By Joy Gioia
First of all, it is crucial to have your bunny spayed or neutered at around 5-6 months of age, prior to him entering “puberty”. Rabbits behavior after their hormones change is often unacceptable for household living. Both males and females can spray urine to mark and claim items as their own and that includes their humans. Males are often attracted to the feet, arms and legs of their humans, in the same way as an un-neutered dog. Both spraying and overt affection can be stopped by spaying or neutering. Sterilization will also cause your rabbit to be a little less territorial, but bunnies, by nature, are territorial. In addition, although this paper is not on litter training, adult rabbits are easier to litter train than babies, and spayed/ neutered bunnies are the easiest to litter train. OK, so what else are they doing and why?
One of the ways all bunnies will mark their territory (in an acceptable way) is chinning. Bunnies have a scent gland on either side of their chin so they will rub their chins on any item or area they wish to claim as their own. It is odorless and sightless to us, so it is not a problem to allow your bunny this normal behavior.
Many bunnies are “cage protective.” To them, this is their burrow and it is theirs to rearrange and do with as they please, but they don’t want anyone else to touch or rearrange their things. Another thing is that they can feel cornered when you reach in towards them. The best way to work with cage protective bunnies is to clean the cage and put fresh food dishes, water, greens, etc. in while they are outside of the cage for exercise time. I know I’d certainly like to have my house all cleaned while I was out having fun. If you need to do something while they are in the cage, place one hand on the bunny’s head while you do whatever you need to do with the other hand. This tells the bunny that you are the dominant bunny. If they object strenuously to this, try keeping them occupied by petting them with one hand while the other hand does whatever is necessary. They interpret petting as grooming and letting them be the top bunny. Also, a bunny does not see well to the front and sometimes to the top so a reaching hand towards them can trigger an aggressive fear response as he may feel cornered with something strange coming towards him.
Don’t Pick Me Up
Those soft, cuddly bunnies you just want to pick up and squeeze, actually hate such things. Bunnies are prey animals. Much of their behavior centers around this. To be picked up means to be captured and to be captured means to be dead. They much prefer to have their people come down on the floor with them or to allow them to jump up next to you on the couch. They love having their heads petted and equate that with the grooming they will give to or accept from another bunny they care about. By careful handling they can come to accept a certain amount of picking up, although some never do. On those occasions when you do need to pick up your rabbit, it is easiest in a scooping motion towards you while supporting his rear end so that the rabbit is cradled against your chest. Make sure you are wearing a sturdy shirt in case your bunny should struggle. Those nails can really hurt, but it’s crucial that you do not drop your bunny. They have very weak spines and a fall can quite easily break their backs. NEVER pick up a rabbit by the ears. It is painful and harmful to their whole body and could be VERY injurious to their spine.
When a bunny licks you it has nothing to do with getting salt off of your body. It is their way of grooming you which is a extremely high compliment. However, they would much rather have you groom them so sometimes after a few licks they will tell you it’s your turn again with a tiny nip or by digging at you. They don’t whine like a dog or meow like a cat, so this is their method of communication. They are NOT intending to be mean or to cause harm by doing these things.
Nipping is also their way of saying “I don’t like that” or “put me down!” or “please get out of my way.” If a nip is too hard for you to tolerate, don’t hit the bunny. They have no way of interpreting that as discipline. Instead, squeal in a loud, high voice. A bunny will only squeal if it’s terrified or in extreme pain. A high pitched squeal from you is something they can interpret as pain.
Chewing is VERY normal for a bunny. Rabbits are browsers. They need to have food or substance going through their digestive track continuously. In addition to their food, they need small amounts of non-digestible fiber helping to push things through their digestive track. Also, because their teeth grow throughout their entire lives, they need to chew to keep the teeth worn down. Good wood blocks for chewing (like builder’s grade untreated white pine) and hard plastic toys to pick up in their teeth help satisfy both needs. Other things that are good are straw, especially in forms that work also as toys, such as a straw mat, a straw basket, a straw coaster, etc. Just be sure it is plain, unvarnished, and uncolored straw. Get information on Bunny Proofing because bunnies also love to chew on electrical wires, phone cords, curtains, and some types of furniture. Remember, chewing is natural and necessary for them, but electrical cords are extremely dangerous to your bunny as he can be killed by electrical shock. It’s also hard on the pocket- book for constant repairs. Allowing exercise in an area that’s completely bunny proofed is the easiest way to allow a bunny to have a good time, but with you, and not get into trouble. Be sure to provide lots of good quality timothy hay for chewing, too, as this helps wear down molar teeth and satisfies bunny’s grazing need.
