Fossil records suggest that Lagomorpha evolved in Asia at least 40 million years ago, during the break-up of continents.This breakup may be responsible for the wide distribution of differing species of rabbits and hares around the world, with the exception of Australia. There are currently more than 60 recognized breeds of domestic rabbit in Europe and America, all of them descended from the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the only species of rabbit to have been widely domesticated.
The European wild rabbit evolved around 4,000 years ago on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain meaning 'land of the rabbits'). When the Romans arrived in Spain around 200BC keeping the rabbits in fenced enclosures. Trade helped to introduce the European rabbit into many more parts of Europe and Asia, and with their rapid reproduction rate, and the increasing cultivation of land providing ideal habitat, rabbits soon established large populations in the wild, becoming widespread in North America and Australia.
In the fifth century, the wild European rabbit was first domesticated by French monks in the Champagne region of France. The Normans brought rabbits to England in the 12th century.
In Britain, about 9 centuries after the introduction, rabbits became kind of an economic asset (fur and meat). They were kept in walled enclosures (as the Romans did) and those enclosures were called warrens.
The British rabbit population quickly increased in the 1700's. Why? Well, that is the time when hedges were used to surround fields and of course the rabbits soon realized that these hedges were a perfect place to live. So Mr & Mrs Rabbit decided to make their burrow right next to these fields and food! How clever is that!
Of course, since that time, rabbits were regarded as either a meal or a pest. In the Victorian times the idea of pet rabbits took off.
Up until the 19th century, domestic rabbits had been bred purely for their meat and fur, but during the Victorian era, many new 'fancy' breeds were developed for the hobby of breeding rabbits for showing. Although many of these rabbits were bred for meat, it became increasingly common among the rising middle classes to keep rabbits as pets. Rabbits were connected with the countryside and the animals they had left behind, and were considered sentimental.
By the 20th century, rabbit breeding had become a popular hobby across Europe, with many rabbit fanciers developing new varieties and colors. Some breeds, such as the Himalayan and Rex, came about as the result of naturally-occuring genetic mutations which were then fixed or enhanced through a selective breeding program while others were developed through cross-breeding.
Domestic rabbitry did not become popular in the United States until around the turn of the century, when many European breeds began to be imported, and breeders also developed some American breeds.
This is when the American Rabbit Breeders Association Inc. stepped up to provides unification within its members throughout North America and the world.
Their organizational roots can be traced back over 100 years when, in 1910, the National Pet Stock Association came into being in response to the skyrocketing popularity of the Belgian Hare (actually a domestic rabbit - not a true hare), that had come on the scene around 1890. Over the years, the ARBA has grown and evolved into its present identity - enhancing, through its membership, high standards of perfection, efficiency and cooperation between all phases of the rabbitry industry; the all encompassing objective remaining the promotion of the domestic rabbit and cavy.
Today there are currently 47 accepted rabbit breeds by ARBA and 13 accepted cavy breeds.(Guinea Pigs)
During the last 30 years or so, attitudes towards rabbits as pets have been undergoing a gradual shift. The promotion of rabbit welfare is fostering a greater understanding of rabbits; from their basic needs to their intelligence, personality and behavior. Rabbits are increasingly seen in the same way as cats and dogs, as a rewarding companion or family pet, and provided with the same level of care and attention, from routine vaccinations and healthcare, to greater freedom and interaction with their owners.