Rabbit behaviour can be confusing even though we've been keeping rabbits as pets for over 1500 years. Although this may seem to be a long time, it is significantly less time than we have been keeping dogs and cats as pets, and as any cat or dog pet owner can tell you, their pet's behaviour can be weird and wacky sometimes.
Getting your first bunny may seem scary but here are some tips to help you understand your pet rabbit better.
Baby rabbits are called kits or kittens, and unlike their cousins, hares and leverets (baby hares), kits are born undeveloped, with no fur and closed eyes. They are therefore vulnerable and need special care and attention.
At this age, they are completely dependent on their mother, but as they mature, by about four to five weeks old, they become playful and lively. Regular handling at this age is important in order to socialise the kit with humans. Doing so will result in a happier and more relaxed rabbit when they mature.
When a kit is relaxed and happy, the following behaviour can be seen:
The rabbit's body will be relaxed. A nervous kit will often freeze in place, and stare to the point of being watchful of everything. The body will be hunched and the ears will be pointed back, held flat against the body. A nervous rabbit will also be aggressive towards other rabbits and humans, especially when being handled.
A relaxed and happy kit will show curiosity. They will hop about and explore their environment.
Twitching of the nose is also a sign of calmness. It also means your bunny is very content in its current circumstances.
If a kit isn’t eating, it could be a sign that it’s distressed. Make sure to take action immediately since refusal to eat can lead to serious health problems and even death.
As the kit matures and becomes an adult a wide range of other behaviour can be noticed. Being attentive to the needs and desires of your rabbit will help you create a happy home for your pet.
As adults, mature rabbits will show some of the same signs they did as kits. They also have a range of other behaviours you should pay attention to. Here’s what to look out for:
A rabbit's posture when lying down is worth paying attention to.Watching rabbit behaviour during rest will tell you how relaxed your bunny is. Lying down with the legs tucked under will signify that the rabbit feels relatively safe, but is still alert and ready to flee. A very relaxed rabbit will lie down with its body fully extended and its legs splayed out behind it.
Hopping excitedly, often referred to as binkying, is a rabbit behaviour that shows extreme hapiness. A binky is a vigorous hop where the rabbit leaps up into the air, lifting all four paws off the ground. The rabbit will also twist its body in mid-air before returning to the ground.
When excited, a rabbit may run around very fast, as though it is being chased. This rabbit behaviour is often referred to as zoomies. This might be because they are happy to see you, or they're expecting their favourite treat. If the rabbit is circling, however, it may mean something different.
The bunny flop is a sign of your rabbit being completely happy and content.
Rabbits are naturally anxious animals and can show a number of signs that they are stressed. There are many situations that may cause a rabbit to feel distressed.
Rabbits who stomp or thump their feet do so out of anger and annoyance. They may want to be let out of their cage, or perhaps they want another rabbit's toy. The reasons are numerous, and as all rabbits are individuals, some rabbits may do this more often than others.
Aggressive rabbits might kick or bite. Be careful when handling such rabbits, as their bites can be painful, and they have very powerful legs. Bunnies can cause some serious damage when they lash out.
Hiding is a rabbit behaviour that indicates fear. It may mean that the rabbit is scared and not comfortable with its surroundings or the people and/or rabbits around them.
When your rabbit is stressed, you can expect to see the following signs: rapid breathing, excessive grooming or refusal to groom at all, not eating, panting, pulling fur out, ears held back against the head, bulging eyes, and repetitive behaviour such as biting their cage bars or head bobbing.
In the wild, rabbits teeth wear constantly against each other and are therefore kept trim. In captivity, this is not the case. A pet rabbit will feel the need to chew things in order to keep its teeth trimmed, as well as to alleviate boredom.
Chewing can be a major problem in that rabbits will think nothing of biting through your exposed electrical wiring. As such, it is necessary to rabbit-proof your house. Bitter spray can be found at vet shops and will stop the rabbit from destroying things you do not want them to chew.
It is also helpful to make sure that they have plenty of things that they can chew to prevent this natural rabbit behaviour from becoming a problem. Get them a few chew toys and make sure to always have one laying around.
Sudden changes in a rabbit's environment can cause stress. Introduce changes to their environment gradually.
Introducing them to a new cage, for example, should be done over the space of a few days. Leave the rabbit in the same room as the cage, with the cage door open. This will allow the rabbit to explore and get used to the new surroundings on its own terms.
It also helps to use a few familiar things when introducing your rabbit to a new environment. Used bedding and favourite toys will help them to find comfort in a strange place.
Rabbits can also be very active animals, and thus it is necessary to give them a fair amount of freedom. Keeping them locked in their cage will leave them feeling bored and confined, which will lead to stress.
It is also useful to bear in mind that rabbits have a sharper sense of hearing than we do. For this reason, loud noises are very likely to be a cause of stress. Unfamiliar smells and sudden, fast movements can also put them on edge. The best home for a rabbit is one that is quiet and sheltered with good ventilation.
Some rabbit behaviour is neither positive nor negative. Understanding these behavioural activities can be useful for the owner to understand their pet better. THis will help you to alleviate your own worries about activities that may seem destructive, but are, in fact, completely normal.
There are a number of reasons a rabbit can engage in circling. This is when they run around other rabbits, or around your feet. Initially, it comes from courtship instinct, but in neutered rabbits, it could be from a desire to establish dominance.
