Rabbits – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of rabbits.

Varietal range differences

The rabbit was once classified as a rodent but, because of a second pair of incisors on the upper jaw and no canines, rabbits are now classified in the family Leporidae.

Rabbits are used for showing, research, meat and fur production and as pets.

There are a variety of rabbit breeds, divided into three main groups:

  • Californian and New Zealand White rabbit, large size, 2-5 kg, bred for meat and research.
  • Smaller breeds, up to 2 kg, from Holland and Poland, used as pets and as research animals.
  • Long-haired Angora varieties.

Schools that wish to keep rabbits should select a breed suitable for their intended use, their local climatic conditions, facilities available and accessibility of markets for any outputs.

Image: Large White rabbits are used for research and meat production

Physical characteristics

Characteristic Details
Size Depends on breed and country of origin.
Weight New Zealand White rabbits are large, approx. 2-5 kg. Smaller varieties average approximately 2 kg.
Age at adult size Male: 6-10 months. Female: 5-9 months.
Average life span Normally 5-8 years. Some have survived for 12 years under ideal conditions.
Weight at birth 30-100g
Gestation period 30-32 days
Number of offspring 4-9, litter size is determined by birth weight.
Range of breeding ages 4-36 months. On average, rabbits breed four times each year.
Healthy characteristics
  • Temperature: 38°-39°C
  • Heart rate: 180 beats per minute (180-300)
  • Respiration rate: 50-55 per minute


Rabbits have an immense field of vision provided by large eyes located on the side of the head. Location of the eyes enables each eye to see more than 180 degrees and, collectively, allows the rabbit to see in every direction. Rabbits are prey animals and their exceptional vision allows them to see approaching predators and be able to find an escape route as soon as possible. Despite this large field of vision, rabbits have a reduced depth perception and close up vision. Instead, their eyes are designed to identify movement from objects in the distance, giving them time to run away from a predator. Rabbits are flight animals, always choosing to escape from danger rather than fight.

Image: Rabbits are able to see in every direction


A rabbit's hearing is its most vital sense, hence the large upright ears. Sensitive hearing is used to detect predators and perceive its surroundings, helping it overcome its reduced close up vision and navigate its way around. Most rabbits have large erect ears that move forwards and backwards, pinpointing sounds that may lead to danger. When a rabbit is relaxed, the ears lie flat along its back but are still responsive to noise. Slight sounds from very far away can be detected. Rabbits’ sense of hearing is far better than its vision. Lop eared rabbits also have good hearing but do not do as well in the wild as rabbits with erect ears.

Behavioural characteristics

Rabbits are a prey species that are often quite timid and nonaggressive, especially if they are not used to being handled. Due to their cautious nature, they do not like to be grabbed at quickly or patted from above if they have not approached the handler themselves. Rabbits that are accustomed to being handed and comfortable with their handler may circle the handler’s legs and push their nose into the handler’s hand to be stroked.

Farmed rabbits that are used for meat production rather than pets are usually very timid due to minimal contact with handlers. When handling rabbits it is always best to wait until the rabbit approaches you and to handle the rabbit from ground level. A rabbit will view a hand reaching from above as a threat and will make every attempt to escape. Rabbits have reduced close distance vision and have a small blind spot in front of their nose and so quick hand movements, especially from above, will threaten a rabbit and cause a flight response.

Rabbits are social animals and when they are comfortable in their surroundings, can be curious and quite affectionate towards their handler. Rabbits should be kept in the company of other rabbits, as they will find comfort in having a mate or a group of rabbits. Rabbits are affectionate to their mates and may groom and lick one another.

A rabbit’s level of comfort and stress can often be observed through movement and placement of the ears. Rabbits’ ears will be raised and face the direction of a noise when they are alert and listening. When a rabbit is relaxed they will often sprawl on the ground with their ears lying along their back in a relaxed way. A stressed or annoyed rabbit will pin their ears back with the opening facing backwards and form a crouching position. Thumping of the back legs is a sign that the rabbit is stressed or feels it is in danger and is trying to alert its companion.

Like many domesticated animals, rabbits have remaining wild instincts and behaviours that must be addressed when keeping them in captivity. Rabbits are grazing, foraging animals that are accustomed to spending a great proportion of their day nibbling and eating grass and other vegetation. Rabbits kept in captivity require objects, toys and a variety of vegetation to nibble and chew on constantly so that they do not become bored. A bored rabbit may display this through chewing at the cage or other objects inside the enclosure. Rabbits enjoy to participate in all behaviours that they would participate in the wild, including hopping, scratching and digging in the dirt, running, jumping, stretching out, exploring and grooming their mates. It is important to provide rabbits with an environment that can enable them to participate in these activities.

Rabbits are known for their high reproduction rates, naturally giving birth at least four times per year. Care needs to be taken when keeping males and females together as they will readily reproduce if not separated. Rabbits can be de-sexed to avoid unwanted pregnancies.


In general, rabbits used in schools have been extensively handled and are quite comfortable with people handling and grooming them. Rabbits should never be kept in isolation as they are very sociable animals and thrive off both social and environmental enrichment and find comfort in being in close proximity to other rabbits.

Rabbits used for meat or fur production that are not as accustomed to handling can be easily frightened in the presence of a handler. When entering an area where rabbits are caged, always consider their wary timid nature and approach them slowly and quietly.


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