“Nest box eyelids” in young rabbits and winter temperatures




Esther van Praag, Ph.D. 



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Around 10-12 days, eyelids of newborn rabbits separate and the young can finally discover their environment. It happens, however, that eyelids remain shut. Causes and how to fix this problem?

Michel Gruaz

A newborn rabbit is born with closed eyelids 

The opening of eyelids takes place between the 10th and the 12th day after birth. A small split appears, which progresses from the outer cutaneous face of the eyelid to the conjunctival inner surface. The ligaments and muscles of the eyelids also participate in the opening of the split. Once the eyelids get separated, their free edges gradually harden, eyelashes appear and the sebaceous glands, located on the inner edge of the eyelids, become functional and release secretions that will lubricate the eyelids.

Michel Gruaz

At 9 days, the eyelid of this young Belgian bearded rabbit show a first sign of opening in the corner of the eye 


Nest box eyelids typically affect one or two individuals per nest, sometimes more. This problem has been little studied in rabbits. One breeder found that litters of some rabbits were more likely to develop nest box eyelids than other rabbits. He then exchanged the nests between these two does. Without effect. The susceptible rabbits continue to suffer from the syndrome, despite different care of the adopting doe. And vice versa, the opening of eyelids of unaffected rabbits continued well in rabbits whose kits suffer from the syndrome. He then suspected a genetic origin to nest box eyelids. By reproducing only females with little or no young suffering from this syndrome, the proportion of affected young could certainly have been reduced, but not eliminated. In some nests, half of the kits suffered from the nest box syndrome. The syndrome of nest box eyelids does not seem to have a genetic origin.

Seasonal influence

Nest box eyelids is mainly observed in nests that are born in the winter and early spring seasons. Those born during the summer and fall months do not suffer from this syndrome or very rarely. Why do newborn rabbits born in summer and autumn not suffer from this syndrome? When temperatures are high, newborn rabbits feel comfortable on the surface of the nest. They do not migrate deep into the nest to stay warm. They have little or no contact with dust and urine and, therefore, bacteria. When temperatures fluctuate, newborn rabbits will migrate between the cooler surface of the nest during the warmer day temperatures and migrate deeper in the nest during the freezing night temperatures. Dust may settle in the split of the still closed eyelids or under the eyelids and lead to irritation of the ocular tissues. Mucus and tears are secreted. When these harden in the split of the eyelids, the latter will be unable to separate and remain shut. As dust coexists with the bacteria, the bacteria can also migrate in between the eyelids and cause infections of the eye structures. Staphylococci and streptococci are often responsible for these infections. Visible manifestations of such infections include eyelids pointing outwards because of inflammation or accumulation of pus in the eye cavity, the presence of crusts or the presence of thick yellowish pus between the eyelids.

Michel Gruaz

The presence of pus between the eyelids must be taken seriously in rabbit kits as bacteria can invade the cornea and lead to the latter to become bluish. 

Hygiene and heating lamp

It is impossible to eliminate all bacteria and other microorganisms of a rabbit nest. A very good hygiene makes it, however, possible to keep these intruders under control. Hygiene of the nest is therefore very important. After the birth of the young, the remains of placenta and stillbirths of the nest must be removed. Soiled litter is replaced by fresh, non-dusty litter: straw, hay or wood chips without sawdust. Cleaning of the rabbit nest should be done 2 to 3 times per week during the cold season or when daily temperatures fluctuate. if necessary, it should be renewed entirely with clean nesting material. If birth boxes are used, they should not be too big. This prevents that the does stays with her kits during the day and infects the nest with her fecal excrements and urine.

It is possible to add straw or hay to the nest built by the doe to make it deeper. A layer of wood shavings (without sawdust) can be placed under the nest, separated from the nest by a piece of wire. The latter acts as a physical barrier that prevents direct contact between the newborns and the wood shavings soaked with urine and bacteria. Another approach is to prevent migration of the newborn to the warm depths of the nest. To this purpose, a low energy heating infrared lamp can be placed on the side of the nest. As the warmth of the nest surface remains pleasant, migration to nest depths is reduced. This is accompanied by a decreased risk of developing the nest box eyelids. The electric cable must, however, be secured with a wire mesh to prevent nibbling by the doe and must be firmly fixed to the ceiling of the hutch to prevent fire !!!

Treatment of “nest box  eyelids”

It is important to check for the appearance of a cleft or opening of the eyelids between the 10th and 12th day of the rabbit kit. After this age, the cornea becomes opaque, with a risk that the rabbit becomes progressively blind from the affected eye.

A young rabbit is rarely the only one of all baby rabbits in one nest. It is, thus, important to examine the other members too.

When the eyelids remains closed, it is necessary to gently separate them. To this end, it is possible to use a cotton swab well impregnated with a sterile saline solution, virgin coconut oil, St. John's Wort oil or a colloidal silver solution. These all have antibacterial properties and do not cause irritation or tingling in the eyes. In these do not help an infusion of chamomile with a little honey or a strong black tea can also be tried. Once moistened, the eyelids are gently separated, starting from the corner of the eye towards the outer end. The eye is rinsed with a sterile saline solution to remove mucus debris or other foreign matter. Only one application is usually sufficient. If this is not the case, the operation is repeated twice a day for a few days. In case of infection, a prompt treatment is necessary. It is necessary to remove the infectious material at regular intervals and to administer antiseptic eye drops. Warm compresses placed on the eyelids prevent them from sticking together again.

It is important to keep the cornea moist, especially if the infection prevents a flutter of the eyelids. Drops of "artificial tears" without preservatives, for human use, can be used. If the surface of the cornea is damaged, scarring may lead to the formation of a whitish veil. Even if it is unsightly, the adult rabbit suffers at most from a little non-painful visual discomfort.


Big thanks to Michel Gruaz (Switzerland) for his photos and his permission to use them for MediRabbit.



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