European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Originally from the Iberian peninsula, the rabbit was introduced to the Romans over 2000 years ago. Rabbits were fully domesticated by the 17th century, and they became popular as children’s pets during the Victorian era.
Originally from the Iberian Peninsula, southern France, and northern Africa, the European rabbit was introduced as livestock to the Romans over 2,000 years ago and was fully domesticated by the 17th century. Today the European rabbit is spread throughout Europe, except northern Scandinavia. It is naturalized in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, portions of North and South America, as well as numerous islands of the Pacific, African coast, and the Caribbean. Rabbits became popular as children’s pets during the Victorian era, and they are one of the most commonly used species in animal experiments.
Family: Leporidae – hares, rabbits
Genus: Oryctolagus – European rabbits
There are at least 42 pet rabbit breeds. Popular breeds include the Dutch, Netherland dwarf (adults weigh 1 kg or less), and Rex rabbit.
There are at least 60 pet rabbit breeds, which range in size from the very large Flemish Giant rabbit (up to 22 lb or 9.97 kg) to the smallest breed, the Netherland dwarf, which weighs 1 kg or less). Popular breeds include the Dutch, Lionhead rabbit, Mini lop, and Rex rabbit.
Hay is essential to a rabbit’s health. Rabbits should also be fed a small amount of high fiber pellets (minimum 18% fiber), and a variety of vegetables including leafy green like cilantro and parsley as well as root vegetables
Rabbits are strict herbivores and hay is essential to a rabbit’s health. Hay should make up the bulk of the adult rabbit diet. High-quality, well-structured hay must always be freely available. The hay should be dry, but not dusty, and it must not smell musty or moldy. Dried herbs, flowers and leaves can be given in addition to hay. Myxomatosis and rabbit hemorrhagic disease may be introduced with grass or leaves from the outside (see Vaccination below).
Fresh vegetables should make up approximately 25% of the adult diet. Rabbits should also be fed variety of vegetables, including leafy greens like cilantro and parsley, as well as root vegetables and/or leaves of unsprayed deciduous trees (hazelnut, willow, birch). Download the client education handout, Basic Rabbit Care for additional information.
Fruits are not suitable for rabbits because of the high amount of sugar disrupts the health of the gastrointestinal tract.
Grass hay-based rabbit pellets, free of grains and nuts, can also be offered in small quantities to adults. The amount offered can be higher during pregnancy. Pellets should contain at least 18% (better 20-22%) fiber. Maximal 1 teaspoon/day/animal of pellets should be given.
Young, growing rabbits under 5 months require higher protein levels than adults. Offer alfalfa hay-based pellets ad lib may be useful, as well as a variety of fresh vegetables and hay.
Rabbits have an extremely digestive system. Never introduce new food items abruptly, and when changing diets, the new feed should be gradually mixed in with the known food over a period of 14 days.
Rabbits are crepuscular, but they can adjust their schedule somewhat to that of their human family’s schedule. Rabbits are also very social animals. Therefore rabbits should ideally never be kept alone. Pairs, harems and single sex groups can all live together peacefully. Female rabbits tend to fight than castrated males. For the inexperienced owner that does not plan to breed, a single sex group of castrated males or a pair (female and castrated male) is preferable.
Rabbits have a strong hierarchy in their groups and are very territorial. Fighting within a group are seen mostly only in the first days. Once the hierarchy is established, fighting is extremely rare. Introductions of new animals can be challenging and should be done outside the known territory.
House rabbits on solid flooring with recycled paper product or aspen shavings. If wire flooring must be used, cover at least a portion with carpet remnants, grass mats, synthetic sheepskin, or towels (monitor for chewing). Rabbits may be litter pan trained.
If held in cages, rabbits need at least 1 hour playtime outside the cage a day. “Bunny proof” the home (or a room) by preventing access to electrical cords and other dangerous items while providing safe, chewable items and toys. Rabbits should also be provided with visual security such as a hide box (e.g. wooden house, untreated cardboard box, cork bark tube).
Cage furniture should include items that rabbits can gnaw or nibble. Various woods, branches, bark, and root pieces should be offered to satisfy this natural behavior and promote normal dentition.
