My experience has been using wooden nest boxes but will touch on metal nest boxes as well. Rule #1, whether building your own or buying ready-made nest boxes, measure the cage door so you know it will fit thru the cage door. Don’t laugh, it has happened to a few folks Make sure that once the nest box is inside, there is still room for a doe to lie down comfortably.
A good size nest box for a Holland doe is 8 ½” wide x 15” long x 8 ½” high at the back end gradually going down to 5” high at the front end. Wood that is ¾ inch thick is nice. Do not use walnut or other toxic or treated wood. Make sure the edges are sanded and even better are those sanded into a curve instead of straight edge. I find the rabbits tend to chew less on a curved edge, maybe it is harder to get their teeth around it. You might want to add a two inch lip on the inside front to keep babies in, if they hang onto the mom when she exits the box. Have 8-10 “ventilation holes” drilled into the bottom. Another option is a removable insert bottom. If the sides get chewed down, at least you have the bottoms when you toss the rest.
You can disinfect the nest boxes with a bleach/water combo or Lysol and then set them in the sun to dry.
Metal nest boxes have the advantage being virtually indestructible, not getting chewed up like wooden ones. Other advantages are easier disinfecting and much quicker drying time as you can just wipe them dry. Though I would still try to sun-dry them for the added germ killing effect. The metal nest boxes have wooden inserts or heavy cardboard can be used. I’ve heard of layers of newspaper and cardboard being used inside for insulating during cooler temps. Living in the Northeast, metal wouldn’t be an attractive
alternative to me.
Wooden or metal, I would use the same nest-making procedure. Put a good thick level layer of soft shavings in the bottom. Next add some soft hay. Do not use harsh or stem-y hay that can poke. Take your fist and softly “punch a hole” towards the back. Turn your fist clockwise to create a round sinkhole. This will hopefully encourage a good location for mom to drop the babies. Think bird’s nest. If a doe delivers near the front of the box, try to move it towards the back using the bedding exactly as she has made it in the front. In the winter, you can put cardboard next to the wood bottom, then shavings, then hay. Word of caution using cardboard, make sure the babies don’t end up living on the cardboard. It is slippery and could create splayed legs.
We give nest boxes to the does several days before their due date, especially if they are already lugging hay and/or pulling fur. Place the nest box in a back corner of the cage, choose the non-potty corner. Face the lower side towards the side of the cage so the opening is blocked. This prevents babies being dragged out if they hang on while nursing when the mom jumps out. On a side note, baby-saver wire or urine guards help keep the kits in the cage and off the rabbitry floor.
Check boxes daily to make sure the doe isn’t using it as a potty. If a doe is using it as a potty, she most likely isn’t pregnant. But never, ever, remove a nest box before the due date. Leave it in for a few days after the due date, just in case. Always, always put a nest box in, even if you think the doe isn’t pregnant. You will NEVER regret putting a nest box in, you will ALWAYS regret not putting it in. If a doe doesn’t conceive or kindles a dead litter, save some of the pulled fur. Bag it up and put the doe’s name on it to use in the future if necessary. Especially if she’d bred back quickly, she may not have much more to spare if she pulled a lot.
If you have an unheated rabbitry during wintertime, you can try using clamp-on lamps either over or under the nest box. Use lots of caution with either method. Remove the metal bowl shaped reflectors if using under the nest box so no hay, shavings or hair accumulates and catches fire. When I used the lamps under the nest boxes, our cages were on wooden frames so I was able to clamp it easily directly under the box.
The lamp was turned on two days before the doe was due. This allowed time to warm the box and be able to regulate the heat before the babies were born. As they got to be a few days old, the lamp was turned away. When I was sure there was plenty of hair, the mom was covering them and they were keeping each other warm, the lamp was removed. Make sure the wires aren’t within chewing distance. If hanging one over the
nest box, do not get it too close or you will overheat the babies. Sometimes just getting the box warmed up until the doe kindles and you are sure she has pulled fur and covered them, that is enough, they will maintain their own heat and you won’t need the lamp. With either method, be sure to check periodically to circumvent overheating.
If the babies are cold, you can warm the nest by placing one of those cloth rice bags you nuke in the microwave under the box. Or wrap a kitchen towel around a heated rice bag, then place some fur and babies on top of it. REMEMBER that the babies can get quickly overheated so don’t put them directly on the rice bag. While the warmth may feel good to you, it is way too hot for newborn kits. It can harm the
hairless, thin skinned babies. I remove the box to do this and continually check for overheating. They cannot regulate their body temps or even move away if they get too hot. You can use a regular heating pad under the box or a hot water bottle inside it.
After the doe kindles, give her a treat to eat away from the box so you can remove and examine the babies. Now is the time to clean up any blood, afterbirth or dead babies. Do a head count and write it on the cage tag with the actual delivery date. Make note of how many normal size and how many peanut babies on her cage tag. Peanuts are kits born with the fatal double dwarf gene. They are much smaller than normal kits
and normally expire within a few days. You’ll need to remove the peanuts when they expire.
I never worry about a doe abandoning or hurting her babies because I’ve checked the box or handled the babies. I’ve never resorted to putting Vick’s Vaporub on a doe’s nose or fed her hamburger after delivering. To me, these are old wive’s tales, though there are some folks who might disagree. Always do what makes sense to you and works for you.
If the temps are cold, bring the nest box indoors and take it out once a day for the doe to nurse the babies. An empty copy paper box is useful to put the nest box in when it’s in the house. If babies wander out of the nest box, they are contained, whether in the house or in transit. Especially when they get a bit older and “popcorn” around anticipating their visit to mama. I bring the box out each morning. Most always the doe will jump right in, eager to nurse them. You get a good night’s sleep not worrying about them!
I check the nest box every day in case it gets soiled or a baby dies. Make sure they are warm enough, all together in one spot and well covered. Around when their eyes are opening, you can clean the box if it feels damp or has an odor. Keep out clean fur and hay to try to recreate their nest just as it was before you removed the soiled shavings. The babies never appreciate our efforts and may try to spill over the sides when first put back in the clean nest box. Put some fresh shavings in the sunshine to warm them. If you can make it much like it was and warm, they’ll settle back in quicker.
When the babies first start to tumble out of the box on their own, turn the box around so the low end is accessible. To give them a “boost” you can place a brick in front of the low end for a step. The nest box may be removed when the babies are 3-5 weeks old. When I find them spending as much time outside the box as in, I take it out. I put a pile of hay in the same corner the nest box was previously in. This way they have a familiar soft place to nurse and sleep and better footing on the wire for their small feet.