Their twirling around the room leaping and dancing makes you laugh. Their little butt twitching as they devour a fresh piece of banana is most adorable. Their sleeping so soundly makes you smile and wish you could sleep so contently. But when your rabbit takes a nibble out of your favorite chair or digs intently at your oriental rug, you cringe. You may send him away with a loud clap only to watch him sneak back just moments later to reassert his intentions.
There is no doubt rabbit behavior can be frustrating and very trying to us mere mortals. When faced with "destructive" rabbit behavior, some people resort to giving away their pet rabbit or banishing him to a cage, garage or yard. Some even declaw their rabbit, a debilitating surgery that can cause permanent damage and disability.
So, how do we stop these unwelcome behaviors? First let's look at why rabbits do what they do.
Rabbits are rabbits. They enjoy a good dig and a challenging chew; it's their nature. In the wild, rabbits dig and burrow underground, building entire communities beneath us. Gnawing and chewing are also essential to proper rabbit dental care. The upper and lower incisors (front teeth) of rabbits grow 4 and 5 inches a year, respectively. Similar statistics for cheek tooth growth are not available; however, the rate is significant. In the normal rabbit mouth, biting and chewing of food continually grinds down the teeth, keeping this growth in check and the teeth at stable lengths.
Digging and chewing along with other daily exercise is also an important physical and psychological pleasure for your rabbit. Rabbits who are cooped-up in a cage for days on end are more likely to be aggressive and cranky. Rabbits should get out for play time and burn off energy on a daily basis. This will make for a happier, healthier and more friendly rabbit.
So, how do we survive the destruction our furry friends might cause? You cannot explain to a rabbit not to chew your favorite table leg, but you can redirect his behavior. Redirecting his behavior is the key. Once your rabbit decides the heavy-duty cardboard tunnel you gave him is a good chewing alternative, he is well on his way to being "trained." Until then, remember he is not being intentionally difficult, he is just hard-wired to chew and dig. And, because rabbits are creatures of habit, be sure not to let an unacceptable behavior go unattended; it will only get worse as Bun develops the bad habit. As soon as he starts nibbling on the couch or table leg, clap your hands or remove him from the area and give him something else to do. Develop a different habit. If Bun is particularly stubborn, you may have to block off or cover a problem area for a period of time to break the habit. But, be sure to figure out a different way to keep him busy and entertained.
Too much freedom is also a common element with extremely destructive rabbits. Make sure he has some time in a large cage or pen to help with training. Rabbits learn by repetition, so the more consistent you are with him, the faster he will pick up the behavior you want. Develop a daily routine for him. Despite the popular "dumb bunny" phrase, rabbits are actually quite intelligent. It is up to their human caretakers to understand their needs and provide appropriate alternatives.
Although most rabbits tend to chew and dig less as they mature, be prepared for a lifetime of chewing just in case. You'll want to train Bun early to chew acceptable items and you will want to bunny-proof your home to save your sanity. Spaying and neutering helps curb the intense destruction that can occur as rabbits go through adolescence, but rabbits will always need a way to exert their energy, a way to be a bunny. Bunny-proofing not only saves your home, but it also can save your rabbit from serious injury or even death. Covering cords and wires is essential to having a safe bunny habitat. There are many cord cover products available at home improvement stores or you can block access to areas like behind entertainment centers where there are a lot of cords. Next, move plants up high and place books and other "chewable" items out of reach. Magazines and baskets laying around will be fair game for your rabbit, so remove them if you don't want them chewed. Sometimes products like Bitter Apple will work to deter a rabbit from visiting an area, but you need to spray them daily. When redecorating, avoid wicker furniture -- a bunny's paradise!
What does your rabbit want?
