Damage by rabbits is identified by the appearance of gnawing on older woody growth and the clean-cut, angled clipping of young stems (Figure 8). Distinctive round droppings (Figure 6) in the immediate area also are a sign of the presence of rabbits.
Damage to Structures
Rabbits rarely damage structures. If damage occurs, it usually is from gnawing on the edges of wood siding and trim.
Damage to Livestock and Pets
Rabbits generally are not a threat to other animals. However, they may carry diseases and parasites that can infect pets if they come into proximity with one another.
Damage to Landscapes
Rabbits damage woody plants by gnawing bark or clipping off branches, stems, and buds. Young plants are clipped off up to 2 inches above the height of the snow. Trees and shrubs may be completely girdled (Figure 9). The character of the bark on woody plants influences browsing by rabbits. Most young trees have smooth, thin bark with green food material just beneath it. The bark provides an easily accessible source of food for rabbits. The thick, rough bark of older trees often discourages gnawing. Even on the same plant, rabbits avoid rough bark and girdle young sprouts that have smooth bark.
Among shade and ornamental trees, the species most often damaged by rabbits include mountain ash, basswood, red maple, sugar maple, fruit trees, red and white oak, and willow. Sumac, rose, dogwood, and some woody members of the pea family are among shrubs that often are damaged by cottontails. Evergreens seem to be more susceptible to damage by rabbits in some areas than in others. Young trees may be clipped and older trees may be girdled and killed. When the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits may severely damage expensive plants in home landscapes, orchards, forest plantations, and nurseries.
Rabbits damage a wide variety of flowers. The most commonly damaged flowers are tulips, especially the first shoots that appear in early spring. Rabbits consume peas, beans, beets, and other garden plants, often pruning them to the level of the ground.
Health and Safety Concerns
Tularemia, or “rabbit fever,” is the most notable disease associated with cottontails. Tularemia is caused by bacteria that can be contracted by humans through the bite of a rabbit, tick, or flea, or by handling the carcass of an infected animal. To reduce the risk of contracting tularemia, avoid direct contact with rabbits that are dead, emaciated, or exhibit abnormal behavior such as lethargy, incoordination, and lameness. Take precautions against ectoparasites (ticks and fleas) and wear latex or vinyl gloves when handling and butchering rabbits. Immediately discard rabbits with livers speckled with small, white spots. In case of illness, inform medical personnel of contact with rabbits. The symptoms of tularemia are confused easily with the flu. Symptoms in humans include fever, swollen lymph nodes, and swelling near the bite, typically appearing within 3 to 14 days of exposure. The infection rarely is fatal to humans if antibiotics are administered quickly.
Rabbits can carry ticks infected with Lyme disease. Lyme disease typically manifests with flu-like symptoms, so consider a tick-borne illness if anyone has symptoms within 3 weeks of handling rabbits.
Rabbits infected with fibroma virus have fleshy, finger-like growths protruding from various parts of the body. The growths occasionally make rabbits look like they have antlers. The antler-like growths may have given rise to the mythical “jackalope.” Afflicted rabbits will raise concern among onlookers, but it is not contagious to humans.