If you’re struggling with rabbit aggression and not sure what to do, we can help. We spoke with rabbit behavioural expert Anne McBride and asked her why rabbits bite or become aggressive, what warning signs you might have missed and what to do next.
Our little bundles of fluff can’t bark or meow to warn us, so we need to understand their non-verbal cues and bunny body language to figure out if there’s something wrong. For example, bunnies experiencing fear might crouch down or hide, grunt or scream (and that is not a nice sound at all).
But sometimes bunnies can get aggressive, nipping at you or even biting you.
Never fear: there are reasons why your rabbit is being aggressive, and you can take action to help calm them down.
What are the signs of rabbit aggression?
‘Rabbits are a prey animal, and their natural instinct is to be alert and to hide away,’ says Anne McBride, Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interactions at Southampton University and author of Why Does My Rabbit.... She says pain and fear are the two most common underlying causes of aggression in rabbits.
Once they’ve crossed over into ‘fight’ mode, your rabbit may:
- Sit up and raise their front paws like a boxer
- Bare their teeth
- 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. They’ll also keep their tail raised, and their pupils will be dilated.
‘Rabbits are not overly aggressive creatures, but they can certainly pack a hefty punch,’ says Anne. ‘Rabbits will box with their front legs, raising themselves upright or lunging forward to back up their position with a sharp bite.’
Why do rabbits bite?
Rabbit aggression towards humans usually means they’re scared. These fears can result in biting. A rabbit could also bite because they’re poorly, or because their hormones are raging.
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 understand what’s natural for your own bunny – and, importantly, to review how you’re behaving towards them.
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How to create a safe environment
Most bunny behaviour stems from their status as a prey animal: they are wired to be alert and on guard. If you chase them, pick them up, loom over them while they’re in their hutch or restrain them in some way, they will get scared.
‘If an animal hasn’t got enough space, if they haven’t got places they can retreat to and feel safe, and if we then try to grab them because we’re excited to pet them and make friends, that can spell trouble,’ says Anne, likening it to King Kong looming over humans. ‘If you see this unknown person with big hands and a big face come to grab you, and you’ve got nowhere to run to, you’ll turn around and fight for your life.’
It’s important to let your rabbits settle into their territory, to ensure they have plenty of space – including hiding holes that you don’t disturb – and to go slowly with your interactions. 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 offering a treat or handful of leafy greens to help gain their trust.
‘Sit quietly nearby, and make coming to you a really lovely thing for them to do,’ says Anne.
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.
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
Aggression can be a sign that your rabbit is suffering in silence. As a prey animal, rabbits will often pretend they’re OK until it’s nearly too late.
‘If you’ve got a previouslyfriendly rabbit who’s now turned unfriendly, think about getting it to the vet for a check-up,’ says Anne. ‘It could be an issue with their teeth, gut or legs.’
Anne says aggressive tendencies are unlikely to go away on their own, so if you need further advice on dealing with rabbit aggression consider contacting the Rabbit Welfare Association or a behaviourist from the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
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