Desert Cottontail Rabbit Care Sheet

Desert Cottontail Rabbit Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Desert cottontail, Audubon’s cottontail
Scientific Name:Sylvilagus audubonii
Life Span:7.8 years
Size (Adult):14 to 17 inches long
Weight (Adult)1.5 to 2.6 pounds
Habitat:Arid regions, woodlands, grasslands
Body Shape:Medium-sized
Country of Origin:Southwestern North America from Montana to central Mexico to the Pacific coast

Physical Description

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The desert cottontail is a New World cottontail rabbit is a member of the Leporidae family. It may resemble the European rabbit, but it has some differences. This breed does not create burrow systems but may remain tolerant of other cottontails in their area.

The desert cottontail resembles the European rabbit, but upon closer inspection, you can see the differences. It has larger ears, and these are often erect. This rabbit is sociable and is usually found foraging with other cottontails. 

This rabbit has a greyish-brown fur, rounded tail with a white edge and underside. This tail is seen as the rabbit runs away. It also has soft white fur on its belly. You’ll find adults 14 to 17 inches long and may weigh from 1.5 to 2.6 pounds. It has a longer tail than most cottontails, has large ears, and large hind legs.

Females appear larger than males. Females also have smaller home ranges at around an acre compared to about 15 acres for a male.

Conservation status

The desert cottontail is rated as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List. This means that this rabbit is not included in the list of endangered species. The desert cottontail is classified as a game rabbit by different state wildlife agencies in the United States. 

This breed is not considered as threatened by any state game agencies, as this is common in its ranges in Mexico. Also, none of the 12 subspecies of cottontails are threatened; therefore, no conservation plans are required. 

Fast Facts 

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The desert cottontail is like all cottontails because it eats on all fours. It will use its nose to move the food and to adjust the size of the food that it places in front of its paws on the ground. It won’t eat its food as it is; it will find the cleanest part of the food and then start eating it from there. The only time that the desert cottontail utilizes its front paws to eat is when plants are higher than its head. It will use its front paw to put the branch or stems down to reach the food. 

Desert cottontails pant. They do this behavior to help them adjust to the extreme heat of their environment. Panting allows them to change their metabolic rate according to the ambient temperature of its environment. Also, the ears of the desert cottontail may help them with thermoregulation. 

Reproduction in the wild

Breeding season happens from December or January to late summer. Gestation may last only 28 days, and the usual number of kits is 3. Usually, pregnant females may resorb their embryos when complete, and experts say that this could be in response to environmental conditions.

Desert cottontails are less fertile compared to other cottontails and may only bear babies in a year. A female will construct a nest by creating a hole in the ground that is up to 20 cm deep. She will use grass and fur to line this nest. 

After the babies are delivered in the nest, the mother will only feed her babies once a year. She will crouch near the nest to let them feed. After they feed, the mother will cover the nest and will come back again tomorrow. 

Baby desert cottontails will open their eyes at day 10 and will soon leave their nests in just two weeks. They will remain in their nest for another week. Sexual maturity for desert cottontails will be achieved in just three months.  

Diet in the wild

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The desert cottontail will eat grass and forbs in the wild. This food makes 80% of their diet. These rabbits will eat other plants, such as cacti. These will also eat fallen fruit, bark, leaves, and peas of the Mesquite. 

The desert cottontail rarely drinks water. It gets water from the food it eats, or it may lick dew in the early morning. Because of its natural habitat, cottontails will often adjust their diets according to seasonal changes in vegetation. And just like other lagomorphs, it will re-ingest and eat its sown droppings to get nutrients that are still in it. 

Natural Habitats and Homes

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The desert cottontail can be found in arid regions in the southwestern parts of North America. Its name was derived from its habitat, which are the dry and desert areas of the region. This rabbit can also live in woodlands and grasslands.

When the desert cottontail is not foraging for food, it can live in brambles, bushes, or inside holes to hide from the sun and from its many predators. 


