Rabbits in the wild survive by avoiding predators, and your pet bunnies have the same instincts. Here are some of the everyday reasons why a rabbit can be scared and how you can help calm an anxious rabbit.
In the wild, rabbits are prey animals, at risk of being caught and eaten by foxes, birds of prey, snakes, dogs and cats – and humans. To survive, they have to be constantly wary and use their keen senses of sight, hearing and smell to detect potential predators.
Your pet rabbits have the same instincts. Any fast or sudden movements, loud noises, unfamiliar smells or larger creatures – including their owners – can trigger a fear response.
‘We’re predators from a rabbit’s point of view,’ explains clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby, who runs animal behaviour consultancy Pet Sense. ‘The way we interact and our body language around them often doesn’t help with that perception.’
How do I tell if my bunny is scared?
When frightened, rabbits respond in various ways. Look out for these signs that suggest a rabbit is scared:
Freezing – Staying still helps rabbits evade detection by predators. While motionless, they look, listen and smell intently to assess the possible threat. The rabbit will be on all fours, body tense, ready to run if necessary.
Running and hiding – If something looks, sounds or smells dangerous, a rabbit will run away and hide if they can – just like their wild cousins dashing to the safety of a burrow.
Thumping – Wild rabbits thump their back feet on the ground when they feel threatened. The noise alerts other rabbits to the danger, as well as sending a warning to the predator. You might see the same behaviour in your pet.
Vocalising – Bunnies aren’t known for being noisy, but a scared rabbit may growl, grunt or squeal – a warning that says ‘back off’.
Aggression – A frightened rabbit might bite, kick or scratch. Unneutered bunnies are more likely to be aggressive.
Shaking – Like humans, rabbits may tremble with fear. When they (and we) are frightened, a rush of adrenaline – the ‘fight or flight’ hormone – increases their heart rate and makes their muscles twitch. They breathe faster, too.
Flattening – Sometimes a scared rabbit will flatten to the ground, body tense and ears flat. This can be a sign of submission if they encounter a more dominant rabbit.
Grooming or eating issues – A rabbit who feels anxious for a long time might start over-grooming or over- or under-eating. If you spot this sort of stress-induced behaviour, take your bunny to the vet.
What are rabbits afraid of?
‘Rabbits are naturally fearful of anything coming from above, like their predators would. If we bend down to pick them up, that action is scary,’ says Rosie. ‘They also dislike being lifted up, as that’s what happens when they're in a predator’s mouth.’ So, if you’re wondering ‘why is my rabbit scared of me?’, it could be because you’re 30 times their size and behaving in a way they perceive as predatory!
Children can be especially frightening as they tend to be noisy, active and want to grab and hug bunnies. ‘Rabbits are not suitable for lots of handling and cuddling,’ says Rosie. ‘Over-handling and not giving the rabbit any choice will induce fear of people, so they then run away when they see someone approaching.’
It’s not just people and animals that make frightening movements. A sheet billowing on the washing line or their hutch cover flapping in the wind can be scary for a bunny. ‘Think about your rabbits’ environment. Give them plenty of hidey-holes, places to escape to and things to jump up onto or retreat underneath,’ says Rosie.
Unfamiliar smells, such as chemical cleaners or perfume, can also unsettle pet rabbits, and loud and unexpected noises may terrify them. Don’t start the lawnmower or hedge-trimmer beside your rabbits’ enclosure, and if you’re expecting a thunderstorm or fireworks, consider bringing their hutch indoors. If you have house bunnies, you might find your rabbits acting scared of everyday noises like the phone, hairdryer or vacuum cleaner.
How to calm a nervous rabbit
‘The most common rabbit fear is handling,’ says Rosie. ‘We want them to associate us with only good things. So, sit down on the floor, quietly and calmly, with some treats in your lap and let the bunny come to you. You should then be able to gradually build up to touching.’
Rosie recommends picking up rabbits as little as possible. If your rabbits have a hutch and run, they should ideally be able to get from one to the other without being carried.
She stresses the importance of keeping two or more rabbits together. ‘Rabbits are a social species and this helps them feel safer. In the wild, while one bunny grazes or sleeps, another will be alert for dangers. One rabbit on its own can’t fully relax, which raises stress levels.’
Planning to introduce your rabbits to other pets? Rosie suggests a gradual familiarisation. ‘Make sure the rabbits always feel safe,’ she says. ‘Perhaps start with some scent transference, then begin the visual introductions slowly, from a safe distance.
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