Rabbits have a reputation for being cute and cuddly, and certainly don’t give an outward impression of being capable of aggression. However, aggressive behaviour towards people can be a common problem amongst domestic rabbits, and has many possible causes, with treatment aimed at improving the trust between an owner and the rabbit.
In order to begin to understand why a rabbit may be aggressive you have to look at both wild and domestic rabbits lifestyles and put yourself in the rabbit’s position. Wild rabbits rank towards the bottom of the food chain as they are prey to many predators (including humans). This explains why they are always on their guard for the first sign of danger and can react adversely when threatened.
If a rabbit senses danger it has a choice of 3 options, commonly known as the three Fs. It can either freeze in the hope that the potential danger will go away. If this fails the next option is to take flight and run away from the danger. If this fails and the rabbit is caught, then its last line of defence is to fight. Rabbits in fighting mode are formidable opponents; they will strike with their front feet, often growling and using their very sharp teeth and claws to inflict as much damage as possible in an attempt to escape.
Although domesticated, the natural behaviour of the rabbit has changed very little from that of its wild relatives. This means that pet rabbits retain the instinct of survival, so when faced with any situation which they perceive to be a danger, they will behave as a wild rabbit would.
Common examples of aggression in pet rabbits include:
Handling problems Apart from the fact that the some rabbits don’t like to be picked up, if you were a rabbit with huge hands approaching you from above, which to you resembled a bird of prey, how would you feel? Putting this into concept and how a wild rabbit would react when faced with what it believes to be an attack from above, its first option is to freeze, but this wont work, as you will still attempt to pick the rabbit up. It cant always take flight as in a hutch or run where there is limited space and even in a house, there are only so many places to run and hide. Sometimes the rabbit’s only option is to fight for what it believes to be its life.
After a while the rabbit begins to associate approaching hands with being picked up (which it doesn’t like), so may attempt to bite at any opportunity when a hand is presented. If the action of biting stops you from picking the rabbit up, it will learn that whenever it doesn’t want to you do something to it, it just has to bite and you will stop.
Territorial aggression Rabbits, even after they have been neutered, can be very protective of their territory (hutch, run, pen etc) and their possessions (food bowl, litter tray, toys etc) and any attempt to invade this territory may be met with aggression. In the wild, rabbits have to keep their territory safe from neighbouring groups of rabbits so it is a very natural instinct to protect and defend.
Some pet rabbits that are perhaps feeling that their territory is insecure, may display aggression towards their owners when they try to feed them, clean them out or put their hand in the cage to stroke them. This form of aggression is the often linked with possessions; if the rabbit thinks we are going to take something away from them, they will defend it.
Hormonal aggression Hormones can play a factor in aggressive rabbits, particularly female rabbits. Such aggression is usually apparent at sexual maturity (between 3-6 months of age depending on breed) and may occur in territorial situations or be linked to sexual behaviour. Neutering will help with any aggression that is motivated by the hormones (such as territorial aggression) and should take place as soon as is medically safe. The benefits may take a couple of months to become fully apparent. Neutering will not help with forms of aggression that are caused by fear.
Pain Rabbits who are in pain, may display aggression. Any aggression in a rabbit should first be checked out by a vet to determine that there is no medical cause or discomfort responsible for the change in behaviour.
Improving aggressive behaviour in rabbits that don't like to be picked up
Many rabbits are aggressive through fear which is usually linked to a lack of appropriate handling and socialisation at an early age. There are things that can be done to try and lessen the aggression, although you may not be able to totally eliminate it. If the aggression started at puberty and seems to be linked with possession or territory, then neutering may be the first option. If the aggression is linked to handling then you need to adopt a gentle programme to begin building up the trust your rabbit has in you, to show it that you aren’t a threat to it. This can be achieved by the following methods:
Stop attempting to pick the rabbit up. Obviously you still need to feed your rabbit and it still needs exercise from its hutch, cage, etc. but you can get around these problems by having two food bowls. Before taking the empty one away, give the rabbit its food in the other bowl, so it is eating that before you take the empty bowl away. Try to alter the rabbit’s living environment, perhaps by placing their hutch in their run, so they can go in and out as they please, so there is no need to pick them up. If they are a houserabbit, try and coax them in and out of their pen with their favourite treats. Never chase the rabbit and don’t clean out their hutch/cage when they are in it.
