’ve learned some species of animals(in the wild or tamed) will reject their young in this situation. I’m not sure if this is just a myth and domestication really change this particular instinct. So maybe someone here can clarify this issue.

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22 Answers

syz's avatar

It’s a myth. Wildlife rehabilitators (who are often forced to return perfectly healthy animals to perfectly fine situation because humans have decided to interfere) will tell you that handling babies enough to return them to a nest will have no impact whatsoever on the parent. (Perhaps the myth is promulgated in an effort to dissuade people from casually and gratuitously handling wildlife.)

I suspect (but have never tested the theory) that a baby that has been handled extensively, been kept in a strange environment, and been fed an artificial diet will smell so different that a mother would reject it if an attempt was made to return it.

(Here in my neck of North Carolina, on a daily basis right now, people are actively removing babies from perfectly fine situations because it’s too hot, never mind that these species have evolved to survive in NC. The truly sad thing is that rehabbers are so overwhelmed in this area, they are unable to take in any more animals, so these babies may have been given a death sentance by people thinking that they’re trying to help.)

Vunessuh's avatar

If a mother ever abandons/rejects/kills one of her babies, it’s for a different reason.
It could be that she’s stressed or scared in her environment. It could be that she can’t produce enough milk.
She also may have been scared by something, or someone, and believes the only way to protect her children, is to kill them herself, so they won’t be eaten by anything else.
Among many other reasons, of course. I’m not quite sure how common this all is.

chyna's avatar

I had baby rabbits in the middle of my back yard last year. I moved them for their safety, so my dog wouldn’t get them. I didn’t move them far, and only touched them the one time, with gloves on, but their mother never came back. There is no way to know if she got killed or just rejected them, but I really hope it was nothing that I did. They died.

syz's avatar

@chyna Moving the nest is a whole other story!

Your_Majesty's avatar

I think this could be myth. But would it be different for each species? I read a complete book about hamster and the writer said that you shouldn’t touch the newborn babies or their mother will reject them for their strange smell and you’ll need to use silicon glove/other fabric to touch them . I don’t see the similar suggestion in a book about rabbit.

syz's avatar

@Doctor_D Hamsters are kind of crazy in general, and they tend to eat their babies for a dizzyingly wide array of reasons. I wouldn’t doubt that disturbing a mother hamster in any way would result in baby mortality.

chyna's avatar

@syz Are you saying I got them killed? Oh no!

syz's avatar

@chyna Sorry, didn’t mean to upset you! It could have been any number of reasons that the babies didn’t survive, not necessarily the move. That’s the nature of wildlife, and especially bunnies. We have a rather morbid joke around here that bunnies exist for no other reason than to provide food for every possible predator. I like to think that their apparent frailty (just handling an adult bunny can cause a lethal amount of stress and result in sudden death) is actually a kindness built in – that they just go ahead and die when predated, rather than suffering. (Wow, this makes it sound as if I spend way too much time thinking about bunny death.)

chyna's avatar

Vet humor…
They would have died if I had left them in the yard anyway, as my dog would have gotten to them. I tried to get the wild life people out here to get them, and he just laughed at me. :-(
He told me to quit looking at them and to quit obsessing about them. (Wonder how he knew?)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@chyna The survival rate for rabbits is extremely low, that’s why they breed like rabbits. Don’t sweat it too much.

Iclamae's avatar

I don’t know about rabbits but when put in this situation with cockateils, it was true. If we touched any of her eggs, she wouldn’t sit on them and the egg would die. And this happened quite often since we had a male and female bird. Springtime… baby time. She wasn’t very good about making the eggs become babies to begin with but if we touched them, she avoided them all together.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Iclamae I think there’s something about the oils on your skin being able to penetrate the egg that also comes into play with birds.

Iclamae's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe hrm, possibly. My grandmother would say it was the smell of human but we aren’t behavioral biologists or anything. I’ve just always assumed from that experience that it carried over to other “wild” animal babies.

syz's avatar

@Iclamae Most birds have a very poor sense of smell. I can’t imagine that smell was the issue, especially if she lived with you and thus was surrounded by your scent every day.

Merriment's avatar

@chyna – Sorry about your experience. If you should ever encounter that situation again it is best to take a crate with an “adult size” rabbit hole (which is smaller than you’d think) cut in the side and place it over the nest with heavy bricks or something to hold it in place. Or put a temporary fence around it to keep the dog out.

It doesn’t take long for the rabbits to get old enough to leave the nest so it’s a temporary hassle.

While it is a myth that they will reject them because you touched them, it isn’t a myth that if you disturb the nest and move them too far afield that their parents will not return until it is too late. Dehydration can kill a newborn/tiny bunny in a matter of hours.

chyna's avatar

@Merriment Thanks for the suggestion. That was the 2nd time a rabbit had babies in the yard and my other dog got them. I did have a fence around the nest, but not a good enough one, which is why I moved them this last time. I will try the crate next time.

MaryW's avatar

It is a myth with fact. Moving the babies in that you distrupt the nest is upsetting to the “mom” and also if you touch them you will want to show them around and take them home and if you return them then they will smell and act different and mom will not like that. @Merriment and @syz had a great iposts above.
I do know for a fact if I want chickens to adopt a chick not her own I have to put it under her at night so it smells like her and her brood in the morning. Wild Rabbits would not like to see you anytime.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

As regards rabbits, this is a myth.

Much greater care must be used in handling the young of unicorns and jackalopes .

josie's avatar

Myth. Based on the assumption that humans are particularly evil and other species know this. Believe me, if a baby rabbit got picked up and then dropped by a dog, the mother would still take care of it.

Coloma's avatar

Here in Northern California where I live, the local wildlife rehabbers take in scads of baby bunnies and adult injuries.

Lots of Jackrabbits, Brush rabbits and Cottontails.

Lots of nests get plundered by people mowing and weedeating and grading with tractors ( I live in the foothills of the Sierra nevada mtns. )

Yes, scent has little to do with it, and birds have a very poor sense of smell as @syz mentioned, with the exception of vultures and seabirds.

If anything it is a matter of a ‘predator’ finding and or disturbing the nesting site which may lead to abandonment.

Lots of folks up here find young fawns and think they have been abandoned when the moms leave them hidden for long stretches.

It is alway’s best to NOT intervene unless it is a dire situation and the animal is taken to a professional rehabber.

Response moderated (Writing Standards)
keobooks's avatar

A lot of people find rabbit nests and think the mother abandoned the babies because they don’t see the mother. The mother is usually nearby watching. They only go to the nest a few times a day to nurse. The rest of the time, they stay hidden and watch the nest for predators. I think many people who believe they are helping out bunnies are doing more harm than good.

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