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I think this topic is really interesting, purely because it’s changed so much in my (admittedly not short) lifetime.
When I was a kid, rabbits lived to be between the ages of three and five years old. A six year old rabbit was considered to be a really good age, and was pretty rare.
Nowadays, that’s changed a lot. I consider a six year old rabbit to be pretty young. Rabbits commonly live for over a decade and, crucially, don’t really display signs of old age. It’s healthy.
Sure, they slow down a bit, but neither of my rabbits showed signs of even mild arthritis until they were near the end of their lives.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, the medication they were given to keep them comfortable was probably what ultimately ended their lives (all my rabbits that have reached old age were put to sleep in the early stages of kidney failure).
Why has the lifespan of domestic rabbits increased so much over the last few years?
Because we keep them indoors. This isn’t me pushing you to keep your rabbits inside – there’s such a strong correlation between rabbits reaching a great age and being keep indoors that we can safely say it’s a matter of causation.
The way we keep rabbits has fundamentally changed, since we started bringing them into our homes. We notice when they’re ill much sooner, and have time to take them to the vets.
Only a few year ago, most of the time rabbits were dead by the time they got to a vet. Because of this, veterinary care for rabbits has improved.
Whilst there are still only a few rabbit-specification medications out there, dosage is better understood. Rabbits typically need higher levels of pain medication etc than dogs and cats to compensate for their fast metabolisms.
Like in human medicine, money is a driving factor here. As rabbit caregivers are more willing to pay more money to fix their animals, rabbit medicine can advance.
For anyone sceptical about people spending so much money on their pets, please remember that there are humans implications too.
The world of prosthetics has been revolutionised by vets, who are better able to try out new things without as rigorous testing as would be needed for humans, which has in turn really helped doctors fitting e.g. veterans for prosthetic limbs.
Do indoor rabbits live longer than outdoors rabbits?
Yes. Indoor rabbits live, on average, more than twice as long as house rabbits.
Back when 99% of pet rabbits were kept outside, the life expectancy of rabbits was skewed by factors like predators and disease.
Whilst it’s not guaranteed that your rabbit is 100% safe from those things inside, they’re definitely far less likely to happen.
What can help a rabbit live longer?
As well as bringing your rabbit indoors, there are other factors to consider that can have a marked effect on your rabbit’s longevity
I have a friend that’s a medical doctor, and one of the first things she learned in medical school was that humans don’t die of old age – something will fail in their body and they’ll die.
Cancer is the big one. The general consensus is that if you live long enough, you will get cancer eventually. I don’t mean to frighten you, but it seems to be the case.
The same is true of most mammals, they just don’t get the chance to live long enough, or they die of something else.
Female rabbits have a 90% chance of dying from uterine cancer if they’re not spayed. Since rabbits in the wild only live to be a couple of years old, they’ve not evolved any defences against cancer. They don’t often get cancer, because they don’t live long enough.
Spay and neuter your rabbits. It will help them to live much longer and happier lives.
I have a whole article on what you should be feeding your rabbit daily, but I’ll give you the quick version here:
- Unlimited water, preferably from a bowl
- Unlimited hay (not alfalfa after six months of ages)
- Rabbit pellets, not muesli, and nothing with seeds. How much to give depends on the size of your rabbit, but around 1/4 of a cup per 6lbs of rabbit is the general recommendation.
- Fresh vegetables – how much is widely speculated and can depend on the sensitivity of your rabbit’s stomach. I like to give my rabbits a pile of veggies the same size as their head. Romaine lettuce is a great daily staple.
Being well cared for
Obviously this is hard to define, but I’m basically saying that the more you observe your rabbit and notice what is normal and abnormal behaviour, the more likely you are notice when something is wrong. Things like dental issues and GI stasis can be treated much more easily and more effectively if they’re caught early.
I believe this is one of the main reasons house rabbits live longer than other rabbits. GI stasis was barely known about a few years ago – it was a quick killer, and people just assumed it was heart attack or undiagnosed disease.
Which are the longest lived rabbit breeds?
A lot of factors can influence how long animals live, and breed is probably one of the factors that has the least effect. That being said, there are certain traits that can cause issues.
Small breeds – giant rabbit breeds are more susceptible to heart problems than smaller breeds, and typically don’t live as long. This isn’t rabbit-specific; dog breeds like Great Danes have far shorter lifespans than the average dog.
Non-fancy breeds – again, this is a massive generalisation but usually bog standard and mixed breed rabbits live longer than fancy ones. This is just a case of increasing the gene pool, so the chances of inheriting diseases is smaller.
The closer your rabbit looks to a wild rabbit, the longer they’ll live without significant health issues. This is a massive generalisation, but it’s broadly the pattern.
This is also true when looking at dog breeds, but it’s not as easy as saying which breeds live longest, because longevity in pets has as much to do with the caregivers’ financial ability to fix any health problems, as it does the dog’s breed.
Pugs live a long time but they’re susceptible to a vast array of health problems.
Greyhounds, on the other hand, aren’t physiologically too far removed from wild dogs (I’m talking about wild dogs like bush dogs and dingoes – greyhounds are hardly wolf-like) and therefore as a breed aren’t susceptible to many diseases or health conditions.
My longest lived rabbit died when he was 12, and he was a Dutch. He didn’t have any of the dental issues that we saw with the lops, and would probably have lived longer had we not chosen to put him on painkillers for his arthritis.
Why do domestic rabbits live for so much longer than wild ones?
Rabbits are prey animals and are predated on by, er, everything. Foxes, weasels, birds of prey, humans – most predators will have a go at catching rabbits. Whilst rabbits are fast, they don’t have the endurance that a lot of predators have.
Most wild rabbits won’t live past two. It’s for this reason that rabbits breed so prolifically – keeping the species alive is a numbers game.
In the UK, we went one step further and accidentally on purpose released myxomatosis. Seriously, look it up. Some dude wanted to see what it would do. This killed millions of rabbits and was probably a contributing factor to loads of foxes moving into the cities.
I’ve lived in rural North Yorkshire since I was a baby and saw my first wild fox when I went to university smack bang in the centre of Sheffield.
Rabbits are on the bottom of the food chain, one up from plants. We may only be one step above them, but it’s a big step.
We eat rabbits (well, I don’t because I’m vegan, but you might) but would come off worse in a fight with most predators – we’re on the same food chain level as pigs and anchovies if anyone’s interested.
However, we’ve managed to increase our distance from these predators by banding together and living in cities, which scare of those predators that aren’t content to just go through our bins. Rabbits appear to have taken the same route as dogs, and moved in with humans for protection. I don’t blame them – I’d do the same if my only other option was being eaten by an owl.
Final thoughts on the longevity of pet rabbits
I’m excited for the future of longevity in rabbits. It’s practically tripled in the last 30 years, although, I’m pretty sure the trajectory is flattening. I mean, rabbit can’t live forever.
The oldest rabbit on record died at 18, and medications are improving all the time. If they could develop a painkiller that doesn’t damage the liver and kidneys, that’d be a massive step forward – in humans as well as animals.