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A large number of animals prey on the desert cottontail, including birds of prey, coyotes, mustelids, bobcats, lynx, mountain lions, wolves, weasels, squirrels, and humans. Injured or sick cottontails are perfect prey for larger and hungrier predators. Even domestic cats and dogs may prey on the desert cottontail.

Meanwhile, native Americans hunted desert cottontails for their meat and also used their coats, furs, and hides. It is a game species and thus is hunted for sport. Just like its cottontail siblings, the desert cottontail may freeze in place (will not move) when it sees a predator. It thinks that it will not be detected when it does not move or make a sound. 

If the predator is in pursuit, it will run and jump in a zigzag manner. This is how it loses its scent to confuse predators. The average speed of a cottontail is up to 19 mph. If by chance, the desert cottontail is confronted by a smaller predator or another cottontail, it will defend itself by nudging the opponent with its nose. 

It will also use its front paws to slap the threat or just hop upwards as high as 2 feet to avoid confrontation. 

Other threats to the population and the survival of the desert cottontail are caused by humans. Habitat loss because of land clearing and grazing can greatly affect the population of the breed. Fires recklessly caused by humans can also serve as threats. 

Competition with other rabbit species like the black-tailed jackrabbit is another threat to the desert cottontail population. The two animals share the same diet and habitat. But the cottontail knows when to fear and when not to fear the jackrabbit. 

During a particularly dry season, when there is very scarce food, the cottontail does not feel threatened with the jackrabbit. The latter is very skittish and may often retreat to avoid confrontations. However, the jackrabbit is bigger and thus will consume more food than the smaller cottontail. 

Fun Facts

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The desert cottontail is known as the most athletic of its species, and this is because of its instinct to avoid threats. Some cottontails can run extremely fast while some have adopted a faster, more efficient way to climb trees and even swim. This is indeed a versatile species and is also the most athletic. 


Desert cottontails are non-gregarious, but sometimes females can be seen foraging or feeding near each other without any kind of aggression. Their home ranges can extend to about 8 acres, and this can vary depending on the gender. 

These rabbits are more active during the early mornings and in the evenings because it hides from the extreme heat of the sun. 

It is a very nervous creature because it is one of the favorites prey in its environment. The desert cottontail has adapted several behaviors in an attempt to dodge predators. It can freeze when it is startled to ward off threats, or it may simply run away and avoid confrontations. 

This rabbit is also very athletic as it can run faster and jump in a zigzag manner to dodge threats. Top speeds for this rabbit is up to 15 miles per hour. 

Desert cottontails are not good parents. The mother may eat her young according to experts who have witnessed this behavior. The mother will also leave the nest when she has delivered her kits and will only come back once a day, at night, to nurse but only for a very brief period. 

But she makes sure that her litter survives after she has delivered them because she carefully picks the right nest and will line this with materials to keep it warm and moisture-proof.  

Desert cottontails pant to regulate their body temperatures. Because of the variable temperatures of their environments, desert cottontails have adapted their thermoregulating systems to reduce water loss, especially during the hottest days of the year. Because it can adapt well, this rabbit can take temperatures around 45 degrees Celsius and can withstand heat better in shaded areas. Their ears also help them regulate their body temperatures since this makes more than 14% of their body size. 

Care of Captive-bred Desert Cottontails

We do not recommend taking a wild desert cottontail and caring for it like a pet. This breed is hard to train and handle. It is also possible that this breed can cause significant damage to your home if it roams free, breeds, and multiplies. These tips and techniques are for captive-bred specimens, but still, you must remain careful and don’t overlook the dangers of caring for a pet rabbit. 

Caring for a captive-bred Desert cottontail is similar to how you care for other rabbit breeds. You must make sure that eats the proper kind of food, lives in a correct type of cage or enclosure, and must live with other rabbit companions. As an owner, you must take it to a vet for proper medical treatment. 

