Unlike dogs or cats, which make obvious efforts to ‘speak’ to us by barking or meowing, rabbits are generally quiet creatures. So how can we decode rabbit language to better understand what they’re feeling?
The first thing to be aware of is that if rabbits do make any very loud noises, it’s usually because of great distress or fear – so a loud squeal isn’t something you’ll want to hear. Rabbits generally express themselves by means of a variety of gestures and movements, such as thumping, kicking and jumping, but they do also have a repertoire of sounds that play a part in their communication with other rabbits. Ros Lamb of the Rabbit Welfare Association says: ‘Some sounds say a lot. It’s important that we spend time with our rabbits and learn to understand what they are telling us. We need to listen carefully and to remember that their body language is also important.’
Here are some rabbit noises you might hear, and their possible meanings:
A hiccup-like sound, sometimes heard when bunny is dozing, means he’s contented.
Your rabbit is angry, feels threatened and is showing disapproval. Your rabbit may, for example, be saying ‘Leave me alone’ if he doesn’t want to be handled, or if he wants to protect his territory – such as his cage or food – from a human hand or another rabbit. It would be a good idea to leave your rabbit alone to calm down!
Another distinctive sound made by a rabbit who’s annoyed. If, for instance, your rabbit is exercising and you try to pick him up, honking is a way of saying, ‘Let me carry on hopping about!’
Your rabbit is probably unhappy or cross.
Loud grinding of the teeth indicates that your rabbit is in pain or stressed, so you should consult your vet.
An altogether different, softer sound than grinding, this is an expression of contentment, perhaps heard while your bunny is being petted or stroked, or when he’s completely relaxed.
Screaming or loud squealing
This indicates great alarm or extreme pain. It sounds exactly like a small child’s scream. Some rabbits will never scream, but many will do so at least once in a lifetime. If your rabbit screams, offer immediate comfort and stay close for a few hours. Check for any dangers or injuries that may have provoked the outburst. If your rabbit still seems frightened a few hours after the scream or shows any signs of pain immediately following it, seek a vet’s advice. Don’t delay if you think your pet is ill or in pain.
If your rabbit wheezes continually, he may have breathing problems and you should visit your vet. If your rabbit is resting, perhaps on your knee, and gives a big, wheezy sigh, then he’s just expressing contentment.
This may indicate curiosity or annoyance, but sometimes it’s an attention-seeking sound. The context in which your rabbit makes this noise should help you to tell the difference.