Rabbit History

So you’ve been thinking about introducing a rabbit to your family or perhaps you have one already but have often wondered about their history?

Rabbits are beautiful, inquisitive & intelligent creatures. I’ve been enthralled by them my entire life. My very first toy was a doll dressed as a rabbit, little did I know at the time that my life would one day revolve around them.

Rabbits are now considered the 3rd most popular pet in Australia

Contrary to much belief rabbits are not the easiest pet to care for but do not get discouraged by this statement. They’re often purchased on a whim, mostly for children to keep as a cuddly easy animal. There is much more to know about these incredible creatures before you take the leap or shall we say hop to bring one home.

I’m going to take you on a journey through time to revealing the history of rabbits in Australia, I will share with you generalized care tips and what it means to live with a rabbit in the 21st century. My hope is to share useful information to help you decide if a rabbit is a good fit for your family & for those who may already own one an insight into the bigger picture of rabbits in Australia.

As a rabbit owner myself with more than 25 years’ experience living with these amazing species as pets I’ve been witness to the changing of tide of the husbandry & growing appreciation for their wonderful personalities.

There are 3 easy to identify broad versions of a rabbit in Australia today all of which have been introduced over time. Rabbits are not native to our land.
  • Feral European, easily recognized as brown bush rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) considered a grade A pest, found in every state of Australia. Introduced in 1788.
  • Hare, found on the east coast & QLD (Lepus Europeaus), larger than a bush rabbit, lives a solitary existence, lives above land and is not considered a pest. Introduced 1859.
  • House Rabbit – various breeds, domesticated rabbits e.g., Illegal in QLD. Introduced from legally 1986
Feral Rabbit - Photo from Parks & Wildlife Australia
Feral Bush Rabbit

In the late 80s when I got my first rabbit it was deemed ok to keep them in a small hutch, feed them on pellets, throw them a carrot & some lettuce to keep them ‘’happy. Our rabbits in the early years perhaps were little more fortunate than others, they were always allowed to roam the backyard during the day or penned on the lawn. My dad was very good at rabbit proofing being an ex-farmer, he altered our yard to make sure they couldn’t dig their way out & to keep them safe from predators. But still at night they always lived in a small cage outside. We only kept one rabbit at a time, and I was obsessed with everyone who shared my life – they would come everywhere with me, even walk to the end of the street to see me off to school with Dad. At this point in time rabbits weren’t a very popular choice of pet. Vet care was extremely limited and often not considered if your rabbit was unwell, neutering was rarely done if you kept a rabbit on its own. Conversations about house rabbits were best left unsaid as they would be loudly deemed as pests alongside their bush bound, feral counterparts.

So where did they come from?

The very first wild European rabbits landed in Australia with the first fleet arriving from England in Botany Bay NSW 1788 it is recorded that only 5 were onboard, rabbits were introduced so that they could be bred for a source of meat & typically kept in cages. For many years this practiced remained controlled. By 1827 reports come from Tasmania revealing a population exceeding thousands had started to form in parts, it is unclear who released them on the mainland TAS but there are records of a merchant applying for a land grant to breed rabbits on a small island (Betsey Island) off the southeast coast. Back on mainland Australia in 1857 a man by the name of Frederick Hansborough Dutton released a bunch of rabbits on an estate in mid north south Australia, there were to be hunted for sport, within years their population had become a hot spot and was out of control.

Another famous story within the same timeframe, now known as the most prominent in history, that of man name Thomas Austin, a wealthy settler who lived in Victoria. It’s said that he is very much to blame for the rogue rabbit plague which decimated our country. In 1859 he had 12 rabbits (a mix of European wild & domesticated) along with 5 hares sent to him from across the world from England, all of which he let roam free on his estate. The hares also spread along the east coast and throughout QLD, though never deemed a pest as this species is a solitary animal and has different reproductive qualities, far slower than their counterparts. The wild & domesticated rabbits created an extremely adaptive hybrid cross breed, it only took them 10 years to reach Queensland & only 50 years for them to spread across the entire continent. The wild mix ‘’feral’’ rabbits induced incredible amounts of damage to native flora, destroying every crop in their path to both the land above & below, eroding soils from burrowing and ring barking established trees (when a rabbit eats round the base of a tree). They crossed the Nullarbor plain in astonishing speed adapting to desert life easily. This plague has been recorded as the fastest spread of mammals ever recorded in history.

