Our two first-time moms, Siobhán and Oonagh, kindled 9 days ago. Each had 7 kits, and they all appeared healthy. Over the next few days, that changed. 3 of Siobhán’s kits died.
Oonagh is a Silver Fox/New Zealand cross. Our NZ breeding stock is amazing: large litters, excellent mothering instincts, unperturbed by their kits being handled, willing and able fosters. In short, ideal mothers. Though she’s half Silver Fox, Oonagh seems to have retained the NZ mothering attributes – she haystached, pulled fur and lined her nestbox, kindled in the nest box. All 7 of her kits are big and thriving.
Siobhán is a pedigreed American Chinchilla doe, our first of this breed. Unlike Oonagh, she didn’t haystache or show much interest in her nest box. She kindled on some hay she’d spread in a corner of the cage, so we moved the kits into the nest box.
Over the following couple of days, Oonagh’s kits grew fat and happy, being fed regularly (as evidenced by their “frog bellies”). Siobhán’s kits started showing oddly bloated bellies and didn’t seem to be growing as quickly as Oonagh’s. Does usually only feed their kits once or twice a day for about 5 minutes, so catching a doe feeding the kits is challenging. Researching the bloat, we found that a possible cause is failure to stimulate the kits to eliminate – their bladders can actually explode internally. Nursing does will lick their kits’ genitals to stimulate them to pee, so we used warm wet cotton swabs (tapping) to try to stimulate elimination. One kit did pee, but two others didn’t, despite our efforts.
By day 3, three of Siobhán’s kits had died. We fostered the remaining 4 to Oonagh, who, despite suddenly having a total of 11 mouths to feed, was a trooper and kept everyone alive. Within a day, the bloated bellies decreased in size and became full little frog bellies. The combined group of kits slumbered peacefully together in the nest box.
We speculated that maybe, as difficult as it was to imagine, Siobhán hadn’t been nursing them. She didn’t really seem to know what had happened or what to do with the kits. She also didn’t seem to miss them when we took them out. It’s apparently possible for a doe’s milk to come in late; if Siobhán had no milk when the kits arrived, she couldn’t feed them.
While Oonagh is a fantastic mother, we wanted Siobhán to have a chance to raise her own kits. After a few days of regular feedings by Oonagh, we brought a couple of kits to Siobhán to see if she would nurse them. We had some trepidation: what if she wasn’t interested or if she injured them? The kits scrambled under her like little monkeys and, to our immense relief, she not only let them nurse, but she licked them just like Oonagh licks hers. When she was done, she just detached them by hopping away. It was very promising. We put the freshly-fed kits back with Oonagh for the night.
After watching Siobhán feed kits (hers and a couple of Oonagh’s) again the next morning, we decided to reunite the family. Right after we put the plastic nest box with the kits back in, Siobhán started moving it around, even picking it up. Too light. We transferred everyone over to a metal nestbox that she couldn’t move easily and she settled down.
We’ll keep an eye on Siobhán’s kits to ensure they’re being fed and foster them back to Oonagh if necessary, but it looks like Siobhán gets the “mom” thing now. This was a difficult experience (for her and us), but we have confidence that she’ll do better with future litters. We’ll make sure another doe kindles at the same time again, though, just in case.
Did you notice that the kits’ eyes are starting to open? They should fully open this week…and then they’ll be getting out of the nestboxes and on their moms’ nerves!