Our pet rabbits do not have the same extensive history of living cooperatively alongside humans that cats and dogs do. There have been instances throughout history of raising rabbits as livestock. However the phenomena has been recent enough that domestic rabbits are still considered the same species as their wild counterparts, the European rabbits.
Would a domestic rabbit survive in the wild? It is unlikely that a pet rabbit would be able to survive if they were released into the wild. Generations of domestication have caused our pet rabbits to lose the sharp wild instincts that would give them a chance at survival. Their brains do not respond to dangers the same way that wild rabbit’s do.
Despite this, there is still a myth that domestic rabbits would be able to adapt and survive in the wild. Former rabbit caretakers will release their pet rabbits believing they are setting their rabbit free to survive and thrive. Not only is this practice illegal, but it will inevitably be a cruel way to sentence a rabbit to death.
Why you should not release a domestic rabbit into the wild
By this time our pet rabbits have been bred by humans for centuries. Generation after generation, we have selected the traits in our domestic companions that suit human needs and wants. We’ve bred rabbits to have beautiful, vibrant coats; we’ve bred rabbits to be docile and friendly; we’ve even bred rabbits to be large and put on weight quickly, to use as livestock.
These changes that humans have directed affect a domestic rabbit’s ability to survive in the wild. Everything from their visibility in a natural terrain, to the regulation of their nervous system and response to danger has been altered by humans.
All in all, domestic rabbits that are released outside are likely to suffer greatly as they face dangers they are not prepared for. In the end, they are not going to live a happy life in the wild. Instead they’ll face many stresses and anxieties that are unlikely end in a happily ever after.
Domestic rabbit behavior
Domestic rabbits have been bred to be friendly. They are much less skittish than their wild counterparts, quick to trust and socialize with species that are not their own. Domestic rabbits have neurological differences with wild rabbits. These changes keep them from having the instincts necessary to survive in the wild.
A 2014 study looked at the actual genomes of a domestic versus a wild European rabbit. It concluded that even though there were no differences in the genes of the rabbit, the genes that affected the brain and neural development were regulated very differently in the two animals.
Essentially this means that the breeding of domestic rabbits has changed the way their brains function. They do not have the same instincts as wild rabbits. They have been bred to behave and thrive in a controlled and safe environment. Being suddenly thrust into the wild and forced to survive on their own is completely against their instincts. Unfortunately, it is likely to result in a very quick death.
Brightly colored coats
Wild rabbits have fur coats that give them an advantage by camouflaging them in their natural habitats. For the most part, this means that wild rabbits will always have a brown (or agouti) coat. It will help them to hide in the dirt and foliage where they live.
Domestic rabbits, on the other hand, have been bred to have many different vibrant coats. From spotted, to bright white, or fiery orange, domestic rabbits have been selected for the beauty of their fur, something that will not help a rabbit once they’ve been released into the wild.
There is also the question of habitats. If you are living in America (or anywhere other than Europe, for that matter), then your pet rabbit’s ancestry is not native to that location. The wild cottontail rabbits that are native to the America’s are a completely different species than our pets. This means that the climate, the foliage, and even other rabbits that surround them would be completely foreign to your pet rabbit.
Domestic rabbits are descended from a species of rabbit that live in groups. These families will live together in a network of tunnels underground, and they will get very territorial about other rabbits trying to enter their territory.
Pet rabbits who are released into the wild do not have this support network to help them figure out how to survive. They will be lonely (without other rabbits or even human companions) and on their own as they try to find or create shelter for themselves.
If the rabbit is released into an area where a colony of rabbits already lives, the result could be even worse. Since rabbits are so territorial by nature, the existing colony of rabbits will likely not accept the new bunny. Instead they are likely to get aggressive and attack.
Predators and parasites in the wild
Rabbits are prey animals. They always face a multitude of dangers in the wild, no matter where they’re released. From wolves and hawks to neighborhood dogs and raccoons, there will always be predators around that will go after slow and friendly rabbits.
In addition, there are many different bugs that latch onto rabbits out in the wild. Whether tics, fleas, mites or other parasites, these bugs are very dangerous to domestic rabbits. They can cause anemia or other diseases that put the health of the rabbit at risk.
Domestic rabbits are also not prepared for the many man-made dangers that they will face outside. Cars can be a danger to rabbits who can’t understand what these big metal machines are. It is common for rabbits released in neighborhoods to end up being hit in the streets.
Rabbits are also treated as pests in some areas. Whether intentionally or not, many people will use fertilizers or pesticides that are poisonous for rabbits. A domestic rabbit who is unaware of potential dangers can easily end up chomping down on the plants in someone’s garden. Since rabbits are unable to vomit, anything poisonous will easily end up killing a rabbit.
