Rabbit History

Did you know that rabbits are now the 3rd most popular pet in Australia? I’m going to take you on a journey through time to revealing the history of rabbits in Australia, I will also share with you generalized care tips and what it means to live with a rabbit in the 21st century. My hope is to provide useful information to help you decide if a rabbit is a good fit for your family & for those who may already own one, give further insight into the bigger picture of rabbits in Australia.

I got my first rabbit in the late 80s when i was around 6 years old, now touching 40 I’ve shared my home with 13 beautiful buns throughout the years. I’ve been witness to the changing of tide of the husbandry & care and i want to share all of that with you. In the early years it was deemed ok to keep rabbits in a small hutch, feed them on pellets, throw them a carrot & some lettuce to keep them ”happy.  At that 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, desexing was rarely done if you kept a rabbit on its own. Conversations about house rabbits were best left unsaid as it would raise eyebrows and often loudly deemed as pests alongside their bush bound, feral counterparts.

There are 70 species of rabbits & hare in the world. There are over 300 house rabbit breeds across the globe. In Australia you will find less than 30 exotic breeds with only 3 originating here that are extremely rare.

Which Species are found in Australia?

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 legally from 1986

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. The rabbits came onboard the ship in small cages so they could be bred as source of meat.

Fun Fact: Oryctolagus cuniculus ”wild European rabbit species originated Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal and Andorra) in the 5th century BC.

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.

It’s documented that in 1857 a man by the name of Frederick Hansborough Dutton released a small bunch of rabbits on an estate in mid north south Australia, they were to be hunted for sport, within years their population had become a hot spot and was out of control.

In 1959 a man by the name of Thomas Austin, a wealthy settler who lived in Victoria received 12 rabbits (a mix of European wild & domesticated) along with 5 hares imported from England, all of which he let roam free on his estate. In 2017 genetic testing did in fact proved that Mr Austin could be to blame for the rogue rabbit plague which decimated our country. The hares spread along the east coast and throughout QLD, though never deemed a pest – this species is a solitary animal and has different reproductive qualities compared to their counterparts. It was a different story for the wild & domesticated rabbits, they merged created an extremely adaptive hybrid cross breed, it only took them 10 years to reach Queensland & just 50 years for them to spread across the entire continent. The wild mix ‘’feral’’ rabbits induced incredible amounts of damage to our native flora, destroying every plant & crop in their path. They reeked havoc 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). The rabbits crossed the Nullarbor plain in astonishing speed adapting to desert life easily.

The Australian feral rabbit plague has been recorded as the fastest spread of
mammals ever recorded in history.

Between 1901 -1907 Western Australia built a 1800km rabbit proof fence across the nation forming a north to south boundary to try slow them 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/trappers, farmers could export the pelts & carcasses locally, then eventually overseas. Rabbit meat fed families & working dogs across the country when times were very tough.

The Australian Government fights back

The plague had got so bad by the 19th century that intervention was required by government to control the outbreak. Many attempts were made using 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 soon bounced back to more than 300 million.

***There is no vaccine available for myxomatosis in Australia – 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

RHDV is introduced into Australia

With feral population with 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) was found to be successful in other countries so 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, other insects can also be carriers, it can be transferred by touch & remain in environments for long periods of time in the right conditions. House rabbits were sadly not immune to this virus & many pet owners & fanciers have been left devastated by the disease. A vaccine called Cylap was eventually made available to rabbit owners with the help of clubs in particular, and the strong bond in the rescue & pet community pushing for it to be approved by government. 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. In 1997 our prayers were answered – Cylap was to be administered once every 12 months.

In 2010 a new version of the original virus strain was detected firstly in France, then found in Australia by 2015. Seemly it just started appearing in the rabbit population, none one can explain how this version derived – it had mutated. This is now referred to as RHDV2 & has taken 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.

If you’re wondering about the Hares, they were’nt initially affected by myxoma – however mutations to that original strain in Spain, are now seeing them contract the disease in places abroad. Some studies in America are also seeing their native species being affected. Monitoring RHDV1 V2 & K5 continues in relation it’s affects on hare. Sadly some native species are close to extinction.

