Unlike dogs and cats, which are hunting animals, rabbits are prey animals and so their natural behaviour is very different. It is part of the responsibility of owning a pet that you learn to understand what your pet’s behaviour means – this will help you to know when your rabbit is happy, when it is frightened or when it is ill.
Rabbits are territorial animals – this means that they like to have an area (hutch or burrow, etc) to call their own. They like to identify this territory as theirs by leaving scent marks for other rabbits to detect. Rabbits have scent glands underneath their chins and they rub these on objects to leave behind their scent (fortunately, humans cannot smell this!). This behaviour is very similar to cats rubbing their faces (which also have scent glands) on objects or even your legs.
Because rabbits are territorial animals they like to defend their patch against intruders. On the other hand, they are social animals and appreciate company.
By far the easiest combination is a male-female pair – but both rabbits will have to be neutered. Same-sex pairs sometimes work if both rabbits are neutered and, preferably, if they were introduced as youngsters or come from the same litter.
Rabbits should be very gradually introduced to their new companion on neutral territory with lots of cover and piles of food. Slowly build up the amount of time the rabbits spend with each other. Separate them if severe fighting occurs as rabbits can inflict nasty injuries on each other.
In the wild, rabbits thump their hindfeet on the ground when they see or hear a predator (dog, fox, etc) or some other danger. It alerts other rabbits to the situation so that they can take shelter underground. Pet rabbits will thump their feet if they are scared, but they may also do this to attract your attention.
Wild rabbits live on the ground. Pet rabbits do not like being held above the ground if they do not feel secure. They will struggle and may kick and scratch – often they are dropped and this can result in injuries such as a broken leg or back. Small children should not be allowed to handle rabbits unsupervised.
It is extremely important to learn to handle your rabbit correctly so that it feels secure when you pick it up. Tuck your rabbit’s head close to your body underneath the elbow of your left arm (if you are right-handed). Use the left hand to hold the bottom of the rabbit, while supporting your rabbit against your body. Steady the head and front end of the animal with the right hand.
Never pick a rabbit up by its ears – this is extremely painful and dangerous for the rabbit.
If you have a young rabbit it is important to handle it often so that it becomes used to being picked up and stroked and doesn’t become fearful (and perhaps aggressive) when it’s older.
The female rabbit (doe) builds a nest, which she lines with fur plucked from her chest, for her babies (called kittens). Some does show nesting behaviour even though they have not been mated and are not pregnant. This is called a ‘false pregnancy’ (or pseudopregnancy). The doe may even defend the nest from any human interference by growling and biting.
False pregnancies usually occur in early spring (but they can happen at any time) and they are more common in rabbits housed with other female rabbits. Do not be alarmed if your rabbit has a false pregnancy – it will do her no harm. However, they do not occur in neutered female rabbits and if your rabbit is aggressive during a false pregnancy, consider having her neutered (spayed).
This is very common behaviour in rabbits. As well as leaving scent by chinning, rabbits mark their territories by leaving their droppings in concentrated piles. Rabbits are also very clean animals – just observe how frequently they wash themselves – and they do not like to sleep in areas soiled by urine and droppings.
This behaviour also explains why rabbits can be house-trained easily to live indoors.
- Magnus E (2002) How to Have a Relaxed Rabbit. The Essential Handbook for Rabbit Owners. Ed: Appleby D. The Pet Behaviour Centre. ASIN: B009C5HDYK.
- McBride A (2000) Why Does My Rabbit..? Souvenir Press. ISBN: 978-0285635500.