Observe your rabbit. Is he a pusher/buncher or a chewer/shredder?! Perhaps he just enjoys lying contentedly in a tunnel. Once you have an idea about your rabbit's favorite behaviors, provide different toys and activities for him just like you would for a cat or dog. Rotate toys to keep him interested and try new toys every so often. Well placed and interesting toys will keep your rabbit busy for hours. Unfinished willow baskets, a cardboard box or tunnel, hard plastic toss toys and grass mats all have an important place in a bunny home. If you have expensive antiques or other items you just can't risk, make that room off limits. A baby gate may work to keep Bun out, but be warned, many rabbits can jump over these gates or chew through the plastic ones. Or, simply close the door to these off-limit areas. Once you have ideas about your rabbit's activity preferences and have obtained several toys for him to choose from, the next challenge is getting him to use this new found entertainment.
Location, location, location!
If your rabbit likes to dig in a specific corner, either block off that area to discourage the behavior altogether or place a digging box or grass mat there so it's okay for him to dig, dig, dig. Try placing toss toys and a few chewable toys in the areas where he likes to hang out. Also, place a few toys in his cage or run area so when he is confined, he learns to chew these items. Don't forget to provide lots of fresh hay. Hay will allow your rabbit plenty of chewing pleasure and will help promote good dental care.
Training your rabbit can be fun for both you and your rabbit. You will see new behaviors you never knew existed and you will get to know your rabbit better. He in turn will be trained to do what pleases him, in a way that pleases you.
By Michelle Wilhelms
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Gettin to Know Thumper
Rabbits don’t meow, bark or speak. Well actually, they do speak. They speak their own language. A language we humans must learn in order to communicate with them proficiently - or at the very least, to understand their behavior.
As HRS educators, we get calls and e-mails nearly every day asking about a certain behavior someone’s rabbit is displaying. The human is usually confused, frustrated or simply puzzled by what her rabbit is doing. In an attempt to interpret the puzzling activity, we ask questions and listen to how the person describes the activity. This is a very important step as the human may only be describing this “annoying activity,” but not describing the situation the rabbit was in when it occurred - what was going on in that rabbit’s world at that moment. We ask the age of the rabbit, whether he has been fixed (there are plenty of interesting behaviors if the rabbit is not fixed!), how big his cage is, amount of run time each day, health of the rabbit, activity level or changes in the home, etc. All of this plays a part in the rabbit’s life and his reaction to it.
Some rabbits appear very shy, others bold and curious, but it is the nature of the rabbit to be cautious and careful. In the wild, they are an animal that is easily preyed upon so they must be wary to survive.
Misconceptions abound when it comes to rabbits. Few rabbits like to be held, they may not come when called and they don’t necessarily make good pets for children. In order to understand your rabbit for who he or she is, forget all your expectations and focus on him as an individual. Be open to learning about him and let him teach you what he is all about.
Especially with a shy rabbit, the first rule in communicating is to get down on the floor. The second rule is also to get down on the floor. Rabbits must be approached at their level – the floor. Spend time getting to know him where he is comfortable. If he seems to avoid you at first, spend time just sitting quietly on the floor, not approaching him, not trying to pick him up. Rabbits are naturally wary, but also naturally curious. Eventually curiosity will win out and your rabbit will come over to investigate you.
As Amy Espie writes in her article, Honorary Rabbit, “It’s easy to miss gestures of trust from a shy or aloof rabbit. Even friendly, confident bunnies are usually more subtle than cats. A timid rabbit may make a first step toward friendship simply by going about the business of being a rabbit in your presence – in effect, by ignoring you. This may not sound like much, from a human point of view, but it’s a great effort for her to switch from ready-to-run to a more relaxed, peaceful state. Although our house rabbits have been domesticated for more than 500 years, they are still basically designed to respond quickly to all the information coming through their ears, nose, eyes and whiskers.”
As with any animal, or humans for that matter, each has his or her own personality. Some are active and crave attention. Some are shy or aloof. If a rabbit is shy, you need to make an effort to interact with him. Although shy rabbits may become more sociable with time, do not expect a totally different personality. This seemingly reserved behavior is actually more common and “rabbit-like” than the interactive rabbit of folklore who plays with children.
