While the history of dogs and cats is more commonly known, rabbits actually hold a longer record for domestication. Commonly misunderstood to be rodents, rabbits belong to their own order and are a separate species from hares or jackrabbits. Further distinction must be noted when identifying domestic rabbits from wild ones. Although domestic rabbits originally descend from wild rabbits, there is such a variety of domestic breeds – more than sixty-five – that the evolution of wild rabbits and domestic rabbits has progressed separately for hundreds of years.
The rabbit, as we know it, has been in existence for thousands of years. Although there is very little evidence to pinpoint the domestication of rabbits, there is proof that rabbits were introduced to Europe as early as 1100 B.C. and brought over to Spain by the Phoenicians. The abundance of rabbits in this area is suggested by its appearance on the Roman-Spanish coins of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.). Rabbits, in general, have a long history in a number of areas. In China, rabbits were used in Confucian ceremonies while according to the Roman scholar Varro, rabbits were kept in leporaria or escape-proof enclosures. The Greek historian Polybius, made mention of the modern European rabbit when writing about Corsica in the second century B.C. He called them kunikloi.
The actual domestication of rabbits is attributed to the early French Catholic monks. Selective breeding produced what we know today as the Champagne d’Argente. Champagne refers to the region of France in which they were bred and d’Argente refers to the color of the pelt which turns silver after six months of age. The word “rabbit” was first applied in the 15th century derived from the French word “rabet”. It is probable that most of the domestic rabbits we see today are direct descendants of the hutch-raised rabbits of the French monks.
Folklore has a number of stories involving rabbits:
- Easter bunny
- Lucky rabbit feet – especially the left hind one
- Symbol of fertility
Prior to the 20th century, there is little evidence to suggest domesticated rabbits in America, though their presence in the wild is undisputed. The Belgian Hare was the first rabbit to catch the public’s attention as a fancier’s rabbit. Despite it’s size, having one as a pet came first, eating it for dinner came second. With time, this particular breed evolved to fill the needs of the fancier, the commercial meat market, as well as the fur industry. It is believed that the Belgian Hare opened the door for many other breeds.
The pronounced gentleness of the rabbit is the best known quality that contributes to its popularity as a pet. Rabbits are not likely to bite and can easily become tame and companionable. Treated with patience and consideration, they may allow themselves to be picked up and handled frequently. Rabbits are silent creatures, prompting many people to think they are voiceless. This is not the case. Generally when they are not happy they will grunt or make noises to indicate their dislike of something.
Rabbits can make great pets but, like most companion animals, require appropriate care. There is a variety of breeds, sizes, colors, fur type, and disposition from which to choose. It can be difficult to choose a particular breed for personality type since most rabbits are bred for a specific look. Some breeds are happy to live outside in a hutch while others may prefer to remain indoors. Unfortunately, rabbits are high-risk prey animals and should never be left outside unattended for long periods of time unless safely enclosed in a hutch. With so many breed choices, the domestic rabbit has clearly carved a spot as a companion animal with a long and varied history.