Offer the rabbit its favourite treats in an attempt to get it to come to you. Don’t make any sudden movements or attempt to pick the rabbit up at this stage. If the rabbit tries to bite you or wont take the treat, then you may need to spend more time trying not to invade the rabbit’s space. There will be no set timescale as each rabbit is an individual.
Once the rabbit will come to you to take a treat and doesn’t seem nervous of you, try stroking them with your hand or a long-handled soft brush (if they attempt to bite you then they bite the brush and not you. The brush can also be kept still so that they do not learn that aggression works). Gradually build up the areas that are being touched. If your rabbit has a particular area where it doesn’t like to be touched, avoid this area in the early stages.
Once the rabbit is happy and accepting of being brushed you can attempt to replace the brush with your hand.
The final stage is to pick the rabbit up. Only raise the rabbit a couple of inches off the ground, perhaps onto your lap and then offer them their favourite treat. Repeat this exercise several times a day, gradually increasing the height you lift the rabbit up to, until you are able to pick them up and carry them a short distance, say from their hutch to their run.
This whole process may take many months and you may have to stay at any of these stages for weeks or even months until you feel that the rabbit is able to move on to the next step. Sadly there are no quick wonder cures for this behaviour problem.
How to pick up rabbits
Rabbits are ground dwelling animals and are most happy when they have all four feet firmly on the ground. Picking up rabbits should only be done when necessary (to give medication, examine the rabbit, clip claws, put the rabbit in its run/hutch etc), and not just for the sake of it. Adults or older children should pick up rabbits – younger children are often too small to confidentially handle rabbits, especially if they struggle or attempt to bite or kick, which can result in the rabbit being dropped and suffering potentially fatal injuries. Rabbits have very fragile skeletons, with their lumber spine especially prone to dislocation or fracture from incorrect handling or struggling.
The best way to pick up rabbits is to place one hand over the loose skin on the neck (scruff of the neck) and one hand under the rump (bottom) of the rabbit. The rabbit should be lifted from underneath using the hand on the rump to lift the rabbit and the hand on the scruff of the neck to support the rabbit. Once you have lifted the rabbit quickly bring the rabbit into your body for support. Always ensure their hind quarters are supported and if the rabbit begins to struggle put it on the floor or in a safe area as quickly as possible.
Never lift a rabbit using their ears or the scruff of the neck and don’t attempt to wrestle with the rabbit if you lose control. These actions will cause the rabbit to avoid all contact with you next time.
What to do if your rabbit bites
When rabbits bite, it can be very painful, and can be hard to remember that they bite usually out of fear, rather than nastiness. It is also wise to ensure that your own tetanus protection is up-to-date. However, whatever you do, never punish the rabbit by shouting or smacking it, as this will only make a fearful rabbit fear you even more and just compound the aggression problems.
You have to be realistic with the aims you set. It is hard to turn an aggressive rabbit into a cuddly, docile bunny, but you can often improve the situation, with months of hard work and dedication so be prepared to be patient and committed. There are lots of options for aggressive rabbits; from having them neutered, to adopting a socialising programme; perhaps adapting their living quarters to give them more space and stimulation and getting them another rabbit for company.
What if things don't improve?
Undoubtedly there are rabbits that don’t respond to treatment and these rabbits pose a huge problem. The best option is to get them a bunny friend and allow them to literally live free range in a secure and safe enclosure in the garden, with minimal human contact, but under many circumstances this may not be possible. You can ask your vet for a referral to a qualified behaviourist familiar with rabbit behaviour to see if they are able to suggest any treatment aimed specifically at your rabbit.
Rehoming centres are always full to capacity with rabbits looking for new homes and understandably there aren’t many people who want to take on an aggressive rabbit, so getting a rescue centre to take the rabbit may be impossible. Rabbits are more than capable of inflicting very nasty injuries on both people and other animals and if you have tried everything then sadly the only option may be to have the rabbit put to sleep. However, this option should never be taken lightly and should only be carried out after immense thought and discussion with your vet and a behaviourist.
For behaviour advice, contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors at PO Box 46, Worcester, WR8 9YS, UK. Tel: 01386 751151Website: www.apbc.org.uk .
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.