Tips to win over a shy rabbit:
- Sit quietly on the floor with him in a small room. Do not reach out to pet him or pick him up, just sit with him. A slice of apple or banana may help entice him to visit you. See if he will eat it from your hand without running away.
- Allow him to investigate you. He may smell you, hop over your leg or nibble your pant leg, but don’t disturb his investigation. Let him get comfortable just being around you.
- After several days of quiet bonding, see if he will allow you to pet him on the top of his head, or lie down on the floor and approach him face to face. That's how rabbits approach each other. Note: If your rabbit is protective of his space, this could result in a serious bite to the face, so decide which approach would be better for the both of you.
- You can also try bringing the newspaper into the room to read. You might be amazed that this once-shy rabbit has an interest in the financial section! Let him play by tearing up the paper. Let him be a rabbit in your presence.
- Toys and more toys. Toys can build confidence and help displace anxiety. Observe what he likes to do. Is he a buncher? A digger? A chewer? See this page for great toy ideas: Rabbit.org
- Increase freedom and space as he becomes more secure. With time, you will start to see a braver bunny. The first time your rabbit nudges you or grooms you, the process of trust has begun and a special honor has been bestowed upon you. He is communicating with you as he would communicate with a fellow rabbit.
What is a “difficult rabbit?”
Aggressive? Cranky? Nippy? Destructive? These are all traits we humans find difficult to understand and deal with. In most cases, rabbits have a genuine reason for acting the way they do. Perhaps their history dealt them neglect and they are now mistrustful, maybe they have not been fixed yet and their hormones are playing a part, or maybe their human is untrained or unwilling to understand their needs.
First, have your rabbit examined by a rabbit-experienced vet. Once in a while, aggression can be related to a health concern such as an imbedded foxtail, ear mites or other health concerns. Next, it’s important to realize that what we view as aggression is simply “communication” from the rabbit’s point of view. Since rabbits cannot bark or meow, they may nip to communicate. This communication may be telling you to put them down or even to pet them more – it’s a way to get your attention and it usually works! They may nudge or dig at you first and if that does not get the desired effect, the nip is next. Some rabbits act aggressively out of fear and some rabbits are territorial of their space. Sometimes these behaviors can be overcome, but most likely you will need to learn how to approach the rabbit in a way that will not provoke this behavior. This is for your benefit as well as hers.
If she is cage protective, try opening the cage door and letting her come out on her own, not removing her from the cage. If your cage does not have a side door, purchase an appropriate cage for her needs. Be sure to let her out of the cage when you fill the food bowls or clean the litter box. Don’t provoke her by doing these things while she is in her cage. Spaying or neutering your rabbit will also help diminish cage-protective tendencies. Another tip is to try setting her up in a large exercise pen instead of a cage and make sure she has plenty of run time each day to burn off excess energy. If the aggressive response is fear based, try limiting her freedom at first to a small space such as one room or even a cage with a pen around it. Add several hidey-boxes or chairs that she can go under to feel secure, but not hide from you completely as might be the case if she can get under a bed. Let her approach you on her terms. Do not chase her to pet her.
Another common provocation is to present your hand for a rabbit to smell as you might do with a dog. To a rabbit, this is very confusing and may instigate a slap with her front paws or a growl. The reason behind this is that rabbits do not see well close-up so your hand is startling to them. Ever notice that a chunk of carrot set down close to their face gets bumped and passed over until they realize exactly where it is? In short, do not present your hand to a rabbit. If you want to pet her, place your hand firmly on top of her head and pet her. Hesitant motions are confusing to a rabbit. Even strange smells or smells of another rabbit can make your rabbit act in ways he would not otherwise act. Hand lotion, perfume and another bunny’s scent are all possible annoyances.