Rabbits around a waterhole during myxomatosis trials, Wardang Island SA, 1938 – Photo National Museum Australia

Between 1901 -1907 Western Australia built a 1800km rabbit proof fence across the nation form north to south to try slow the rabbit’s down – this was unsuccessful. By 1940 the feral population reach an estimated 600 million. Yep, you read that twice didn’t you!! 600 MILLION. The feral rabbit plague is so prevalent in Australian history that it tarnished the very idea of the house rabbit’s existence in years to come & still does to this day. During the great depression in 1890s & wartime 1930s the only positive to come from the plague is that it provided people living & working the land employment as shooters or trappers, farmers could export pelts & carcasses locally & eventually overseas, the rabbit meat fed families & working dogs across the country.

The plague had got so bad by the 19th century that intervention was required by government to control the outbreak. Many attempts were made to use a bacteria developed in France called Pasteurella to infect & eradicate the explosive populations. Though it produced some success it was never satisfactory as it relied on contact & took too long time to take effect. Next came the release of another man-made virus called Myxoma. This virus was spread through a primary vector being a mosquito. This experiment worked initially, thinning numbers across the country dramatically almost as quickly as they thrived rabbits were being wiped out. Numbers are said to have been reduced to near 100 million. However, over time some rabbits started to become immune & numbers began to bounce back to more than 300 million. There is no vaccine available for myxoma – though not as prevalent these days it still exists in parts and affects house rabbits all the same. Precautions against mosquitos is still highly advisable

So with all this going on, by now you may be wondering when house rabbits breeds start appearing in Australia? I found that the first official breeder clubs were established in America & the UK between 1910 -1930. Because of the huge problems that rabbits had caused in Australia around the 1950s the keeping of rabbits was banned across the nation, this embargo wasn’t lifted until 1985 with some restrictions still in place & then completely by 1988, except for QLD where to this day it is still illegal to keep rabbits. Please note it is still illegal in every state of Australia to dump or release a rabbit in the wild.

Australia’s oldest recorded club can be found in Western Australia est. 1986 WARCI (West Australian Rabbit Council) which is still operating today. The same year they opened the doors they held their first rabbit show, it is said that over a hundred rabbits of various breeds turned up to be judged. It’s very unclear who imported the first house rabbit into Australia in general, many fanciers across the nation kept their hobby a secret in fear of being reprimanded, some people never considered keeping rabbits because of Mxyoma. The only thing that is clear is the peoples love for exotic looking rabbits grew quickly and an underground network emerged between WA & VIC with imports from the UK & USA. After news of WARCI other states began to form clubs also.

Me with my first rabbit Patch early 90s

I was born in 1984, I got my first rabbit when I was about 6. I remember seeing lots of NZ white rabbits (typically white with red eyes) mainly used for farming. My first bun was a variation of a NZ rabbit which was white with brown eyes markings. We also owned a Dutch dwarf variation who was black & white. In the 2000s I owned a cashmere breed with a longer coat. Breeds like mini lops weren’t established until 1998. In the world today there are over 300 breeds across 70 countries. In Australia you will find less than 30, some of which are particularly rare like the Chinchilla, British Giant & English Spot.