Our pet rabbits are also not used to extreme weather conditions. Because of their thick fur coats, hotter climates, especially, can be a danger to rabbits. Rabbits can get heat stroke in temperatures above 80ºF. If they are left to fend for themselves in the wild with no shelter, rabbits can easily get overheated.
Rain can also pose a problem, especially in cold weather. Rabbits are unable to dry off very quickly. When their coat gets wet, the rabbit will be soaked through for hours. This can cause the rabbit to be unable to regulate their body temperature, causing hypothermia. Since domestic rabbits have lived sheltered from the rain until now, they may not understand that they need to take shelter from these natural weather events.
The flip side: when outdoor rabbits do survive
As much as the cards are stacked against them, it does happen that domestic rabbits are occasionally able to survive after they are set free. However, this can end up causing an ecological risk to the environment.
Rabbits multiply very quickly. When multiple rabbits manage to beat the odds and start a colony, they can end up causing a population boom. This can easily become a crisis for the local environment, and will take many years and taxpayer dollars to get under control.
The reality for wild rabbits
Wild rabbits have changed over time based on natural selection. Their anatomy is maximized for being able to sense predators and run and hide as fast as they can. But even for these wild rabbits, they only have a life expectancy of one to two years. That’s not even a quarter of the expected lifespan of an average pet rabbit!
It is important to consider that even for wild rabbits who have all the advantages of instincts and natural selection, the outdoors can be a harsh life. It’s not easy for a small prey animal to survive while they’re being hunted by predators and competing for food resources.
As loving caretakers, we don’t want to put our pet rabbits through that kind of suffering. Sometimes life throws a curveball and may make it necessary to give up ownership of your rabbit. But even in these circumstances, you should not release a domestic rabbit into the wild, not even as a last resort.
Releasing a domestic rabbit in the wild is not legal
In many countries, states, and local municipalities it is illegal to abandon a domestic animal into the wild. It is considered an animal cruelty offense. The laws vary depending on where you live, but the act of abandoning a rabbit into the streets or the wild can be charged as anything from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Releasing a domestic rabbit (or any domestic pet) is abandonment and it’s a cruel way to treat a pet. If you do know of a case of rabbit abandonment in your area, you can report it to your local authorities so you can hopefully rescue the bunny and hold the perpetrator accountable.
Your options if you can no longer care for a pet rabbit
Sometimes despite your best intentions there is no other option but to let your rabbit go. Maybe you are forced to move quickly or no longer have the money or space to take care of your rabbit. Whatever the case may be, there are other options for your rabbit if you can no longer take care of them.
Find a friend who is able to care for the rabbit
The best options would be to try to find a friend, family member, or acquaintance who is willing to take the rabbit for you. Before looking for a shelter that can take your rabbit, ask around or make postings on social media to find someone willing to bring a rabbit into their home.
This is the optimal option for many reasons:
- You know where your rabbit is and can see them again.
- You can give specific care information to your rabbit’s new caretakers.
- You won’t contribute to the overpopulation of animal shelters.
Bring your rabbit to a shelter
If you have done your due diligence in asking around to find someone who can take care of your rabbit with no success, then it’s time to contact your local animal shelters. You’ll need to be prepared to make a number of phone calls because not every shelter will accept rabbits. Even if a rescue organization does accept rabbits, they are often overcrowded and may not have space for a new bunny.
If you call a shelter and they cannot take your rabbit, ask if they know any other organizations in the area that might be able to help you. Sometimes shelters have relationships with small organizations that are surprisingly difficult to find on the internet. You can even ask your veterinary office if they know of any organizations or people who are willing to take a rabbit.
Euthanize the rabbit
This is an absolutely worst case scenario, last resort option. It’s heartbreaking to even suggest it. If there is no one who is willing to take your rabbit and no organization that can help you, then the only humane option is to euthanize your rabbit. You should only consider this after you’ve done everything you can to find your rabbit a new home. If there really are no other options, putting a rabbit to sleep is a much kinder option than setting them loose outside.
Preventing a rabbit from escaping into the wild
Sometimes a domestic rabbit makes their way out into the wild not because of abandonment, but because they managed to escape. Maybe they’ll make a dash for the door at the worst possible moment, or maybe they‘ll manage to escape an outdoor exercise enclosure. You want to make sure you do everything you can to prevent these possible mishaps.
Tips to prevent your rabbit from escaping:
- Keep your rabbit indoors. There is a much greater chance that a rabbit will escape when they are kept in an outdoor hutch. They may chew through a part of the enclosure or manage to squeeze through a hole you thought was too small.
