There is no doubt that rabbits are awesome. Everyone talks about that cute wiggling nose, or how useful those long ears are. But did you know rabbit eyes are a really interesting part of their anatomy?
Rabbit eyes play a crucial part in helping them cleverly escape from predators. As prey animals, rabbits rely on their ability to detect predators and run away before the danger gets too close. This means that all of a rabbit’s senses have evolved in really impressive ways.
Even though your pet rabbit who is safe at home doesn’t need these survival features anymore, they still affect how your rabbit experiences the world around them. So if you were ever curious about what your rabbit sees, this is the list for you.
7 Awesome facts about rabbit eyes
1. Rabbits can see behind them
You might have noticed that rabbits have really big eyes. But what you might not have noticed is that rabbit eyes are located on the sides of their head instead of the front of their head, much more than other animals we’re used to seeing. These two features put together give rabbits a really big, panoramic field of vision.
Rabbits can see all around them without turning their head at all. This includes being able to see any predators sneaking up behind them. In fact, rabbits have an almost 360 degree field of vision, including the area above their head. They only have one blind spot, located directly in front of their nose. Luckily a rabbit’s great sense of smell and their whiskers can help them figure out what’s directly in front of them.
If you have a lop rabbit, you may be wondering if they can see behind the too. Don’t their ears get in the way? And you’re right! Lop rabbit ears hang down the sides of their head in a way that blocks the rabbit from being able to see behind them. This is a large reason why lop rabbits rarely exist in the wild. They have less ability to detect predators that are behind them. Lop rabbits mainly exist now because they have been bred domestically to have long floppy ears.
2. Rabbits sleep with their eyes open
Rabbits can, and often do, sleep with their eyes open. They can sleep with their eyes closed too, but usually rabbits will only close their eyes when they are sleeping if they feel very safe. So you might think your rabbit never sleeps because they never close their eyes, but in reality they’re sneaking a nap right in front of you.
There are some giveaways in a rabbit’s behavior so that you can know when your rabbit is sleeping. If their nose completely stops twitching, that probably means your rabbit is sleeping. They also often twitch in their sleep while they dream or mumble a little bit as they move their mouths around. Their ears will also be in a relaxed position down their back, and not up or alert.
Rabbit’s will sleep in one of three positions. They will loaf up into a fluffy ball where they will most likely be sleeping with their eyes open. If the rabbit is feeling very safe and comfortable, they could also sprawl out or flop down on their sides. In these positions the rabbit might choose to close their eyes while they sleep.
But why do rabbits sleep with their eyes open? It all comes back to survival. In the wild, rabbits keep their eyes open because their light receptors will keep working. If a predator approaches, the signals will still reach the rabbit’s brain and they will be able to snap into motion much quicker than if they had their eyes closed.
Keeping their eyes open has a secondary effect of deterring predators. Predators will be less likely to go after an animal that they believe is awake. So by keeping their eyes open, rabbits may convince these predators to go after easier prey.
3. Rabbits only blink once every 5 minutes
Ever tried to have a staring contest with a rabbit? I bet your rabbit won that one. Rabbits only blink 10 to 12 times in an hour. That’s only once every 5 to 6 minutes! Compare that to humans who blink 10 to 20 times every minute. That’s 50 times more frequent than rabbit blinks.
Rabbits can get away with blinking so infrequently because they have a thin membrane covering their eye that is referred to as the third eyelid. This is a completely transparent membrane, so you can’t see it at all. This third eyelid does the job of keeping a rabbits eye moist and shields it from dust and debris. Your rabbit doesn’t have to blink very often because the membrane of the third eyelid does most of the work.
Blinking less frequently means rabbits can do a better job at staying alert. A rabbit doesn’t have to constantly interrupt their vision by blinking as they scan the area for danger. This membrane is also what allows rabbits to sleep with their eyes open without any problem at all.
4. Rabbits can’t see red
Rabbits are not completely color blind, but they only have the photoreceptors to be able to see blue and green light. Humans have three categories of color receptors in their eyes (red, green and blue), but rabbits don’t have any receptors that can detect red light, so these wavelengths will likely show up to the rabbit as greyscale or as shades of blue and green.
