What species are domestic rabbits?
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.).
Typically, most species of truly wild rabbits have an agouti-colored brown coat. However, because the wild rabbit species in countries outside of North America are the same species as the domestic rabbit, rabbits found in those countries can be a mix of colors depending on how much domestic rabbit was bred in.
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.
What species of rabbits are wild in North America?
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. Hares are 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.
Young hares (leverets) are born fully furred and with eyes open. By contrast, cottontails and rabbits have young that are born blind and hairless.
If you find a wild rabbit that is not visibly injured, 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
What color mutations exist in wild cottontails?
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.
Is the rabbit I found wild or domestic?
It can be very difficult for the average person to tell the difference between a wild and domestic rabbit, especially if they are a baby and/or a common agouti brown.
A few features that may help distinguish whether a rabbit you found in the wild belongs where you saw it or if it should be rescued.
- Flightiness: Most truly wild rabbits are very cautious of humans and will quickly run away unless they are very sick or injured. Very young baby rabbits are less likely to run away but instead freeze in place in an attempt to lose your attention. If an adult rabbit is very curious about you and willing to eat out of your hand, they are more likely to be a domestic rabbit, especially if they are not an agouti color.
- Head shape: Wild rabbits have a much leaner head shape across all species, from cottontails to wild Oryctolagus cuniculus rabbits. Cottontails have a distinctive wedge-shaped head, with eyes placed closer to the top half of their heads.
- Ears: Wild cottontail ears are very thin and translucent and are generally much shorter and rounder than a domestic rabbit.
- Eye color: Hares and jackrabbits have amber eyes that are not found in domestic rabbits. Cottontail eyes will usually be a dark brown and rarely other colors if they are leucistic.
- Coat color: Although both domestic and wild rabbits often have agouti-colored coats, there are subtle differences between the agouti color in a domestic rabbit and a wild rabbit. Wild rabbit coats tend to heavier with patches of black and white fur ticking than domestic rabbits. Please note that some species of wild rabbits will change coats to white during winter months and may also be white, blonde, or orange due to a leucistic gene - check out the previous section for more image examples.
If you are unsure if the rabbit in your possession is a wild or domestic rabbit, please contact your local rabbit rescue or wildlife rehabilitator for assistance with identification. Do not feed anything other than water and outside forage (e.g. grass) to an adult rabbit or nothing at all (no food or water) for a baby rabbit, and keep them in a dark box in a quiet location to reduce fatal stress.
I found a baby wild rabbit! What should I do?
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 rehabilitator immediately for antibiotics. Cats have very lethal bacteria in their saliva and can easily be fatal for a rabbit in 48 hours even without a visible injury. Do not feed or water the rabbit and keep it warm in a dark quiet box until you can locate a wildlife rehabilitator that will accept the rabbit.
More care instructions:
- Toronto Wildlife Centre. Baby rabbit caught by a cat
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 have your own rabbits, please make sure to keep the wild rabbit strictly quarantined to prevent transmission of diseases such as parasites, rabbit hemorrhagic disease, and myxomatosis, among many others.
If you do end up in the possession of a baby wild rabbit that you are positive is orphaned or unable to be returned to their nest, 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.
As West Shore Wildlife Center writes,
The golden rule if you find a baby animal ⭐️ Do not feed them! ⭐️
Sadly we are already seeing many wild baby animals come to us that have been fed by the people that found them. Not only does this often mean that we cannot attempt reuniting the baby with its mother, it can be make the animal extremely sick. Sadly already twice this year it has been deadly.
Feeding the wrong food to a baby animal can cause severe GI distress. Cows milk, flavored drinks, human baby formula and many other types of liquids that we often see people giving baby mammals and birds can cause diarrhea so severe that the baby may not recover without immediate medical care.
Even feeding less harmful foods or online formula mixtures can quickly go wrong when done by an untrained individual. Aspiration into the lungs often occurs after even one feeding. In the case of the squirrel pictured here, the people that found her thought she was “doing great” for the week she was kept and to the untrained eye that might seem like the case. Sadly she was less than half the size she should be and her organs were failing. While still somewhat active from the sugar in the little bit of food she received, she had none of the calories or nutrients she needed and wasn’t growing. If you don’t know what a healthy baby looks like, you can’t identify a sick one. Keep this is mind when you hear stories or see “cute” videos online of people “successfully” raising wildlife.
This is a fatal story that will play out many times over the year for us at the wildlife center. It is heartbreaking for our team. We know people want to help and care, but we also know that the right thing to do in getting professional advice is accessible and easily found online at the same spots people are trying to find how to have fun raising a baby squirrel. It is extremely frustrating when we are contacting only when it is too late and a young baby’s death could have been prevented.
It is best to just keep the rabbit quiet and warm until they can be transferred to an experienced wildlife rehabilitator ASAP. Baby rabbits will do fine overnight without food as they are usually only fed once a day by their mothers. Feeding a baby rabbit incorrectly can do more harm than good.
The links below contain more information about orphaned wild bunnies and how to care for them.
- Toronto Wildlife Centre. Temporary care for baby rabbits
- Wildlife Center of Virginia. "Baby Rabbit"
- 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
- House Rabbit Society. (2013). Baby Bunnies: Are They Really Orphaned?
- Care for Orphaned Wildlife. Care for Orphaned Rabbits/Hares
- Indiana House Rabbit Society. Wild Rabbits.
How can I protect a wild rabbit nest from dogs, cats, and other predators?
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. Entry holes around 4" in diameter are large enough for a mother cottontail to slip through.
- 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
- Bunny Brigade SC, Inc. (2021). Using a plastic crate to protect a cottontail nest
The following wildlife centers recommend staking a plastic basket temporarily during the day while your dog roams the yard and remove the basket for the mother before the evening.
- Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota (WRC). (2017). Using a basket to protect a nest of baby rabbits
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.
- Crows Hollow Wildlife Care (2019). Storm bunnies survival 101
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.
The following are a few articles with tips on how to landscape your yard to be friendly to wild rabbits:
- 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]
- PennState Extension. (2001). Managing Habitat for Eastern Cottontails
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
- West Shore Wildlife Center. (2022). Facebook post. Retrieved 27 Mar 2022 from https://www.facebook.com/WestShoreWildlife/posts/517371269738491