- Keep rabbits away from doors. Put extra barriers, such as extra fencing, between rabbits and doors, especially when the doors are being opened.
- Make sure any outdoor exercise enclosure is securely closed. Check over any outdoor enclosure thoroughly to make sure there is no possibility of escape. You also want to avoid leaving them unattended outside, so you can look out for any escape artists.
- Teach your rabbit to walk on a leash. If you like to bring your rabbit outside for exercise and sunlight, it can be beneficial to teach them to walk on a leash. This will give them more freedom while also keeping them tethered to you.
- Teach your rabbit to come when you call them. If you teach a rabbit to come when you call them, you can call your rabbit back to you if they ever try to escape into the yard.
- Microchip your rabbit. If there is any danger of a rabbit escaping outdoors, it’s a good idea to get your rabbit microchipped. This could potentially help you and your rabbit get reunited again. (Learn more about microchipping your pet rabbit)
What to do if you see a domestic rabbit in the wild
If you see a rabbit out in the wild, you’ll want to help catch them and get them to safety as soon as possible. The longer the rabbit is outside, the more chance that something will happen to them.
Determine if the rabbit is domestic or wild
Before you make any moves, however, you want to determine if the rabbit in question is domestic or wild. Sometimes this is obvious. A rabbit with a brightly colored coat or lop ears will almost definitely be a domestic rabbit. However some pet rabbits have brown fur coats that look very similar to a wild rabbit’s agouti colored fur.
Some behaviors that can clue you in if the coloring isn’t obvious:
- Friendly behavior: If a rabbit approaches you or seems to be following you, then they are almost definitely a domestic rabbit. Domestic rabbits are also more likely to be hanging out near human environments, such as around someone’s front steps or porch.
- Frequent retreats: Domestic rabbits have not had a lifetime to learn about their environment yet. They still need to memorize the routes back to safety. For that reason they will often venture out and then retreat back to safety, and then venture out again, etc.
Tips to catch a rabbit
If you believe it is a domestic rabbit that is out in the wild, you’ll first want to contact your local rescue organization. They may be able to help you catch the rabbit and bring them to safety. However, many times these organizations don’t have the capacity to take new rabbits in and you may need to take care of this rabbit yourself. (If this is a challenge you are willing to take on, check out my guide for everything you need to know as a new bunny caretaker)
Tips for catching a stray rabbit:
- Use a food with a strong and enticing scent, such as banana, carrots or cilantro.
- Dawn and dusk are usually the best time of day to catch a rabbit.
- Rent or borrow a humane trap and wait for the rabbit to get caught. The traps that look like a tunnel are usually more effective. Check the trap very frequently (every 4 hours) so you don’t leave the rabbit alone and trapped for too long.
- If you have time, try befriending the rabbit with treats and catching them with kindness. You also may be able to lure them into a carrier using treats.
- Carneiro, Miguel, et. al. “Rabbit genome analysis reveals a polygenic basis for phenotypic change during domestication.” Science. August 29, 2014. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/345/6200/1074.full.
- Espie, Amy. “How to Rescue a Rabbit Running Loose.” House Rabbit Society. July 10, 2011. https://rabbit.org/faq-how-to-rescue-a-rabbit-running-loose.
- “The History of Domestication: A Rabbit’s Tale.” University of Oxford. February 14, 2018. http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-02-14-history-domestication-rabbit%E2%80%99s-tale.
- O’Meara, Holly. “Stray Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society. https://rabbit.org/journal/3-7/stray.html.
- Ramnaraine, Amy. “Never Abandon A Rabbit Outside.” House Rabbit Society. March 8, 2017. https://rabbit.org/never-abandon-a-rabbit-outside.
- “Report Animal Cruelty.” The Humane Society. https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/report-animal-cruelty.
- “Researchers Observe Striking Differences Between Brains of Wild, Domestic Rabbits.” Texas A&M University. June 26, 2018. https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/press-releases/researchers-observe-striking-differences-between-brains-of-wild-domesticated-rabbits/
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Recommended Products and Brands
Important: These are Affiliate links. As an associate to Amazon, Small Pet Select, and Chewy.com, I may receive a small commission from qualifying purchases.
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- Hay: Second Cutting Timothy Hay from Small Pet Select
- Pellets: Oxbow Garden Select Food for Rabbits
- Treats: Oxbow Simple Rewards
- Toys: Small Pet Select Natural Toys
- Enclosure/cage: A rabbit exercise pen
- Rabbit carrier: SleepyPod Mobile Pet Bed