Rabbit is a furry animal with long ears and a short, fluffy tail. Wild rabbits live throughout the world in all climates. Tame varieties of rabbits make excellent pets.
Rabbits are closely related to hares. Rabbits and hares look similar and are often mistaken for one another. Some rabbits and hares are misnamed. For example, the Belgian hare is a rabbit, and the jack rabbit is a hare. Rabbits and hares can be told apart most easily at birth. Newborn rabbits have no fur and are blind and helpless. Newborn hares have fur and their eyes are open. Also, mother rabbits shelter their young in a soft, fur-lined nest. Mother hares do not make nests for their young.
The body of a rabbit
Wild rabbits have brownish fur that mixes white, light brown, gray, dark reddish-brown, and black hairs. Domestic rabbits may be black, brown, gray, white, or even spotted in various combinations of these colors.
An adult cottontail rabbit grows about 21 1/2 inches (55 centimeters) long and can weigh up to 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms). European rabbits may be somewhat smaller. Domestic rabbits can grow larger than wild rabbits. The White Flemish Giant, the largest breed of rabbit, weighs up to 17 pounds (8 kilograms). The smallest species of rabbit, the volcano rabbit, measures only about 12 inches (30 centimeters). Female rabbits, called does, tend to grow larger than males, called bucks. In most species, the tail of a rabbit measures about 3/5 to 2 3/4 inches (1.5 to 7 centimeters) long and is covered with soft, fluffy fur.
Rabbits generally move in a hopping motion using their long, powerful hind legs. This motion enables them to travel quickly. A rabbit's hind legs have long toes hidden beneath a thick cushion of fur. The toes are webbed to keep them from spreading when the rabbit jumps.
A rabbit's eyes are on the side of its head, toward the back. As a result, the animal can see better to the side than forward. A rabbit's keen sense of smell helps alert it to danger. But rabbits rely mostly on their hearing. They may move their long, sensitive ears together or one at a time to catch sounds from any direction. The ears also keep the rabbit cool in hot weather by giving off heat.
Rabbits' teeth grow continually throughout their lives. Their chisellike front teeth, the upper incisors and lower incisors, resemble those of rodents. Unlike rodents, rabbits have two pairs of upper incisors. One pair is directly behind the other. Rabbits use the incisors to gnaw and clip off plants. They then chew their food with sideways movements of the lower jaw, which grinds the food and helps wear down the ever-growing teeth.
The life of a rabbit
Rabbits have many natural enemies and can protect themselves mainly by hiding or running from danger. Although pet rabbits may live as long as 10 to 15 years, wild rabbits rarely survive beyond 6 years of age.
Homes. Cottontail rabbits spend most of the daylight hours resting in shallow depressions in the ground called forms. In cold weather underneath deep snow, a cottontail may take over another wild animal's abandoned burrow and make a network of connected paths called runs. Cottontails live mostly solitary lives, but they share territory with others and come together for mating. The pygmy rabbit constructs its own burrow.
European rabbits live in large colonies and will warn one another about danger by making loud thumps with their hind feet before running off. They share vast underground burrows called warrens. Warrens may be dug up to 10 feet (3 meters) underground and have several entrances and exits. They consist of interconnecting tunnels, living chambers, and nesting chambers where females give birth to and nurse their babies.
Food. Most rabbits eat and play from dusk to dawn, and spend the day resting and sleeping. In spring and summer, rabbits eat green leafy plants, including clover, grass, and herbs. In winter, they eat the twigs, bark, and fruit of bushes and trees. Rabbits sometimes damage crops because they nibble the tender sprouts of beans, lettuce, and other vegetables.
The plant foods that rabbits eat are hard to digest. To get the most nutrients from these foods, rabbits pass the plant matter through their digestive system more than once. Rabbits produce two kinds of solid wastes: moist pellets, which they swallow again and redigest, and solid pellets, which are true wastes.
Young. Because wild rabbits often die before reaching maturity, they must produce many young to survive. A female rabbit usually has four to five young at a time, and she may give birth several times a year. Female cottontails may bear about four litters of young per year.
A female cottontail rabbit carries her young, called kits, inside her body for 26 to 30 days before giving birth. The mother keeps the newborns in a nest she has dug in the ground. She lines the nest with fur pulled from her chest with her teeth. The mother stays near the nest and covers the kits with grass and fur to keep them warm. Kits develop a coat of soft fur around 10 days after birth.
About two weeks after birth, the kits leave the nest and hide in long grass and leaves. The mother nurses her young for only a few weeks. Some females start their own families when less than 6 months old.
Enemies. People rank as the greatest enemies of rabbits. Every year, hunters kill millions of rabbits for sport and for food. Farmers kill rabbits to protect crops. Human beings also kill rabbits by destroying the animals' natural habitats. Other rabbit enemies include coyotes, foxes, weasels, snakes, hawks, and owls.
Rabbits usually try to hide from enemies. If a rabbit is in the open, it may sit still, unnoticed, and wait for the foe to go away. If the enemy comes too close, the rabbit flees. A frightened rabbit can leap 10 feet (3 meters) or more and can travel as fast as 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour. But it tires quickly. It tries to confuse its enemy by zigzagging. It sometimes circles back and follows its own trail for a while, and then leaps off in another direction. It may dive into a burrow or into brush to escape.
Wild rabbits often die from the disease tularemia, also known as rabbit fever. Tularemia can spread to people who handle sick rabbits (see Tularemia).