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The History of Pets, part 3: Rabbits

The History of Pets, part 3: Rabbits
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In the last of a three-part series, writer and pet-lover Julian Hall looks at the history of rabbits...

Used as a source of food for many centuries, rabbits took a lot longer than cats and dogs to become a popular choice of domestic pets. However, they have more than made up for this awkward start and have bounded into our affections in a very real way.


Did you know that the 60 breeds of domestic rabbit that populate the globe today are descended from the species that evolved in the 'land of rabbits'? Some language specialists say this was the original name for the Spain, where the European wild rabbit came into being 4000 years ago on the Iberian Peninsula.

Hopping forward in time, the Roman occupation of Spain around 200BC saw rabbits farmed for their meat and fur - and the animals were first brought to Britain by the Romans after they invaded in 43AD.


Fifth-century monks living in the Champagne region of France are credited as the first people to domesticate rabbits, keeping them caged to use as a convenient food source. These monks were the first to breed rabbits selectively, changing size, shape and fur colour.

During the Middle Ages rabbit farming for meat and fur expanded across Europe including Britain. Documentary evidence notes that some noblewomen from the time started to keep rabbits as pets.

Regional variations of breeding began to produce distinct types such as the Flemish Giant (first known as the Ghent Giant) which dates back to the 16th Century and the 18th Century French dwarf breed, the Lapin de Nicard, weighing just 1.5kg.

The continued domestication of rabbits was a very middle class pursuit. Often families who moved from the country to the new burgeoning towns saw the rabbit as a 'portable', nostalgic link to their past. By the Victorian era, new breeds were being exhibited as show animals.

The journey of the rabbit to being the third most popular pet underwent a kind of 'one hop forward, two hops back' movement during the first and second world wars, both in the UK and the US, when governments encouraged rabbit ownership for the purposes of providing food and clothing. In both countries after the wars, however, rabbits transitioned between resources to pets.


Because of their sprightly and nimble nature, rabbits are often portrayed as 'tricksy' types in popular culture, indeed this notion stretches from ancient African tribal folklore through to Bugs Bunny.

The Aztecs had four rabbit gods who were associated with revelry and fertility, and this link with fertility has endured with 'bunnies' used to represent new born babies and early childhood. Vietnamese culture, in particular, stresses the rabbit as a symbol of youth and innocence.

The association with luck - namely the symbol of the rabbit's foot - is common across the world, though there is one notable exception in the UK, on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Quarrying was once common on the island and quarry workers could find themselves at risk if rabbits had weakened the walls with their burrows. Rabbits have since been referred to here by euphemistic names such as 'long ears' or 'underground mutton', it being considered too unlucky to mention them by their proper name!

Rabbits have commonly found themselves portrayed with human qualities. In literature notable examples are Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit and March Hare in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and Richard Adams' warring rabbits in Watership Down. Meanwhile, Bugs Bunny and Roger Rabbit are two famous examples from television and film.


Given the use of rabbits as an easy source of food and clothing, it has taken them a little longer to become recognised as a domestic companion, but now rabbits have joined cats and dogs as exactly that. Less regarded as simply a children's pet, owners have become more attentive to the care requirements of our floppy-eared friends and ensured that they have vaccines and other necessary medical treatments. Insurance is as important for rabbits as it for other pets, and this is why Petplan have policies that protect against the expense that may be incurred to treat serious illnesses such as Fly Strike and Coccidiosis.

Read our previous posts on the history of dogs and the history of cats


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I read this article which is a MUST read for all rabbit owners who use soft wood shaving either in their litter tray or hutch. The Dangers of Softwood Shavings George Flentke, Ph.D. The Dangers of Soft Wood Shavings for Rabbits and Guinea Pigs The use of pine and cedar as litter for house rabbits should be avoided. Other superior litters, such as recycled paper and aspen shavings are available and you should steer potential adopters and those who already have rabbits to these safer alternatives. There are two major concerns with the use of cedar and pine shavings as litter. The first is the documented alterations in the liver's specialized tools, called enzymes, that can alter your rabbit's ability to handle standard drugs that your vet will use in the treatment of your pet. The second is the relatively poorly characterized cancer risk.When you open a container of pine or cedar shavings you will instantly smell the "aromatic" nature of the litter. That smell is where the the problem lies. The odor is from the natural volatile chemicals in the wood called phenols. Thus one of your best detection methods for determining an unknown bag of shavings is your own nose! This odor, and the phenols that cause it, are not found to the same amount in hardwood shavings, thus hardwood shavings, aspen being one of the most common, are considered a much safer litter material and can be recommended for rabbits and other small animals.The phenols in the softwood (pine and cedar) shavings causes changes in the liver's enzymes. Your rabbit's liver tries to remove the phenols by producing more of certain enzymes that destroy these chemicals; this is a natural part of you and your rabbit's defense against enviromental toxins. Our bodies always produces a low constant level of these protective agents; the problem occurs when constant exposure to pine phenols causes the rabbits to produce substantially larger quantities.The most characterized and potentially the most troublesome problem is that these enzymes are also used to remove drugs. Remember that removing drugs is just as important as their administration; we want the drugs to have the desired effects and then go away when we no longer need them, so knowing exactly how long they will be around is an important part of every drug's action. If these enzymes are elevated, then the time a drug will be in the body and have the desired effect is much less than predicted. Some of the drugs affected are xylazine and ketamine, the most popular injectable anesthesias. Other important drugs include dexamethasone, theophylline and all of the opioid painkillers, such as butorphanol, that are commonly used for bunnies. In rodents, for example, constant exposure to phenol-containing litters reduced drug effectiveness by greater that 40%. This is the main objection to softwood litters. We as caretakers are always limited in what safe drugs we can use on rabbits, and decreasing their safety further by making them unpredicatable should be avoided if at all possible.The second objection to softwood shavings exposure as a cancer risk is less concrete. Epidemological studies in humans point to increase risks in people who work in saw mills, but the issue of volatile phenol involvement is not clear. Cedar shavings have caused increased risk for cancer in certain rodents, but in many ways this work was skewed by the nature of the experiment. Thus the evidence is, at best, only suggestive. Combined with the other health difficulties though, we should seriously question the use of pine and cedar in any litter for the pet industry.As a side issue, for those on the west coast, Ponderosa pine needles have been mentioned as alternative litter; this should be avoided at all costs. The material has caused spontaneous abortions in cattle and other domestic species and caused other hormonal disturbances. This is taken from the House Rabbit Society website
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