The vaccine Cylap was effective against for RHDV1 & K5 and experiments of an off shelf dose of once every 6 months was tried however it proved not to give total coverage against the RHDV2 strain. Once again Aussie pet rabbit owners were left devastated and outraged that we were not given an option to protect our pets. Vaccines for RHDV2 – Filavac & Eravac were available in other countries but our tight restrictions saw supplies out of reach until approved. Clubs and individuals began lobbying again, thousands of signatures on documents of support for the vaccine were gathered. Hundreds of pet rabbits lost their lives during the virus breakouts – some people who i know personally are so traumatised by events that they will never own a rabbit again.

It wasn’t until 2022 that Filavac was given a temporary emergency permit approved by The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. In March 2024 it was approved for permanent availability. Filavac is give once every 12 months & covers your rabbit again RHDV1, V2 & K5.

When did the first house rabbit breeds start appearing in Australia?

It’s very unclear who exactly imported the first exotic looking house rabbit into Australia, but it is very clear that peoples love for special breeds grew quickly.

Because of the huge problems that rabbits had caused in Australia – keeping of rabbits was banned across the nation in the 1950s & this embargo wasn’t lifted until 1985, even then you could only keep just two rabbits. It wasn’t until 1988 that people could legally keep more, with the exception of QLD where to this day it is still illegal to keep rabbits.

It is still illegal in every state of Australia to dump or release a rabbit into the wild.

liberating a rabbit can attract fines up to $250,000 & jail terms of 7 years+

Many fanciers across the nation kept their rabbits a secret in fear of being reprimanded. An underground network emerged between WA & VIC with imports coming in from the UK & USA. Clubs had been operating in America & UK since 1910 – 1930. One of Australia’s most popular breeds – the mini lop didn’t start appearing until 1998! Many global breeds are particularly rare now, like the Chinchilla, British Giant & English Spot – there are very few of these left in the nation.

Rabbit Clubs

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.

After news of WARCI success other states began to form clubs. There is now a National Australian Rabbit Council in which WARCI, Rabbit Breeders Association of Tasmania & Canberra & South Coast Rabbit Club Inc are incorporated.

Nationally registered rabbit clubs 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 a club, 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).

Private & Backyard Breeders

Born the days of the Backyard Breeder.

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, they often sell rabbits far too young to push through the next litter. Irresponsible cross breeding has created devastating long lasting effects within the rabbit community. Issues with health are seen regularly because of poor practice by these people. Ailments affecting teeth, nasal passages and coat quality are now prevalent, diseases such as Pasteurella, Coccidia & E. Cuniculi are common. Backyard breeders are considered mostly responsible for mass overbreeding which has become a huge issue within the community.

There are individuals in the 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 should only be used to describe those to who have quality living arrangements for their rabbits, have sound knowledge in regard to genetics, all their animals should be vaccinated, vet checked & a sterilization policy should be in place. A reputable breeder should have an open-door policy with anyone who purchases from them, offering lifetime guidance to the new owner. These people operate under their own guidelines & are held accountable only by reputation. True ‘’reputable’’ private breeders are few and far between, if you wish to pursue purchasing a rabbit from a breeder over adoption please do your due diligence and try to avoid the BYB (backyard breeders).

How can we help the over population of house rabbits?

We have to be realistic and consider that like any breed of domesticated animal – they’ll always be bred by someone, somewhere. Education is key, the more we all know about rabbits the more chance we have of making better choices. I personally hold no judgement to anyone who is learning, I myself have been that someone who bought a rabbit from a pet store, from gumtree and from a breeder, all before my eyes were opened to the situation unfolding with rescues. I hope that sharing honestly might guide a few more people towards rescue or at least give it some consideration. Be mindful that rabbits found in pet stores (who aren’t adoptables from rescues) and those from selling platforms like Marketplace & Gumtree are almost always directly supporting backyard breeders, purchasing through these avenues continues to grow the problem – supply & demand. It’s a practice we need to put a stop too if the future of rabbits is to change trajectory to a more positive one. Mindful buying or adopting is the number one thing you can do to help the looming rescue crisis.

