Understanding Rabbit Behaviour

two rabbits

Rabbits are prey animals and timid by nature, so we must be patient if the rabbits coming into our care seem shy at first. Hand-feeding treats helps to engage the rabbit and reinforce social interaction.

Rabbits speak to other rabbits and to humans by using extensive body language and a few vocalizations. The following general descriptions of rabbit language should help you understand rabbit behaviour.

Offensive postures can include:
  • Both ears back against head: this can also be a sign of submissive or fearful behaviour; look for other signs of offensive posture to distinguish between the two
  • Tail is erect
  • A wagging tail indicates defiance
  • Body is tensed
  • Thumping to express anger, or warn of danger
  • Nipping could be a warning when combined with other body language such as an erect tail, or laid back ears
  • Grunting/growling indicates anger or disapproval of a human’s or another rabbit’s behaviour (e.g. invasion of their territory) and may be followed by scratching or biting
Defensive postures include:
  • Third eyelid showing in the corner of the eye
  • Both ears back against head can indicate submissive or fearful behaviour if no signs of offensive posturing are noted
  • Body tensed
  • Whimpering or squealing are normally associated with distress and pain
  • Screaming indicates mortal terror or severe pain
  • Both ears forward and attentive
  • One ear forward, one ear back, listening to you and to something else
  • Flopping: rabbits literally throw themselves onto their side as a sign of relaxation
  • Chin-rubbing: rubbing secretions from the scent glands under the chin to mark their territory. The scent is undetectable to humans
  • Circling around your feet as a means of getting attention
  • Nudging: an invitation/demand to be groomed. The rabbit gives you a nudge and puts his/her head down to the floor in an extended position with relaxed ears
  • Snorting to request attention or to indicate that the rabbit does not like something. (It could also be a symptom of an upper respiratory infection)
  • Squeaking is an indication of closeness and intimacy
  • Bunching: pushing, pulling, and biting bed linens, towels, pillows
  • Chewing, digging, and burrowing are natural rabbit behaviours
  • Climbing, running, and hopping are examples of exploring and play behaviour
  • Tooth clicking is a light grinding or clicking of the teeth that indicate pleasure and contentment
  • In contrast, tooth grinding indicates severe pain, discomfort, or distress

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