Rabbit Behavior


Whoever came up with the phrase "dumb bunny" didn't know rabbits. As the new caretaker of a rabbit you will soon learn what bunny enthusiasts already know. Rabbits are intelligent, curious, sometimes stubborn and fun-loving animals that make loving and entertaining companion pets.

The rabbit warren - Respect me, love me, worship me

Love me

Rabbits organize their warrens according to a specific hierarchy that generally puts the female at the top. Once the matriarchy has been established, a pecking order follows. Even if there are only two rabbits, one will be dominant, although this is not always the female. Once the dominance is established, the rabbit caretaker will be able to detect the warren strategy.

Rabbits "present" themselves to one another for acknowledgement and for grooming. If one of your rabbits approaches a second and puts his head down, he is not the subservient one but the dominant one, and is demanding to be groomed. And because they respect one another and the established hierarchy, the second rabbit will generally commence to licking the dominant's forehead and ears.

The established hierarchy, however, is not set in stone, and the dominant rabbit will often become the groomer. Sometimes you'll find rabbits engaged in a struggle of "love me; no you love me," and they struggle to thrust their foreheads under one another's chins. Sometimes the dominant rabbit will generously agree to be the groomer. Sometimes the dominant one refuses and instead insists upon a full-body grooming by stretching out in front of the other rabbit to bask in worshipful adoration.

You should offer your grooming services by approaching the rabbit from above and gently stroking the top of his head. If your offer is accepted, the rabbit will stretch his neck out to meet your hand. If your offer is not accepted, the rabbit may turn from you or lunge at your hand. If you receive the lunge, don't worry, you don't have an attack rabbit on your hands. You just interrupted a fine session of play, sleep or lounging and have made a nuisance of yourself. Don't force yourself on the rabbit and make the offer again later.

Rabbits will not even pass each other without acknowledging one another's presence by sniffing and bumping noses. Rabbit owners may unknowingly violate this requirement if they walk past rabbits without acknowledging them. You don't have to get down on all fours to bump noses, but you should take the time to stop and give them a pet. After all, to a rabbit, it's just simple respect.

Bunny love, how to pet rabbits and elicit tooth purrs

It is not respectful to pick rabbits up, and most are both fearful and angry if they are suddenly grabbed and lifted off the earth. Rabbits do like to climb on furniture and will sometimes greet you from the back of the couch, but being airborne is very scary. It is much better to sit on the floor and let the rabbit come to you. Likely he will come near you, present himself to you for nose petting, and climb all over you. You might even receive a little licking yourself, and that means you've not only been acknowledged as dominant, but you've been accepted into the rabbit warren.

Bunny love

Even if they don't like to be picked up, rabbits still like to be petted. Once you've offered your hand for a petting session, and have received permission, commence by stroking your rabbit's forehead from the nose to the ears. You can extend the stroke up and over the rabbit's back, but stay away from the sides and underside of the body. They don't like that and will not hesitate to let you know.

You can create bunny heaven right here on earth if you commence a good session of long, languid pets. You'll know you achieved nirvana if the rabbit starts gnashing its teeth together very quietly. This is a "purr" that signals supreme happiness.

Off with you! Banished from the kingdom

While it's easy to make a rabbit very happy with some fine petting, it's also very easy to offend the rabbit. Uninvited petting, playing that interrupts lounging time or failing to show respect may elicit a response demonstrating how much the owner has offended the rabbit.

If you somehow engage in an offensive behavior, the rabbit will let you know by hopping away from you and turning sideways. That's an indignant "well" response. They might hop away with an exaggerated manner, flicking their feet at you. The exaggerated foot flick is a general signal, used when your rabbit wants nothing to do with you - or when he feels he has outsmarted you by grabbing his treat from your hand and dashing off with it.

Continued offensive behavior like pursuing the rabbit, thrusting your hand in front of his face again, or trying to pick the rabbit up, will likely earn you the next response in the offendedness scale. The rabbit will move away from you again and turn his back to you. You have just been frozen out.

Although you should consider these actions a warning, if you proceed and continue with the offensive behavior, you'll stretch the rabbit's patience. If you do that, you may earn the last warning signs to back off, and the rabbit may put its ears back, growl, lunge at you, and maybe even nip at your hand. Don't say you weren't warned.

While it's easy to offend a rabbit, it's also easy to be forgiven. Waiting a little while and then offering some petting again will likely put you back in good graces. You can always try the food approach because the way to a rabbit's heart is definitely through the tummy. A veggie snack or a little piece of fruit might buy your way out of the doghouse - this time.