Other reasons for this rabbit behaviour may include your bunny seeking attention, boredom, wanting you to get out of their way, as a way of showing affection or wanting to play. Rabbits are individuals, so it can be a challenge to figure out the exact reason for your pet’s behaviour.
By Olga1969 - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64669401
Rabbits are very territorial animals. You will often see them chinning things around the house, including their owner. Rabbits have scent glands on their chins which they use to mark their territory. The scent is completely safe, undetectable to human noses, and doesn't leave stains.
Licking and grooming is a natural activity that rabbits do to keep themselves and others clean. Attention should be given, however, if there is excessive grooming or no grooming at all, as this can indicate a sick rabbit.
Rabbits nip to get your attention. It is gentler than a bite. Nipping can also mean that the rabbit is irritated and wants you to get out of its way.
Rabbits will also nudge you or other rabbits in a bid for attention. It may be a sign of bossiness, and if they don't get the attention they're seeking, the nudge may be followed by a gentle nip.
Rabbits are instinctive diggers and will do this for fun. Excessive digging, however, can be a sign of stress or boredom. Pet rabbits will also dig at their owner's feet as a way to get attention. This rabbit behaviour is normal even when they annoy you by digging up your garden.
Unneutered males and unspayed females will spray to mark their territory. This includes the marking of other rabbits. Spraying can smell pretty bad and leave nasty stains on your walls, floors and furniture. It is a good idea to get your rabbits fixed to avoid this problem. Unfortunatly, even house trained rabbits will participate in this behaviour.
A rabbit behaviour you might find quite disturbing is eating poop. Rabbits produce something called a cecotrope before their normal droppings. This special poop contains a lot of nutrients such as vitamin B that your rabbit needs to stay healthy. If your bunny doesn’t eat this poop, it may suffer from malnutrition.
This may come as a surprise to you, but rabbits can be extremely vocal. If you’re wondering what kinds of sounds bunnies make, read on.
A rabbit emitting a shrill scream or squeal is serious. The rabbit is hurt or dying and needs immediate medical attention. Get them to the vet immediately!
Grunting is common amongst rabbits, and it generally indicates a positive emotional state. They may grunt when they are excited and ready to play, or when their owner comes home.
Grunting in a negative sense is called growling. This type of grunting may be a sign of displeasure. If you are rearranging and cleaning the cage and your rabbit is growling, it may be followed by a nip to show displeasure at having its stuff moved.
Growling sounds like a purring noise. Being a rabbit owner means that you will eventually be able to tell the difference between a grunt and a growl.
Before growling, a rabbit might snort as well.
Teeth grinding usually indicates that the rabbit is in pain or very upset. This may mean simply being very unhappy with its environment or it may be in physical pain.
Relocate your bunny to a more comfortable space to see if the teeth grinding stops. If it doesn't, it might indicate that the rabbit is in physical distress. In this case, get advice from your vet.
If your rabbit is making a muttering sound, you can draw the same conclusion as you can with humans: your bunny is grumpy! This may mean that it doesn’t want to go indoors yet, hasn’t been fed fast enough or didn’t get the attention it wants. Its best to leave your bunny be for the time being.
Rabbits can also emit a hissing sound just like cats. And it means the same thing. It is extremely aggressive behaviour brought on by fear, and you should keep your distance.
Rabbits often release a deep exhale just like a sigh in humans. Sighing is a sign of contentment and a relaxed bunny.
If your rabbit sounds like it is wheezing or sniffing, it means that they are having trouble breathing. Veterinary advice should be sought immediately. Bunnies are obligated nasal breathers which means it can become serious pretty quickly if the nose get’s blocked.
A distressed rabbit may whimper or whine when they encounter a situation that they don't like. They may do this when being handled against their will or when put into a cage with another rabbit that they don't like. A female rabbit may make this sound if a male rabbit is making unwanted advances towards her.
A humming or buzzing sound is usually made by an unneutered male rabbit who is in the mood for love. This sound is usually accompanied by circling.
Female rabbits make a clucking noise like a chicken when they are feeding their kits. Any rabbit, however, can make this sound and it is a sign of contentment.
As with all animals, pet rabbits can be a lot more complex than new pet owners often expect. As can be seen here, the list of behavioural actions is extensive. Those new to looking after rabbits can be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised at the level of intricacy of behavioural activities and the emotions that looking after rabbits entails.
Being attentive to these behavioural activities is key to creating a rewarding and happy environment for your pet rabbit, and ultimately creating a happier home for the owner as well.
If you don't have a pet rabbit yet, consider reading our article on how to choose your first bunny.
In short, yes. Ferrets are not good friends for rabbits due to their carnivorous nature. Guinea pigs can become extremely agitated when your bunny is hopping about and being active.
Cats and dogs can be dangerous depending on their individual temperament. A calm cat or dog may easily become best friends with a rabbit, so it is best to assess the situation based on the individual animal.
Rabbits are crepuscular. This means they are most active at dawn and dusk. As a result, rabbits eyesight is most acclimatised to dim light.
Hay. It is natural and has a familiar smell for the rabbit. It is also soft, and the rabbit can play with it.
Two to four days, depending on the individual rabbit. Make sure your rabbit has plenty of food and water, as well as things around to keep them happy and entertained. Organise reliable pet care if you're planning on being away for longer.