Our Des Moines Veterinary Hospital vets clear up the confusion about whether rabbits are rodents and explain the differences between the two. Plus: some tips for caring for and feeding your pet rabbit.
Are Rabbits Rodents Or Mammals?
Understandably, some may be confused over whether rabbits are rodents, and which animal family the rabbit belongs to.
Today, we’d like to clear up some of this confusion and give some practical recommendations for care.
Rabbits are members of the family Leporidae - one of the two families (besides Ochotonidae or pika family) in the Lagomorpha order of mammals.
Confusion between rabbits and rodents stems partly from history - and partly from their superficial similarities to rodents.
Until early in the 20th century, the rabbit and other lagomorphs were classified under Rodentia (rodents), which includes squirrels, rats, marmots, and mice.
Differences between lagomorphs and rodents become apparent once you look a bit closer. Here are 3:
Rabbits Are Almost Exclusively Herbivorous
While both rabbits and rodents dine on plant matter, rodents have a more varied diet of roots, nuts, grains, seeds, etc. Rabbits are obligate herbivores, which means they eat mostly vegetation.
Rabbits Have Different Digestive Systems
This is where the cute Easter bunny character and Peter Rabbit fairy tails lose their luster.
At the head of the large intestine, the rabbit has a cecum, which houses beneficial bacteria for breaking down and fermenting cellulose in plants (we should note that a few rodents also have the cecum). Rabbits need to maximize the digestion of vegetation, so they essentially eat their food twice, which also increases the number of nutrients they absorb.
After a rabbit eats plant material, it passes through the digestive tract and exits the body as a soft black pellet (referred to as a caecotroph). It’s then eaten again, re-chewed and digested, and comes out as the hard round pellets anyone familiar with rabbits has likely seen.
The process is called coprophagy and though some rodents also engage in it, it’s an exception whereas it’s a rule with rodents.
Rabbits Have Four Incisor Teeth
While rodents have only two incisor teeth, rabbits have four. Many believe that a smaller set of peg-like teeth behind their top incisors (about ¼ the size of their first set of incisors) helps rabbits to bite through vegetation more easily.
However, these can become misaligned and cause dental problems, which will need attention from a veterinarian with experience in caring for rabbits. The fronts of rabbit incisors are also white, not orange like in rodents.
Caring For and Feeding Your Pet Rabbit
Here are some practical tips to help you keep your rabbit happily fed, healthy, and cared for:
Offer a constant supply of high-quality fresh grass and grass hay
About 80 percent of your rabbit’s diet should include fresh grass and grass hay - Ryegrass hays, paddock, meadow, Timothy, oaten, wheaten, and pasture are all good options. Avoid Clover hays and alfalfa, as these are too high in calcium and protein and may cause the development of urinary stones.
Offer vegetables and fresh, leafy greens
The other 10 to 20 percent of your rabbit’s diet should include vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, celery, broccoli, carrot or beet tops, spinach leaves, and Asian greens. You can also try dark-leafed lettuce and herbs such as dill, coriander, dandelion, and parsley.
Keep feeding habits consistent
Make any necessary changes to the diet gradually - over 2 to 3 weeks - to reduce the risk of upsetting your rabbit’s digestive system.
Provide your rabbit objects to chew on
Rabbits' teeth are continually growing, so they need to keep their teeth trimmed by chewing on hard things. Old telephone books, paper, hay, cotton towels, apple branches, or chew blocks work well.
Avoid cereals and grains
Feeding cereals or grains to your rabbit may lead to nutritional imbalance and obesity - conditions your vet will end up having to treat.
Give your rabbit enough love, companionship, and attention
Rabbits are sensitive, gentle, and social animals that have individual personality traits just like other pets. Their peak waking/activity hours are during dawn and dusk.
While rabbits may feel restrained when held, they do like to approach people first and you can try speaking in a calm voice and petting him slowly between the eyes as he gets close.
Schedule annual visits to the vet
Just like a cat or a dog, your rabbit will require annual visits to the vet for thorough routine physical examinations and to check for any signs of illness. You’ll also have a chance to ask any questions you may have.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.