The History of Belgian Hares in the US (and What They're Like as Pets)
What Is a Belgian Hare?
Belgian Hares are sometimes considered the most elegant of rabbit breeds. They have very long ears that stand upright, a long deer-like face, large expressive eyes, extremely long finger-like toes, and the most rounded back of any rabbit breed. Their sleek appearance coupled with their agility and speed has given them the nickname "The Racehorse of Rabbits."
However, these rabbits aren't just a pretty face; they're also potentially the smartest of the rabbit breeds and are extremely physically active in comparison to some more known breeds. To add to their charm, they have a rich and interesting history.
The Beginning of the Breed
Belgian Hares were first developed in the 1800s for their use as a meat animal. In these early days, Belgian breeders tried crossing a now-extinct rabbit breed, the leporine, with wild European hares. In these early days, the idea may have been to give their meat the flavor of a wild hare; however, when they were imported to England in the late 1870s, they began to split into two distinct breeds for two distinct purposes.
Meat or Looks?
One branch was bred for size to produce a better meat rabbit; these were the bases of the Flemish Giant breed. The second branch, which turned into the Belgian Hares we know today, were bred more for their appearance. They were bred back to English wild hares until they looked sufficiently like their wild counterparts.
A Unique Ruddy Color
Rabbits with ruddy red coloration were favored, and this became the most recognized color in the breed. The ruddy color is rarely seen in other breeds, and it resembles the ticked coloration of an Abyssinian cat.
Belgian Hares Make Waves in the US
In the United States, rabbits were kept almost exclusively as meat animals for the vast majority of its history. Pet and exhibition rabbits were pretty unheard of when, in 1888, an E.M. Hughes imported the first Belgian Hares into the United States. He collaborated with two others, W.N Richardson and G.W. Fenton, to bring these new exotic animals to small livestock shows across the country and promote their ownership.
These early years were slow to gain traction, and the Belgian Hare was little more than a novelty until the Great Belgian Hare Boom of 1900. The efforts to promote them had gone from not having enough people to maintain a single club to having over 600 large rabbitries (with 75–1,000 head each.)
"Fancy" Rabbits Sold for Exorbitant Prices
In these days, there were still two branches of hares: the utilitarian meat rabbits and the "fancy" exhibition hares who were far finer in appearance. The fancy variety continued to both be bred here in the US and imported from Europe. Hares who were winning the wildly popular shows were fetching outrageous prices. Many sold for up to $1,000 a head, which was a handsome sum when 15 cents a day was considered decent wages for a laborer.
Boom and Bust
Of course, these pricey animals made the breed the first in the US to be popular as pets. They could be found in farmsteads and homes alike, but by 1917, the boom had broken. Too many hares had flooded the market, their prices dropped, and people eventually lost interest.
Belgian Hares Suffer a Blow From Industrialized Farming
Belgian Hares are an energetic breed that need a lot of room to bounce around and keep up the muscle in their hind legs. They also need a solid surface to sit on to rest their toes or they are extremely prone to breaking them or getting infections from wearing them down on the wire. Most breeders today suggest a cage at least six feet long, two feet wide, and two feet tall.
Hares Suffered in Small Cages
Traditionally, this sort of enclosure would have been the norm in homesteads across the US raising meat rabbits, but when rabbit breeding became industrialized, most rabbits found themselves housed singly in tiny wire cages. Hares did not fare well in this setting. Besides adding stress from being unable to exercise and the health problems they were prone to living on wire, they also suffered mentally and refused to breed in these conditions. It wasn't long before hares became very rare.
Today, the vast majority of Belgian Hare owners are exhibition breeders who fall in love with the sleek appearance but all too commonly get out of keeping the breed due to their space requirements. They have had a hard time making it back into the pet trade mostly because, in the US, even off the industrial farms, it's considered normal husbandry to keep rabbits in very small cages.
My Three Belgian Hares
However, I have been lucky enough to own three of these beautiful animals, and they have all made wonderful pets. My two boys litterbox-trained almost immediately, and I gain much joy watching them bound full speed around the house.
Belgian Hares are almost extinct in the US today. I stumbled upon my first one and then spent two and a half years trying to find him a mate, which I had to have shipped. I continue to look for other breeders, but they're harder to find than a needle in a haystack if you're not part of the show world.
Hares in the US Versus Europe
Sadly, in the US, Belgian Hares now only come in one recognized color, ruddy, and suffer from inbreeding. Their lifespan in Europe remains the highest of any rabbit breed at 7–10 years, while in the US it's actually shorter than most rabbit breeds at around 3–4 years. European breeders have four recognized colors: Ruddy, White, Black, and Black & Tan.
Personally, I hold hope for importation to expand the bloodlines and regain health and vigor. In the meantime, I am an advocate for Belgian Hares as pets and larger enclosures for all rabbit breeds.
Hares are a very energetic breed and in some cases can be stressed out by loud noises and changes in their environment. This can mean that certain sensitive individuals can be at risk of dying from shock to any of these circumstances. That being said, mine got used to dogs barking, power tools, and loud music without a problem. They do startle pretty easy, though, and if they are running free this could mean a lost rabbit pretty fast! They are extremely quick and can get very far ahead of you in the blink of an eye.
They are however extremely smart animals, usually very easy to litterbox train. They learn their names quickly and can be trained easily for jumping competitions or to do other tricks. If they're handled when young they make for exceptionally affectionate pets. As with most rabbits they also make for quiet companions. I have found mine all have a different sense of humor and are quirky and individualistic.
Having had many breeds of rabbits over the years I have found these Belgians to be almost completely different. I compare owning them more to what it's like to own a particularly odd cat. My current male for instance can jump up onto tables. I am really not sure how he does this, there's a small possibility he's learned how to fly, but there he is, sitting there staring at me from the table!
Belgian Hares in the US suffer from a series of health conditions. First their delicate feet are prone to having broken toes and bumble foot infections and need to be checked routinely for these issues. And since their backs are so arched and their energy level is so high they can suffer from broken backs if they flip out and twist while running.
Degenerative spinal disorders are also known to affect some lines. This usually causes older bucks to slowly loose control of their hind legs and eventually their bladder and bowel. If allowed to continue this disorder usually ends in death from sepsis when they lose the ability to poop. There is work being done by breeders to figure out if this is a genetic issue (which I suspect from breeding fancy rats who showed up with the same problem years ago) or if it is just inherent in the whole breed.
Hares, like any rabbit, can sometimes have misaligned teeth that will need trimming if they can't grind them down on their own. They are notoriously hard to breed for many reasons and I wouldn't suggest spaying or neutering simply because the stress would likely be detrimental to them. Between strange smells, a stressful environment, dogs barking, and the possibility of reacting badly to the anesthesia (a risk all rabbits have) I wouldn't personally risk it.
Finally Belgian Hares do poorly in excessively hot weather and can die of heat stroke pretty quick. I'm honestly not sure how they fair in cold as I haven't had to deal with the issue myself. With all this being said most of their health concerns can be taken care of just by knowing what to look for and I wouldn't avoid the breed just for these issues by any means.