Is she aggressive or just playing? As Amy Espie writes, “Play behaviors in animals (humans included) have several functions. One is for youngsters to practice skills they will need as adults. Kittens’ primary games are Chase it, Catch it and Kill it. Bunnies, being low on the food chain, play Elude the Captor, as well as Court the Potential Mate, and a variety of King (or Queen) of the Warren games. Thumper may invite you to chase him by zooming up to you, nipping or nudging your ankle, then racing off with a sassy switching of his tail. He may further entice you by shaking his head.” Remember, nipping is communication. This tiny little being is not necessarily coming after you aggressively.
If you are bitten by your furry friend, try letting out a shrill EEEKK !! See what her response is. Sometimes no response works well, too, depending on the rabbit. If you let her growl and paw at you, she may eventually realize that you are not intimidated and that she is not getting the desired effect. This may take time and more bravery on your part, but it’s worth a try. Try to determine though if either of these responses is more stressful to her. Observe what works the best for you and your rabbit.
Never hit a rabbit! This will only make her more aggressive or do bodily harm. Swatting her on the nose is also a no-no. You need to provide a safe and reassuring environment, not an environment where she is fearful.
Getting bitten can be frightening, but understanding and anticipating your rabbit’s needs is the best defense. Particularly destructive rabbits need a job. If your rabbit seems to chew everything in sight, your first step is to bunny-proof your home and then offer different toys to keep her entertained. It will also help to limit her freedom at first and give her a structured, regular routine. Sadly, we get calls from people who have given their rabbit total freedom in the house and, of course, the rabbit has destroyed the walls, carpet – you name it. End result? They want us to take their rabbit. The better solution is to spend time training your rabbit. Let her know what is acceptable to chew, and provide many chewing options. And, set the rules early on so you don’t have to spend time undoing bad habits.
Age plays a role here too, and rabbits usually mellow a bit after the first couple of years, so hang in there! The first time your rabbit seeks you out without the enticement of banana, allows you to pet her without a grumpy growl, or hops onto the couch to see what you are doing, you’ll know you are on the right track and that she now feels more comfortable in your presence.
Gaining the trust of a shy rabbit will take time, but it will be very rewarding to see his personality blossom. Gaining the respect of a “difficult rabbit” will not be easy, but if you take the time to understand rabbit behavior, your rabbits history and his current situation with you, you should find yourself at a point of mutual respect while having a greater understanding of this precious and complex animal.
By Michelle Wilhelms, San Diego HRS
Browse the websites listed below if you would like more insight, tips and ideas on the topics discussed in this article.
Great rabbit toys and ideas can be found at: www.bunnybytes.com www.busybunny.com wwwwww.catsandrabbitsandmore.com/products www.forotherlivingthings.com
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Keeping Company With Rabbits
Are rabbits soft and fuzzy? Most definitely. Are rabbits as cuddly as they look? Not necessarily. Is a rabbit more like a cat or a dog? Neither. A rabbit is like a rabbit.
Are you expecting your rabbit to come running when called? They seldom do. However, having a carrot in hand may help. I have learned to call my rabbits out from under the bed about 10 minutes before I need them. They seem to show up "on time" this way.
Are you expecting your rabbit to curl up on your lap and sit with you? He probably won't. He may nudge your leg while you sit on the couch, expecting you to move over or pet him. Perhaps he will jump up and sit with you, allow you to pet him, and then scamper off just moments later.
Do you want to hold your bunny for hours? Well, most don't want to be held for hours. Most prefer you to be on the floor and meet them on their level. The floor is where your rabbit will allow you to snuggle with him and show your affections. This is where he is most comfortable.
The first rule in communicating with a rabbit is to get down on the floor. The second rule is also to get down on the floor. Rabbits need to be approached at their level–the floor. Spend time getting to know him where he is comfortable. If he seems to avoid you at first, spend time just sitting quietly on the floor, not approaching him, not trying to pick him up. Rabbits are naturally wary, but also naturally curious. Eventually curiosity will win out and your rabbit will come over to investigate you.
Try snuggling close, face to face. When he feels comfortable with you, he may allow you to pick him up. Do not rush this introduction. Remember, a rabbit is an animal of prey, and it may take time for him to gain trust in you. The first time he nudges you or grooms you, the process of trust has begun and a special honor has been bestowed upon you: He is communicating with you as he would communicate with a fellow rabbit.
