Rabbits are one of the most popular pets today, but when we compare them to some other companion animals, they haven’t been our companions for very long. This recent domestication means that our pet rabbits are still very similar to their wild counterparts.
Where Did Pet Rabbits Come From?
Companion rabbits, whatever their breed, are all members of the same species – The European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).
The European Rabbit was first discovered in the Iberian Peninsula, and it was with the help of humans that they established populations around the world.
Not much is known about how rabbit domestication first began, but we do know that companion rabbits today are descendants of a European rabbit population living in southern France in the 18th century.
Over the years rabbits have become more and more popular, and increasingly involved in human society. As well as being one of the most common pets, rabbits are also farmed, used in labs, and popular in entertainment. And this is despite the fact that they really haven’t been around us very long.
The domestication of a species isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a long-term process, and involves both physical and behavioural changes in the species, as they adapt to life around humans.
Animals can be domesticated in different ways, depending on whether they first approached humans, they were controlled purely for hunting, or they were captured and their breeding was controlled. The latter applies to rabbits, whereas dogs for example, fit into the first category (1).
And this isn’t the only way the rabbits and dogs differ in how they became companion animals. We don’t know exactly when the domestication of dogs first began, but we do know that they were considered pets as long as 14,000 years ago. When we compare this to rabbits, who were only first taken captive by humans sometime in the 18th century, we can see why pet rabbits are far more similar, both behaviourally and physically to their wild ancestors than dogs are.
How They’re The Same
Because they really haven’t been domesticated very long, today’s pet rabbits are in a lot of ways still very similar to their wild counterparts, particularly when it comes to their nature as a prey species.
The majority of a wild rabbit’s behaviours can be directly related to them being a prey species. Their need for places to hide, their desire to be around other rabbits, and their constant alertness and awareness of their environment, are examples of this. And these are all found in companion rabbits as well.
Being a prey animal means rabbits, whether wild or domestic, are always on the lookout for danger. When a pet rabbit hears an unfamiliar sound for example, their eyes widen and their ears turn (or attempt to turn if they’re a lop) towards the direction they think the sound is coming from. If the sound is something they don’t believe poses an imminent threat, they’ll usually stand up on their back legs and have a look around, and after a while resume what they were doing. If they believe they’re in danger though, they’ll thump their hind feet off the ground to warn other rabbits around them, and bolt for cover. Although they’ll be more on alert, likely detect the sound earlier, and probably quicker to get away, this is the same reaction a wild rabbit would have in this situation.
Their need for social contact with other rabbits is also shared between wild and domestic rabbits. In the wild, a rabbit would normally live in a large warren with up to 300 – 400 rabbits, and have a particularly close relationship with around 8 or more other rabbits (2). Although even this smaller size of group isn’t possible in most domestic settings, companion rabbits have been shown to be generally happier and healthier when they live with at least one other bonded rabbit.
How They’re Different
Despite their similarities domestication has changed rabbits, both physiologically, and behaviourally. Over the years rabbits have become more used to being around people, and although they will still be afraid of unfamiliar people, they can now fairly quickly learn to trust the people caring for them. As they have gradually become less fearful, some of their instincts have also become slightly less sharp.
In terms of the physiological changes, it’s not hard to see that the majority of rabbit breeds today look very different to the wild European rabbit. Some of the most obvious differences are found in lop and long haired breeds.
In the breeds furthest away from the physical appearance of a wild rabbit, there are also more behavioural differences. Lop eared rabbits for example have reduced hearing abilities because of the folded over shape of their ears, meaning that they can’t interact with their environment, or with each other, in the way they otherwise would.
The Care & Welfare of Domesticated Rabbits
For the care and welfare of our companion rabbits to be improved, it seems that more attention needs to be paid to how alike they still are to the European wild rabbit, particularly in terms of their prey nature.
Many companion rabbits today are living in hutches, with little or no opportunity to exercise, no social interaction with other rabbits, and very little chance to express their natural behaviours.
When it comes to the everyday care of our pet rabbits, we need to keep in mind how just a few hundred years ago, their ancestors lived in the wild, and how European rabbits still live today. Whilst the breeding of rabbits might be trying to take them further away from these traits, they are still the same species.
The Ethics of Rabbit Domestication
The majority of companion rabbit breeding today focuses on the popular physical traits, such as lop ears, or squashed up faces, instead of focusing on the health and welfare of the rabbits. Many of these rabbits suffer from severe health issues due to their breed. And this is hardly surprising when we compare them to the physical appearance of the wild European rabbit.
So it would seem that for the sake of their health, the future breeding of rabbits needs to be far more focused on getting back to the genetics of their wild ancestors. This of course raises the question of how a ‘more wild’ rabbit would cope in the type of domestic environment that many rabbits live in today, and therefore whether instead of expecting rabbits to change to fit in with our lives, the focus needs to be on what we can do differently to meet their needs.
The ethical issues around the breeding of domesticated species is a complex one, and one we’ll look at in more depth in future posts. For now, thanks for reading!
(1) Fontanesi, Luca. (2021). ‘Genetics and Genomics of the Rabbit’. CABI
(2) Tynes, Valerie V. (2013). ‘Behavior of Exotic Pets’. Wiley