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Rabbit-Welfare / Back

Understanding Rabbit Behaviour



From the RSPCA [13]
Understanding Rabbit Behaviour




Behaviour can depend on age, personality and past experiences, and can change at certain times, for example if the rabbit is scared or in pain.




Rabbits have many natural predators, meaning they are easily scared and always stay alert to potential dangers. The initial reaction is to freeze, or if the danger is close, run away and hide. Rabbits only tend to fight if they can’t escape and there’s no other option. Rabbits are scared by sudden movements, bright lights, loud noises and strong smells.


Things that can make your rabbit stressed include:

Signs that a rabbit is suffering from fear/stress can include:


SCENT [37]


As prey animals, rabbits are naturally quiet creatures as they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, and try not to show any weaknesses, such as being frightened or in pain. This is one of the reasons why scent is such an important form of communication for rabbits. Scents are deposited by chin secretions, with faeces or by spraying urine. Rabbits have scent glands in their chins, so will often rub against objects, other rabbits, and sometimes people, to mark their territory and deter intruders, or identify their own group or home. It’s common for a rabbit to mark the boundary of their home with droppings and to frequently spray their fellow rabbits with urine.


Undesired behaviour should be ignored, so that your rabbit can learn it doesn't get results. Never shout at or punish your rabbit as it could make them even more frightened, seek advice. If you're worried about your rabbit's behaviour, speak to a vet first, to find out if it's caused by a health related issue because the rabbit is in pain or unwell. If it's not, then you may be referred to a behavioural expert. Just like when choosing your vet, make sure you choose a behaviour expert that has the relevant up to date knowledge and necessary skills. You can find Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB) on the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) website.





Sadly, a lot of rabbits are rehomed or abandoned because they are displaying aggressive behaviour, but most of the time this could be avoided as it’s because the rabbit is misunderstood. As prey animals, wild rabbits are aggressive by nature in order to fight to survive. A rabbit who is not used to being around or handled by people may see their owner as a potential threat when they try to stroke or pick them up. This will trigger a reaction like when they see a predator, and could lead to them turning aggressive. Aggression in this situation indicates that a rabbit is scared and trying to protect themselves. If a rabbit shows aggression when you place your hand in their hutch, it’s because they see it as an invasion of their territory, and they treat it as a threat. They have learnt that acting aggressively makes the thing they’re scared of go away. [39]


There are things you can do to earn the trust of your rabbit and let them know you’re not a threat. For a period of time, stop trying to pick them up and hand feed them treats. Get your rabbit used to having you around. Once they look more relaxed with you, you can try stroking them. This may take time to get to this stage. When your rabbit accepts being stroked, increase the time you spend with them and the areas that you touch. The last stage is to get your rabbit used to being picked up. Learn how to correctly handle a rabbit to avoid them feeling scared. The general rule is that one hand should be supporting the chest, whilst the other hand is under the rabbit’s bottom. Never lift a rabbit by their neck, ears or tail. [38]


Some aggression is hormonal, such as during the Spring (the natural breeding season), or when a female rabbit is pregnant. Unneutered rabbits can also be more aggressive, but should calm down once neutered, as the hormone levels decrease (see Importance of Neutering). [39]


If your rabbit is being aggressive, try to find the reason why. Some rabbits can get aggressive if they are in pain or suffering (another reason why it’s important to do regular check ups to ensure your rabbit isn’t unwell). Ensure your rabbit has enough space, and a sheltered bolthole so they have somewhere they can hide to feel safe from predators and have some time away from us. Remember to give them plenty of space to exercise and stimulation to prevent them becoming frustrated and causing behavioural problems. Try to minimise stressful situations and avoid doing things that could trigger a reaction. But most importantly, give a rabbit time and have patience with them, most perceived aggression is just a defensive reaction to being frightened.





Rabbits are generally quiet animals, but you may hear certain sounds that they use to communicate or express how they’re feeling.