Stray Rabbits: Wild or Domestic?

It still amazes us that people abandon lovely pet rabbits in the wild, believing they will live off the land,” says Mary Morrison after repeated calls to rescue domestic rabbits “set free” in New Mexico. Abandoned [domestic] rabbits are expected to survive in rural and urban areas where even dogs or cats would have trouble existing. And reports of stray rabbits are increasing.

But how do you know if the rabbit you see is a stray or even domestic? Here are some guidelines to help guide you on telling the difference between a wild rabbit and a domestic rabbit, and if that rabbit is in need of help.

Wild or Domestic?


The obvious domestic stray is a lop-ear, albino, or spotted individual. Less obvious in appearance is a domestic rabbit with agouti coloring. Agouti is the natural coloring of many small animal species, including cottontails and jackrabbits.

Example of a domesticated house rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Note the even brown ticking in the coat, chubbier head shape, and stubbier front legs.
Example of a Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Note the variation in color with many white highlights, longer face, and longer, thinner front legs.
[Editors’s note: Wabbit Wiki has many additional pictures of wild vs domestic rabbits with agouti coats.]


If appearance doesn’t tell you, observe the rabbit’s behavior. Although many house rabbits don’t enjoy being held, surprisingly many stray rabbits solicit interaction, rescue, and handling by human passers-by. (If you do pick up a stray, be prepared to hug the rabbit safely to you if he suddenly changes his mind.) If a stray is following you or hanging out near your back steps, you can bet it’s not a cottontail. But is the rabbit abandoned, or could he have escaped?

To understand how helpless a domestic rabbit is when “set free,” observe your house rabbit’s behavior. When faced with a strange environment, she will proceed cautiously from “home base.” Frequent retreats are made, to memorize the route. Why? If danger appears, home base can be achieved in a flash. A wild rabbit’s life would depend on it.

A domestic rabbit turned loose has no home base, and little time to find one before dark and predators set in. A wild rabbit would have a lifetime of familiarity with the area, plus reflexes and instincts domestic rabbits lack. Reluctance to leave “home base” is why most stray domestics have not willingly left home. Unless from a nearby home, they are displaced.

The bottom line is, any loose domestic rabbit you encounter needs your help. For more information on catching stray rabbits, contact your local rescue group.

Further Reading

©Copyright Holly O'Meara. All Rights Reserved. Republished with the permission of the author.

This article first appeared in House Rabbit Journal vIII, n7.

  • Holly O'Meara

    Holly O'Meara started the Los Angeles Chapter of House Rabbit Society in 1988 after getting involved with a domestic rabbit dumping ground. She has met many pink-eyed rabbits in her life, and loved them all. She is grateful for house rabbit advocates, and for how far our collective knowledge has spread.

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