Rabbits are natural diggers. They cannot understand refusal to allow them to do something perfectly natural for them. Domestic rabbits are descendants of European wild rabbits which tunnel and burrow. Instead of discipline, channel this natural desire towards items where they are allowed to dig. A piece of old carpeting (make sure it is not synthetic material which could kill them if ingested and cause a blockage,) a sea grass mat, an old throw rug (without rubber backing,) or an old phone book or paper magazine to rip up. A particularly fun thing for them is an old box partially filled with short strips of old newspaper that is big enough for them to get into through cut-out doors. The box can be either open at the top with a hole cut into one end for the rabbit to enter, or enclosed with a hole cut at both ends for them to enter and burrow. They love it and it is always best to set up a win-win situation for both you and your bunny. Another good idea for digging is to provide a covered cat litter box with some Yesterday’s News. This would be separate from their normal litter box so most bunnies will view the covered litter box as a tunnel for safe, digging fun as well as a nice place to hide. One major caution; NEVER consider getting your bunny declawed. First of all, they do NOT have claws. They have nails like a dog. Amputation of the toes is the only way to remove the nails. It’s the equivalent of making your rabbit club footed without toes. It’s the same as cutting off the front half of a dog’s paws. The permanent nerve damage will cause a bunny constant pain, as well, and prevents the rabbit from moving or hopping correctly.
As mentioned, physical punishment will not train a rabbit. A rabbit has no instinct for punishment in rabbit evolution. A dog is a pack animal and if he does something wrong the pack will punish him. For a pet dog, the family is the pack and the dog accepts someone in the family as pack leader. Pack leaders are allowed to discipline so a dog instinctively understands discipline. A cat in nature is solitary, but is raised by a mother. During raising, if the kitten does something wrong, the mother will punish the wrong act. So again, evolution has made the cat understand discipline although it will not be overly acceptant of it once out of kittenhood. In the wild, a rabbit has no discipline. The mother rabbit has her babies and then only visits for 15-20 minutes per day to clean and feed them. If she stays longer, she may draw the attention of a predator to her nest. She does not raise the babies, either. At 4-5 weeks old, the babies are out of the nest (because they are already getting territorial) and are completely on their own. Discipline plays no part in their upbringing. If the bunny does do something you do not want him to do, a loud clap of your hands, a stomped foot, and a loud, stern, “NO!” repeated each time the behavior is unacceptable will usually go a long way towards correcting the situation. To a bunny, a foot stomp means “I’m not happy” or “Alert! Danger!” Your action can also be accompanied by moving the bunny gently away from the restricted item or area. After, that, each time the bunny approaches that area, a repeated loud clap, stomp, and “NO!” usually works quite well. This may need to be repeated several times. Also, take a look at what your bunny wants to do that is unacceptable to you. Is it digging or chewing? He or she needs to do these things, so it is best to provide an alternative for the bunny other than digging at your carpet or chewing on your furniture. If both an alternative is offered plus the loud clap and no for the unacceptable behavior, it will go a long way towards both you and your bunny being happy.
It is also a good idea to use baby gates to keep a loose rabbit from entering rooms you have decided should be off-limits. Just make sure the gates are not made of soft plastic as they can chew right through those. Hard plastic or wood frames with coated wire works well. Remember, physical discipline will only make your rabbit fear and hate you.
When a rabbit suddenly leaps into the air and jerks, they are not having a seizure. They are simply expressing joy in their current situation. We affectionately call these “airs above the ground” a “binky.”
