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Speaking Rabbit


Rabbits don’t meow, bark or speak. Well actually, they do speak. They speak their own language. A language we humans must learn in order to communicate with them proficiently – or at the very least, to understand their behavior.

As a rabbit rescue, we get calls and e-mails nearly every day asking about a certain behavior someone’s rabbit is displaying. The human is usually confused, frustrated or simply puzzled by what her rabbit is doing. In an attempt to interpret the puzzling activity, we ask questions and listen to how the person describes the activity. This is a very important step as the human may only be describing this “annoying activity,” but not describing the situation the rabbit was in when it occurred – what was going on in that rabbit’s world at that moment. We ask the age of the rabbit, whether he has been fixed (there are plenty of interesting behaviors if the rabbit is not fixed!), how big his cage is, amount of run time each day, health of the rabbit, activity level or changes in the home, etc. All of this plays a part in the rabbit’s life and his reaction to it.

Some rabbits appear very shy, others bold and curious, but it is the nature of the rabbit to be cautious and careful. In the wild, they are an animal that is easily preyed upon so they must be wary to survive.

Misconceptions abound when it comes to rabbits. Few rabbits like to be held, they may not come when called and they don’t necessarily make good pets for children. In order to understand your rabbit for who he or she is, forget all your expectations and focus on him as an individual. Be open to learning about him and let him teach you what he is all about.

Especially with a shy rabbit, the first rule in communicating is to get down on the floor. The second rule is also to get down on the floor. Rabbits must be approached at their level – the floor. Spend time getting to know him where he is comfortable. If he seems to avoid you at first, spend time just sitting quietly on the floor, not approaching him, not trying to pick him up. Rabbits are naturally wary, but also naturally curious. Eventually curiosity will win out and your rabbit will come over to investigate you.

As Amy Espie writes in her article, Honorary Rabbit, “It’s easy to miss gestures of trust from a shy or aloof rabbit. Even friendly, confident bunnies are usually more subtle than cats. A timid rabbit may make a first step toward friendship simply by going about the business of being a rabbit in your presence – in effect, by ignoring you. This may not sound like much, from a human point of view, but it is a great effort for her to switch from ready-to-run to a more relaxed, peaceful state. Although our house rabbits have been domesticated for more than 500 years, they are still basically designed to respond quickly to all the information coming through their ears, nose, eyes and whiskers.”

As with any animal, or humans for that matter, each has his or her own personality. Some are active and crave attention. Some are shy or aloof. If a rabbit is shy, you need to make an effort to interact with him. Although shy rabbits may become more sociable with time, do not expect a totally different personality. This seemingly reserved behavior is actually more common and “rabbit-like” than the interactive rabbit of folklore who plays with children.

Tips to win over a shy rabbit:

  • Sit quietly on the floor with him in a small room. Do not reach out to pet him or pick him up, just sit with him. A slice of apple or banana may help entice him to visit you. See if he will eat it from your hand without running away.

  • Allow him to investigate you. He may smell you, hop over your leg or nibble your pant leg, but don’t disturb his investigation. Let him get comfortable just being around you.

  •  After several days of quiet bonding, see if he will allow you to pet him on the top of his head, or lie down on the floor and approach him face to face. That’s how rabbits approach each other. Note: If your rabbit is protective of his space, this could result in a serious bite to the face, so decide which approach would be better for the both of you.

  •  You can also try bringing the newspaper into the room to read. You might be amazed that this once-shy rabbit has an interest in the financial section! Let him play by tearing up the paper. Let him be a rabbit in your presence.

  • Toys and more toys. Toys can build confidence and help displace anxiety. Observe what he likes to do. Is he a buncher? A digger? A chewer? Check out our Hop Shop for lots of different toy options!

  • Increase freedom and space as he becomes more secure. With time, you will start to see a braver bunny. The first time your rabbit nudges you or grooms you, the process of trust has begun and a special honor has been bestowed upon you. He is communicating with you as he would communicate with a fellow rabbit.

What is a “difficult rabbit?”

Aggressive? Cranky? Nippy? Destructive? These are all traits we humans find difficult to understand and deal with. In most cases, rabbits have a genuine reason for acting the way they do. Perhaps their history dealt them neglect and they are now mistrustful, maybe they have not been fixed yet and their hormones are playing a part, or maybe their human is untrained or unwilling to understand their needs.

