Wild versus domesticated – what’s the difference?

Expert contributor

Brian Faulkner

Veterinary Surgeon
RCVS Registered
Expert contributor

Richard Saunders

Rabbit Welfare
Association & Fund

At first glance, our pet rabbits look pretty similar to their wild cousins. But what’s the reality?

A closer look at the evolution and domestication of our pet rabbits shows that while they might be similar to wild rabbits in some ways, there’s also some significant differences.

How were rabbits domesticated?

The earliest written records of rabbits being kept in captivity can be traced back to Roman times. For a long time, both domesticated and wild rabbits were essentially the same. It took over 2,000 years of rabbits being kept in captivity before any significant differences could be seen in the skeletal structures of domesticated rabbits.

The breeding of specific breeds of domestic pet rabbits can be traced back to 16th-century Germany, with the first breed club being founded in 1892. Rabbits became a popular pet in Victorian England, and they’ve been loved ever since. There are now over 200 different breeds of domestic rabbits recognised worldwide.

Wild versus domesticated rabbits – what’s the difference?

Wild rabbits typically roam over an area of around 10 acres. They have far shorter lifespans than their domesticated cousins, and generally live for two years compared with the domestic rabbit’s lifespan of around 10 years.

Wild rabbits eat a diet of mainly grass, wildflowers and clover. In the colder months, they will supplement this with bark, conifer needles, buds and twigs.

Can wild and domesticated rabbits breed?

Richard Saunders, Veterinary Advisor at the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF), says that ‘domestic rabbits are the same species and are native to Europe (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and so they can interbreed’.

He notes: ‘This is not uncommon, where wild rabbits have entered a garden, or domestic rabbits have escaped or sadly been dumped in the countryside by owners. Domestic rabbits will not thrive in the wild, having few innate survival skills, and so must not be released into the wild, ever.’

If your domestic rabbit happens to become pregnant from a wild rabbit, Richard suggests that these half-wild kits ‘may be more likely to be tame and content in captivity, but early socialisation is really important, getting them carefully used to humans from around two weeks’. In theory, this carries a small risk of abandonment by the mother, but the risk can be reduced by handling them with gloves and picking up a handful of bedding with them to avoid direct contact.

Can wild rabbits be pets?

If you find a wild rabbit, don’t be tempted to think you could persuade them to accept life as a pet. As Richard says: ‘Wild rabbits are derived from generations upon generations of rabbits who have evolved to be scared of predators, and run or fight at the first sign of trouble. They are shy, fearful and totally unused to human companionship. They will make very bad pets: constantly fearful of humans, easily stressed, and liable to bite or kick if handled.’

Wild rabbits may also carry disease and parasites that can be transferred to your pet rabbit.

What should you do if you find a wild rabbit?

If you spot a wild rabbit and you’re worried they’re in trouble, it’s best to observe from a safe distance to start with. Mother rabbits usually only return to their underground nest twice a day and, in most cases, baby rabbits don’t need any intervention from humans.

If you see very young kits above ground, the nest may have been disturbed by a predator or the kits may be injured. In this case, the RWAF recommends keeping the babies in a warm, quiet and dark place. A cardboard box filled with hay is a good choice.

If you’re concerned that a wild rabbit has been injured and needs help, contact your local wildlife rescue centre or wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

Bear in mind that baby hares can look very similar to baby rabbits, but they are found above ground and shouldn’t be disturbed unless it’s clear their mother is not returning.

While wild rabbits might share some visual similarities with their domesticated cousins, temperament and character wise they’re very different. Wild rabbits aren’t suited to life as a pet bunny.

Have you ever rescued a wild rabbit? Tell us on social media using the tag #PethoodStories

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