Rabbits normally groom themselves and keep themselves very clean. This is one of the reasons hay and some non-digestible fiber, like cardboard or straw baskets, are needed to keep the gut moving and prevent hair from blocking the intestines. They do still need frequent combing to remove excess loose hair and to give you a chance to notice anything unusual or different from the last time you did it. Also, a fat bunny or bunny with difficulties cannot reach all of his own places to groom properly so he will need assistance to be kept clean. This is imperative to prevent sores, infections, and fly strike. If a fly lays eggs on your bunny and they hatch, it could kill your rabbit in a very short time. Grooming also makes your bunny happy by the attention you’re giving him.
Laying Stretched Out
A relaxed, contented bunny will frequently lay down with his back legs stretched fully out behind him. A nervous bunny will stay bunched and ready to run. A bunny in pain will usually stay tightly bunched and grind his teeth.
In a happy bunny, a slight grinding of teeth while you are petting him is considered a tooth purr and is a happy, contented motion and sound. Loud grinding and a bunched up body, indicates pain. This is a time to get your bunny to the veterinarian as fast as possible. Being prey animals, they do not like to call attention to themselves as an easy target. They can mask their illness and pain for a long time, so by the time you are aware of it, it is imperative to act immediately. A matter of a few hours can be too late.
People get so shocked when they hear a bunny growl for the first time. They can growl quite loudly and it is a sign of displeasure. It is not always accompanied by an attempt to bite, but you should respect it. Sometimes it is merely because they were surprised or startled. Normally, gentle motion and letting them know you are doing something (by talking to them) or petting them will ease this situation. It is not uncommon for a cage protective bunny to growl when you stick your hand into his cage. However, as mentioned before, if you talk to them, and pet them, it lets them know you are not trying to upset them.
A rabbit’s eyes are placed on the side of its head. This means they have excellent vision to the sides and to the rear for seeing a predator coming. It also means they have very poor sight immediately in front of them. Have you ever noticed that your bunny can have a hard time finding something you put right in front of his nose? That’s because he truly can’t see it or sees it only poorly depending on where the object is. Likewise, a hand coming directly towards them will look fuzzy and may be interpreted as a threat. They are not trying to be mean, but if they feel threatened they might lunge and nip to protect themselves. It is generally easier to talk to the rabbit, and bring your hand down from a higher position in front; not directly towards the face, and not directly straight down (which looks like a hawk trying to pick up dinner) but at an angle. This looks more like a hand coming towards the head to pet the bunny and is much more acceptable.
Honking and Oinking
A soft honking or oinking noise definitely means it’s time to have your bunny spayed or neutered. This is a sign they are interested in the opposite sex. A male bunny is always ready and a female bunny is in estrus 28 days out of the month. That’s why an unspayed female will frequently meet an untimely death from breast, uterine, or ovarian cancer. If there are no other bunnies in the house, the honking or oinking will frequently be accompanied by circling your feet and possibly spraying urine on you to claim you as part of his/her territory. Occasionally, a spayed/neutered bunny will still make this sound. It is still a noise of love, but it’s because they truly love you rather than because they are hormonal.
A stomp with a back foot basically means one of two things – “Watch out! Danger!” or “I’m really annoyed at you!” Anytime a bunny sees something out of place or that startles her, she may thump to warn you and any other bunnies within hearing. If you have picked up your bunny or shooed him away from something, he may stomp to show you he’s really annoyed with you and letting you know he’s not happy with YOUR behavior. This is not an aggressive action, but rather a passive response.
Sometimes, an unspayed or un-neutered bunny, or one that has been abused becomes truly aggressive. This can be overcome, but is an entire other subject. If you have a truly aggressive bunny, please call one of our Educators for individual counseling through our HRS hotlines in St. Louis and Kansas City.
All in all, a rabbit can make a loving, friendly, wonderful indoor pet. One must simply remember that a rabbit is NOT a cat or a dog and will not act like a cat or a dog. You would not expect your cat to enter an obedience competition or your dog to climb a tree and purr. Rabbits are actually quite intelligent, love to play, are curious, and have a sense of humor, but he or she will ACT like a rabbit, so as long as you understand your rabbit’s nature you will be well on the way to enjoying your pet because he or she IS a rabbit and ACTS like a rabbit.