Rabbits or bunnies are the third most popular furry household pet, after cats and dogs. Cuteness is a factor in their popularity, as bunnies' large eyes and vulnerable nature help to entice people to want to care for them as if they were babies.
As with cats and dogs, selective breeding has produced several types of pedigree rabbits, with different physical characteristics. However, some of the characteristics that have arisen are not compatible with the health of the creature. For example, rabbits with flat faces are likely to have problems with their teeth, and lop-eared rabbits are prone to ear infections. And yet two of the most popular breeds of pet rabbit in the world are the Netherland Dwarf, which has 'extreme brachycephaly' (a very flat face) and the Miniature Lop, which has a flat face plus ears that hang down and are often long enough to touch the ground.
In 2018-19 research was carried out to find out whether the characteristics that are most prized by breeders of pet rabbits matched what people would consider to be cute, and hence to find out whether the desire for cute pets was contributing to the breeding of unhealthy rabbits.
The survey asking people to look at black and white photographs to rate the cuteness of 25 different rabbits was promoted on social media in 2018, and more than 20,000 people1 took part. Rabbits with flatter faces were judged to be cuter than rabbits with longer faces (including wild rabbits). However, when the flatness was taken to an extreme, the rabbits were less often rated as cute. Lop-eared rabbits were less often judged to be cute than rabbits with upright ears, but lop-eared rabbits with very flat faces were considered cute by a substantial number of people, particularly younger people.
The results of the survey indicated that the cutest bunny was a Havana Rabbit, with short fur, upright ears and a 'mildly brachycephalic' face (slightly flattened).
This led to the researchers concluding that the desire for cute rabbits is likely to have contributed to breeders choosing rabbits with flatter faces, but rabbits do not need to have unhealthily flat faces in order to be seen as cute.
The researchers also advised that people can actively choose healthier rabbits - ones that look more like wild rabbits rather than simply being cute. For example, the Palomino, with gold-coloured fur, may be handsome rather than cute, but these rabbits have a friendly and calm temperament that makes them valuable pets. Flemish Giants, as their name suggests, are very large (at least 20in/50cm in length) but are similar to wild rabbits, having upright ears and short fur. They have a docile temperament and can be trained to wear a harness so they can be taken for walks outside. Harlequin rabbits, with patches of black and brown fur, are known as being intelligent, so they can be quite easily trained to use litter trays if they are kept as house rabbits, and will be playful pets.