Its that time of year, bunnies are popping up all over, and while discovering a nest of adorable baby bunnies in your yard can be a delightful surprise, if your dog uncovers them first, it can quickly turn into a nightmare. Dogs are naturally curious creatures, and the sight and scent of small animals can trigger their instincts to investigate and possibly disturb or even injure a nest of baby bunnies. As a responsible pet owner, knowing what to do if you or your pup run across a rabbits nest will help ensure the safety and well-being of both the baby bunnies and your dog. Read on to learn how to recognize and respond when you or your dog find a rabbits nest.

This time of year rabbits are doing what rabbits do best, breeding. According to Mass Audubon, mating season for the most prevalent species of rabbit in Massachusetts, the Eastern Cottontail, typically runs from mid-February through September. With a gestation period of just under 30 days, that means you might stumble upon their shallow nests filled with 3-8 babies (also known as kits), in your yard as early as March and all the way into October. Eastern cottontail mamas often choose to build their nests in the center of open spaces like suburban lawns, and frequently they choose backyards with dogs. While this tactic may seem counterintuitive to many of us, it is believed they do so because natural predators like raccoons, skunks, and opossums are wary of open areas, particularly those well-frequented by dogs. Mother rabbits form their nests by digging a shallow depression that resembles a bowl, usually in the grass. This hole” is then lined with dried grass, leaves, and her own fur. Once the kits are born she will cover them with more dried grass and fur, leaving what looks like a little pile of messy grass among the regular lawn or vegetation. Moms usually only return to feed their litters once or twice a day, after dusk or before dawn, each feeding lasting only a few minutes. She stays away from the nest as much as possible to avoid attracting attention. The excellent camouflage and lack of scent from the babies, means they are well hidden from most predators, but it is easy for you or your pets to come across them and disturb the growing babies.

So, what do you do if you or your pooch finds a nest of rabbit kits in your yard?? The first and most important thing is to stay calm. Even if you believe the bunnies are already injured, or are in danger of injury from your dog, keeping calm will help your dog stay relaxed and focused and enable you to distract them and move them away from the nest. Baby bunnies are extremely fragile, any handling by you or your dog could cause serious injury. Without scolding or punishing your dog — they are simply acting out of instinct, act quickly and calmly redirecting your dogs attention, moving them away from the nest and inside until you can further assess the situation.

Once your dog is safely stowed inside you can inspect the nest. Try to be as efficient as possible, any time you spend near the nest could attract the attention of predators in the area. If you discover the nest before you or your dog disturb it and it is still intact, it is best to leave it alone. If the nest has been disturbed, try to recreate it as best as possible in the same spot. Tuck the baby bunnies back inside and make sure they are covered with nesting material, if you need extra you can use some dried grass from the surrounding area. Handle the kits carefully, as mentioned above, baby bunnies are very fragile; but, there is no need for concern of abandonment by the mother because of human touch, that is a myth. Just be as gentle and efficient as possible. If you are concerned the mother rabbit may not return you can use the string or baking powder test to be sure she is feeding her babies. Place a few pieces of yarn or string over the nest in a crisscross pattern or a ring of baking powder in a circle around the nest, check back over the next 48 hours to see if there are any disturbances in the string or baking powder, you may want to take a picture of the string for comparison. If you notice the string has been moved or the baking powder disturbed, you know Mama is still on the job.

Once the babies are safe and snug in their nest its time to secure the area. You are going to want to create a barrier around the nest or plan for a way to keep your dog out of the area until the bunnies have grown large enough to move on. Erecting plastic temporary fencing around the nest is an excellent way to keep the kits safe. This type of fencing is very economical and available at most hardware stores. Just make sure to leave a large enough opening at the bottom for Mama Bunny to come and go and small enough to keep your pup out. You may also choose to simply keep your dog on a leash until after the bunnies have graduated the nest. Thankfully, the nesting period for rabbits is short, in no more than three weeks they will emerge to begin their adult lives. Although it may be tempting, do not leave food or water out for mama or the babies as it is likely to attract attention from predators.

This time of year it is always a good idea to survey your yard for rabbits nests before mowing or letting your dogs out; but, unfortunately, sometimes we may not notice in time and our dog may get ahold of the babies or we may run over a nest with our mower. If the nest has been significantly disturbed, if any of the bunnies appear injured, or if you set up the string or baking powder test and the mother rabbit does not return for over 48 hours, it is best to seek assistance from a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Wild animals are protected by law, wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers licensed by the state to aid in the care and recuperation of sick, injured, or debilitated animals and return them to the wild as quickly as possible so they may have the best chance of survival. Do not try to nurse injured or sick wildlife back to health on your own, check the listing on mass.gov to find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area or reach out to your towns Animal Control Officer for advice and assistance.

Encountering a nest of baby bunnies in your yard can be a challenging situation, but with patience, knowledge, and care you can help ensure a positive outcome for all involved. And who knows, one of those babies might come back to build her nest next year. With a little luck you could be sharing your yard with generations of adorable bunnies for years to come!