As with any animal, or humans for that matter, each has his or her own personality. Some are active and crave attention. Some are shy or aloof. If a rabbit is shy, you need to make the effort to interact with him. Although shy rabbits may become more sociable with time, do not expect a different personality. This seemingly reserved behavior is actually more common and "rabbit-like" than the interactive rabbit of folklore who plays with the children.
Most important, love your rabbit. Whoever he or she is, whatever the color, markings, direction of ears, habits or personality, all are of value and deserve our love and companionship. Each will enrich your life in his or her own special way.
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Why Does My Rabbit Do That?
Are you confused about why your rabbit acts the way he does? The following descriptions may help you understand your rabbit companion.
Begging: Begging is sooo cute and extremely hard to resist. Rabbits may press their nose through the cage wire or run circles around your feet if you are holding a banana. Some sit up on the toes of their rear feet, stretching towards the delightful smell that has caught their attention.
Rabbits are born with the knowledge that being cute will get them whatever they want. To accommodate the begging rabbit (and the rabbit owner's inability to resist), I recommend psychological treats. For instance, a 1/2-inch slice of carrot can be cut into four pieces and given to the rabbit at four different times throughout the day.
Chewing cords: There are several theories as to why rabbits are attracted to p hone cords, antenna cords, cable TV cords, lamp cords, etc. One theory is that they are attracted by the vibration from the electricity. Another theory is that the electricity makes a noise that is audible to the rabbit. Or could it be that the plastic that encloses the electrical wires tastes good? Who's to know? Whatever the reason, it's simply not safe to leave a rabbit alone in a non-rabbit-proofed room.
Flexible plastic tubing (like that used in fish tanks, but a larger diameter) is one of the easiest ways to protect cords. The tubing can be sliced length-wise with a utility knife and the cord pushed inside. A few rabbits will continue to chew on the plastic tubing, but this provides the time necessary to let the rabbit know (by clapping or stomping along with a verbal NO) that it is not appropriate to chew on the tubing. The plastic tubing can be replaced, if necessary, since it's much easier to replace tubing than to find out that the only phone in the house has been suddenly disconnected. And, of course, the rabbit and the house could both burn down if an electrical short were to occur.
Chewing wood: For pure chewing enjoyment and immense pleasure, there's nothing better than a nice piece of soft wood to gnaw on...for some rabbits. Many of my rabbits aren't the least bit interested in a piece of plain old wood and many never gnaw. But most do love a good piece of apple tree twig and will gnaw the bark from the twig as though it were a delicious treat. (Caution: Not to be fed are branches from apricot, cherry, peach, plum and redwood trees, listed as toxic by poison centers.)
Gnawing is not necessary to keep their constantly growing teeth under control.* Some of my rabbits eat only Timothy hay and pellets, refusing all wood, and have perfectly good teeth. Gnawing seems to be more of a recreational activity than anything else, and attention can be diverted from a chair leg to an appropriate piece of wood or to a cardboard box by consistent and diligent action.
*An exception might be when a rabbit has a slight malocclusion. Often if you can encourage these rabbits to gnaw on wood or carrots, you can avoid clipping/filing teeth or perhaps lengthen the time between clipping.
Chinning: Claiming possessions is done by chinning. Rabbits use their chin (as cats used their foreheads) to mark objects with a scent that we humans are not able to detect. In addition to all of my furniture, rabbits have claimed my arms, face and shoes.
Circling: This often means it's time to be spayed or neutered. Circling is part of a rabbit's courting behavior and is sometimes accompanied by a soft honking or oinking. Circling can also be a way to ask for food or attention from human companions.
Dancing: The House Rabbit Handbook describes dancing as a "frolicking series of sideways kicks and mid-air leaps accompanied by a few head shakes and body gyrations." That pretty well sums it up. The bunny dance is something done to indicate happiness, contentment and a great frame of mind.
