A caesarean section is a surgical procedure to deliver babies. With a caesarean, the abdomen is incised, and the babies are delivered, then the mother is stitched back up.
A caesarean section is necessary when a vaginal delivery is not possible, and this can be for a variety of reasons. Unlike humans, elective caesareans are not common in animals so are almost always an emergency procedure.
What is a normal pregnancy and birth process?
Rabbits are pregnant for around 29-35 days, but in most cases is between 30-32 days. Most female rabbits give birth naturally and without any intervention required. A few days before she is due to give birth, the female will make a nest out of her fur and hay. She will most likely give birth (known as parturition) in the morning hours, and the process will usually take under an hour.
Baby rabbits are called kittens and are born hairless, blind and deaf. The mum will clean and lick the young, eating each placenta as it’s passed with each kitten. The young will feed from the mum’s teats. It’s best not to disturb the doe during and immediately after the birth as they can kill the litter if they feel threatened.
How do I know if my rabbit is delivering normally?
If the rabbit isn’t delivering normally, as explained above, this is known as dystocia, or obstructed labour. She will need urgent veterinary care as dystocia is life threatening to the kittens, and the mother.
If you see any of the following signs in a birthing rabbit, seek urgent veterinary care:
- The female is observed to be straining but produces no kittens.
- Part of a kitten is seen coming from the rabbit’s vulva, but it keeps going back inside or fails to be delivered.
- Green discharge is observed from the rabbit’s vulva.
- No sign of the kittens in a pregnant female after 35 days of mating.
If any of these occur or the doe is off her food, lethargic or showing signs of discomfort then you need to consult your veterinary surgeon immediately.
What is a caesarean?
A caesarean is a surgical procedure to deliver babies when the female is not able to deliver naturally. With a caesarean, the pregnant female is anaesthetised and an area on the abdomen is clipped of the fur and prepared for sterile surgery. She then will have an incision through her abdominal wall and into the uterus. The babies are delivered through this incision, then the mother is stitched back up.
How common are caesareans?
Caesareans are rare in pet rabbits and far less common than in dogs, but sometimes they are required if kittens cannot be born normally.
The most common cause of a caesarean are kittens that are larger than the pelvic canal, or in a breech position (born hind end first). Any of the following might prevent a female from giving birth naturally, and thus may require a caesarean:
- A small female rabbit, mating with a large male rabbit, resulting in kittens that are too large for the female to give birth naturally.
- A very young female rabbit that has a small pelvic canal so the kittens cannot pass through.
- A small litter of kittens, meaning the kittens may grow larger than normal.
- A female rabbit who has had any pelvic injury, meaning the pelvic canal may be obstructed/narrowed.
- Poor nutrition, or a Vitamin D deficiency that can increase the risk factors for developing a narrow pelvic canal.
How can I minimise the likelihood a rabbit will need a caesarean?
To reduce the chances of a caesarean being required:
- Breed only healthy, fit adult rabbits.
- Breed rabbits of a similar size.
- Make sure young females have adequate nutrition to ensure they have every chance to have a well-developed pelvic canal.
If a rabbit has had trouble birthing previously, avoid breeding her again to reduce the likelihood that a caesarean will be required.
What will happen if my rabbit has an obstructed labour?
If your rabbit has an obstructed labour, you will need to give your vet a full history also regarding when the female mated, the size of the male rabbit and the signs you have noticed. Your vet will first need to examine the rabbit and may use an ultrasound to look for the kittens, and to assess if they are alive by checking for heartbeats which can be picked up with an ultrasound. Your vet is also likely to perform a vaginal exam to assess if there is a kitten stuck in the birth canal.
Your vet will assess if the birth can be assisted with medications instead. Some medications can increase the uterine contractions to aid a natural delivery. If this is not possible, eg if the kittens are too large to pass or there is an obstruction in the birth canal, then a caesarean will be required.
What are the risks of a caesarean?
The caesarean procedure is a surgical emergency and is only performed when it’s required in order to save the doe’s life and to try and ensure the litter survives. A general anaesthetic is required, and the risk of surgical complications is higher than with routine surgery, but your vet will take measures to ensure the surgery is as safe as possible. If the female has had prompt care as soon as it was noticed that she wasn’t birthing normally, it’s likely she will come through the surgery well. Sometimes it’s not possible to revive the kittens, especially if the doe has been struggling to give birth for any length of time, or if the kittens are especially large.
What care does my rabbit need afterwards?
Your rabbit will have had major surgery and will require continued care at home. Recovery from a caesarean is usually straightforward, but additional care will be required to encourage rapid healing of the surgical wound. If the kittens have survived, it is important to try and leave them with the mother as they stand a much better chance of survival with her, than they do being hand reared.
Your rabbit should also be on pain relief and may be on prokinetic medication to help keep the gastrointestinal tract moving. Check your rabbits wound at least twice a day for any sign of infection or bleeding. Monitor your rabbit and ensure she is eating well and producing droppings normally. If this is not the case, you will need to take quick action. Discuss this with your vet. Syringe feeding may be required. If the mother isn’t eating well, the kittens will also need supplemental feeding.