If you are completely against animal breeding in any form you may feel yourself wanting to turn a blind eye to the fact clubs even exist, but the truth is without them house rabbits in Australia wouldn’t exist. For those who are curious what a ‘’good’’ rabbit club might look like, a nationally registered rabbit club should promote the preservation of rare breeds & maintain true bloodlines. They network with other clubs from across the globe, train judges & predecessors, manage members, share knowledge & set strict rules around husbandry using international guidelines. A good club actively teaches the public about the appropriate handling and care of rabbits, they work closely with vet clinics sharing knowledge with training veterinarians & welcome new members, so the circle of learning continues. Different divisions can exist within clubs, they are for people who want to breed / keep rabbits to show & be judged, breed pure bloodlines to be sold as pets, for pet rabbit owners & even for those who want to train rabbits for jumping (hopping & agility). Through the work of good club’s house rabbits were eventually becoming more accepted.

My Rabbit Cheeky Late 90s
RHD is introduced into Australia

In the early 1990s you can’t forget the feral population was still booming. The Australian government started new investigations to make use of an imported Czech virus RHDV (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus) or known formally as the Calicivirus (RHDV1), found to be successful in other countries it was decided that it would be tested in a compound on an island off coast South Australia, Wardang Island. Eventually the virus escaped the compound & it was found in dead rabbits in other parts of Australia within 5 years. Subsequently deemed effective it was officially control released from 1996. This virus is spread by flies as its primary vector. House rabbits were not immune to this virus & many pet owners & fanciers have been left devastated by the disease. A vaccine called Cylap was soon made available to rabbit owners, however this wouldn’t of been made available without the help of clubs in particular and the strong bond in the rabbit community pushing for it. The prospect of having a vaccine was swept under the rug until an uproar was heard loud and clear from rabbit lovers across the country. Cylap is to be administered once every 12 months

In 2010 a new version of the original strain was detected firstly in France & found Australia by 2015. It just started appearing in the rabbit population, none one can explain how this version derived. This is now referred to as RHDV2 & is now taking over from RHDV1. In 2017 to help boost the eradication feral rabbits yet again another manmade virus was added to the mix, called K5 imported from Korea.

Hare species found in Australia

If you’re wondering about the Hares, they are not affected by myxoma, RHDV1 or K5 / monitoring continues in relation to RHDV2 – some studies in America are seeing native rabbit species are now being affected. As closer descendants to the feral ‘’European’’ rabbit population sadly our pet rabbits are affected by all. The vaccine Cylap is used against for RHDV1 & K5. Testing of Cylap is still ongoing in relation to its effectiveness against RDHV2, vets presently suggest Cylap now be administered 6 monthly as some research has shown more positive results against the new strain but this is not conclusive. The 6 monthly recommendation is not noted on the Cylap packaging, this is an off-shelf conclusion. It must be made very clear that there is no cure for these diseases, so prevention is your only hope.

A vaccine is eventually to be developed in Australia against RHDV2, many pet owners are distort that we were not given an option to protect our pets. Clubs & individuals have been lobbying to get the vaccine sooner rather than later. Sadly, thousands of signatures on documents of support of a vaccine within the house rabbit community have done little to speed things along, definitely not from the lack of trying. We can’t despair & must continue to push for it, the latest update is perhaps by 2023 we may see it. The EU currently has a choice of two vaccines called Filavac & Eravic but they are yet to be licensed in the USA. Attempts to get any of these into Australia has also failed. Until a vaccine becomes available, we can only try our best to avoid pets from being infected. We will share best practice a little further on in this article.

Over the years, as the popularity of rabbits grown, some people have taken advantage of the breeding habits. As recorded in history most are prolific breeders – I must mention not all breeds are in line with this assumption, therefore why certain breeds have become rare. Born the day of the ‘’backyard breeder’’. Bloodlines of house rabbits have slowly been muddied. Irresponsible cross breeding has created devastating long lasting effects within the rabbit community. Ailments affecting teeth, nasal passages and coat quality are now prevalent, diseases such as Pasteurella, Coccidia & E. Cuniculi are now common.

