Explained: The Difference Between Hares vs Rabbits

Written by Lauren Espach, bunny mom and founder of Carrot & Clover, bunny blog, sharing personal experiences of being a bunny mom and dedicated to being a resource for new and existing bunny parents.

It’s recently come to my attention that there seems to be a huge misconception around hares vs rabbits, especially in South Africa. They often seem to be confused for the same animal, and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In this article, we’ll explain the importance of understanding the difference between the two.

Difference species

Hares and rabbits (including domesticated bunnies), are actually two completely separate species. They are however, part of the same order of mammals, Lagomorpha. They look similar but not exactly the same, and have some similar characteristics, which is why they often get confused as the same type of animal.

You’ll notice that I use 3 terms in this article – hares, rabbits, and bunnies – and I’d like to clear that up before we continue.

Technically speaking, only hares and rabbits have actual scientific names. Bunnies are a subspecies of rabbit (and “bunny” is the term used to classify a domesticated rabbit from a wild rabbit. In other words, bunnies are what we consider to be pets.



Wild hare

As mentioned earlier, hares from part of the same family as rabbits, with only one genus, Lepus. The important thing to note is that hares are completely wild, and have never been domesticated, unlike rabbits.

Hares give birth above ground, in shallow nests and babies are born quite mobile, fully furred and with their eyes already open for better protection against predators. Hares are solitary animals and prefer to live alone.

Physical differences:

  • Generally larger than rabbits
  • Longer, more elongated ears
  • Are leaner than rabbits
  • Have black markings on their fur
  • Stronger, longer and more developed hind legs
  • Hares have 48 chromosomes



Carrot & Clover

Unlike hares, rabbits have many different types of genus, e.g. Oryctolagus (European Rabbit) and Sylvilagus (Cottontail Rabbits). Rabbits have been domesticated for thousands of years, from as early as the beginning of the Middle Ages. Bred for food and clothing etc.

Rabbits give birth underground in burrows and babies (also called kits) are born hairless and blind. Rabbits are social creatures and live in colonies.

Physical differences:

  • Generally smaller than hares
  • Shorter ears
  • Are rounder than hares
  • Have a wide variety of colours and markings
  • Rabbits have 44 chromosomes


Why you should know the difference

The problem of not understanding the difference between the two species, comes when people have unwanted pet rabbits. Because they assume bunnies are wild animals they automatically think that they will be able to survive in the wild, and “release” (and when I say release, I actually mean dump) them into parks and veld. The thinking is misguided and causes way more harm than good.

In one of my recent blog articles, talking to Jenny Janse Van Rensburg, founder of bunny rescue and adoption organisation, The Strawberry Foundation, about the problem bunny colony in the Boskruin koppies, she had the following to say: “We must keep in mind that bunnies are not wild. If they were wild, we could relax and say it’s all normal. But bunnies are bred exotic pets, not indigenous to South Africa, not part of any ecosystem.”

The Boskruin koppies bunny colony is the perfect example of this misguided thinking. To date, The Strawberry Foundation has removed, sterilised and rehomed more than 160 bunnies from the Boskruin koppies and surrounding area. However, because bunnies breed like, well rabbits, the problem has escalated to crisis levels, and the bunnies that remain are not only destroying the natural ecosystem (and become a nuisance to local residents) they are also savagely attacked by predators and often run over and killed by cars.

You can see how quickly something like this can happen when someone doesn’t know the difference and thinks they are being “kind” to the bunny. In actual fact, it’s extremely cruel to abandon a bunny anywhere, let alone in the wild. As they are domesticated, they don’t know how to survive in the wild. Would you abandon a cat or a dog?

Read more about the Boskruin bunnies here.

Image credit: Randburg Sun. An abandoned bunny in the Boskruin koppies, lured with food in order to be caught by The Strawberry Foundation.


Raising awareness

If there was more awareness around the differences between hares and rabbits, I think there would be significantly less dumping of domesticated rabbits into the wild, resulting in less feral bunny colonies, which non-profit organisations like Jenny’s need to attend to, which all requires resources like funding, volunteers, adoptions and vet services.

So, let’s spread the word, raise awareness and remember to treat animals with the love and respect they deserve.

By Carrot & Clover













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