Negative Behaviour: Agressive Bunnies

As part of Rabbit Awareness Week, we’ve been focussing on rabbit behaviour. So far, we’ve focussed on positive rabbit behaviours, but what if you’re rabbit isn’t the happy little thing we’ve been referring to all week?

For some, pet rabbits may conjure up an image of an aggressive, moody little thing that doesn’t want any attention at all. The thought of opening up their hutch or run to feed them can be daunting enough, without all this talk of handling, playing and more!
If you have an aggressive bunny the main thing is not to give up hope. There are things you can do, and it can often be fixed with some perseverance and a little understanding about what might be making your rabbit grumpy.

So, to give a bit of context, there are times when aggression is normal. Remember that a rabbit is a prey animal, and even though they are now widely domesticated, they still inherit these instincts. If they feel under threat there are three ways they’ll choose to respond:

  1. Freeze – if they don’t move maybe they’ll not be seen.
  2. Run away – if they get out of the situation fast, and maybe manage to finding a hiding place, they might just stay safe.
  3. Fight – survival of the fittest! If caught a rabbit may use their teeth, claws or their powerful back legs to kick their way to safety.

In the wild, rabbits also need to protect their territory. This can often be shown in females more than males who have been known to fight to the death in the wild to protect prime nesting spots, and more so during pregnancy or when they are nursing a litter.

In the home though, the trick is to let your rabbit know that you pose no threat to them. If your rabbit has not been used to human interaction or handling, especially from a young age, it may simply view you as another predator, and their default nature will kick in to protect them. If they have limited space in their hutch or run, often options 1 & 2 are limited, so they may resort to lashing out. Give your rabbit more space, and you may well find the problem is reduced, and ensure their run or garden areas have plenty of hiding places for them and things to keep them occupied and stimulated. Remember the hutch is their territory and even though you know you’re just caring for your rabbit when your hiding food in their hutch, or cleaning our their mess, they may just see this as an invasion.

Most aggression though is driven by hormones, in both males & females, and much of this will disappear just a couple of weeks following neutering. Nine times out of ten when we’re contacted about an aggressive rabbit, the rabbit hasn’t been neutered and typically we get contacted about 6 month old rabbits who’s “suddenly become aggressive”. Look at most rescue centres and classified rabbits, and you’ll find that they’re typically being given up around 6 – 12 months old (when the hormones kick in) and just about all of them are un-neutered. It can often be seen as “too expensive” to neuter your rabbit, but the benefits far outweigh the cost, and no more so in terms of the impact neutering has on a rabbits aggression. If you’ve not experienced owning a neutered rabbit, you’ve not really known how friendly, cuddly and interactive they truly are, and it’s hardly surprising that so many people view rabbits as being an aggressive ball of fur.

Another thing to watch out for though, is a sudden change in your rabbit’s aggression. Rabbits hide pain and illness (again so as not to appear weak to their predator), but will often become much more aggressive, just as we do, when they’re suffering pain. Regular vet trips can identify issues early, and a sudden change in behaviour like this should always result in a trip to the vet to make sure nothing’s wrong.

Don’t give up on them though. Rabbits that are used to people being around, and being handled are much less likely to develop aggressive behaviour, and even if you’re starting off with a grumpy bunny, keep them around you so they start to get used to you and feel less threatened by your presence. Learning to handle your rabbit properly can also prevent the rabbit feeling scared. If you’re unsure how to handle your rabbit, contact us for advice.

Top Tips:

  1. Stop trying to stroke or pick up your rabbit for a period of two weeks. In that time start to hand feed your rabbits its treats or pellets and speak calmly to him.
  2. If your rabbit is now more relaxed start to stroke him whilst he is eating the treat.
  3. If your rabbit will take a treat but won’t let you stroke him, you may have to spend longer on the first stage. If your rabbit tries to bite you when you stroke him then replace your hand with a long handled brush so that the rabbit bites that instead. When the rabbit bites the brush, stop touching the rabbit until it goes back to the treat and then repeat.
  4. Once your rabbit will accept stroking (by hand or brush) increase the time and the areas that being touched (avoid their ears). If you are using a brush, try to introduce your hand again (this may take several days).
  5. You are now ready to start picking your rabbit up. This should also be introduced in daily stages using treats at each level i.e. initially your rabbit can be scooped onto your lap to eat his treat.
  6. NEVER use punishment as a training method for aggressive rabbits. In most cases, the problem worsens as soon as you try to reprimand the rabbit as you appear threatening.

The main message of course, as is always the case, is to provide your rabbit SECS – Space, Exercise, Company & Stimulation – all of which will help to reduce common signs of aggression

SOURCE: RWAF Leaflet, Biting The Hand That Feeds