Normal physiologic values
|Temperature||101.3-103 F||38.0-39.6 C|
|Blood pressure||Arterial 80-91 mmHg/td>||Systolic 92.7-135 mmHg
Diastolic 64-75 mmHg
|Blood volume||55-65 ml/kg|
|Mean life span||6-10 years|
|Sexual maturity||4-6 months
F: 7-8 months
M: 8-9 months)
|smaller breeds 4-4.5 months|
|larger breeds 4.5-5 months|
|Gestation||30-33 days||Induced ovulators|
|Birth weight||40-50 g|
|Litter size||1-6 (average 2)|
|Weaning age||6-8 weeks|
|Target environmental temperature:||60-70 F||15.6-21.0 C|
|Daily water intake||120 ml/kg/day|
Anatomy / physiology
- The large ears of the rabbit are highly vascular, fragile and sensitive.
- Rabbits possess a well-developed nictitans or third eyelid.
- The eyes are positioned laterally and rabbits possess a wide field of vision and a central blind spot.
- Rabbits compensate for the central blind spot and poor near vision, by relying on sensitive whiskers and lips to find forage.
- The rabbit is an obligate nasal breather.
- Dental formula: Incisors 2/1 Canines 0/0 Premolars 3/2 Molars 3/3
- The peg teeth are the second pair of maxillary incisors positioned behind the first larger, chisel-like incisors. At rest the mandibular incisors have contact with the upper jaw incisive. Their tip hits the palatal surface of the maxillary incisors.
- All teeth are open rooted, erupting continuously through life.
- The diastema is a large gap that functionally separates the incisors and cheek teeth.
- Rabbits possess a long, narrow oral cavity.
- Rabbits have delicate skin and fine hair.
- The dewlap is a fold of skin at the throat of many, large female rabbits and some males.
- Rabbits do not have footpads. Instead coarse fur covers the toes and hocks.
- The rabbit is a true herbivore with a simple stomach.
- Indigestible fiber (cellulose, lignin) drives gastrointestinal motility.
- Bacterial fermentation occurs in the large cecum.
- Rabbits produce cecotropes (“night feces”), which are regularly ingested. Cecotrophy provides vitamins B and K, amino acids, and fiber.
- Calcium metabolism is unique in rabbits. All ingested calcium is excreted by the kidneys. Therefore urine varies with diet, and may appear thick and creamy white in rabbits on a high-calcium diet.
- Female rabbits are induced ovulators. The uterus consists of two uterine horns with no uterine body that communicates with two cervices. The oviducts are very long and coiled.
- Does nurse their young once or twice daily for 3-5 minutes at a time (the milk is extremely rich).
- The rabbit skeleton is relatively thin and lightweight, making up 6-8% of body weight.
- Rabbit neutrophils are called heterophils.
- The thymus lies ventral to the heart, and extends up into the thoracic inlet. The large thymus persists, even into adulthood.
Rabbits possess a relatively lightweight, delicate skeleton paired with extremely strong, well-developed back and leg muscles. With improper restraint, rabbits that struggle or kick run the risk of a broken back or leg. Always restrain rabbits on a non-slip surface such as a large, heavy towel or pad.
Collect larger volumes of blood from the jugular vein or lateral saphenous vein.
Smaller samples may be taken from the cephalic vein.
Important medical conditions
Lumbosacral fracture, luxation
Antibiotics to Avoid
Avoid antimicrobials that attack only gram-positive bacteria such as beta-lactams.
- Lincosamide, lincomycin
- Amoxicillin, ampicillin
- Cephalosporins, clindamycin
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References and further reading
Banks RE, Sharp JM, Doss SD, Vanderford DA. Exotic Small Mammal Care and Husbandry. Durham, NC: Wiley-Blackwell; 2010.
Bays TB, Lightfoot TL, Mayer J. Exotic Pet Behavior: Birds, Reptiles, and Small Mammals. WB Saunders, St. Louis, 2006.
Dyer SM, Cervasio EL. An overview of restraint and blood collection techniques in exotic pet practice. Vet Clin Exot Anim 11:423-443, 2008.
Harriman M. House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live with an Urban Rabbit, 4th ed. Alameda: Drollery Press; 2005.
House Rabbit Society. House Rabbit Society website. Available at rabbit.org.
Mayer J. Natural history of the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Exotic Mammal Medicine and Surgery. p.6
Mitchell MA, Tully TN. Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. St. Louis, MO: Saunders Elsevier; 2009.
Quesenberry KE, Carpenter JW (eds). Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, 2nd ed. Philadelphia, WB Saunders, 2004.
O’Malley B (ed). Clinical Anatomy and Physiology of Exotic Species. Saunders Elsevier. 2005. Pp. 173-195.
Pollock C, Parmentier S. Basic information sheet: European rabbit. Dec 13, 2018. LafeberVet Web site. Available at https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-for-european-rabbits/