The typical diet of captive-bred rabbits like the Desert cottontail includes hay. Hay is the bulk of their diet, so they can chew this anytime they wish. You may also feed your pet pellets designed specifically for rabbits. These have additional needed vitamins and minerals to support your pet’s needs. 

You can include vegetables, fruits, nuts, and nectar for a well-rounded rabbit diet. Offer organic food found in their natural habitats like grasses, twigs, birch, brambles, and weeds.

An important component of a desert cottontail’s diet has unlimited freshwater and hay. Hay is roughage and is very helpful in keeping their digestive tracts healthy and their bowels regular. Place water in a heavy shallow dish so that your rabbit can easily drink from without spilling it. You may also place water in a container with a spout, and the rabbit can simply sip water from the spout. 

Captive-bred desert cottontails can become a good pet, but it can take time to train it. Regular interaction by playing with your pets daily. Cottontails are social animals, and aside from interacting with their fellow rabbits, these also require human interaction. Captive-bred rabbits survive well because they are cared for and interact regularly with their owners. 

Supplies and Cages

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A good enclosure for captive Desert cottontails should be made of strong metal wire with a strong post and frames and a removable plastic bottom; this is where the droppings fall; therefore, it is easier to remove the bottom part of the cage for maintenance. Place soft bedding on the floor so your rabbit will be more comfortable and warm. 

Install a rabbit hay feeder on the side of the enclosure. This is where your rabbit can eat when they feel hungry. For cage bedding, use aspen, wood pellets, or pelleted horse bedding. Clean or maintain the cage using a safe cleaner or good cleaning products like white vinegar, baking soda, or lemon juice. Do not use the bathroom or common household cleaners that will only have chemicals that are harmful to your pet.

Daily spot cleaning is important. Take note that rabbits will eat their poop, so you must remove these as soon as you see one. Replace the bedding regularly or every week. This will remove any nagging smells common in rabbit enclosures.

Desert cottontails will groom themselves. Sometimes a rabbit can take hours cleaning itself from head to toe taking extra time cleaning under the feet and ears. Rabbits grooming each other may be a social behavior as a way to bond with other rabbits. Mother rabbits may also groom their young while they are still in the nest.

Desert cottontails are crepuscular, which means that they can be active in the twilight, but usually, this rabbit is active also during the daytime as it can be seen foraging and eating. But the best time to feed it is during the evenings. Captive rabbits may sleep 8 hours a day in varying hours throughout the day; these may sleep in holes huddled together to keep warm since it can be very cold in the desert in the evenings. 

Take note that baby desert cottontails are born without fur and with their eyes closed. These are very vulnerable to the cold and also to its many predators. So if you want to breed captive cottontails, provide a warm enclosure or container to regulate their body temperatures. 

Health Concerns

Desert cottontails are a very hardy rabbit breed and are not affected by the disease in their natural environment. The most that desert cottontails may be affected with are pests like mites, ticks, and fleas because these are pests that are found in their environment.

Captive desert cottontails are not immune to common rabbit diseases; therefore, you must always be mindful of your pet’s state of health and temperament. Any change could be signs of illness. 

Take your cottontail to a vet for standard vaccinations and tests to assess its overall health and development. Keep in mind that some rabbits have sensitive digestive systems and may be prone to health conditions that plague the digestive system. 

Have your rabbits checked against enteritis, bloat, and stasis? These conditions are common in rabbits that are less than two months old. You must check for ear or fur parasites such as mites, fleas, and ticks, especially for pets that are staying outdoors. Most of the time, rabbits with these pests suffer from poor hygiene and poor cage maintenance. 

Watch out for signs of illness like poor appetite, nasal and eye discharges, diarrhea, and vomiting.  Also, rabbits with an unsteady gait, restlessness, and sleepiness should receive medical attention as soon as possible because these are unusual signs of illness.

De-worming is important for desert cottontails. This is a major concern, especially with rabbits that are taken from the wild or are bred from wild parents. All rabbit breeds should be dewormed, and this should be done in the spring and fall. 

