Ask a Scientist: What is so exotic about pet bunny rabbits?

Dr. Jeffrey Applegate is a clinical veterinarian and exotic animal specialist in the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Jeffrey Applegate is a clinical veterinarian and exotic animal specialist in the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine. N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Jeffrey Applegate is a clinical veterinarian and exotic animal specialist at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine. Here he explains some of the curious habits of bunny rabbits. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q. Bunny rabbits seem rather common; why are they considered exotic pets?

A. Rabbits are certainly not uncommon to see in your backyard or while on hikes through the woods, but they are not the same rabbits that people typically keep as pets. The wild rabbit we find around here is the Eastern cotton tail (Sylvilagus floridanus), which tend to be more high-strung, nervous and difficult to handle. The rabbits that we keep as pets are a descendant of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), a different species that is easy to handle due to many years of human interaction. Over many generations, the common pet rabbit has been bred to portray different traits like dogs and cats, such as long and short ears, upright and lop ears, dwarf and giant bodies and various coat styles.

Q. The famed reproductive speed of rabbits has long been associated with spring and fertility, which is one of the reasons that Easter celebrations involve bunnies and not some other furry creature. Do bunnies really procreate like crazy?

A. Rabbits are famed, and likely known best, for their extremely successful reproductive strategies. As they say, there is safety in numbers, and in order to have members of each generation survive to breed, rabbits need to be very successful reproductively – especially since they are considered a food source for animals higher in the food chain, such as eagles, hawks, snakes, coyotes and wolves. A female rabbit, called a doe, can breed with a male rabbit, called a buck, as early as three to four months of age. She can have up to 12 baby rabbits after a one-month gestation and repeat that cycle about six times a year.

Q. Are there any other curious habits that people might want to be aware of before adopting a bunny of their own?

A. Sometimes people have the good fortune to get a pet bunny at Easter. These pets have many similarities to the more traditional pets that we care for in veterinary hospitals, including the need for routine and emergency examinations. Many rabbits go their entire life with only the need for wellness exams, but some need routine care to maintain the best quality of life. For example, rabbits have teeth that never stop growing. If left untreated, overgrown teeth can cause very serious, life-threatening disease.

Q. Why do bunnies eat their own poop?

A. Bunny rabbits eat almost constantly and seem to poop almost constantly. Because of this, rabbits should be provided food items, such as hay, all the time. Eating their own poop, a habit known as coprapraphagy, is a vital component of a rabbit’s natural and normal diet. Healthy rabbits have two types of defecation: the normal, round, dry pellets they do not typically eat, and the nutrient-rich softer cecatropes called “night feces.” Rabbits re-ingest cecatropes to absorb these nutrients and maintain a healthy intestinal bacterial population that helps digest the hay and greens they eat.