The domestic breed of rabbits is descended from the European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus. While these rabbits may often be found roaming feral and wild in Europe and Australia, the United States' wild rabbit population mostly only consists of various species of cottontails (Sylvilagus spp.) and jackrabbits (Lepus spp.).
The only other rabbit native to the USA is the tiny Pygmy rabbit Brachylagus idahoensis. They are only found in parts of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and California. Isolated populations occur in Washington and Wyoming.
Feral rabbits are not wild rabbits. These are domesticated rabbits that have either escaped or been abandoned by their owners and have ended up fending for themselves without being helped or managed by humans in any manner. True wild Oryctolagus cuniculus rabbits have never been caught and bred selectively by humans. In many countries, domesticated rabbits cannot breed with native wild rabbits because they are a different species. The brown/grey agouti pattern of a wild rabbit can be similar to a domestic rabbit's but they are not the same.
Wild vs. domestic
Cottontails (Sylvilagus spp.) do not dig burrows, although they may use burrows made by other animals. Vegetation is used to cover the fur-lined nest between feeds. Cottontails are solitary animals, in contrast with Oryctolagus cuniculus, which live in groups with a defined social hierarchy.
Weights for a wild cottontail can range from the following:
- Appalachian cottontail (Sylvilagus obscurus): 0.9 to 1.5 kg (2 to 3.3 lb)
- Brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani): 0.48 to 0.92 kg (1.06 to 2.03 lb)
- Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii): 0.5 to 1.4 kg (1.1 to 3.1 lb)
- Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus): 0.8 to 1.53 kg (1.76 to 3.37 lb)
- Mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii): 630 to 870 g (1.4 to 1.9 lb)
- New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis): 995 to 1347 g (2.19 to 2.97 lb)
- Swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus): 1.5 to 2.5 kg (3.25 to 5.5 lb)
Jackrabbits, also known as hares, (Lepus spp.) typically live alone or in pairs and are native to Africa, Eurasia, North America, and the Japanese archipelago. Hares do not burrow belowground either and prefer to use a shallow depression or flattened nest of grass. Young hares are born fully furred and with eyes open. By contrast, cottontails and rabbits have young that are born blind and hairless. Hares are also generally larger than rabbits with longer ears and have black markings in their fur. They also have distinctive golden eyes that are not found in domestic rabbits. Certain species of hares may also turn white during the winter.
If you find a wild rabbit, please leave it alone and do not try to take it home as a pet. Wild rabbits do not belong as house pets. Wild rabbits are usually very nervous due to their innate instinctual fear of humans and do not adapt or handle stress well. They belong in the wild, and it is not a good idea to remove them from their natural home. As a wild animal, it may carry diseases that can transfer to your existing pets as well as people. In many places, wild animals cannot be taken care of without the proper permits. If you would like a pet rabbit, please consider obtaining a domestic breed instead.
Some more reading about the differences between wild and domestic rabbits have been listed below.
- FosterBunnies, Wild vs. Domestic
- House Rabbit Society, Kate McGinley, Peter, Bugs, or Roger? Can You Tell a Cottontail from a Hare from a House Rabbit?
- A Bunny Named Squirrel, A Cottontail is Still a Bunny, Right?
- Rabbit Rescue, Inc., Cottontails
- NatureWorks, Eastern Cottontail - Sylvilagus floridanus
- International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus Floridanus)
- Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Rabbit Fact Sheet
- International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Oryctolagus cuniculus
- House Rabbit Society, Holly O'Meara, Stray Rabbits
- House Rabbit Society, Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic
While most wild cottontails will be a standard agouti brown coloration as seen above, rare color mutations can occur, especially leucism, a condition that results in the partial loss of pigmentation. Wild cottontails cannot breed with domestic European rabbits to produce different-colored offspring.
Protecting a wild rabbit nest
Individuals with roaming dogs may find it hard to keep a wild cottontail nest intact long enough for the babies to grow up. The following are some ideas on how to shield the nest yet allow the mother rabbit to visit and feed her babies.
- WildRescue, Inc./Rabbit Rescue. (2021). Shelters for wild cottontails
- Texas Homesteader. (2019). Adding Temporary Protection For Wild Rabbit’s Nest
- u/Postal_Pat. (2018). Found something while cutting my lawn
- Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Wisconsin Humane Society. (2016). Do you have a dog and a bunny nest in your backyard?
In extreme weather, you may bring in the nest indoors during the day and place the babies back outside during the night for the mother rabbit to feed.
- WildRescue, Inc./Rabbit Rescue. (2021). How to dry out cottontail nests.
- WildRescue, Inc./Rabbit Rescue. (2021). Tips for babies at risk during cold/inclement weather.
If you find a nest that has been destroyed, you can move it or rebuild it to a safer area within 10 feet of its original location. To make a new nest, dig a shallow hole about 3" deep and put into it as much of the original material as you can recover, including the mother's fur. Add dried grass as needed, and put the babies back. However, a continued physical presence of a perceived enemy can stress mother rabbits to not return to the nest to feed. Consequently, use third party methods such as crisscrossing unscented dental floss or leaving flour or unscented baby powder around the nest to detect whether or not a mother has returned to feed her young in the next 24-48 hours.
Orphaned wild rabbits
If you find a baby wild rabbit that is not injured, leave it alone. It is most likely not abandoned unless you know for a fact that you killed their mother. Rabbits return to feed their young only once or twice a day for a few minutes, usually at night. Just because the babies have been by themselves for 5 minutes does not mean that they have been abandoned. The mother is typically gone from the nest to eat and draw attention away from the nest. Additionally, baby wild rabbits can survive on their own at a surprisingly young age. In most countries, it is also illegal to possess and take care of wildlife without proper permits.