Get a job

Get a job Rabbits are hardworking and industrious, and if they could figure out how to hold a pencil they would be filling out job applications and making phone calls. Until they develop opposable thumbs, however, they will satisfy themselves with creative work at your house. If you do not provide the rabbit with an activity, you might find he will occupy himself with jobs you don't want completed: nibbling plaster walls, chewing telephone cords or digging in the carpet. Remember that a bored rabbit is a destructive rabbit.

You can help avoid this destructive behavior by substituting activities, toys and projects. You might find a second bunny helps curb this behavior. A bonded pair will occupy each other and deter naughty activities. Use a variety of distractions like cardboard boxes, apple or pear wood sticks, grocery bags filled with hay, crumpled newspaper, just about anything to pique the rabbit's curiosity and provide an outlet for his energies. To draw him away from naughty activities, try training him to respond to sound cues such as shaking a container of pellets or papaya tablets to signal treat time.

Rabbits are very curious and will spend considerable time checking out their surroundings. Just to keep things interesting, some owners periodically rearrange the rabbit's living space or introduce new objects for fun.

Sleepy time

Sleepy time

Rabbits are most active in the morning and evening. They sleep a great deal of the day and will spend most afternoons blissfully napping. You will be able to determine how comfortable the rabbit is by his posture during loafing or sleepy times. If the rabbit is just hanging out, soaking up the atmosphere and having a generally relaxed time, he will lie down with his feet tucked underneath himself. Some people call this the "meatloaf" position because the rabbit has fashioned himself into the shape and size of a loaf pan.

A really relaxed rabbit will lie in various stages of comfort, sometimes on his side, sometimes on his tummy with his feet stretched out behind him. The general idea is a happy, comfortable bunny. The blissful rabbit will throw himself on his side or roll over on his back, just for the sheer joy of it.

Play time

If days and nights are spent hanging out or sleeping, early mornings and evenings are for celebrating and cavorting. Rabbits will be hungriest during these same hours, and may alternate between eating and playing. Playful rabbits will run, leap in the air and toss their toys. If given free reign of the house they may run up and down the stairs, jump onto the sofa, down again, race down the hall and come back again. They might greet you by tossing their heads up and to the side. That's general rabbit "speak" and is an invitation to play. Accept the invitation, get out the toys and let the games begin.

Accentuate the positive / Aggression

You may not know about the life your rabbit lived before finding his way to your home. If the rabbit was not treated kindly in his life before you came along, you might find your rabbit acting out aggressively. The rabbit might growl, lunge at your feet as you walk past, or even bite. Sometimes the rabbit may do all these things to protect himself from increasing intrusion into his territory. If you find you're greeted by growls when you put your hand in the bunny's cage, compare it to your neighbor walking into your home unannounced. You'd probably growl too.

Treat aggression the same way you would treat "acting out" in a human child. Be calm, patient and kind. Don't ever raise your hand to strike the rabbit. A stern "no" is generally the best way to get your point across. You can stomp your foot or clap your hands to emphasize your point.

If you have a rabbit that is prone to nipping your hand, try stroking his face from the nose to the ears and gently pushing his head down at the same time. You'll prevent another nip and give the rabbit the idea who is boss.

The ears have it: Reading your rabbit

Rabbits communicate in a variety of ways (see "growls" under Aggression, "side flops" under Sleepy Time). But one of the most-used tools rabbits use to "talk" are the ears. Here is a basic course in reading your rabbit:

Ears forward - "What's that you say?"

Ears back - Either "I don't like that," or "wake me for supper." Here it's important to know whether your rabbit is relaxed and resting or being threatened. If your rabbit puts his ears back, his tail up and growls, you'll know it's the latter.

One ear back, one ear forward - "I hear you but I'm not paying that much attention."

Nose nudge - "Pet me, pet me now" or "move, you're in my way."

Tooth clicking - "I'm so happy I'm purring!"

Nipping - Can be either a warning (see Aggression) or a way to groom since rabbits lick and nibble to groom each other.

Licking - "I love you" or "wow, you need a bath."

Lunging - If directed at you with ears back, chin forward and tail up, it clearly means "back off."

Circling - If your feet are being circled as you walk across the room, your bunny could be saying, "let's play!" If he has not been neutered or she has not been spayed, you're being targeted for love.

Dancing - A run followed by a jump and a 180-degree mid-air turn is an example of joyous abandon and says "Yippee!" This is known as a "binky".

Foot thumping - It could be a warning to you ("leave me alone") or a warning for you ("something is amiss here and you need to alert the others"). Something has startled your rabbit and he is informing the rest of the warren and trying to ward off predators with a big sound.

The ears have it