Ever since I got my sweet bunny, Elusive, I’ve been pretty curious about red-eyed rabbits and where they come from. Elusive is a red-eyed white rabbit. Normally her eyes are almost pink in color, but then the light hits her eyes just right, they almost seem to glow red. Just like a little demon bunny!
Why do rabbits have red eyes? Red eyed rabbits occur as a result of albinism. With a couple rare exceptions, the rabbit’s bodies are entirely devoid of color. The appearance of the red eye comes from a reflection of the inside of the rabbit’s eye, not the color of their iris.
But don’t worry, red eyed rabbits (or any animal, for that matter) do not have any increased tendency to be aggressive. In fact, many have been specifically bred to be gentle and easy to handle rabbits. So let’s look a little deeper into albinism in rabbits.
Normally eye color comes from the iris. The rabbit’s genes will produce a pigment that reflects certain wavelengths of light, making a visible eye color. Albinism, however, overrides any other genes that would act as a signal for the rabbit’s eyes and coat to produce a color.
This albinism gene can occur in the wild, though rare, but it has been specifically bred into pet rabbits. Red-eyed white rabbits have had surges of popularity over the years. Originally this trait was considered ideal because it created whole lines of rabbits that were beautiful and pure white. More recently, albino rabbits have been bred as laboratory animals due to the genetic similarities between individuals in the breed.
Do rabbits with red eyes need special care?
For the most part, albino rabbits are the same as any other rabbit. Their basic care should be exactly the same. This includes their diet, enclosure size, exercise time and more. Even their grooming should be exactly the same as any other rabbit from the same breed.
You may notice the rabbit’s fur is stained a little more visibly than other rabbits. The bottom of their feet might be just slightly yellow from sitting in their litter box. Or if you have newspaper down in their area, they might get grey stains on their feet from the newspaper ink. This is completely normal and okay. You can never expect a pure white coat to stay completely clean. As long as you are cleaning out their litter box every day, then you are not being a negligent caretaker.
Albino rabbits do tend to have worse eyesight than their non-albino counterparts. It’s not horrible eyesight, but these rabbits will often need to take more time to scan their environment before moving forward.
All rabbits have some difficulty seeing with an accurate depth of field. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads. This gives them a bigger field of vision, but most of their vision is seen through only one eye, limiting their depth perception. You may occasionally see a rabbit perform a behavior known as parallaxing (or scanning). They move their heads slowly from side to side to get an idea of the relative distance between objects.
Red-eyed rabbits, who have worse eyesight, tend to do this scanning much more often. The first time I ever saw a rabbit scan, it was a young albino rabbit, who scanned the environment whenever she exited her hiding box. I was concerned that there was something wrong with her eyesight, but after some research found that this is a normal behavior for albino rabbits.
Sensitive to light
The red eyes of albino rabbits are also more sensitive to light. Because they do not have an iris, more light comes through their eyes. This means that red-eyed rabbits are more likely to squint and find direct sunlight painful or difficult to deal with. As a caretaker, you should take extra precautions to make sure your rabbit always has shelter that they can move to, so if they find the direct light uncomfortable, they’ll have somewhere else to move.
Albinism is a recessive trait
Over the centuries, there have been many experiments with albinism. Some of this research has been specifically with rabbits, but rats, mice, guinea pigs, and other small animals also have albino members of their species.
It has been discovered and confirmed, that albinism is a recessive trait. This means that when a red eyed white rabbit is bred with a rabbit with colored coat, you are not going to produce any more albino rabbits until the following generation.
This makes albino rabbits very rare in most groups of wild rabbits. The gene itself is rare, but even if some rabbits carry it, the albino traits are not going to make an appearance. Without the intervention of breeders, there would be very few red-eyed white rabbits in the world.
Which rabbit breeds have red eyes?
To maintain the red-eyed white gene through generations, many breeders had to develop breeds (like the Florida White) or sub-breeds (Like the New Zealand White), that were not crossed with other colors of rabbit. There are many breeds, especially long standing breeds, that are capable of being bred with albino coloring, but only a few that will always have the white fur and red eyes.