If you find a baby wild rabbit because your cat found it, take it to a rabbit-savvy vet or wildlife rehabber immediately. Cats have very lethal bacteria in their saliva and can easily be fatal for a rabbit in 48 hours.
Rainbow Wildlife Rescue writes,
There is a 90% mortality rate with orphaned baby rabbits in human care, especially cottontails. This number increases if the rabbits are very young and their eyes still closed. They are extremely hard to "save". There is little substitute for the nutrients their mother's milk provides. Often they die of bloat, improper feeding or overfeeding. Many die even when people have done everything "right".
It is a myth that a mother rabbit, or doe, will abandon her babies purely due to another animal's scent on them. If you are doubtful, then wash your hands and rub them in the grass and soil around the nest before gently replacing the babies, making the nest up as it was before you disturbed it. Only her death or the inability to get to her babies will deter a mother from her offspring.
While touching the baby rabbit may not cause the mother to abandon her offspring, you may still transfer deadly diseases from your hands. Baby rabbits have very weak immune systems that have not been fully developed until they have been weaned after 4 weeks of age. Although they are very cute, wild baby rabbits are very easily stressed by handling and noise. Any undue stress can cause them to have heart failure due to capture myopathy. Observe, and please do not touch wild baby rabbits.
In the case that you find that the babies have been abandoned, please use clean gloves or towels and wash your hands thoroughly. Keep the rabbits in a box in a dark and quiet corner, and contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitator that deals with rabbits to drop the rabbits off as soon as you can.
If you do end up in the possession of a baby wild rabbit, do not feed any cow's milk, starchy vegetables like carrots, or any fruit. The milk of cottontail rabbits is much fattier (15% fat) and higher in protein (16% protein) than a cow's (3% fat, 3% protein). Additionally, a baby's digestive system is very delicate, and excess sugar can send it into dysbiosis.
The links below contain more information about orphaned wild bunnies and how to care for them.
- Wildlife Center of Virginia. "Baby Rabbit" and "I Found a Baby Rabbit ..." - poster
- Ronald Hines. (2020). How To Care for Orphaned Wild Cottontail Bunnies
- Rainbow Wildlife Rescue. Rescuing Baby Wild Rabbits - Often we do more harm than good
- Indiana House Rabbit Society. Wild Rabbits
- House Rabbit Society. (2013). Caring for Orphans
- Care for Orphaned Wildlife. Care for Orphaned Rabbits/Hares
- Irish Wildlife Matters. Emergency Short Term Care Info for the General Public > Short term care baby rabbit/hare
- Zooh Corner. Caring for Newborn Baby Rabbits
The following are a few articles with tips on how to landscape your yard to be friendly to wild rabbits:
- PennState Extension. (2001). Managing Habitat for Eastern Cottontails
- Environmental Defense Fund. (2018). A Landowner's Guide to New England Cottontail Habitat Management [PDF]
- New England Cottontail Regional Technical Committee. (2017). Best Management Practices for the New England Cottontail [PDF]
Wildlife rehabilitator listings
Make sure that the wildlife rehabilitators accept rabbits before dropping them off. Typical animal shelters and vets will be unable to deal with wildlife without proper permits.
- The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory, How To Locate a Wildlife Rehabilitator
Remember to also check your state department of fish and game for more wildlife rehabilitator contacts.
- Animal Help Now
- Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, State Agency Lists of Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitators
- Our internal United States category
- Varga, M. (2013). Textbook of rabbit medicine. (2nd ed.).
- The Animal Files. (n.d.). Appalachian Cottontail. Retrieved 31 Mar 2021 from https://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/rabbits_hares_pikas/appalachian_cottontail.html
- Animal Diversity Web. (n.d.). Sylvilagus bachmani. Retrieved 22 January 2016 from http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Sylvilagus_bachmani/
- The Mammals of Texas. (n.d). Desert Cottontail. Retrieved 22 January, 2016, from http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/sylvaudu.htm.
- Animal Diversity Web. (n.d.). Sylvilagus floridanus. Retrieved 22 January 2016 from http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Sylvilagus_floridanus/
- Donald Streubel. (2000). Sylvilagus nuttallii (Mountain Cottontail). Retrieved 31 Mar 2021 from https://digitalatlas.cose.isu.edu/bio/mammal/Lagom/moco/moco.htm
- Animal Diversity Web. (n.d.). Sylvilagus transitionalis. Retrieved 22 January 2016 from http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Sylvilagus_transitionalis/
- The Animal Files. (n.d). Swamp Rabbit. Retrieved 31 Mar 2021 from https://www.theanimalfiles.com/mammals/rabbits_hares_pikas/swamp_rabbit.html
- Rainbow Wildlife Rescue, Rescuing Baby Wild Rabbits - Often we do more harm than good
- WildRescue, Inc./Rabbit Rescue. (n.d.). Wild Rabbit 911. Retrieved 29 Mar 2016 from http://www.wildrescuetexas.org/wildrabbit.html
- Anderson, RR, et al. (1975). Composition of Cottontail Rabbit Milk from Stomachs of Young and Directly from Gland. Journal of Dairy Science, 58(10), 1449-1452.
- Milk Facts. (n.d.). Milk Composition. Retrieved 14 Jul 2017 from http://www.milkfacts.info/Milk%20Composition/Milk%20Composition%20Page.htm