Are you the owner of rabbits that occasionally like to nibble on you? Clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby explores what may be causing this perplexing behaviour and what you can do to prevent it.
‘Healthy, happy rabbits aren’t generally aggressive,’ Rosie says. ‘Sometimes, though, even if your bunnies are well looked after, they may lunge, bite or give a sharp nip. To understand this behaviour, you first need to get to grips with your bunnies’ nature.’
Most bunny behaviour is rooted in a fear of ending up as food. Rosie explains: ‘When rabbits are chased, picked up or restrained, or if they’re subjected to noisy and unpredictable movements, they can feel under attack and it’s terrifying for them. This can prompt defensive behaviour.
‘Like all animals, rabbits learn by association. If they resort to aggression, the person handling them will usually move away or quickly put them down. So it won’t take long for them to learn that this is a successful strategy for getting rid of a threat and, in future situations, they might exhibit an aggressive response faster and with fewer warning signs.’
Building trust with your bunnies can nip this problem behaviour in the bud. ‘It’s important to read your rabbits’ body language, and respect when they’re not happy about something,’ Rosie says. ‘Keep in mind that it’s perfectly normal for rabbits to dislike close contact. You can help build trust and overcome this by gently handling them during all your interactions – but make sure that you’re not picking them up against their will, and that they appear comfortable throughout. To avoid triggering a fear response, it’s vital that your rabbits remain relaxed during these socialisation attempts. If they find these sessions traumatic, it’ll affect their future behaviour.’
If your bunnies do bite you, says Rosie, ‘Avoid all punishment or shouting, as this will increase fear and destroy trust. And try not to repeat the actions that your rabbits have responded to aggressively. If your bunnies have the chance to act out these unwanted behaviours over and over again, it’ll only reinforce the idea that it’s an effective option.’
There could be underlying causes for your rabbits’ bitey behaviour. ‘Pain or illness increases irritability in all animals and reduces their ability to tolerate mildly stressful situations,’ says Rosie. ‘Any rabbits showing aggression should first receive a full health check in case they’re actually suffering. Ask your vet to look for dental issues, as well as joint or abdominal pain. ‘Aggression could also be hormone related,’ she continues. ‘When both male and female rabbits reach sexual maturity, their drive to guard their territories, food and mates is increased. This may be worse in unneutered male rabbits; they can become extremely sexually frustrated once they reach adolescence, which adds to their general stress levels – and is one reason why it is always advisable to neuter your pet.’
‘Giving rabbits a sense of independence, space for freedom of movement and choice about whether or not to interact, will teach them that they have nothing to fear,’ Rosie says. ‘You can put this into action by spending plenty of time on the floor with your bunnies, so you avoid lifting them against their will – and it’ll also prevent you from imposing cuddles on them.’ Another option is to invest in a hutch that you won’t need to lift your rabbits in and out of, so they can feel totally in control.
Thankfully, there are ways to help shy or aggressive bunnies get used to your touch. ‘Stroke them gently while feeding a treat and don’t chase after them or react negatively if they choose to run away or hide,’ Rosie recommends. ‘Try to save special treats, such as dandelion leaves or fresh herbs, for these situations, so that an association is formed between your presence and a reward. With time, patience and a lot of gentle reinforcement, your bunnies will become more than happy to stop the aggression – and start showing affection.’