First, have your rabbit examined by a rabbit-experienced vet. Once in a while, aggression can be related to a health concern such as an imbedded foxtail, ear mites or other health concerns. Next, it’s important to realize that what we view as aggression is simply “communication” from the rabbit’s point of view. Since rabbits cannot bark or meow, they may nip to communicate. This communication may be telling you to put them down or even to pet them more – it’s a way to get your attention and it usually works! They may nudge or dig at you first and if that does not get the desired effect, the nip is next. Some rabbits act aggressively out of fear and some rabbits are territorial of their space. Sometimes these behaviors can be overcome, but most likely you will need to learn how to approach the rabbit in a way that will not provoke this behavior. This is for your benefit as well as hers.

If she is cage protective, try opening the cage door and letting her come out on her own, not removing her from the cage. If your cage does not have a side door, purchase an appropriate cage for her needs. Be sure to let her out of the cage when you fill the food bowls or clean the litter box. Don’t provoke her by doing these things while she is in her cage. Spaying or neutering your rabbit will also help diminish cage-protective tendencies.

Another tip is to try setting her up in a large exercise pen instead of a cage and make sure she has plenty of run time each day to burn off excess energy. If the aggressive response is fear based, try limiting her freedom at first to a small space such as one room or even a cage with a pen around it. Add several hidey-boxes or chairs that she can go under to feel secure, but not hide from you completely as might be the case if she can get under a bed. Let her approach you on her terms. Do not chase her to pet her.

Another common provocation is to present your hand for a rabbit to smell as you might do with a dog. To a rabbit, this is very confusing and may instigate a slap with her front paws or a growl. The reason behind this is that rabbits do not see well close-up so your hand is startling to them. Ever notice that a chunk of carrot set down close to their face gets bumped and passed over until they realize exactly where it is? In short, do not present your hand to a rabbit. If you want to pet her, place your hand firmly on top of her head and pet her. Hesitant motions are confusing to a rabbit. Even strange smells or smells of another rabbit can make your rabbit act in ways he would not otherwise act. Hand lotion, perfume and another bunny’s scent are all possible annoyances.

Is she aggressive or just playing? As Amy Espie writes, “Play behaviors in animals (humans included) have several functions. One is for youngsters to practice skills they will need as adults. Kittens’ primary games are Chase it, Catch it and Kill it. Bunnies, being low on the food chain, play Elude the Captor, as well as Court the Potential Mate, and a variety of King (or Queen) of the Warren games. Thumper may invite you to chase him by zooming up to you, nipping or nudging your ankle, then racing off with a sassy switching of his tail. He may further entice you by shaking his head.” Remember, nipping is communication. This tiny little being is not necessarily coming after you aggressively.

If you are bitten by your furry friend, try letting out a shrill EEEKK !! See what her response is. Sometimes no response works well, too, depending on the rabbit. If you let her growl and paw at you, she may eventually realize that you are not intimidated and that she is not getting the desired effect. This may take time and more bravery on your part, but it’s worth a try. Try to determine though if either of these responses is more stressful to her. Observe what works the best for you and your rabbit.

NEVER HIT A RABBIT! This will only make her more aggressive or do serious bodily harm. Swatting her on the nose is also a no-no. You need to provide a safe and reassuring environment, not an environment where she is fearful.

Getting bitten can be frightening, but understanding and anticipating your rabbit’s needs is the best defense. Particularly destructive rabbits need a job. If your rabbit seems to chew everything in sight, your first step is to bunny-proof your home and then offer different toys to keep her entertained. It will also help to limit her freedom at first and give her a structured, regular routine. Sadly, we get calls from people who have given their rabbit total freedom in the house and, of course, the rabbit has destroyed the walls, carpet – you name it. End result? They want us to take their rabbit. The better solution is to spend time training your rabbit. Let her know what is acceptable to chew, and provide many chewing options. And, set the rules early on so you don’t have to spend time undoing bad habits.

Age plays a role here too, and rabbits usually mellow a bit after the first couple of years, so hang in there! The first time your rabbit seeks you out without the enticement of banana, allows you to pet her without a grumpy growl, or hops onto the couch to see what you are doing, you’ll know you are on the right track and that she now feels more comfortable in your presence.

Gaining the trust of a shy rabbit will take time, but it will be very rewarding to see his personality blossom. Gaining the respect of a “difficult rabbit” will not be easy, but if you take the time to understand rabbit behavior, your rabbits history and his current situation with you, you should find yourself at a point of mutual respect while having a greater understanding of this precious and complex animal.

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