Rabbit Rescues

I would now like to share a little more in depth about the rescues in Australia. Non-for-profit rabbit rescue organizations began officially forming in Australia from late the 2000s.  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 can be found in Grafton NSW however their network reaches all parts of NSW, VIC, ACT & QLD operating with a team of over 250 foster carers & over 80 ”bunny runners” who work together delivering rabbits to vet appointments, between fosters & safely to new homes across the states when required. 38 vets are involved in the operation to ensure the rabbits receive the best medical attention during rehabilitation & future care.

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, an organisation 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 WA was run by a few small groups for many years, they worked tirelessly – many of which closed their doors due to either the spread of virus or exhaustion. Mixed animal rescue groups did their best to take in as many rabbits as they could but never enough could be done. After being involved with rescue & seeing the need Andrea Whyte founded Romeo’s Rabbit Rescue in Perth 2019. Romeo’s started small but is now considered Western Australia’s largest rabbit rescue which proudly holds a non-for-profit status operating with a network of foster carers.

Though there are many mixed species animal rescue groups & sanctuaries – both registered and independent operating across Australia today, rabbit’s are often redirected back to rabbit specific rescue groups because of their unique exotic requirements & statis. Australia’s specialised rabbit rescues are currently full and have extensive waiting lists for new animals to arrive. This dire situation is a culmination of a lot of different reasons. There are of course genuine reasons for rehoming, but lack of education & irresponsible breeding are major threads through time. Working & learning together is the only way forward. Our rescues do incredible work as educators in the community holding open days & events to share information with public about rabbits & adoption, they attend national pet shows, lobby against animal cruelty, work with pet stores to promote adoption, all whilst saving bun lives from euthanasia & a myriad of unique rescue scenarios – from dumping to hoarding situations. To do all this they have to engage in endless & challenging fundraising to support thousands of who come rabbits through the system. Pretty incredible aren’t they! Other than adopting a rabbit, if you would like to support their good work donations over $2 are tax deductable – every little bit helps.

Every rescue has a common goal that one day there will be no need for them.

The introduction of Exotic Vet Care in Australia

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. It’s now housed in a purpose built building & has been famed as the world’s largest rabbit hospital. Dr Jerry runs the clinic with Dr Lizzie & their amazing team. The Rabbit Doctors are avid supporters of rescue & share lots of great educational content via their socials.

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. The Unusual Pet Vets now operate 6 practices spread across WA, SA VIC, QLD & the ACT all with highly trained veterinarians coming through the ranks.

The need for exotic vets continues to grow as the desire of keeping rabbits & other exotic animals as pets increase. General veterinary clinics are seeing more rabbits than ever & are beginning to seek further education with the unique species.

Caring for Rabbits in the 21st Century looks very different

Contrary to much belief rabbits are not the easiest pet to care for but do not get discouraged by this statement. Often portrayed in cartoons, movies and in advertising as cheap, cuddly pets perfect for children, in most cases this is far from realistic. There is so much more to know about these incredible creatures.

Living Arrangements

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. Full time hutches are considered 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 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, even get along & bond with other household pets.

Bunnies are social creatures, so keeping them in pairs or a fluffle (more than 2) is great. If you can only keep one, you must be able to spend considerable time with your furiend so they don’t get lonely. A solo rabbit will bond intensely with it’s human so be sure not to break it’s heart. Promotion of pairs is a standard is now backed by vets , clubs, & all good rescue organizations.

If you opt for a pen setup look for one that’s constructed from heavier metal, bars close together with a minimum height of 80cm – rabbits are great escape artists. Custom wood / perspex pens look fantastic if you want to splash out. Adequate flooring is required for rabbits – they must not be kept on hard floors 24/7 – they are susceptible to arthritis & sore hocks (ball joints/heels). We use padded mats in our pens, and have lots of rugs throughout our home for the rabbits to laze on.

Your home will need to be ”rabbit proofed. It will take time to discover the things your rabbit is interested in exploring or ‘bunstructing (destroying). You may need to use pet gates or barriers in parts of your home if your rabbit is free ranging. Not all rabbits like to chew but most will enjoy gnawing on your furniture, carpet, or skirting boards, even walls, seeking out & sniping cords is another favourite past time of many, known as ”spicy hay” in the bunny community – Tv remote buttons are another thing you may find just disappear! You must ensure they aren’t easily accessible & that appropriate coverings are used. I’ve personally lost dozens of phone charges and lamp cords to my cheeky little rabbits. My buns are penned at night or when i go out to prevent them getting up to mischief whilst i’m not around.