Dr James Haberfield @theunusualpetvets

Rabbits have a unique gastrointestinal system, unlike that of a cat or dog they are hind quarter fermenters, they are unable to regurgitate and require a special diet to ensure they keep their gut moving & dental properties in check. Generalized vets had been seeing rabbits for some time, but it was soon realized because of their unique genetic makeup they are now considered an exotic animal & require specialist attention. In 1996 DR Alex Rosenwax opened Australia’s first exotic vet in Sydney NSW (Sydney Bird & Exotics) setting the trend to follow, Dr David Vella opened Sydney Exotics & Rabbits Vet & in 2009 he was the 1st veterinarian in Australia to be recognized as a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in Exotic Companion Mammals. In 2014 Dr Jerry Skinner opened the Rabbit Doctors in Melbourne VIC. In Western Australia Dr James Haberfield studied to achieve a membership level accreditation to Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in the field of the Medicine and Surgery of Unusual Pets, one of only a handful of vets to have this distinction. Dr Haberfield went on to open ‘’The Unusual Pet Vets’’ in Balcatta 2012, a second practice in Murdoch WA by 2013. As of 2021 The Unusual Pet Vets now operate 5 practices spread across WA, VIC, QLD & the ACT.

The need for exotic vets continues to grow as the desire of keeping rabbits & other exotic animals as pets increase. Veterinary clinics are seeing more rabbits than ever & are beginning to seek further education with the unique species. As a rabbit owner I feel very lucky to have specialized expertise to take my rabbits too.

Founder Kim Cooney – The Rabbit Sanctuary
Rabbit Rescue

I would now like to touch base on rabbit rescue. Non-for-profit rabbit rescue organizations began officially forming in Australia from late the 2000s.  Non for profit means they are registered as a charity with the government and can openly collect donations, they are held accountable for expenses and operate without gaining profit. Anyone who donates to a non for profit can claim their donation at tax time. One of Australia’s first registered rabbit rescues ‘’The Rabbit Sanctuary was founded by Kim Cooney & her late husband Jim after they discovered that no help was available to abandon rabbits & pets requiring new home placements. In the early years pounds would immediately put rabbits down if caught as strays or turned in. The couple knew something had to be done for the beautiful souls. The Rabbit Sanctuary’s home base is in Grafton NSW however now reaches all parts of NSW, VIC, ACT & QLD operating with network of over 250 foster carers & over 80 people who Kim fondly refers to as ‘’bunny runners’’ work together delivering rabbits safely to new homes, vet visits & moved between fosters when required. 38 vets are involved in the operation to ensure the rabbits receive medical care when required.

In 2009 The Run-Away Rabbit Orphanage was founded in Olinda Vic by Dr Judi & Bryce Inglis, they first fell in love with rabbits after 2 stray bunnies ended up in their yard in 2003. By 2013 Judi & Bryce were registered educators of the esteemed House Rabbit Society, originally formed in America they founded the first recognized chapter within Australia. The Run-Away Rabbit Orphanage is home to close to 200 rabbits at any one time all of which are given the very best chance to find their forever homes.

Rabbit rescue in Western Australia operated mainly via private rescues for years. They were starting to increase but a slump came when viruses swept through the state.  After many smaller divisions dispersed & most closed their doors completely in 2019 Romeo’s Rabbit Rescue was founded by Andrea Whyte based in Perth . Romeo’s is now considered Western Australia’s largest rabbit rescue which holds a non-for-profit status operating with a network of foster carers. Keeping a privately run rescue can be very expensive and relies on the sole person to come up with the funds, so very few take on the challenge. You can still donate to and support privately run rescues, however your donation can not be claimed back on your tax return. When choosing to support a private rescue ensure they are legit by researching their social media / website & pet listings. Privately run – Lost Souls Rabbit Refuge est 2018 in WA also run a rabbit boarding & grooming service (The White Rabbit Retreat), all funds from the retreat help supplement their rescue program.

There are many animal rescue groups & sanctuaries both registered and independent dealing with mixed species operating across Australia today, however because of a rabbit’s unique requirements they are often redirected back to rabbit specific rescue groups when possible. Most rabbit rescues are full and have extensive waiting lists for new animals to arrive. Every rescue has a common goal that one day there will be no need for them but presently that dream isn’t looking attainable unless something dramatically changes. This dire situation is a culmination of a lot of different reasons.