Don't touch my stuff: Rabbits are often displeased when you rearrange their cage as you clean. They are creatures of habit and when they get things just right, they like them to stay that way.
Grunting: Grunts are often any reactions to a human behavior, or toward another rabbit. Watch out, or you could be bitten. However, I do have rabbits who grunt their disapproval when I pick them up or when I annoy them by touching their whiskers and that's the extend of their anger.
Lunging: This frequently occurs when you reach into the cage to clean, give food or to take the rabbit out. It also is a form of attack used against another rabbit. Getting the rabbit accustomed to whatever is occurring is the solution. In the meantime, I always place my hand on the rabbit's head while performing the task.
Playing: Rabbits like to push or toss objects around. They may also race madly around the house, jump on and off the couch and act like a kid who's had too much sugar.
Pulling hair from chest or legs. Pseudo-pregnancy occurs in un-spayed females living with neutered males (or spayed females living with un-neutered males). These females will occasionally think that they are pregnant and may build nests. They may even stop eating as rabbits do the day before they give birth. I've not observed this when all rabbits who live together are neutered.
Shedding: Rabbits shed the same as do all animals with fur. From my experience here in the northwest, rabbits shed every three months. They have alternate heavy and light sheds. When people tell me that "my rabbit sheds all of the time, " I know that they do not understand the importance of combing/bushing when each shed occurs. Generally it may take two weeks for a rabbit to complete his shed if the owner has combed and brushed the rabbit. Occasionally, a rabbit who will normally shed in about two weeks will shed for a longer period even with daily combing.
Sniffling: May be annoyed or just talking to you.
Spraying: Males who are not neutered will mark female rabbits in this manner, as well as their territory. Females may also spray.
Teeth grinding: This is a sign of contentment and happiness. It is a very light grinding sound and, when placing your hand on the side of her face, it will feel like a vibration from the molars. The eyes are often half closed.
Teeth chattering or crunching: This is much louder than teeth grinding and indicates pain. The rabbit often sits in a hunched up position with ears pressed against his body.
Territory droppings: Droppings that are not in a pile, but are scattered, are a sign of territoriality. This will often occur upon entrance into a new environment and is more persistent with unaltered rabbits. If another rabbit lives separately in the house this may always be a nuisance.
Throwing: Rabbits will throw anything that they can pick up with their teeth. Often owners complain about food and water bowls being turned upside down, causing a mess. A bowl is just another toy to a rabbit. Whether it's full or empty, if she decides to play and a bowl is available, she'll toss it. Bowls need to be the heavy ceramic type, or lighter bowls can be fastened to cages with a large clamp.
Thumping: "Thumper" of cartoon fame thumps many times in rapid succession before taking off for safety. That's not the way real rabbits thump. Rabbits stand on all four feet, in a somewhat tip-toe position, with their ears alert, then lift their rear feet and thump! to warn everyone in the warren (including humans) that there is "danger," in the rabbit's opinion. They may remain in the thumping posture until convinced that the danger is gone. The length of time between thumps can vary from a few seconds to a couple of minutes and may last an extended period of time (even an hour or more). This "danger" could be a furnace, refrigerator or other electrical appliance turning on or a lit cigarette when they are not used to the smoke. "Danger" could be the shadow of a bird flying across the moon or a cat walking on the window sill chasing a shadow on the floor. Thumping can occur day or night and is the rabbit's attempt to save everyone from a terrible fate.
A rabbit who is exhibiting continual thumping can die from fright and should be reassured and comforted as soon as possible.
As an expression of anger, I am sometimes given a thump when I return a rabbit to his cage after an exercise period. He either doesn't want to return (thump!) or would rather do it himself (thump!). When not at all pleased with what has just happened, a thump is often in order. For instance, when he thinks he should have another piece of fruit, and instead, I eat it myself (thump!).
By Sandi Ackerman, HRS Educator & Washington State Chapter Manager
Originally published in the Rabbit Health News, August 1993
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