Can Domesticated Rabbits Survive in the Wild?

Rabbit in the wild
Sergie Golyshev

Sometimes well-meaning pet rabbit owners will announce that they have "set a rabbit free so that it can live in the wild.” This person may think they are doing the right thing by letting their pet loose to live "like it was meant to live." The problem with this logic is that domesticated rabbits were never actually meant to live in the wild. Sadly, the rabbit likely won't be alive for long.

Domesticated Rabbits and Basic Instincts

If your domesticated rabbit escaped his hutch, he would instinctually dig a burrow like his European ancestors, Oryctolagus cuniculus. That extent is about as far as a domesticated rabbit's survival skills would go. Important instincts and physical characteristics that protect rabbits in the wild have been lost. Domesticated rabbits do not need these skills. 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 have been watered down by generations and generations of domestication.

Inability to Escape Predators

One factor 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. These unnatural colors do not necessarily blend in with wild and natural surroundings and make domesticated rabbits easy prey. In the wild, these animals become very easy targets and will attract 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. Even with a more appropriately camouflaged coat, the domesticated variety still doesn't have the finely honed abilities to detect or escape predators that a wild rabbit does. Depending on breed, domestic rabbit bodies are typically heavier than wild rabbits which makes them slower to escape from a predator. A pet rabbit may sense danger, but it is often too late. Even if he hops away in order to hide, he simply isn't equipped to survive on his own for very long. Wild rabbits are experts at food foraging in their natural environment, while domesticated rabbits are not and will have a harder time finding food in the wild. 

In general, wild cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus spp.) have a lifespan of about one year—possibly three, if they're very, very clever. If a domestic rabbit that is "set free" survives for a year, it's due to sheer luck. Most people have their hearts in the right place, but they aren't banking on those odds when they turn their rabbit loose. Domestic rabbits continue to be the safest, happiest, and healthiest when they are in our care

If you have a pet rabbit that you can no longer care for, the safest route is to give the pet up for adoption and not set it free outdoors. Your veterinarian, neighbors, or friends may be helpful in finding a safe and happy adoptive home for your pet rabbit.