Pet owners can use de-worming paste, which is available in pet stores and vet offices. Just place a pea-sized amount in the rabbit’s mouth, and it will simply lick the paste away. Follow the dose according to the product container for the best results. Repeat this according to the directions. 


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Take care of your rabbit’s health as well as its teeth. Rabbits need regular check-ups because their teeth tend to grow very fast. Regular checks are necessary, and you must make sure that the rabbit’s teeth won’t overgrow. 

Rabbits naturally grind their teeth down by chewing so much. If they don’t do this, their teeth tend to grow very long. Their teeth can grow right into mouth and jaws, which causes extreme pain. Also, your pet may not be able to eat because it’s very painful to do so.

You can also help trim the rabbit’s teeth by providing more hay as this files down the rabbit’s teeth naturally as they chew. Take it to the dentist in case it’s too late.

Spaying or Neutering

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Desert cottontails should be spayed and neutered to control their ability to breed if you want to keep these in your home.  Spaying and neutering must be done while your rabbits are still young. However, some veterinarians wait until the rabbits are in their sixth month. Bucks are usually neutered at a young to make them less aggressive. Take your pet to the vet for spaying and neutering. 


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Desert cottontails have moderate, coarse fur, and this will need regular grooming. You need to brush the fur to keep their coats clean, shiny, and free from pests. Use a small brush and groom the coat weekly. You must groom more frequently during the molting period, which is when the rabbit naturally sheds its fur. This will prevent wool blocks and fur ingestion. Fur may block the digestive tract and may cause severe complications. 

Even if your pet is dirty, you should never bath it. Bath times can stress aa rabbit. Instead of a bath, use a damp towel to spot clean. Just wipe the rabbit down with the damp towel and use a dry towel to dry off. 

Also, trim their nails monthly and check for overgrown teeth. If you don’t have nail trimmers or if you’re not confident with cutting your rabbit’s nails, ask your vet for help. The rabbit’s big ears should also be checked and cleaned regularly. 


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Desert cottontails breed all year long. It’s also easy to stimulate breeding because males are not very choosy when selecting his mate. Leave a male and female inside a large cage or enclosure. The enclosure should be large enough to allow the rabbits to start their ritual jumping dance. 

Mating happens quickly, and soon, you will notice a bump on her belly, which means that the rabbit is pregnant. You may also ask your vet to conduct a pregnancy test. 

Once the female is ready to give birth, it will look for a good place to lay her babies. Remove the male and place fresh grass, twigs, and leaves inside the enclosure. She will finish building her nest, and this is according to her own safe and secure design. 

The female will give birth to one to five babies. The newborns are completely helpless and are born blind. They will open their eyes after ten days. When you see the kits with their eyes open, remove these from the nest and place these in a separate enclosure under strong lighting and offer the proper kind of food.  

Availability – Where to Get One

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The cost of purchasing a desert cottontail depends on whether you are getting it from a breeder or a pet shop or retailer. The price could vary whether you are getting a rabbit for a pet or breeding.

When searching for a reliable breeder, be sure that you are getting a rabbit that is healthy and free from genetic disorders. Buy only from reliable breeders who raise captive-bred desert cottontails. 

How to Care for a Desert cottontail

Caring for a desert cottontail is just like caring for other rabbit breeds. Make sure that it has the correct diet, housing, and it has a companion for a well-rounded pet. As much as possible, take it to a vet for proper medical treatment and to prevent different conditions that affect rabbits. 

The main food of captive-bred rabbits is hay. You may also use pellets specifically made for rabbits, vegetables, and fruits. You must also offer food found in their natural habitats such as grasses, twigs, birch, and weeds. Keep fresh water and hay inside the rabbit’s cage. Put the water in a large, heavy shallow dish so that your rabbit can drink from this without spilling. 

Remember that captive-bred desert cottontails can become a good pet, but it can take time to train it and earn its trust. It would help by playing and interacting with your pets daily. Captive rabbits are social animals and thus will also need human interaction. Experts say that captive-bred rabbits can live longer and may thrive well in the hands of a caring handler. 