Sterilization

All rabbits should be sterilized / desexed , female – spayed, male – neutered or castrated. Doing so prevents the opportunity for accidental litters, it helps with temperament & toilet training. It will curve scent marking & territorial behaviour allowing you to bond in pairs or groups far more easy – without those hormones in play. Most importantly the procedure reduces their chance of cancer dramatically which is regarded high risk for rabbits who are not.

Percentages of cancer reaches over 80% – in unsterilized rabbits
It’s particularly common for females to get uterine cancer within years of sexual maturity.

Toilet Training

Toilet training a rabbit is easy (once desexed), like that of a cat, a rabbit will use a tray. It can be achieved by following a simple setup of having a tray available for them to use, lining it with paper or wood-based litter and topping it with hay. Rabbits love to eat whilst toileting. Most rabbits choose their location for you to sit the tray, you may find accidents are happening in the same place, this is their chosen spot. Once they begin using the tray you can slowly begin moving it to a location more suitable to you. Litter trays can be a little unsightly you may like to consider options to hide them, we use an altered piece of Ikea furniture to house ours in the main living area – a very popular hack in the rabbit community.

Grooming

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 any ingested must make the entire journey through. Rabbits moult in all the seasons, some more than others. Brushing every 2 – 3 days during low moult and everyday during heavy moults is advisable. You may need to explore a few different brush & comb types dependant on your buns fur. Some rabbits have long, thick or even double coats. 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.

Diet

Rabbits require a varied diet consisting of 80 – 85% hay, 10% high fibre vegetables, 3% good quality pellets & 2% treats. Sugar, preservatives, seeds, corn, nuts & too many whole grains should be avoided. Water must always be available – bowls are most natural as they lap up their water, gravity water towers with a bowl attached are awesome because they really do drink a lot. 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.

Medical & Preventives

It’s unusual for rabbits to get worms often, unless they share a space with other animals. You will physically see them in their poop if they did ever get them, & only then would you give treatment. Flea’s are also uncommon unless you have other pets.

Mites are more common, they can come in on hay – a classic sign is flakey skin or itching. In all my years none of my rabbits have had fleas, worms or mites – it comes down to environment. Before choosing any treatment consult with your vet, as some products offered are ”off shelf & marketed for cats and dogs, you want to be sure you have the bunny safe versions.

Taking your rabbit to a savvy exotic vet every 6 – 12 months for their vaccination & a thorough check up is highly recommend every 6 months. Your vet will check your rabbits’ teeth to ensure even grinding, ears for wax build up, ensure their eyes are clear, 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 human grade CT scans. There are specialists for eyes & ears if required.

When a rabbit feels 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 health insurance for rabbits, 1 year ago this was unheard of for the species. Pet Cover offer plans for exotics starting from around $20 a month – however always read the fine print as the plans only partial cover for specific services. Vet care can get expensive in relation to rabbits but every year as medications & technology advance, & as the popularity of rabbits continue to grow, care is becoming more reasonably price. It’s good to note that most vets now offer payment plans. Personally for piece of mind we always keep a separate account with savings & credit card on ice for our rabbit family in case of emergency. Every responsible pet owner should have a plan in place.

Thankyou for reading this article….

I really hope that you enjoy reading this blog & found it contemplative. It’s through articles such as this that The Rabbit Academy platform hopes to help change the future for house rabbits. As time goes on we will share many more specifics about rabbit care. Keep an eye out for our blog about grooming in detail coming soon!

If your still on the fence about introducing a bun to your home or would just like to discuss anything rabbits, please feel free to reach out to me, I’m personally here to help & or connect you with people who can.

Holly x – Smooshie Face Treats
info@smooshiefacetreats.com.au

Last Updated 26th August 2021

Comments (2)

    • 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.

    • c.ashton@gmail.com

    • November 7, 2021 at 23:23 pm

    Thanks Holly this is a very interesting history. I have two rescue Bunnies and I really appreciate your wonderful treats. I am currently nursing my girl Dotty who has E C. Do you have any advice re physio or treatment? Bingo is loving his medi bunny cakes/porrige that I make, thank you for making this product he was not loving the Pancur.
    Regards
    Cathryn

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