Allowing your rabbit the freedom to express 'normal' behaviour is a fundamental legal requirement by you, to your rabbit, under the Animal Welfare Act.
But what is 'normal' behaviour for a rabbit?
Spot the Difference
By learning what your rabbits do on a daily basis and how they act when they are happy, will make it easier to detect the more concerning rabbit behaviour.
Sometimes the signs are very subtle and can't always be spotted.
Understanding rabbit behaviour is probably the most fundamental aspect of keeping rabbits successfully.
Here are some great ways you can educate yourself and give your rabbit(s) the opportunity to behave in a way that is natural to them, as a species:
Freedom of Expression
The law states that for any domestic animal, their basic requirements are food, water, space and exercise but rabbits also need to be allowed to act in a way that is natural for them.
They need to dig, hide, run, jump, stretch, rummage, play and most importantly socialize.
If your rabbits aren't given the freedom to express themselves they
will start behaving differently.
Rabbit behaviour can be very simply interpreted if you understand that most of their body language, vocalizations and 'traits' have evolved from their wild ancestors.
Handed Down in the Genes
Many rabbit behaviours are traits that helped their wild ancestors survive. If you understand rabbits from this context, it will help you plan the best life for your rabbit.
Remember always that rabbits are prey animals and are used to being hunted from every direction!
Most of the 'survival' traits that can be observed in wild rabbits are still present in domesticated pet rabbits.
For example rabbits like to have a
clear 'escape' route at all times. If 'stuff' is in their normal run or
route to their 'safe place' it will get tossed, chewed, dug at, bitten
etc. until it is destroyed or removed.
However, we can understand these basic signals of communication if we just read the signs and act accordingly.
Some rabbit behaviour can be seen on a daily basis and is perfectly normal...
A healthy, happy rabbit will groom itself, other bonded rabbits and even you. Not only is it good hygiene but it is also a sign of affection.
However, watch out for over-grooming, especially with a rabbit on their own, it could be a sign of boredom and depression.
Rolling on Side
Rolling over and lying on their side or back with their eyes closed is a sign your rabbit is very relaxed and happy.
They flop down really quickly sometimes but a floppy bunny in this case is a contented one!
Apart from the obvious, when a male rabbit mounts another rabbit or even your foot, he, (or she), is either trying to mate or is displaying dominance.
A female rabbit may mount a male rabbit to display dominance.
Rabbits produce two types of droppings - the hard fecal pellets that you see them poop during the day, and the soft, caecal pellets that they poop out at night and take directly from their bottom and eat.
Sometimes this type of rabbit behaviour can shock or mystify the new rabbit owner, but it is perfectly normal and is your rabbit's way of maximising the value of its food by taking out more nutrients from the droppings as they pass through their body again.
Rabbits droppings can indicate the early signs of illness. If you are worried Ask an Expert Vet for their opinion here...
Acrobatics or 'Binkys'
Rabbits play and get rid of excess energy by running fast, leaping around and twisting their body in mid-air.
Energetic rabbit behaviour should be encouraged. A jumping bunny is a great sign that your rabbit is a happy one!
Ensure your rabbits have plenty of space to express themselves.
When a rabbit stands up on its back feet it is trying to get a better view of its surroundings.
It may be trying to get your attention or reach for food that you are holding.
Make every effort to ensure your rabbits have access to a large area to exercise during their most active periods (early morning, late afternoon and overnight).
A secure living environment is very important and should be large enough for them to exercise in and stand up in.
Head Flat On Ground
This is one of my favourite signs of a happy bunny.
Lying with their head down flat is a sign of submission or a request for continued grooming or stroking from another rabbit or yourself.
Grooming is just a small part of the important interaction with others that rabbits need.
Normally only the tip of a rabbit's tail can be seen. When a rabbit is curious and leaning forward with pricked ears, its tail will extrude further. When a rabbit is excited its tail will rise higher up its back. When a rabbit is about to attack or wants to mate it may flick its tail from side to side.
A light grinding or 'munching' of teeth indicates your rabbit is happy, for example when you are stroking them. A heavier grinding can indicate pain or discomfort and will generally be accompanied by other symptoms.
The rabbit behaviour of nudging is quite normal. A rabbit will nudge you lightly with their nose to get your attention or nudge you more forcefully to get you to go away or stop doing something to them.
A female rabbit will sometimes make a growling noise when you are interfering with her space, for example cleaning out her litter tray. She may also lunge at you with her front feet - this is a territorial thing but she is unlikely to bite you.
A rabbit will rub the underside of its chin against something to mark it with its scent and claim their territory. A rabbit may even chin a human. Scent is an important means of communication for rabbits.
A rabbit will thump a hind foot on the ground when it feels there is danger around, to warn other rabbits. Un-neutered males also use it as a sign of wanting to mate. De-sexed rabbits may use it as a sign of annoyance.
Honking or Grunting
A little exhalation of breath, another sign of wanting to mate. Males and females may continue to honk even after neutering.
When your rabbit runs around your feet or around another rabbit, he is displaying his intention to mate or is trying to get your attention.
Circling can go on a long time too, sometimes males that are not neutered will run around their object of desire (you or another rabbit), in one direction up to 10 times or more, then they run round in the opposite direction for the same number of circles. This is them laying claim to the rabbit or you, in the centre, as their sexual property.
OK, So we know what's normal rabbit behaviour, but what about the grouchy rabbits, what if your bunny bites, kicks, scratches or lunges at you? What if they've gone off their food, what if they've stopped coming out?
that a rabbit may be suffering from stress or fear can be fairly obvious sometimes but some rabbit behaviour of this nature is difficult to spot. Here are some basic signs to watch out for:
All of those are good indications that your rabbit may be upset about something.