What do desert cottontails eat?

Desert cottontails eat plants, whether in the wild or captivity. These will eat all plant parts from roots, leaves, stems, and fruits, and they will also eat seeds, cacti, weeds, flowers, and even the tree bark. Desert cottontails are from arid areas, and thus, they will consume all plant parts for nutrients.

Do desert cottontails drink water?

In the wild desert, cottontails do not drink water because there’s no water supply in the desert. It gets its water from the food it eats and also from dew present in plants during the early morning.

Should you pick up a desert cottontail from the wild?

No, don’t ever pick a wild animal such as the desert cottontail from the desert. You can’t tame it, and you won’t be able to make it a pet. If you spot an injured wild rabbit and you would like to help, call animal services so the animal can get expert help.

Are desert cottontails endangered?

No, desert cottontails are not endangered. These rabbits are present in large numbers in southwestern states in the US, and thus, it is not a threatened species.

Where do desert cottontails live?

Desert cottontails live in dry arid regions. It makes holes in the ground where it will remain all day to avoid the extreme heat. It will only come out of its burrow to forage and feed.

Can you keep a desert cottontail as a pet rabbit?

Only captive-bred desert cottontails may be kept as a pet because these can be trained and maybe petted after it has established its trust on you.

Can you prevent a desert cottontail from eating his poop?

Cottontails and all other rabbit species will eat their droppings. You can stop it by removing his droppings right away. But no matter what, these animals will still eat their droppings even if you spot check time and again.

Do you need to place a heater in a desert cottontail’s cage?

In cold areas, you can use a rabbit cage lamp to heat its enclosure. But in very cold weather, you may use a small portable heater and just place this near the rabbit cage to create a comfortable place for your pet to stay.

Can desert cottontails swim?

Yes, desert cottontails can swim but not as good as other water mammals. Cottontails have developed this skill to evade predators; some cottontails can even climb trees to escape their predators.

How do you tame a desert cottontail?

Do not pet a wild desert cottontail because this won’t follow you and may even perceive you as a threat. You may handle a captive-bred desert cottontail instead; these need constant handling, playing, and activity, so they will remain tame and healthy even in captivity. 

Do you keep a desert cottontail’s cage indoors or outdoors?

Whether indoor or out, it may depend on you. You can place the cage indoors so these may be protected from the elements; however, indoor enclosures are small and may not be enough to hold one or two rabbits. In an outdoor cage, the rabbits may need to deal with the cold, but your rabbits will enjoy a large area where it can play and run. 

Are desert cottontails able to climb up their cages?

Desert cottontails can’t jump or climb their cages; however,  these are strong enough to knock it down. Extremely large desert cottontail species are very good kickers and can kick their strong cages or fences down to escape. 

What happens when the teeth of a desert cottontail grow longer?

As the teeth of a rabbit grow longer, it may be too long to remain inside the mouth, and hence, it can pierce its mouth and lower gums, causing extreme pain. This is why your pet rabbits should visit the dentist regularly. You must give it hay to chew on because hay naturally grinds teeth to keep it short. 

Can desert cottontails eat meat?

No, desert cottontails are herbivores, which means that these won’t eat meat, but only plants or plant parts. Desert cottontails will eat tree parts such as roots, bark, twigs, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, and more. It will also eat cacti, which is abundant in the desert.

Do desert cottontails eat fruits and vegetables?

Yes, you can feed a captive pet desert cottontail some fruits and vegetables. These rabbits will also eat commercially-prepared rabbit food. 

Do desert cottontails need water to swim in?

No, this rabbit does not need any water or pool of water inside their enclosure to swim in.

Are rabbit diseases dangerous to humans?