The retinas of animal eyes use rods and cones to perceive light and color. The cones are what allow animals to see details and different wavelengths of color, so their world is not completely black and white. Rabbits have far fewer cones than humans do and they are completely missing the category of cones that can sense red wavelengths of light.
It is believed that humans evolved to have high color perception because it helps us to differentiate colors of fruits and berries while foraging. While rabbits can eat berries, the foods that they’ve historically eaten include mainly grasses, leaves, and roots. While there was some advantage to color vision on the green and blue spectrums, red vision wouldn’t have made much of a difference in their survival.
5. Rabbits have grainy night vision
Rabbits are not nocturnal, and therefore they do not have the special part of the eye that reflects light and allows animals to see in deep darkness (called the tapetum lucidum). A rabbit in a situation where there is complete darkness will have to rely on their other senses to navigate.
Rabbit eyesight is still significantly better than human vision though. Rabbit eyes have a much larger percentage of rod cells that help in low light situations. So as long as there is some moonlight, rabbits will have a less detailed, grainy night vision. It’s kind of like when you try to take a picture in the dark and it comes out very grainy. You can tell what’s in the photo, but it’s not a good picture.
Instead, rabbit eyes were built to excel in low light situations. Rabbits are usually the most active in the hours around dawn and dusk, when it’s not too bright out but also not pure darkness. This is a time of day when rabbits have the advantage over both predators that are nocturnal and see best in the dark, and predators that are diurnal and see best when there is bright light.
6. Rabbits are farsighted
Rabbits will naturally see objects better when they are far away. Like farsighted humans, this means that a rabbits vision is a little bit blurry close up as their eyes are built to pay more attention to objects in the distance.
This means that a rabbit will be more likely to notice predators and dangers when they are farther away. The more time a rabbit has to detect danger and run, the more chance of survival. It’s just another way that rabbit eyes are built for survival.
Close up, rabbits are able to use their great sense of smell and their whiskers to detect food and small objects that could be in the way. So having good near-sight is not as necessary. And rabbits can still see objects that are close up, they’ll just be a little bit blurry.
7. Rabbits have trouble seeing objects in 3D
The price that rabbits pay for being able to see in a 360 degree view around them is their lack of depth perception. Having two eyes helps a lot in being able to judge the distance and size of objects, so humans have really great depth perception.
Only one twelve of a rabbit’s vision (the front 30 degrees), is visible to both eyes. This means that the rest of a rabbits vision is limited in the amount they can see in 3 dimensions. But, of course, rabbits have learned to get around this barrier to be effective at seeing their predators and running away.
Rabbits use a technique called parallaxing, where they move their head back and forth to determine the distance and size of objects in the distance. You might not see this behavior much in your own house because your rabbit already knows where everything is located and doesn’t need to be constantly checking. But if you ever bring a new bunny home, you might see them moving their head around and scanning the landscape while they go exploring for the first few times.
Bonus Fun Facts
Why do rabbits’ noses wiggle?
Bunnies twitch their noses to help them smell better. Rabbits don’t need to twitch their noses to breathe, and they will often stop wiggling while the rabbit sleeps. But while a rabbit’s nose is wiggling, it stimulates the scent organs to help the rabbit smell even the faintest scents.
Why are rabbits’ ears so big?
Rabbits ears let them hear sounds over long distances and detect predators. Less obviously, rabbit ears also help regulate their body heat. There is a network of blood vessels in a rabbit’s ears that contract and expand to help the rabbit cool down or retain heat.
5 Health problems with rabbit eyes
Rabbit eyes are pretty cool and they’re great at helping rabbit’s evade predators. But because they are such a large organ in the rabbit’s small body, a rabbit’s eyes can have a number of different health issues. Many of these health problems are not fatal for rabbits, but they can be indicators of more severe diseases. So if you notice any of these signs in your rabbit’s eyes, it’s a good idea to schedule a check-up with your rabbit-savvy veterinarian.
As rabbits get older, they sometimes start to develop cataracts in one or both eyes. This is when a white cloudy substance forms on a rabbits eye, blocking the light and eventually causing blindness. Sometimes cataracts will form because of an eye infection, but sometimes there isn’t any apparent cause.
