If you’ve ever wondered whether your feline and lagomorph pets share a common ancestor, you’re not alone! Many pet owners notice similarities between cats and rabbits and question if they are closely related species.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: cats and rabbits are not closely related. While they share some basic mammalian traits, they belong to completely different taxonomic orders that diverged evolutionarily over 80 million years ago.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the evolutionary histories of cats and rabbits to understand their relationship and ancestry. We’ll cover topics like:

– The scientific classification of cats and rabbits

– When cats and rabbits diverged on the evolutionary tree

– Differences and similarities between the two species anatomically, genetically, and behaviorally

– Theories on the evolutionary origins of felines and lagomorphs

– Reasons why cats and rabbits may seem related at first glance

The Scientific Classification of Cats and Rabbits

Where Cats Fit on the Taxonomic Tree

Cats, including domestic cats and their larger cousins like lions and tigers, belong to the family Felidae in the order Carnivora. This places them in the mammalian class Mammalia alongside other carnivorous mammals like dogs, bears, and weasels.

More specifically, the domestic cat’s scientific name is Felis catus. This indicates their genus and species within the Felidae family.

All cat species share several common characteristics that classify them as felines, such as retractable claws, heightened senses of hearing and smell, whiskers, superior night vision, and a carnivorous diet.

Research shows that the Felidae family emerged around 25 million years ago, likely having evolved from mongoose-like ancestors. The adaptable physical traits of cats allowed them to become efficient predators and spread across ecosystems globally.

Where Rabbits Fit Taxonomically

Rabbits belong to the family Leporidae in the order Lagomorpha. This places them alongside other lagomorphs like hares and pikas. The scientific name for the European rabbit is Oryctolagus cuniculus. This indicates the rabbit’s genus and exact species within their broader taxonomic family.

All leporids share key features like long ears, hind legs adapted for jumping, and teeth that continually grow to aid in their herbivorous grazing lifestyle. The oldest rabbit fossils date back around 35 million years ago to the Oligocene Epoch.

Since then, rabbits have evolved as prolific breeders well-suited to evading predators and thriving in diverse habitats globally.

While cats and rabbits do share some common traits as mammalian species, their scientific classifications reveal they diverged evolutionarily into very distinct families. Cats are stealthy carnivores while rabbits are prey animals that breed rapidly and eat plant materials.

So no, cats (felines) and rabbits (lagomorphs) are not closely related genetically or evolutionarily.

When Felines and Lagomorphs Diverged Evolutionarily

The Rise of Placental Mammals

Both cats and rabbits belong to the cohort of placental mammals that emerged after the extinction of dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. As the environment changed, certain mammalian groups took advantage and diversified rapidly.

The placental mammals gave live birth to well-developed young after long pregnancies. This reproductive strategy allowed them to better protect and nurture their offspring compared to egg-laying mammals.

Around 55-60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch, the placental mammals split into different orders like rodents, primates, artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates), perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates), and carnivorans.

The distinct orders started following their own evolutionary paths based on factors like habitat, food sources, and defensive abilities.

Emergence of Distinct Orders

The order Carnivora emerged as meat-eating placental mammals around 60 million years ago shortly after the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. Over the next 10 million years, this order gave rise to cat-like creatures belonging to the Felidae family.

So essentially, the true cats branched off from other carnivorans around 50 million years ago.

On the other hand, lagomorphs belonging to the order Lagomorpha first appeared during the Eocene epoch about 40 million years ago. They evolved as small burrowing and herbivorous mammals feeding mainly on grasses and other vegetation.

So while the feline ancestors split away earlier, the lagomorphs emerged as a distinct placental order at least 10 million years later.

Anatomical, Genetic, and Behavioral Differences

Skeletal Structure

Cats and rabbits have vastly different skeletal structures that reflect their unique evolutionary paths. Rabbits are lagomorphs, belonging to the taxonomic order Lagomorpha, while cats are carnivorans, belonging to Carnivora. Some key skeletal differences include:

  • Rabbits have longer hind legs adapted for speed and jumping. Cats have relatively equal length front and back legs for stalking prey.
  • Rabbits have a lighter, more delicate skeletal structure. Cats have a sturdier skeleton to support hunting and killing prey.
  • The rabbit skull has larger openings for jaw muscles to facilitate gnawing. The cat skull is adapted for biting and chewing meat.
  • Rabbits have a pronounced arch in the spine. Cats have a more flexible spine to aid in pouncing and climbing.

These skeletal adaptations reflect the different evolutionary pressures faced by prey animals like rabbits versus predatory species like cats.

Digestive Systems

Rabbits and cats have very different digestive systems. As herbivores, rabbits have a digestive system suited to processing fibrous plant material. In contrast, the carnivorous cat gut is adapted for digesting meat. Key differences include:

  • Rabbits have an enlarged cecum where cellulose is fermented to digest plant matter. Cats have a simple stomach and short digestive tract.
  • Rabbits reingest their feces to further digest plant material. Cats do not.
  • The rabbit liver cannot synthesize vitamin A from beta-carotene unlike cats.
  • Rabbits need a high-fiber diet to keep their digestive system moving. Cats have no dietary fiber requirement.

