It's not always obvious when rabbits are in distress, but clear signs that your bunnies are experiencing fear include crouching down or hiding, restlessness, squealing, grunting and heavy breathing. Thumping the ground with their feet is also typical. In the wild, a rabbit would do this to warn underground rabbits that danger is approaching. While you can help your pet rabbits become less afraid of everyday sounds and experiences, you can't shield them from scary experiences entirely and there will be times when they show fear of something new. Socialisation while a rabbit is still young is beneficial and Mairwen Guard, who runs Cottontails rabbit rescue centre, has noticed that many baby rabbits learn from their own mother that most things are not going to harm them. Some baby rabbits in a litter are also simply born less fearful than their siblings. 'Experience and association definitely have an impact on behaviour, but genetics seem to be involved too,' she explains.
Rabbits use their superb sense of smell, their long-distance vision and their sensitive hearing to alert them to potential danger. So anything that affects their primary senses, sight, sound and smell, can trigger a fear reaction. 'Bunnies are very sensitive to strong scents, so when you're stroking or handling your rabbits, you could be introducing some unfamiliar, and potentially frightening, scent profiles,' says clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby. 'The use of chemicals and cleaners can be another reason why a trip to the vet is especially scary for rabbits.'
If a bunny's hearing is affected in any way, they can also become jumpy. 'We do rescue quite a few deaf or partially deaf rabbits and they'll react with a jump when something appears right beside them, especially at night,' says Mairwen. 'Putting on an outside light can be helpful, as the rabbits can see there's nothing out there to frighten them. Sometimes, it's better not to put a cover over the front of a hutch for the same reason.'
Fears of the unexpected
Many simple things frighten rabbits if they've never experienced them before. 'Anything that could be a potential predator will cause a real fear response. This includes fast or sudden movements, things towering over them (even an owner), or someone trying to pick them up,' says Rosie.Even the wind can be frightening. 'It makes things bang suddenly and flap alarmingly, and severe gusts can make it difficult for bunnies to stay upright,' explains Mairwen. It can affect their ability to hear, too. 'The wind can appear to change the direction of external noises, making a rabbit feel vulnerable and on-edge. Scents are harder to detect for the same reason,' adds Rosie.
Benefits of socialisation
Gentle handling in the first four to six weeks of a rabbit's life can help to reduce its fear reactions as an adult. 'It's also better for baby rabbits to be exposed to new experiences in the company of their mother and siblings,' says Rosie. 'But only if the mother doesn't react fearfully herself.'
Mairwen currently has a ten-month-old Californian rabbit called Bessy who was very nervous when she first arrived. 'I only had to look out of the window for her to scarper into the sleeping area until she thought the threat had passed. She reacted strongly to anything that moved unexpectedly (including me walking past) and any sounds she didn't recognise.
'Over the next few days, she gradually became used to the activity around her and now, unless I make a lot of noise, she pretends to be bored by what's going on, although she's still very watchful.'
When a rabbit is exceptionally fearful of something, both Mairwen and Rosie recommend a process of desensitisation, but remind owners that it takes time and patience. Before you begin, you'll also need to make sure that all of your rabbits' primary needs such as companionship, space, diet and enrichment are being met, in order to rule out the possibility that something else is causing their stressful reactions.
'Start by calmly increasing the stimuli your bunnies are fearful of in a non-threatening way, and always provide a safe bolt-hole (such as a cosy, covered area) for them to withdraw to,' explains Mairwen. For example, if your rabbits are afraid of someone walking past their hutch, do so calmly and slowly a couple of times a day.
'Anxiety reduction needs a very rabbit-friendly environment where the bunnies always have control over their interactions with humans,' Rosie says. 'It's also important that your rabbits are only exposed to scary things in these kinds of controlled conditions. If they do happen to be frightened unexpectedly, you'll run the risk of undoing all your hard work.'
Rosie also suggests pairing the scary stimuli with something positive, food treats work well, to help your rabbits to relax and make happy associations.