House Rabbit Society of Missouri
Rabbits have many unique ways of expressing themselves. Though many people see them as just another small animal or even a rodent(they're lagomorphs), they are complex beings. Here is some background information on the pre-domesticated life of bunnies.
A Brief History
Rabbits are part of the genus lagomorpha along with pikas and hares. They are not rodents. The rabbits we keep as pets are European rabbits and differ from their U.S. counterparts. European rabbits have elaborate social systems. They have a matriarchal society. Females rule the roost and are called does. Males are bucks. European bunnies live in underground burrows called warrens. These can be vast trails with designated "rooms" for, nesting, eating and waste. There will typically be many escape routes.
Contrarily, our US cottontails do not burrow. They typically dig shallow nests or they may use the den of another mammal. Though they may interact with other bunnies outside of mating, they are not known to have permanent mates.
They are two different species and in the rare case that they mated, they could not produce any offspring.
However, they do share many similarities. Both species of rabbits are crepuscular--they are most active at dawn and dusk. When mothers are raising their litters, they typically only feed them twice per day. This is beneficial to cottontails in particular as they won't lead predators back to their nest if no one sees them going there. Remember, they have nowhere to hide. Mothers also need all the energy they can get to nurse and this allows them to graze when not at the nest.
So, when were rabbits domesticated? We don't really know. They were first believed to be developed for their meat and fur, and there is even a story linking their domestication to papal decree, now thought to be false. There are images from ancient Egypt thousands of years ago, and images from Syria 6000 years ago. They were even buried alongside humans in ancient Spain. For the most part, the breeds we currently see were all created in the last two centuries, with many being created post WWII(the rabbitries were bombed in the war, causing people to create new breeds).
Now that you know where they came from, it's time to figure out how they communicate. Rabbits have different body language cues that tell you how they feel. These mannerisms can let you know if they are angry or happy or just plain scared. They have even been known to hold grudges. Remember, we are not dealing with low-intelligence beings, but communicative creatures with defined social structures.
Ears. When in doubt, look at their ears. With prick eared rabbits(up-ears), it's easy; lops are a bit harder.
Ears up is a fairly relaxed state. They may be calm or just listening--ears are like little satellite dishes, always moving towards sounds. For lops, this means hanging straight down at their sides.
Ears forward is curious, they are checking out something new. For lops(not English), the bottoms of their ears will swing forward, moving their ears over their eyes.
Ears back and down means one of two things: they are scared or very angry. Usually, a bunny who is unsure will slowly fold their ears back and down: watch your cottontails, they do this to hide in grass from a perceived threat. Sometimes your rabbit will fold their ears back when asking for petting or grooming.
A bunny who is threatened will swing them back quickly and then they might strike forward. Lops are similar: they will swing the bottoms of their ears back and it may seem as though they are holding their ears higher on the head.
Ears up and relaxed
Ears forward and curious.
Ears back--a scared or shy bunny.
Ears thrown back and an angry bunny lunges. Note the tail is up.
Tail. This is simple: a happy rabbit will have a relaxed tail. A rabbit who is alert will hold their tale up and hop around. A rabbit who is angry will quickly twitch their tail up and down. Beware the rabbit holding their tail up, it is frequently followed by spraying. Rabbits who are not spayed and neutered will spread their scent by spraying everything in sight. They may also do this when they are upset or simply dislike a person.
Foot flicks. This behavior is both funny and rude. When a rabbit has experienced something distasteful, like nail trimming or being put back in their pen, they will flick their back feet at you several times. They just covered you in pretend dirt, it's rude and they know it.
Stomping. A rabbit will do this when annoyed or scared, It is important to find out the difference as a rabbit who constantly stomps is terrified and may become ill as a result of stress. The cause may be a shadow on the wall or a noise, but they shouldn't be stomping consistently for a long period of time. They may even do it as a result of a nightmare.
Scanning. Some rabbits seem to have issues with depth perception. Lops and white bunnies seem to scan more often. They will stare ahead and very slowly move their head back and forth. They may start and stop several times. Occasionally, you can see their eyes darting back and forth.