So while cats thrive on a high-protein meat-based diet, rabbits have evolved digestive strategies to unlock nutrients from fibrous vegetation.


Rabbits and cats also differ remarkably in their reproductive strategies and anatomy:

  • Rabbits have one of the highest reproductive rates of any mammal with litters of up to 12 kits and the ability to breed year-round.
  • Cats generally have litters of 3-5 kittens and breed seasonally rather than year-round.
  • Rabbits have an open placenta that allows for the large litters. Cats have a zonary placenta restricting litter size.
  • Newborn rabbits are altricial, requiring greater parental care. Kittens are more precocial at birth.

These adaptations allow rabbits to produce many offspring to counter high predation rates, while cats channel more resources per kitten for greater survival odds.

Social Structures

Rabbits and cats have very different social organizations. Rabbits live in social groups and colonies. Cats are usually solitary hunters. Key behavioral differences include:

  • Rabbits live in warrens and communal burrow systems. Cats do not share territories.
  • Rabbits have a strict social hierarchy. Cats have loose social connections.
  • Rabbits practice coprophagy to share digestive enzymes and bacteria. Cats do not.
  • Rabbit kits are raised communally. Cat mothers raise litters alone.

So while rabbits have evolved complex social behaviors, cats remain independent, solitary hunters at heart despite domestication.

Theories on the Evolutionary Origins of Cats and Rabbits

Cats Evolved as Solitary Hunters

Cats are believed to have diverged from a common ancestor with other carnivores like mongooses about 55 million years ago. As research shows, the earliest cat-like animals evolved as solitary hunters, using their speed and agility to chase down small prey.

Key adaptations that aided their hunting skills include:

  • Sharp, retractable claws to grip prey.
  • Keen eyesight and hearing to detect prey movement.
  • Stealthy walking and ability to stalk prey silently before attacking.
  • Being solitary hunters allowed cats to cover more territory and not compete for food sources. This lifestyle persisted as the Felidae cat family continued evolving into modern-day cats like lions, tigers, and domestic cats.

    Though social in some contexts, domestic cats still exhibit the ‘loner’ personality that was passed down from their earliest relatives.

    Rabbits Evolved as Prey Animals

    In contrast to cats, rabbits evolved entirely as prey animals, emerging around 40 million years ago as small, timid grazers constantly on the lookout for predators. As this overview shows, key adaptations of early rabbits include:

  • Powerful hind legs to flee rapidly from threats.
  • Excellent hearing and vision to quickly detect approaching predators.
  • High reproduction rates to offset losses to predators.
  • These traits have enabled the survival of over 60 rabbit species globally. But rabbits still largely live under the shadow of predation. Wild species like European rabbits construct burrows to hide from predators, while domestic rabbits retain an innate fear response due to their evolutionary past.

    In essence, while cats evolved weapons to thrive as predators, rabbits evolved shields to persevere as prey. This stark difference in evolutionary pressure shaped not only their physical attributes, but also opposing personality traits we observe in cats vs. rabbits today.

    Why Cats and Rabbits May Seem Related

    Some Physical Similarities

    At first glance, cats and rabbits share some physical traits that can make them appear related. Both have soft, furry coats, long ears, and swift, nimble movements. Their bodies are also similar in size and proportion.

    These visible similarities likely contribute to the perception that felines and lagomorphs are somehow evolutionarily linked.

    Additionally, cats and rabbits both employ a “hopping” type of locomotion at times. Rabbits are best known for their jumping form of movement using their powerful hindlegs. But cats also exhibit a rabbit-like hop or bounce when playing or running fast.

    This shared way of moving about strengthens the impression of a family resemblance.

    Pet Keeping Leads to Comparisons

    The fact that cats and rabbits are two of the most commonly kept household pets also promotes comparisons between the species. With an estimated 94.2 million cats and 6 million rabbits living as pets in US homes, many people readily observe both animals up-close.

    Seeing cats and rabbits in the same household environment can bring their behavioral and physical attributes into sharper contrast and focus.

    Moreover, popular media and merchandising play up the perceived kinship between felines and bunnies. Cartoons, toys, greeting cards, and more spotlight cats and rabbits together, cementing the idea that they somehow naturally belong side-by-side.

    However, despite the common perception, cats and rabbits are not actually related. They belong to different taxonomic orders that diverged evolutionarily over 80 million years ago.


    While cats and rabbits have some superficial similarities, a closer investigation of their anatomy, genetics, behaviors and evolutionary origins shows they are quite distinct creatures.

    By understanding where they fit on the mammalian family tree and how each species evolved for survival, we gain perspective on why house cats and pet rabbits seem like distant cousins despite their 80+ million year divergence.

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