Here's some more signs to look out for and what you can do to avoid your rabbit being upset...
A sign that your rabbit is too hot, overweight or ill. Rabbits can't cope when it's very hot and can very quickly overheat. Heat stroke can occur when a rabbit is exposed to high temperatures, even for a short period of time. Direct sunlight or even sitting next to a heat source like a radiator can cause heat exhaustion.
If you don't move your rabbit to a cooler, shadier position it can be fatal.
Excessive grooming or fur pulling can be due to boredom.
This can sometimes lead to a risk of hairballs forming in the gut.
The easiest solution is to feed your rabbit more hay - not only will this reduce the boredom, it will help the rabbit maintain a healthy digestive system and thus reduce the risk of hairballs.
You can also provide more toys!
A bored rabbit will often overeat, leading to an overweight, unhappy rabbit if the food it is eating is mostly dry food or vegetables.
However, rabbits cannot overeat hay - the more the better - so give your rabbit plenty of hay while keeping its dry food and vegetables to a minimum.
Providing your rabbits with constant access to good quality hay is important for their emotional wellbeing as well as their dental and digestive health.
A good rabbit diet is probably the most important and fundamental aspect of your bunnies care, health and well-being. You are required by law to provide it! Oh my goodness! You better look at this then...
Let's hope you never hear this as a rabbit will only scream or squeal if they are in extreme pain, anger or fear e.g. when it has been caught by a predator or hurt badly.
The sound is very high in pitch and unless you actually see the rabbit screaming, you might not assume a noise like that would come from them at all. I liken it to a cross between a young child and a pig - it's truly awful.
However there are some nice sounds too.
This is most likely caused by overgrown teeth, leading to the rabbit dribbling food or saliva down its chin.
You will need to check their teeth and get them seen to by a vet if they are too long.
If not treated your rabbit will not be able to eat and will die.
As they are a prey species, rabbits need to be able to hide in a secure place, away from the sight and smell of predators (e.g. foxes, cats, dogs, ferrets and birds of prey).
However, if your rabbit is hiding all the time, even at their most active times of the day (early morning and dusk), then it could be a sign that something is wrong. They may not like the company they are keeping or could be getting bullied.
They could be ill from eating something poisonous or too much of one food that is bad for their digestive system, e.g. carrots, apples & muesli. Check you're giving your rabbits safe foods.
Recognising sickness, injury, pain or suffering, is very difficult with rabbits.
With this in mind, I have dedicated a special page to help you spot these signs of stress, with behaviour descriptions, causes and solutions.
I believe this is a vital part of understanding rabbits and knowing these basic points go a long way to successfully raising and living with, healthy, happy rabbits!
'Don't Give Up On Them Baby'
Some habits are perfectly normal in a rabbit's mind but you might find them a tad annoying. When a rabbit becomes a little bit annoying it can trigger some of the most common reasons why most new rabbit owners give up on their bunny in the first few months of ownership.
However, most of the annoying little 'rabbity' things they do have evolved from their natural rabbit behaviour in the wild, so that's their excuse.
However most of nibbly, niggly stuff can be 'trained away'... Yes that's right, you can train them to stop by distraction, alternative stimulation and rewards - make it fun!Chewing, Nibbling, Digging & Biting Rabbits
This is really only a problem for house rabbit owners in terms of damage to their furniture and carpets. However, hutch rabbits also love to chew, nibble and dig. They need to. Outdoor rabbits spend a lot of time away from the company of others so their need for stimulation may be far greater than that of an indoor bunny that has the benefit of a companion or other pets all day.
It is important to recognize this need in hutch rabbits and give them toys and the chance to exercise and play. If you have a house rabbit with no restrictions on its freedom, a certain amount of damage may be inevitable.
However, there are many things you can do to reduce destructive rabbit behaviour of this kind.
Rabbit behaviour can also be heard. Rabbits have a vocal language all of their own. They make unusual rabbit noises and special rabbit sounds. And fortunately we can understand the basics of what they are trying to say.
Rabbits may have their own language, but rabbit breeders and others associated with rabbitry also use many terms and words to describe their passion.
- at least I think it is!
Rabbit behaviour can be generalized but there are a great many factors to consider when assessing a rabbit's behaviour. There are age factors, personality traits, habits and trauma related behaviour from past experiences to consider as well.
If you are unsure about a specific rabbit behaviour or if your rabbit's behaviour becomes an ongoing problem, seek expert advice from a reputable vet. More on Vets here...
In some cases, especially with naughty rabbits, bad behaviour may make you tempted to scold them, shout at them or maybe even bop them on the nose like you would a dog. You may even want to punish them like a child and remove their treats etc.
ALL OF THESE WOULD BE WRONG.
You should never shout at or punish your rabbits, they DO NOT UNDERSTAND these methods of punishment and can become more nervous or scared.
In fact I don't recommend punishment of any kind for any animal or child. Rewarding good behaviour is always the better option for any species!
This page offers some great advice about handling rabbits and gaining their trust - it's a two way street remember!
Rabbits have very distinctive personalities and their little tricks and troublesome behaviour always makes me smile. They really do have a mind of their own!
Does your rabbit do any strange things?
I love to hear about them, so would visitors to this page. By learning from each other we can build up a good portfolio of rabbit behaviour - the more we learn, the more we can help rabbits have a much better way of life. So, please share!
Share your views, points, tit-bits and tales! (Remember, you don't have to have a Facebook account to make a comment.)
All input is good, no matter how small ;-) Thank-you.