Digging. A rabbit's most natural behavior. In the wild, they would constantly be making or cleaning their burrows. In the house, they will dig on anything soft, especially in their litter boxes. To alleviate this problem, you can place a wire grid(from a Neat Idea Cube cage) or even a cooling rack from your kitchen under the litter in their box. You do not want it on top of the litter, this will hurt their feet.
Boxing. A bunny scratch with both front feet. It may occur before being bit. It's aggressive in nature and they are mad at whatever you or another bunny are doing.
Circling. Rabbits circle each other before they start fighting. It's repetitive with each bunny nipping at the back end of the other.
Head Flicks: A happy rabbit display. Like a small binky, they will toss their head. If a rabbit is shaking their head more than often, check for ear infections.
Bunny Butt. A bunny who is angry with their owner or another rabbit may let them know by giving them a cold shoulder, or Bunny Butt. They will turn their back on you and refuse to look at you. Bunnies hold grudges.
Nose Bonk. A bunny greeting. It's like being poked by a nose. It may be short and sweet before they run off in another direction or it may be forceful and repetitive because they want something.
The bunny drive-by. Usually this is done to another rabbit. It is very rude to turn your back on another rabbit, as seen above in Bunny Butt. Whenever rabbits are in groups, running by another rabbit is rude and may cause the ignored rabbit to give chase and fight--many times, nipping the other one on their backside. A proper bunny gives a greeting when passing by, typically in the form of a nose bonk. This may be done to humans too. Bonks can either be friendly or demanding(pet me now!).
The flop. A relaxed and happy rabbit will pause and flop onto their side. It can also be called a bliss roll.
The Binky. The bunny version of the word WooHoo! It's a fancy jump, sometimes with a spin or kick. They do it when playful or happy. Deer, goats, guinea pigs and horses do the same thing.
Licking or grooming you. The highest form of bunny praise. They don't like salt, they like you.
Grooming reflex. Some rabbits have a grooming reflex triggered by petting or scratching their body, usually on their lower back.
Trudy giving an excellent depiction of Bunny Butt to show me she was done with photos.
Bruxation. Also called tooth-purring, its the sound of their teeth rubbing together. It's a happy sound they make when content, often while being pet. Be aware of excessively loud purring, this may mean that your rabbit is angry or in extreme pain--it can be a sign of illness.
Grunts. They can be happy or angry. Some bunnies do it in excitement when getting food or toys. An angry or annoyed bunny will do it loudly, like a growl.
Humming. Also called bunny singing. Your rabbit is very happy. It's thought to be rabbit flirting. You will most often hear it when your rabbit is running in circles around your feet or around you if you are sitting on the floor. You may think you have a loud fly and the noise will come and go with the bunny. It is the bunny--they love you very much!
Screaming. A horrible noise that you can feel to your core. That bunny is terrified or in extreme pain. Find out the cause as soon as possible. Prolonged stress can kill a rabbit.
Spay and Neuter
When rabbits are between 12 and 16 weeks old, their hormones start coming in (it can be earlier in males). At the rescue, we separate the males from litters and neuter them around three months old. Females may not be spayed until they are 16 to 18 weeks old. Their operation is more involved and it is safer for older bunnies. A female rabbit who is not spayed will always be in an excited, hormonal state. She is always ready to ovulate, as they have forced estrus. Spaying them alleviates this stress. Female babies often go through a huge personality change starting around 3-4 months old. They may become moody and not tolerate touch. Their litter habits will become messy. This is why we recommend older rabbits rather than babies to new bunny parents. This personality change can be huge and many rabbits are dumped at shelters because of it. A mature rabbit will not have this sudden change--their personality is already fully formed. Male rabbits may also have a personality change, but more often they have behavioral changes. They will start spraying everywhere--their hormone filled urine has a strong odor. Rabbits also end up at shelters for this behavior. Spaying and neutering rabbits not only prevents unwanted litters, it makes your pet happier.
A whole litter of hormonal bunnies comes with a lot of attitude.
Unfortunately, not all aggression in rabbits is caused by hormones. Sometimes it can be genetic or biological in origin, but many times, it is simply behavioral.