Some rabbit diseases will affect rabbits, while some are dangerous to humans as well. If you think your pet is sick, then take it to the vet at once. Understand the different signs of illnesses like poor appetite, sneezing, diarrhea, constipation, and changes in behavior, and if you spot any of these, you should take it to the vet for proper treatment. 

Do desert cottontails have good hearing?

Although the desert cottontail has smaller ears than the eastern cottontail, this has good hearing. It can hear its predators from a distance, so it has time to jump away and escape from it. 

How do you clean a desert cottontail’s cage?

The first thing is you need to remove the rabbit from the cage and place it in another smaller cage. Then, use a hose and some cleaning products and clean the walls, bottom, accessories, and toys. Rinse well and dry completely before you place your rabbit back inside the cage.

Will desert cottontails eat their poop?

Yes, desert cottontails can eat their poop because these have nutrients in them. This is a natural behavior, and you must not worry about it. Once they poop again, they won’t eat the second time.

How large should a desert cottontail’s cage be?

One desert cottontail should be kept in an enclosure that’s large for two to three rabbits. Always make sure that your rabbits have enough space for it to live comfortably. 

Why do rabbits like the desert cottontail jump away in a crisscrossed manner?

Desert cottontails can jump away from threats in a crisscrossed manner. They do this to scatter their scent in the air and confuse their predators. Some cottontails may even jump into the water to escape predators, as well.  

Can you keep two or more desert cottontails inside a cage?

You can keep two or more rabbits in one cage for as long as the cage is large enough for many rabbits.

Can desert cottontails survive the cold?

Yes, desert cottontails can remain in the cold and survive cold to near-freezing nights in the desert.

Can desert cottontails remain outdoors?

If you have a pet cottontail, you may allow these to remain outdoors, but make sure to rabbit-proof your yard before freeing them. You may use a portable perimeter fencing to keep the rabbit where you want it to be. Bury the poles well to prevent the rabbit from escaping by pushing the cage down. 

Is it okay to leave a desert cottontail indoors out of its cage?

You may allow a rabbit to stay indoors but under your constant supervision. Again, use the portable perimeter fencing to cordon off areas that the rabbit can’t go. Rabbit-proof your home, especially wooden temperatures, because rabbits love to chew won these.

How often do pet rabbits need to go to the vet?

Rabbits need to get vaccinated against diseases, so they need an initial visit to a vet during the first weeks of life. The vet will decide when the next visit is depending on any medical condition.  

Can desert cottontails see well in the dark?

Yes, desert cottontails have an impressive vision at night. This is why these rabbits may prefer to forage for food at night. Rabbits such as the desert cottontail also have a good sense of smell and hearing to allow them to detect predators faster.

Why do desert cottontails jump?

Cottontails may jump to fight for dominance as they stand on their hind legs and jump higher than their contenders. They will also jump in a crisscrossed pattern to scatter their scent and confuse their predators. 

If a desert cottontail hits you with its hind legs, will this hurt?

Yes, desert cottontails have very sharp claws, especially claws from its hind feet. It can also kick very hard using its hind feet, and this can cause a lot of damage. The rabbit uses this as a way to defend itself from predators. 

Are desert cottontail’s bites dangerous?

Yes, desert cottontail bites and other wild rabbit bites are dangerous because these animals may have rabies. Not only this, their teeth may be huge, and this can tear off the flesh, leaving you with an infected wound.

Are desert cottontails territorial?

Some studies confirm that a desert cottontail can be territorial when kept in a small enclosure. Males may also become aggressive to other males during breeding. These rabbits may bite, scratch, and kick their opponents to establish their superiority and will also fight with other males for a female.

Will a mother desert cottontail eat her young?

Some species will eat their young, and breeders are still unsure why the mother does this. If you see the mother eating her young, remove it from the litter or nest and never breed the doe again.

How do you take care of baby desert cottontails?

If you’re breeding desert cottontails or you rescued babies from the wild, place these in a comfortable and warm place to sleep. Feed these soft, pureed fruits and vegetables. Never take care of wild animals; just call animal services to have these rescued properly.

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