Mimicking Natural Nursing Conditions Promotes Early Pup Survival in Domestic Rabbits


Corresponding author: Benoist Schaal, Laboratoire de Comportement Animal, CNRS ura 1291, Station de Physiologie de la Reproduction, INRA, 37380 Nouzilly, France. E-mail: schaal@tours.inra.fr


In the wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, mother–young relationships are based on restricted, once-per-day nursing interactions. Correspondingly, pups have evolved an efficient strategy of energy saving. Here we investigate under breeding conditions, whether matching or not, the once-daily nursing visit by the rabbit females has an effect on pup survival and growth. Two nursing regimen were applied to 89 primiparous (P) and to 78 multiparous (M) does: (a) one that matched the once daily nursing pattern (closed nest-box during the whole day except for a few minutes devoted to nursing) and (b) one that did not match it (24 h free nest access). In P females, the controlled nest access resulted in lower mortality between birth and weaning (8.1%) as compared to the free nest-access (18%). This effect was recorded from postnatal d 3–4 onwards. Both treatments induced different death causes (starvation (63%) in controlled-access regimen, and wounds and nest-soiling (29%) in free-access regimen). While both experimental nest-access regimens differentially affected pup survival in P or M females, they were without influence on pup growth rate in does of either parity. It is concluded that repeated nest visits by the female increase risks of injury to pups, and of out-of-time pup activation or sucking, and that, more generally, it plays against the ethophysiologigal strategy of biomass conservation evolved by rabbit newborns. The fact that the nest-access regimen no longer affected pup survival from the second parity suggests that the behaviour of multiparous does more adequately models the offspring demands.