Always have red eyes:
There are only three recognized breeds of rabbit that will always have red eyes. Of these, only one breed is 100% albino, the Florida White. Himalayan and Californian rabbits have the albino gene, but they are mosaic albino rabbits that have specific marks on areas of their body
The Florida White breed of rabbit is the only breed that will always be pure white with red eyes. They were bred specifically to be laboratory animals with pleasant dispositions. But they have since become a popular pet breed because the have a tendency to be friendly.
I brought my rabbit, Elusive, home from a shelter instead of a breeder, so I’m not completely sure what breed she is. However, based on her appearance, I believe Elusive is one of these Florida White rabbits.
Himalayan and Californian
Himalayan and Californian rabbits are interesting. They do have the albino gene with white fur and red eyes, but they also have dark markings around their nose, ears, feet, and tails. They have a genetic mutation that has stopped the albino gene from completely overriding the color of the rabbit’s coat.
This is a mutation that developed hundreds of years ago in the wild. These rabbits were found and bred based on their unique coats. It is certainly selected for now, but it’s interesting that this specific mutation was naturally occuring.
Sometimes have red eyes:
Many other breeds of rabbit will have red eyes sometimes. These rabbits can have multiple different colorings, but part of that also includes the albino gene. Because many people desire to have a beautiful pure-white rabbit, many of these breeds will even have sub-breeds that consist of only the albino coloring.
- Angora rabbits
- Britannia Pettite
- Flemish Giant
- Holland Lop
- Jersey Wooly
- Mini Lop
- Netherland Dwarf
- New Zealand
- Rex rabbits
- Satin Rabbits
Other common rabbit eye colors
Rabbits can actually have many different colored eyes. It’s most common for them to have very dark brown eyes. In these cases their eyes may appear black and the iris will be barely perceptible. But less common colors also occur.
Common rabbit eye colors include:
- Brown: the most common eye color that you will see.
- Blue: rare, but beautiful, you will see a distinctly blue iris on these rabbits. Sometimes the blue will be more of a grey color.
- Pink: this is an incredibly rare occurrence where a brown eyed rabbit has a specific set of genes that cause the iris to appear a pale pink. It is different from the red eyes of an albino rabbit.
- Red: this is when a rabbit’s iris has no pigment at all, and it is caused by albinism in the rabbit.
- Marbled: this is when a rabbit’s eye is two or more separate colors. Rarely, a portion on a rabbit’s iris will be blue, for example, while the rest of the eye is brown.
Red eye infection in rabbits
Not to be confused with albino rabbits who have red eyes, the red eye infection can occur in rabbits of any color. Red eye in rabbits is very similar to pink eye in humans. This is the condition that occurs when the blood vessels in the rabbit’s eye swell to give the rabbit’s eye a red tinge. This infection 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:
- Overgrown teeth
- Bacterial infections
- Fungal infections
If you notice your rabbit has a red eye infection, you should make an appointment with your rabbit’s vet to find the cause and help your rabbit get better.
Rabbits can see in an almost 360º panorama around and above them. They only have one small blind spot directly in front of their nose. Rabbits can have trouble with depth perception, and they are farsighted, making it difficult for rabbits to clearly see items that are close to them.
Rabbits can get cataracts, have teary eyes and blocked tear ducts, or they can develop a red eye infection or abscesses around their eyes. Most of these problems are not directly dangerous to a rabbit’s overall health, but they can be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
- Castle, W E. “On the Occurrence in Rabbits of Linkage in Inheritance between Albinism and Brown Pigmentation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 10,12 (1924): 486-8. doi:10.1073/pnas.10.12.486. Accessed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1085785/?page=1.
- Castle, W. E., and Glover M. Allen. “The Heredity of Albinism.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 38, no. 21, 1903, pp. 603–622., www.jstor.org/stable/20021812.
- Lewis, Betsy. “About Albino Rabbits.” Cuteness, December 7, 2016, https://www.cuteness.com/article/albino-rabbits.
- Parker, Lee. “Common Eye Colors For Rabbits.” Cuteness, December 7, 2016, https://www.cuteness.com/article/common-eye-colors-rabbits.
- Ruxandra M. Petrescu-Mag, Ioan G. Oroian, Ştefan C. Vesa, I. Valentin Petrescu-Mag. “Himalaya: an evolutionarily paradoxical phenotype in rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus).” Rabbit Genetics, International Journal of the Bioflux Society. December 26, 2012, Accessed: http://www.rg.bioflux.com.ro/docs/2012.15-17.pdf.