Your house bun has come a long way from her wild ancestors. Pet rabbits are an entirely different species than the cottontail rabbits that are native to the United States. Domesticated rabbits wouldn’t even be able to reproduce with the little guys you might see in your garden. While your bunny and her friends descend from the European rabbit, they have lost the instincts and physical traits necessary to get by in the wild. Thanks to domestication and generations of human care, your rabbit wouldn’t survive long if left to her own devices.
Can you tell the difference?
Is that bunny outside a wild cottontail or a neighbor’s lost BFF? According to Stacey Leonatti Wilkinson, DVM, DABVP from Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital of Georgia, “Native cottontails are always small (around 2-3 pounds) with a brown coat (agouti pattern). The underside of the tail is white, they have upright ears, and their legs are long and thin. They are always in lean body condition.” Unlike domestic rabbits, wild rabbits all look pretty similar.
The indoor buns we’re used to come in different shapes and sizes. There are tons of different breeds, so their appearance isn’t nearly as consistent. “They vary from the true dwarf rabbits like a Netherland dwarf, which is about 2 pounds, to the giant breed rabbits like the Flemish Giant or French Lop, which can be around 12-16 pounds. While cottontails always have short brown hair, domestic rabbits can have varying hair coat colors, patterns, and lengths. Ears can be upright or flop over and they have a much more full or round body shape,” Dr. Wilkinson explains. As you can imagine, a spotted coat isn’t exactly ideal for life in the wild.
If appearance alone doesn’t clear up any doubt, behavior will seal the deal. Outdoor cottontail rabbits are extremely skittish and won’t willingly approach you. They are super speedy and almost impossible to catch without a trap. “If a person does manage to catch one, they will often fight, twist, and kick repeatedly in an effort to get free. They may also emit a high-pitched scream. Wild cottontails cannot be kept as pets or education animals because of this; they are far too easily stressed to live a comfortable life in captivity,” Dr. Wilkinson warns. On the other hand, domesticated rabbits are often used to people, so may approach you – even if found outside. “Some are skittish if they haven’t been handled much, but nothing like a wild rabbit. You may still be able to pick them up, especially if tempted with a treat,” she says.
What happens when a pet rabbit is released into the wild?
Even the most adventurous bunnies don’t stand a chance if released into the wild. Cottontail rabbits, pros at life on the streets, only live for about 1-3 years. Domesticated rabbits are used to having rabbit food and timothy hay provided for them, and may not be able to find food on their own.
Dr. Wilkinson points out how pet rabbits are especially at risk in hot weather. “When it’s over 80 degrees, rabbits are extremely prone to heat stroke. They may not be able to find a place to dig a burrow to cool off.” She also notes how they are more susceptible to parasites. “Domesticated rabbits haven’t developed a ‘balance’ with fleas, ticks, and internal parasites like wild animals may have, which can cause them to become very sick or die if infested.”
Indoor bunnies just aren’t prepared for outdoor hazards. Dr. Wilkinson mentions cars, wild animals, and loose dogs/cats as common threats. While some may still wear the camouflage outfit of their European ancestors, predators will easily spot those with light-colored coats. Moreover, “by digging burrows, eating native plants, and taking up niche space already occupied, releasing domesticated rabbits into the wild can actually damage native wild rabbit populations or other species that eat the same things, live in the same areas, etc.,” she explains.
What should you do if you see a domesticated rabbit running loose?
Have you seen a suspected pet rabbit running wild? While it’s comforting to think they may ask some cottontails for tips to living on the wild side, unfortunately this is wishful thinking. “As a completely different species, they aren’t able to interact, communicate effectively, or understand each other,” Dr. Wilkinson says. While domestic rabbits are social and prefer to live in groups, the wild rabbits are more likely to do their own thing anyway.
The best course of action is to try and trap the rabbit and get him to safety. You may be able to approach them and scoop them up, especially if tempted with a yummy treat. If they aren’t having it, try a live trap with some apple inside. If that still fails, Dr. Wilkinson recommends calling animal control, a local House Rabbit Society branch, or rescue group for help.
Once the rabbit is captured, you can have it scanned for a microchip for free at a vet or animal shelter. Make every effort to find his human counterpart by placing ads and fliers up in the neighborhood, knocking on doors of nearby houses, and reporting as found to local shelters and exotic vets. “Unfortunately most found domestic rabbits are intentionally released rather than escaped. It’s not common to find an owner. If the person who finds the rabbit cannot keep it and cannot locate the owner, then the best option is to find it a home,” Dr. Wilkinson admits.
Many animal shelters aren’t equipped with pet rabbit supplies to care for exotic pets, but they may be able to point you in the direction of a rabbit rescue. Dr. Wilkinson suggests reaching out to the House Rabbit Society because as national rescue/education organization with local chapters all over the USA, there may be a group within a few hours of your home. Regardless of the next steps, capturing a “stray” domestic rabbit will almost certainly save his life.