Rabbits are often seen eating grass, flowers, and vegetables in our gardens. So, it makes sense that you’d want to know how to tell if a rabbit is wild or domestic. You may think they both look alike, but they’re relatively easy to tell apart once you know how to recognize how they differ physically.
Wild rabbits never have floppy ears, and will usually have light brown fur. Wild rabbits have long, narrow faces; pet rabbits have plumper cheeks and wide, round eyes. Non-domesticated rabbits will be afraid of humans as they are prey animals and will never approach us.
How you should treat a rabbit depends on whether it is wild or domesticated. Any free animal should be left alone. Attempting to engage may frighten the rabbit. A lost pet will be scared and confused, and possibly hungry. You should try to find the owner of an escaped rabbit.
Wild vs. Domestic Rabbits
To the layperson, wild and domesticated rabbits look identical. All rabbits have large ears, prominent teeth, and fluffy tails. You’d be forgiven for thinking they all look identical.
Despite this, there is a range of differences. The rabbits we keep in our homes are specifically bred to be domesticated pets. These rabbits would not survive in the wild. Likewise, you should never attempt to tame a wild rabbit.
Most often, a wild rabbit will be a Cottontail. There are 14 breeds of rabbit found in the U.S. though, none of which are domesticated. All pet rabbits are breeds that originate in Europe.
Observe the size, shape, and most notably, the behavior of the rabbit. These will reveal if the rabbit was born free or escaped captivity. Things to look out for include:
- Approachability. Wild rabbits will never approach you. If you try to catch one, they’ll run, kick, and scream. A pet rabbit will be more trusting of humans. They will likely hop toward you, expressing curiosity.
- Movement. If the rabbit moves with confidence, it’s likely wild. The rabbit knows the territory, and where to seek safety. Domesticated rabbits are more timid. They move slowly, exploring new terrain.
- Coloring. Wild rabbits are almost exclusively light brown in color. Domesticated pets often have spotted fur, or even different coloring. A wild rabbit’s coat will also be coarser than that of a domesticated rabbit.
- Head Shape. The head of a wild rabbit will be longer and thinner. Its eyes will also be narrower – almost almond-shaped. Domestic rabbits have wide, round eyes and chubby cheeks.
- Ears. No wild rabbit native to the U.S. has floppy ears. If the ears are upright, the rabbit may be wild. Be aware though; some domesticated rabbits also have upright ears when attentive.
- Size. Wild rabbits, especially Cottontails, grow to a particular size. If the rabbit is a dwarf breed, it will be somebody’s pet. Giant rabbits are also invariably domesticated.
- Weight. Wild rabbits do not enjoy specialist food, treats, and a safe home. This means they eat less and move more. They’ll weigh less as a result. No wild rabbit would trust a human. An escaped pet knows that humans can provide safety and food, though. They’ll hesitantly approach you for help.
- Companionship. Wild rabbits are rarely found alone. They travel in groups. An escaped domestic rabbit is likelier to wander solo. Pets struggle to adapt to the hierarchy of an established colony.
If you encounter a rabbit and wonder if it’s wild or domesticated, just wait. Keep your distance, staying still and quiet. You’ll soon have your answer.
If the rabbit cautiously approaches you, then it’s domesticated. No wild rabbit would trust a human. An escaped pet knows that humans can provide safety and food, though. They’ll hesitantly approach you for help.
Never, under any circumstances, force a rabbit to interact with you. Wild rabbits, especially, are skittish. The shock and fright of unwelcome handling can cause cardiac arrest.
You shouldn’t try to house a wild rabbit with a domestic rabbit. They won’t get along.
What To Do If You Find a Lost Domesticated Rabbit
Some pet owners still release domesticated rabbits into the wild. Forget what you may have heard. This is not the best thing for the animal. Domesticated rabbits lack the instincts required to survive in the wild. Never forget that all rabbits are prey animals.
Some rabbits escape captivity, too. This does not mean the animal has been mistreated. Rabbits are creatures of instinct. Like all domesticated pets, a rabbit could escape and then almost immediately regret the decision.
If you are confident that you have located a domesticated rabbit, you have two primary responsibilities. First, ensure the rabbit is healthy. Secondly, do what you can to reunite the animal with his or her owner. This is assuming that you can accommodate the rabbit in your home.
How to Check the Health of an Escaped Pet Rabbit
Domesticated rabbits end up on your property for several reasons. The rabbit may be trying to get home and has grown disoriented. The rabbit may have dug a tunnel, ending up in your yard. Owners may have released the rabbit.
If the rabbit approaches you, they are seeking help. The animal knows that humans can offer safety and comfort. This is even true of a rabbit that has been mistreated. If you are prepared to help the rabbit, observe the following protocols.
- Wear gloves before touching the rabbit. Even domesticated rabbits carry zoonotic diseases.
- Do not attempt to handle the rabbit. This will terrify the animal. Let them approach you. If you have a dog or cat carrier, encourage the rabbit to enter it. Food is usually a great motivator.
- Keep the rabbit calm. Talk to the animal in a rhythmic, singsong tone of voice. Do not shout or make any sudden movements.
- Offer water, and some fresh fruit or vegetables. The rabbit may be hungry or thirsty.
- Give the rabbit a provisional once-over. Look for any signs of bleeding, or another injury. If you see any, take the rabbit for professional help.
- Take the rabbit’s temperature. This should be between 100 – 103 degrees Fahrenheit. If not, the rabbit is unsafe and needs to see a vet.
If the rabbit is safe and healthy, try to locate its owners. You could take the animal straight to a vet for this. Alternatively, you can do some detective work yourself.
How to Reunite an Escaped Pet Rabbit with the Owner
Check your local area for ‘missing’ posters. If a child has lost his rabbit, their first thought will be to place these. Check lampposts, and the windows of local shops and homes.
If you cannot find anything, check social media. Facebook, in particular. They may have a local group dedicated to your area. Some people may jump straight to a digital notice, hoping for a faster response.
If you’re still unable to find an owner, take the rabbit to a vet. A responsible owner would have microchipped the rabbit. This means they’ll have contact details for the owner.
Sadly, this may not be the case. As the International Society for Animal Rights explains, microchipping is not a legal requirement in any state. If the rabbit’s owners cannot be tracked, the vet may refuse to help any further.
Can I Keep a Lost Domestic Rabbit as My Own Pet?
In theory, if the owner of a pet rabbit cannot be found, you can keep it. Just bear several things in mind:
- Are you certain the rabbit is not wild? Wild rabbits do not cope well with confinement. They’ll become sick and stressed, and often die.
- Rabbits are a lot of work. Are you sure you have the time and patience to care for them appropriately? Do you understand the complex needs of rabbits?
- Do you have enough space in your home to accommodate a rabbit? You cannot lock a rabbit in a hutch all day. They need to run free, and be safe while doing so.
- Have you done everything you can to locate the owner? This includes putting up your own posters, and using social media.
If you answered yes to all of these questions, you have a new family member. Pets are considered property under U.S. law. If the owner of the rabbit gets in touch, you must surrender the animal.
When you know what to look for, the differences between wild and domestic rabbits become clear. The discrepancies in their appearance and behavior are distinct.
Knowing these differences helps you understand how to react if a rabbit hops into your yard. If the rabbit is wild, leave them be. If they’re becoming a nuisance, erect a fence.
If the rabbit is domesticated, somebody will be missing his pet. The rabbit will also likely be missing its human owners. Reuniting both parties is a happy ending for all concerned.