A Natural History of House Rabbits

The first evidence of rabbits dates back to the Pliocene era (10 million years ago) in France. By the beginning of the Pleistocene 8 million years later, they had spread across Europe. During the Ice Age they moved to the relative warmth of southwestern Europe; in fact, the word Spain is derived from a Phoenician word meaning coast of the island of rabbits.

Like us, rabbits today retain some of the behaviors and instincts of their wild ancestors. These are not only interesting to observe but also useful in helping us meet their needs.

The rabbits we share our homes with are descended from a wild creature called Oryctolagus cuniculus. Their species name means “rabbit who burrows,” and European Wild Rabbits stand out from all other species in their ability to build and maintain elaborate systems of burrows. The instinct for construction (and, especially in these post-modern times, deconstruction) is familiar to house-rabbit caretakers in the form of re-arranging, digging and chewing. Grass mats, cardboard and untreated wood, channel emotionally healthy chewing into non-harmful activity.

The energy required in the wild to build tunnels, evade predators, and find food is expressed in the exuberance of our domestic companions. Rabbits, when stimulated by their environment, have the curiosity and drive to explore, modify, and enjoy what they find.

A bowl of processed food is a passive way to feed an animal whose ancestors foraged and grazed. Watch a domestic rabbit eat hay, and you will see him manipulate and select certain parts and discard others. The hay is pulled apart, tossed aside or trampled down. A fresh handful is met with renewed interest.

Wild rabbits share their warrens with up to a hundred family members. This instinct for social living is the reason rabbits feel at home among well-behaved humans. Companion rabbits, if introduced carefully, can enjoy the company of one or more of their own kind. Spay/neuter may be “unnatural” but it makes possible behaviors that are just as vital as reproduction. Spayed/neutered rabbits get along better with one another, don’t mark territory with feces and urine, and don’t contribute to the pet rabbit overpopulation problem. Play among multiple rabbits encourages exercise.

In the wild, being lifted off the ground means being in the hawk’s talons, soon to be his lunch. Restraint precedes the killing bite of predators on the ground. Most house rabbits can learn to tolerate being held and picked up by humans, but it is the rare individual who views these as pleasurable gestures of friendship.

For rabbits, natural behaviors are group behaviors, and even rabbits separated by wire will eat, drink, groom and play at the same time. Social behaviors such as sharing meals also occur between rabbits and their human companions. This accounts in part for the high incidence of vegetarianism among humans who live with house rabbits.

Rabbits spend much of the day sleeping. Even down time is social time. Awake or asleep, rabbits keep close physical contact. Mutual grooming occupies, relaxes, and helps establish positive relationships within the group. Social grooming is one way to show a rabbit you mean no harm. Gently stroke, comb, or kiss a rabbit’s face, and you are speaking rabbit.

In Sickness and In Health

Now that we better understand how rabbits express emotional health, we have tools we can use when a rabbit is suffering from stress or illness.

A wild rabbit’s life depends on the ability to get back to his burrow quickly. A domestic rabbit’s emotional state is linked to his distance from a place he feels safe. Even a partly open retreat, such as under a table or stool, may provide some sense of security. A less secure or sick rabbit seeks out a more enclosed retreat. Rabbits are stoic in the face of illness, and subtle signs such as hiding should be taken seriously.

On visits to the vet, nervous rabbits should be allowed the option of hiding when possible. These rabbits will be more comfortable waiting inside the carrier than out in the open. Rabbits appreciate a cardboard box and/or litter-box added to their hospital cages. For a burrow-oriented rabbit, a litterbox is more than a bathroom. Its rim gives a feeling of safety.

Knowing what makes a rabbit feel secure allows you to make decisions based on personality. A shy individual will prefer to receive his medicine while sitting in his litterbox. On the other hand, what about a feisty rabbit who boxes or bites to defend his home? Such a rabbit may more readily accept medicine away from his area.

Vets have learned not to be surprised when HRS fosterers bring two rabbits for one appointment. The emotional comfort a bonded pair of rabbits give each other can prevent, reduce, and speed recovery from stress caused by car rides and overnight stays in strange places. Knowing how sociable rabbits are, we do not underestimate the bond between two rabbits as a part of support care. For this reason, we rarely separate rabbits in times of illness.

Compromised rabbits in the wild do not survive. House rabbits with long-term illnesses can lead rich and satisfying lives despite the limitations imposed by poor health. Quality of life is measured by the same standards as for healthy rabbits. Companionship, grooming, browsing, security and stimulation extend and enhance the lives of geriatric, chronically ill or disabled rabbits. Exercise may even be available for some invalids.Chronically ill rabbits are dependent on their human caretakers and rabbit friends for emotional and physical support.

When bereavement occurs, we try to match the surviving rabbit with a new friend. We have also found that rabbits who see and spend time with the body of their partner recover from the loss more quickly than a rabbit whose partner disappears and never returns.

Barlow was successfully introduced to his second invalid friend after he lost his first. The introduction, made within his familiar area, did not worsen his chronic health problems. In fact his strong desire to make friends with Fedora —fueled by the instinct for companionship with his own kind—gave him extra determination.

Holly O’Meara

House Rabbit Journal Fall 1999: Volume IV, Number 1