Rabbits can sometimes display aggressive or territorial behaviour. It is important to understand the reasons behind a rabbit’s aggressive behaviour so that you can address it and prevent them from becoming distressed.
Rabbits can’t communicate with us verbally, but they have plenty of non-verbal cues and body language signals that they use to help us understand their needs and figure out if there’s something wrong. In many cases, what might seem like aggression is actually just defensive behaviour that your rabbit is exhibiting in response to feeling afraid or overwhelmed.
For example, bunnies experiencing fear might crouch down or hide, grunt or even scream. If your own rabbit behaves in this way, they are telling you they are frightened. Screaming is a behaviour of last resort for rabbits, so a rabbit screaming is an indicator of extreme fear. If you try to pick up a frightened rabbit, you could cause them to panic further and try to bite or scratch you.
Similarly, when a rabbit is stressed or overwhelmed, they can show a number of behaviours that might seem aggressive, and which could lead to you being injured and the bond between you and your rabbit breaking down. By exploring the possible reasons why your rabbit is being aggressive, you can take action to prevent this behaviour and help calm them when they become distressed.
What are the signs of rabbit aggression?
In the wild, rabbits are prey animals, and their natural instinct is to be alert. Fear and pain are the two most common underlying causes of aggression in rabbits. When a rabbit feels threatened, or is in pain, their ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. Instead of fleeing from the source of their fear or pain, a rabbit may feel trapped and resort to attacking.
Once they are in ‘fight’ mode, your rabbit may:
- Sit up and raise their front paws like a boxer
- Bare their teeth, bite, lunge or nip
- Use their back legs to thump the ground loudly, or
- Move away while flicking their back feet at the source of the threat.
Your rabbit’s ears will likely be pointed straight upwards (or face outwards for lops), although they might also remain flat against their head. In both cases, their bodies will be tensed, their tail will be raised and their pupils will be dilated. They will breathe faster and their nose will twitch more quickly. When you spot these behaviours, it’s important to give your rabbit space and time to calm down. Forcing physical contact between you and them by trying to stroke them, or by attempting to pick them up, could result in an injury, as well as further distress for your bunny.
Along with pain and fear, hormones can be another cause of rabbit aggression. During the springtime, rabbits can become more aggressive towards humans, as well as their rabbit companions, because of hormonal changes. Spring is rabbits’ natural breeding season and their aggression is related to their desire to defend their territory and warn off rivals. Neutering should reduce hormonal aggression in rabbits.
Why do rabbits bite?
Happy rabbits aren’t generally aggressive, but even the happiest bunnies may lunge, bite or give a sharp nip if they feel threatened. To understand why rabbits bite, it’s important to know what’s natural for your own bunny – and, importantly, to review how you’re behaving towards them.
If you chase your rabbits, loom over them while they’re in their shelter or restrain them in some way, they will get scared. Likewise, if you try to grab them because you’re excited to pet them and make friends, they can attack due to panic. We are significantly larger than our bunnies, and our size and strength can make rabbits feel as though they have to fight for their lives.
If a rabbit doesn’t have enough space, or if they don’t have places to retreat to and feel safe, they’ll feel that they have little choice but to lash out.
How to create a safe environment for rabbits
Rabbits will feel less anxious when they have the company of a neutered companion. It’s also important to ensure that your rabbits feel settled in their territory and have plenty of space – including hiding spaces that you don’t disturb. There should be at least one hiding space per rabbit, with each of these hiding spaces having two exit points so that the rabbits do not feel trapped.
Go slowly with your interactions. Always approach your rabbits quietly and calmly, making soothing noises and taking care not to make any sudden movements that could startle them.
Ideally, train your bunny to like to be handled, or re-train them if they’re showing signs that they don’t enjoy being handled. Sit or crouch down beside them and let them come to you, perhaps by offering a treat or a handful of leafy greens to help gain their trust.
Pay attention to your rabbit’s body language and respect when they’re not happy or don’t want to be disturbed. Handle them gently in all interactions, and give them plenty of love, attention and strokes to bond and build trust.
How to prevent aggression in your rabbit
The best way to prevent aggressive episodes is to give your rabbits the freedom to choose whether to interact with you – or not – on any particular occasion. That way, you will reduce any fear and meet their individual need to be an independent creature.
Remember, aggression might be a call for help, or it may simply be the result of your rabbit feeling overwhelmed. Your rabbit doesn’t want to hurt you; they are just scared. You should never grab your rabbit or treat them roughly, even if they have hurt you. This will cause them to become more scared of you and increase the risk of aggression.
Aggression can also be a sign that your rabbit is suffering. As a prey animal, rabbits will often mask symptoms until it’s nearly too late. So, if your previously friendly rabbit has now become unfriendly, take them to the vet for a check-up. In the worst-case scenario, your rabbit could be in pain with their teeth, gut or legs, or another health condition.
Aggressive tendencies in rabbits are unlikely to go away on their own. If you need further advice on dealing with rabbit aggression, consider contacting the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund or a behaviourist registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.