Aside from hoarding situations the largest direct contributor of excessive house rabbit numbers is that of backyard breeders. Backyard breeders are categorized as those who breed rabbits with no knowledge of bloodline & genetics, often they have little to no respect for the rabbit’s welfare regarding over breeding, cross breeding, or correct husbandry. They breed the animals with one goal in mind, to turn a quick dollar. Young rabbits are sold early, to push through the next litter. Issues with health, skeletal structures, teeth & fur quality are seen regularly because of poor practice by these people.

There are also individuals in the who community who choose to privately breed rabbits on a more reputable level, typically they will keep some rabbits for themselves & sell the rest to people as pets. Generally, the term reputable is only used to describe those to who have above substandard living arrangements for their rabbits, all pets should be vet checked, sterilized before leaving & allow an open-door policy with anyone who purchases from them. There are no guidelines for these people to adhere and they are not held accountable unlike those who are attached to a club but there are some who do set solid standards & knowledge to uphold a reputable rabbitry. True ‘’reputable’’ private breeders are few and far between. If you wish to pursue purchasing a rabbit from a breeder over adoption you need to do your due diligence.

In an age where house rabbits are filling rescues anyone who is considering welcoming a rabbit into their family should whole heartily consider adopting from a rescue group. In the past I have been that someone who bought a rabbit from a pet store, from gumtree and from a ‘’reputable’’ breeder, this was all before my eyes were opened to the situation unfolding with rescues. I’ve since gone on to only adopt & now I share my home with 6 happy house bunnies. Rabbits found in pet stores and those from selling platforms like Gumtree are almost always 99% supporting backyard breeders, growing the problem even more. It’s a practice we need to stop if the future of rabbits is to change trajectory to a more positive one. Rescue organizations spend thousands of dollars ensure the rabbits who come into their care to be adopted leave with clean bills of health, you shouldn’t turn away from rescue thinking they are second rate. They are animals who need a second chance almost always through no fault of their own. Adopting is the most mindful thing you can do to help the rescue crisis.

Rabbits also end up in rescue due to genuine reasons, people’s circumstances change and sometime its best for the animal to be rehomed. Another reason, one we hope to personally help with is lack of education / research before bringing your bun-dle of joy home. Some people are overwhelmed when a rabbit’s behavior isn’t what they thought it would be. Most rabbits aren’t cuddly, they don’t like to be picked up – although I must add there are most definitely exceptions to this generalization. Rabbits can scratch and bite, they are fragile & easily hurt. They can be very affectionate, bond with you & get along with other household pets. The specialist care they can require is often higher than other pets. In all honesty it takes time and perseverance to assimilate a rabbit into your environment especially on a free-range level, but I can assure you from what you put in, you’ll get endless reward if you can stick it out through the training stages, or by gaining their trust.

Example: Indoor pen setup
Caring for Rabbits in the 21st Century looks very different

Best practice for keeping rabbits today is inside your home, not only for best protection against viruses, but it’s also better for their general wellbeing. All rabbits should be sterilized, it prevents accidental litters, reduces the chances of cancer which is very common in rabbits or any species that can reproduce offspring in shorter rounds. Desexing your rabbit also helps with temperament & toilet habits. Keeping rabbits in pairs or a ”fluffle” (a group) is best when possible. If you keep a rabbit on it’s own you must be able to spend time with them as they’ll bond too you for company. Promotion of this standard is now backed by many vets , clubs, & all good rescue organizations. With the help of social media, this seemly new age way of keeping your rabbit is fast becoming the norm. Full time hutches are no longer reasonable as it has now been well documented that they need interaction and enjoy assimilating into a household. Free range or penned living areas inside with adequate space to exercise is now considered far more acceptable. Rabbit rooms are becoming very popular. When given the chance rabbits are highly inquisitive & interactive, they will happily engage in a person’s everyday life if welcomed, even get along with other household pets. Toilet training a rabbit is easy, like that of a cat a rabbit will use a tray, proofing of one’s home is required to deter a rabbit from be destructive. Not all rabbits like to chew but most will enjoy gnawing on your furniture, carpet, or skirting boards, eating cords is another favourite past time of many – you must ensure they aren’t easily accessible & appropriate coverings are used.

