Home  BunnyCam  Forum  Photos

Wild vs. Domestic

There are two types of rabbits that you may come across.  One is the domestic rabbit which is the one you can adopt as a pet.  The other is the wild rabbit, Cottontails or Hares which live outdoors.

They can be difficult to tell apart if you've never researched it and while you think you're saving an abandoned baby bunny, you could be causing its death if you bring it in and confine it.  They are extremely high stress, and can easily be frightened to death.

Cottontails can breed almost year round.  The mother will dig a shallow hole and line it with plant material and her own fur which she pulls out.  She will visit her babies once or twice a day, at early morning and late at night to feed them.  She will quickly nurse them and leave in order to protect them and the nest from detection by predators.  The babies will only nurse for 2-3 weeks as opposed to the domestic rabbit which requires the mother for about 2 months.  The cottontail mothers milk is very rich and the babies mature much quicker and are out on their own by about 4 weeks.  Contrary to popular belief, the mother will not reject her babies if touched by humans.

So it is not unusual to see wild cottontail babies, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, out on their own.  Unlike adults, they may not run away or appear frightened but they do not need rescuing.

How do you tell if its a wild bunny?  The colouring is brown and gray ("agouti" colouring) and they often have a white streak on the head as babies.  They have noticeably long slender legs and their face is longer, thinner and more pointed.  They do not sport the more rounded head and chubby cheeks of our domestics.  The Cottontails also have ears that are very thin and almost opened flat and wide at the top whereas domestic's ears are thicker and roll in a bit more.  Hares have longer ears and hind legs than domestics.  This enables their incredible speed which can reach up to about 70km/hr.  They can change the colour of their fur with the season, going white in the winter.  Mother Hares nurse their young similar to Cottontails, in a shallow hole called a form.


In addition to the physical characteristics, you'll find that even if a baby Cottontail does not appear frightened when you come upon it, it will not have the friendly disposition of a domestic.  It will never be tame or friendly like a domestic bunny, even if you are able to keep it alive in captivity.  Its innate fear of people and animals will always remain to some degree.  A domestic rabbit can also show some fear of people if abused or neglected but not as pronounced as the wild rabbit.

Our domestic rabbits are descended from European wild rabbits.  Cottontails are found in North and South America.  Hares (jackrabbits) are found in North America, Eurasia, and Africa.  Both the Cottontail and Hare are solitary and although you may see several near each other, they do not live together.  The European rabbit, which is where our domestic breeds originate, do live together in large groups and form quite complex social structures.  This is why you can often bond domestic rabbits although the fact they are not born into an existing group can make it difficult or sometimes even impossible for them to accept each other and work out a hierarchy between themselves.  Established bonds can also break if the relationship changes for whatever reason.

Wild bunnies and domestics are genetically different.  They cannot breed together.  Adult Cottontails reach no more than about 3lbs and always have similar colouring.  Domestic rabbits come in a great variety of colours, including the wild rabbit's agouti colouring, and weight ranges from about 2-3lbs to as much as 16lbs or more.  For example our Chinchilla bunny has a typical weight range of 13-16lbs which is even more than our New Zealand's typical weight of about 10lbs, and New Zealand's are known for their large size!  There is also a difference in life expectancy.  About 6 years for a wild Cottontail as opposed to 8-10 years for a domestic rabbit.

It is illegal to keep wild cottontails in captivity so if you find one, you must let them go.  Babies under 100g may be accepted by a local human society or wildlife center.  If they are over 100g and not injured they must be let go by law in Ontario:

From the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997, "A person shall not keep live game wildlife or live specially protected wildlife in captivity except under the authority of a license and in accordance with the regulations.  1997, c. 41, s. 40 (1).  Cottontails are considered Live Game Wildlife under the same Act.


Ontario's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997

Toronto Wildlife Center - helps injured animals or very young babies


Everything you ever wanted to know about rabbits but were afraid to ask ...