It's not me, it's you. It is apparent that some rabbits just do not like some people. Volunteers at the rescue who have been sprayed or boxed by an otherwise friendly rabbit can attest to this fact. Rabbits are very opinionated. Most often, we see cage aggression.
Cage aggression. As you learned earlier, rabbits live in burrows. This is their home and they have spent a long time making it their own. Rabbits will pat down fake dirt and move things around as though they were making an actual burrow. If someone enters their burrow and they don't have an exit--they attack. You can work with them by giving them their space and showing them that good things happen when you visit, like getting food. However, many bunnies are simply stressed by things like cleaning--you can either remove them from their cage during litter cleaning or place your hand over the rabbits head to calm them, then remove the object you needed. One hand always for the bunny--it prevents bites and boxing.
Food aggression. Many rabbits at our rescue have come from scary backgrounds where they were never fed or had to fight other bunnies for their food. This leads to food aggression. You can work slowly with the rabbit to build trust and show them that nothing bad will happen and food will never be taken away. Do not remove the food to teach them a lesson--you just confirmed their worst fear. In some rabbits, it will not go away. Like above, use one hand for the bunny.
Bonding. Rabbits are happier when they have another rabbit to love. While some seem to want to stay solitary, especially if they have bonded to their human, most bunnies prefer the company of their own kind. It also gives them company when their humans aren't home. Typically male/female bonds work best. Then male/male and female/female. Remember, they are a female dominant society. Some rabbit experts believe that male/male bonds tend to break if they are from the same litter.
As with humans, rabbits want to pick their own mates. Members can make an appointment to bring their rabbit to the shelter for a bunny speed dating session. This way, your rabbit makes the call. When you find a rabbit that seems interested(grooming, sitting side by side, not fighting), you can bring your rabbit back for future dates. If they seem to be going well, you can adopt the new bunny, however, it must have it's own cage/pen/space. You cannot automatically assume that rabbits will want a stranger moving in with them. Set the cages next to each other, but leave space so they cannot touch to prevent injuries when you aren't around. You can also switch litter boxes at every cleaning to get them used to each other's smell. Have dates everyday for your bunnies in neutral space. Try a couch or even a bathroom where you can monitor their behavior. Only when they are spending several hours a day with each other without any fighting and able to share food, should you attempt moving them in together. Clean everything in their cages before putting them together. If they both have small temporary cages, you can even get a new cage to put both of them into together--this prevents territoriality. You could also move them to a pen since they will need more space.
"Rabbits actually have 6 incisors, 4 on top and 2 on bottom."
Multiple Pet Households
Rabbits can get along with other species. Some of them even form bonds with other household pets.
Dogs. Most dogs can be taught to ignore bunnies entirely. Sighthounds and dogs with strong chase/hunting instincts need to be watched more carefully. It is important to realize that just because one person's greyhound doesn't chase indoor rabbits, doesn't mean they will all behave the same way. Always take into account a dog's breed and background.
Similarly, toy dogs and terriers tend to have the biggest problem with bunnies. Dachshunds and many terrier breeds are used specifically for chasing and killing burrowing animals. It is best to never leave your rabbit unattended with any dog breed. If you have to leave the room, place the bunny in a safe area, like a pen. Dogs tend to wait for the human to leave to do something wrong. That being said, many dogs will like your rabbits. Giant breeds and mutts seem to legitimately like them. Some will even play bow to the bunny trying to get them to interact. Dogs can also carry fleas, so make sure your dog has flea protection. Bunnies cannot use the same flea meds as dogs--they are deadly, keep them separate when using topicals.
Dogs and rabbits can be good friends but should not be left unattended.
Cats. It just depends on the cat. Many people say that their cat completely ignores the rabbit. But, cats are more predatory than dogs and you should make sure that you do not leave them unattended if you don't know their reaction. A swipe of the paw and a rabbit can get a scratched cornea. Many cottontail rabbits are killed for fun by feral or indoor/outdoor cats. It's better to be safe than sorry. Outdoor cats can also bring parasites inside to your rabbits if they do not have flea protection.
If you have lizards or birds, keep interaction at a minimum. Both species carry salmonella and can transmit it to your bunny. It is deadly to rabbits.
Cats can also be taught to respect a bunny's boundaries.