The buildup of the cloudy white surface on the rabbits eye can take anywhere from a week to a couple years before it completely blinds the rabbit. There are surgeries that can be performed to correct the vision of a rabbit with cataracts, but not many doctors are willing to perform this surgery. It can be both dangerous and expensive.
The good news is, even if your rabbit goes completely blind, they can still live a happy life. I had one rabbit growing up who developed cataracts in both eyes over the course of a couple months. She was an elderly rabbit, and surgery was not an option for her. But as long as we kept the furniture in place and didn’t keep any stray objects around the room, she was able to get around just fine. She was a little slow and more careful than before, but she quickly learned to use her other senses to make up for her lack of eyesight.
2. Weepy eyes
Rabbits do not normally cry or have watery eyes. In a healthy rabbit eye, any excess water will be drained through the tear duct at the front of their eyes. While weepy eyes are usually not a significant health risk by themselves, this could be an indication of a larger problem.
Weepy eyes can be caused by any number of problems, including:
- Overgrown teeth
- Blocked tear ducts
- Eye injuries or infections
- Irritating eye lashes
If left on it’s own, weepy eyes could cause the skin around your rabbits eyes to become irritated and inflamed. It might eventually heal up just fine on it’s own, but it’s best to check with your vet to make sure this isn’t a sign of a bigger problem.
3. Red eye
Red eye in rabbits will appear very similar to pink eye in humans. It’s when the blood vessels in the rabbit’s eye swell to give the rabbit’s eye a red or pink tinge. This condition is usually accompanied by swelling, weepy eyes, or bumps around the eyes.
There are many causes of red eye in rabbits. It can result from something as simple as allergies, to some thing much more dangerous, such as glaucoma. So if you notice your rabbit has red eye, you should make an appointment with your rabbit’s vet to find the cause and help your rabbit get better.
This condition is not to be confused with rabbits who have red eyes. Some rabbits are albino and that’s just the color of their eyes. This is not the same as the red-eye infection that a rabbit can get. If you are worried that your red-eyed rabbit has the red eye disease (so confusing!), check for swelling or weepy eyes since you won’t be able to tell from the color alone.
4. Crusty eye boogers
Rabbits will occasionally get eye boogers when foreign objects (mostly dust) need to be eliminated from the eye. Usually the rabbit will clean these up on their own when they go about the daily cleaning rituals.
Sometimes these eye boogers will start to crust around your their eyes and the rabbit will not be able to get them off. In these cases, gently help your rabbit out and try to remove the gunk from their eye. The goal is to avoid a buildup of the crusted gunk so that it doesn’t end up causing a blockage of the tear duct.
If you find that you have to frequently help remove the gunk from your rabbit’s eyes, it could be a good idea to have it checked out by your vet, especially if you are also starting to notice any skin irritation around your rabbit’s eyes. A veterinarian will be able to let you know if there are any deeper problems that are causing the excess gunk buildup on your rabbits eyes.
Abscesses in rabbits are often a sign of a more serious bacterial infection. These are pus-filled bumps on your rabbit’s skin, like a cyst or blister. Your rabbit can get these on pretty much any area of their body, especially around places that have been injured or infected.
Abscesses around the eyes are particularly common when a rabbit is having dental problems with their cheek teeth. If their teeth are overgrowing, they might start to get pushed back into the rabbit’s skull, causing an infection. Little bumps will form around the eye area, and they will swell into larger abscesses as the condition worsens.
- “Cloudy Eye In Rabbits.” PetMD, www.petmd.com/rabbit/conditions/eyes/c_rb_cataracts.
- Krempels, Dana, Ph.D. “Chronic Runny Eyes In Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society, Jan. 13, 2011, rabbit.org/chronic-runny-eyes-in-rabbits.
- Krempels, Dana, Ph.D. “What Do Rabbits See?” University of Miami Biology Department, www.bio.miami.edu/hare/vision.html.
- “Rabbit Care Tips For Healthy Eyes.” Pethood, Petplan, www.petplan.co.uk/pet-information/rabbit/advice/rabbit-eye-infection.
- “Rabbits and Their Vision.” Pets4Homes, www.pets4homes.co.uk/pet-advice/rabbits-and-their-vision.html.
- “Red Eye in Rabbits.” PetMD, www.petmd.com/rabbit/conditions/eyes/c_rb_red_eye.