Our Charlotte vets address misconceptions around whether rabbits are rodents, and break down the differences between the two. Plus, they share some tips for caring for and feeding your pet rabbit.
Are rabbits rodents or mammals?
There’s some confusion out there about whether rabbits are rodents, and which animal family the rabbit falls into.
In this post, we’ll explain some widespread misconceptions and share some practical recommendations for care.
Rabbits are members of the Leporidae family - one of two families (aside from Ochotonidae or the pika family) in the Lagomorpha order of mammals.
History is partly to blame for the confusion between rodents and rabbits. Rabbits and rodents also share some superficial similarities.
The rabbit and other lagomorphs were classified under Rodentia (rodents) until early in the 20th century. This family includes rats, squirrels, mice and marmots.
However, you’ll start to notice the differences between lagomorphs and rodents once you take a closer look. Here are three differences between the two families:
Rabbits have different digestive systems
The cute Peter Rabbit and Easter bunny fairy tales of our youth lose their luster when you consider their digestive system.
The cecum sits at the head of the large intestine and houses beneficial bacteria that break down and ferment cellulose in plants. Because rabbits need to maximize digestion of vegetation, they essentially eat their food twice, which increases the amount of nutrients they absorb.
We should note that some rodents also have a cecum. After a rabbit dines on plant material, the material passes through the digestive tract and comes out of the body as a soft black pellet (a caecotroph). They then eat the caecotroph, re-chew and re-digest it before it exits as the hard round pellets rabbit owners are used to seeing.
Though some rodents also engage in this process referred to as coprophagy, it’s an exception whereas all rodents do.
Rabbits are almost exclusively herbivorous
While plant matter is the sustenance of choice for both rabbits and rodents, rodents have a more varied diet of roots, grains, seeds, buts, etc. Rabbits are obligate herbivores, which means most of their diet consists of vegetation.
Rabbits have four incisor teeth
Rabbits have four incisor teeth, while rodents only have two. Rabbits have a smaller set of peg-like teeth behind their top incisors. These are about ¼ the size of their first set of incisors, and many believe they may help rabbits bite through vegetation more easily.
However, if these teeth become misaligned they can cause dental problems, which a veterinarian experienced in caring for rabbits will need to address. There’s also a difference in color - while rodents’ incisors are orange, rabbits’ are white.
The Care and Feeding of Rabbits
Want to keep your rabbit healthy, fed and well-cared for? Here’s what to keep in mind:
Provide vegetables and leafy, fresh greens
About 10 to 20 percent of your rabbit’s diet should consist of vegetables such as broccoli, celery, beet tops, Asian greens, spinach leaves and Brussel sprouts. You might also try herbs and dark-leafed lettuce such as parsley, dandelion, dill and dorander.
Offer a constant supply of high-quality grass hay and fresh grass
Grass hay and fresh grass should make up about 80 percent of your rabbit’s diet - think Ryegrass hays, pasture, oaten, wheaten, Timothy, meadow and paddock.
Skip alfalfa and Clover hays as they are too high in protein and calcium and may cause your long-eared companion to develop urinary stones.
Avoid cereals and grains
Rabbits that eat cereals and grains may experience nutritional imbalance or obesity - conditions that will need to be treated by your vet.
Keep feeding habits consistent
Whatever your rabbit’s normal diet, make any changes that may be required gradually - spaced out over 2 to 3 weeks - to decrease the risk of upsetting your rabbit’s digestive system.
Give your rabbit objects to chew on
Since rabbits’ teeth are continually growing, they need to keep them trimmed and in shape by chewing on hard objects. We recommend old cotton towels, paper, hay, books, chew blocks or apple branches.
Provide enough love, attention and companionship
Just like other pets, rabbits have individual personality traits and are known for being gentle, social and sensitive animals. Dawn and dusk are their waking/peak activity hours.
Rabbits may feel restrained when held, but they do like to approach people first. Try speaking in a calm, soothing voice and slowly petting her between the eyes as she comes closer.
Schedule annual exams with your vet
Similar to dogs and cats, your rabbit will need annual vet visits for thorough routine physical examinations and so any signs of illness can be detected and treated early. You’ll also have an opportunity 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.