If you opt for a pen setup look for one that’s constructed from heavier metal, bars close together with height of 80cm or more. Rabbits are great escape artists. Toilet training can be achieved by following a simple setup of having a tray available for them to use, line it with paper or wood-based litter and top it with hay. Rabbits love to eat whilst toileting. Most rabbits choose their location for you to situate the tray, if you find accidents are happening in the same place, this is their chosen spot. Once they begin using the tray it can slowly be moved to a location more suitable to you.

Rabbits require a varied diet consisting of 85% hay, 10% high fibre vegetables, 3% good quality pellets & 2% treats. Sugar, preservatives, seeds & too many whole grains should be avoided. Water must always be available. Hay is the most important component of a rabbit’s diet; it helps grind back their teeth that never stop growing and keeps their unique digestive track moving. Incorrect diet leaves them susceptible to medical problems such as bloat or stasis or blockage. These can be fatal.

House rabbits must be groomed, brushing is required to help eliminate potential blockages from occurring. Unlike other animals a rabbit can’t cough up a fur ball so when ingested in large amounts the ramifications can be dire. Rabbits moult throughout all the seasons, some more than others. Brushing every 2 – 3 days during low moult and everyday during heavy moults is advisable. Nails need to be clipped often so your rabbits’ paws can move across the ground without catching or affecting the stance. A qualified vet can help you do this if you don’t feel comfortable. As time goes on you will learn the best way to hold your rabbit whilst grooming or cutting nails. Each rabbit is different.

Our rabbits with Dr Sam Loughridge @theunusalpetvets

Taking your rabbit to a savvy exotic vet every 6 months for their vaccination & a thorough check up is highly recommend. Your vet will check your rabbits’ teeth to ensure even grinding, ears for wax, build up, view eyes, check the temperature & do full body examination for fleas, mites, lumps, or bumps. You will discuss their diet and the general wellbeing of your rabbit. There are many options available to evaluate your rabbit if you are feeling unsure about their health, full panel urine and blood tests, Xray even CT scans. There are specialists for eyes & ears if required. When your rabbit is feeling under the weather, they tend to be very subtle in telling you so, they are the masters of hiding aliments which relates back to their prey animal instincts. In the wild a sick animal is susceptible to attack so they keep it under wraps. Hunching or continuous stretching, hiding away, lack of appetite, drinking too much water or not enough & or being lethargic can all be signs it’s time to see your vet.

Australia now has its first health insurance for rabbits, 1 year ago this was unheard of for the species. Vet care can get expensive in relation to rabbits, but rest assured most vets now offer payment plans. Every year as medications & technology advance & as the popularity of rabbits continue to grow, care is becoming more reasonably price. We always keep a separate account with savings for our rabbit family in case of emergency & general check-ups for peace of mind. Every responsible pet owner should have this in place.

I really hope that you found this article contemplative and helpful. If you made the happy choice that a rabbit is a good fit for your family please consider finding a rescue in our extensive Australian Rescue Directory or checkout out our Adoption Pawtal which has listings of rabbits waiting to find furever homes now.

If your still on the fence about introducing a bun to your home or would like to discuss anything rabbits, please feel free to reach out to me, a club or rescue anytime. I’m personally here to help & or connect you with people who can. info@smooshiefacetreats.com.au. Revisions to this article will be ongoing, i will continue to seek additional information about the history of rabbits in Australia surrounding specific dates, breeds and adding to the information about care.

Holly xx
(Smooshie Face Treats)

Last Updated 26th August 2021

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One Comment

    • Rhonda Granner

    • September 17, 2021 at 19:21 pm

    Well Done Holly 👏👏👏 This is a very well thought out and informative document on our beautiful bunnies.
    Well worth a read and great educational tool for anyone looking for a new furbaby to join their family.

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