Domesticated Rabbits in the Wild

Can I Let My Domestic Rabbit Run Free?

Wild rabbits have the instincts to live in the wild that domestic rabbits lack. Sergie Golyshev

I can't tell you how I cringe when some well-meaning person announces that they have "set a rabbit free so that it can live in the wild.” I know that he or she feels that they have done the right thing by letting their pet loose to live "like it was meant to live." Except that, it was never actually meant to live that way. And sadly it won't be alive for long.

If your domesticated rabbit escaped his hutch, he would instinctually dig a burrow like his European ancestors, Oryctolagus cuniculus.

But that’s about as far as his survival skills would go. Important instincts and physical characteristics have been lost because they simply don't need them since humans have been their caretakers for so long.

Some basic instincts do remain; they are prey animals and continue to act as such. However, the sharp, wild abilities that are necessary for a rabbit's survival in the wild have been watered down by generations and generations of domestication.

One thing that immediately works against domesticated rabbits in the wild is their "man-made" coat colors. Rabbit fanciers have bred many colors and patterns into domesticated coats and these unnatural colors do not necessarily blend in with natural (wild) surroundings. Therefore, domestic rabbits might as well be waving a red flag attracting every predator in the area including hawks, foxes, owls, coyotes, raccoons, and even domestic dogs.

Some domestic rabbits do wear the color of their ancestors; agouti (a grizzled brown), which will give them a slight advantage over their unnaturally colored brethren.

But it isn't enough as they still don't have the finely honed abilities to detect or escape predators that a wild rabbit does. Also, domestic rabbit bodies are heavier which makes them slower. A pet rabbit will sense danger (too late) and will hop away in order to hide, but the fact is that he simply isn't equipped to survive on his own for very long.

In general, wild cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus spp.) have a lifespan of about one year—possibly three, if they're very, very clever. If domestic rabbit that is "set free" survives for a year, it's due to sheer luck and nothing else. Most people have their heart in the right place, but they aren't banking on those odds when they turn their rabbit loose. The fact is that domestic rabbits continue to be the safest, happiest, and healthiest when they are in our care.