Rabbits are extremely expressive and display their emotions in pronounced ways that make it easier for their owners to understand their behaviour. Here are some of the ways you can decode that body language so you know what your rabbit is trying to say.
They might seem quiet and mild, but rabbits are full of personality – and they’re not shy about letting you know exactly what they think, either.
Yet, because they don’t bark, meow, yelp or otherwise make verbal noise, it can be difficult to understand what your bunny is saying with their dramatic actions. They have a complex language all of their own, and observing their behaviour – or ‘reading’ your rabbits’ body language – is one of the joys of sharing your home together.
Decoding your rabbits’ body language
The sheer joy of a binky
It can be disconcerting the first time you see your rabbit binky, but this little expression is the ultimate sign of happiness shown by rabbits when exercising. Binkying is slightly different to hopping, which is the general rabbit mode of movement. The binky jump will often be higher, and can include twisting in the air, ear flicking and head flipping. It’s a rabbit’s way of telling you they are rather pleased with their life. But don’t worry if your rabbit doesn’t binky much at all; like humans, some just have more expressive personalities.
Kicking and thumping
Think of rabbits out in the wild: they are prey animals, always on the alert for danger, yet unable to communicate verbally. That’s where stamping or thumping comes in: they use this body language to tell others they are feeling threatened. If your bunny thumps their back legs, it usually means they have heard or seen something they believe could be harmful. They could also thump at you to show their displeasure: “Not like that, Two-Feet!”
Unlike the warning provided by thumping, a rabbit that is kicking and scratching is showing signs of fear or frustration. It’s their gut instinct to fight for survival kicking in, and those long claws and powerful back legs are a rabbit’s best chance. Kicking can also indicate pain. Make sure you’re getting regular check-ups with your vet to ensure your rabbit is not unwell or suffering from any condition that may make handling uncomfortable.
Up and down
When your rabbit is feeling anxious, they’ll crouch down with tense muscles, almost like they’re trying to curl into a ball and become invisible. Conversely, if they sit upright on their back legs with paws up facing towards you, they are displaying boxer behaviour. It’s safe to say this means they are angry, and you would be best backing off.
The bunny flop
A good sign when it comes to rabbit body language is the bunny flop: they are upright one minute, then flat on their side the next. This can be very comical and indicates a contented bunny.
Keep an eye on the ears
The ears are the key to much rabbit body language, whether lop or not:
- Both ears up with the inside facing forward means your rabbit is happy and in a sociable mood.
- Both ears laid back, accompanied by a stiff body position, means they are worried about something.
- Both ears up with the inside turned back says ‘Stay away, please’ – your rabbit is not in the friendliest of moods.
To see rabbit body language in action, check out our fun video.
Have you discovered the rabbit love of chewing on furniture, wood, cardboard, skirting boards…? It’s not necessarily a sign they are in destructive mode. Rabbit teeth grow continuously, and chewing prevents them from overgrowing. Chewing is a natural activity for rabbits, which is why vets recommend providing things for your rabbit to chew on. Just keep them away from wires!
What’s that sound?
And while rabbits aren’t verbal, the sounds they do make can be a sign that things aren’t right for them.
When your rabbit is angry, feels threatened or wants to show disapproval, they will give a little grunt. If they’re in pain or experiencing discomfort, they’ll grind their teeth – although teeth grinding can also be a sign of contentment, like a cat’s purring.
Worst of all is the rabbit scream – this is a sign of severe pain and/or fear, and they need immediate attention.
…And that smell?
Rabbit urine has a very distinct odour, and rabbits like to spray that odour around to mark their territory. It’s important to distinguish whether your rabbit is spraying or urinating inappropriately. The latter can be caused by something more serious and will need veterinary attention. Rabbits will often spray on vertical surfaces with a stronger odour, but tend to display inappropriate urination on horizontal surfaces. Get your rabbit neutered to reduce the chances of territory marking.
The impact of fertility and hormones on rabbit body language
Just like their human friends, rabbit behaviour can be greatly impacted by hormones. If your female rabbit seems moody, is gaining weight or eating more than usual, you guessed it, she might be pregnant. A pregnant rabbit can also be aggressive and reluctant to be handled. As she gets closer to giving birth, you might notice her creating a nest in her enclosure, and pulling her fur to line the nest.
Spaying or castrating your rabbits is the only way to avoid unexpected new arrivals. Aggressive behaviour is common among rabbits that have not been neutered, and 80% of unneutered female rabbits encounter reproductive complications at some point. It is always recommended to neuter your rabbits so two or more can live happily together. It is very important for a rabbit’s welfare that they do not live alone.
What does abnormal behaviour in rabbits look like?
The short answer is that abnormal behaviour is something that your rabbit doesn’t usually do. All rabbits have unique personalities, and what one thinks is normal might be a sign of strangeness in another. Each rabbit responds to stress and threats in different ways.
‘It’s important to get to know what’s normal for your rabbit, and if that changes in any way, check in with your vet,’ says Pet Sense’s Rosie Bescoby, a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist. ‘Remember that rabbits are prey animals, so they’ll try to hide any issues at first. Get to know them well, and get to know how your rabbit’s body language can be an indicator of both good and bad.’
To find out even more about what your rabbits are trying to tell you, don’t miss our visual guide to understanding rabbit behaviour.
Does your rabbit display any unusual body language? Tell us on social media using#PethoodStories