by Dianne Cook, Licensed Veterinary Technician
Adorable. Docile. Friendly. All words rabbit parents frequently use to describe their fur babies, but the truth is rabbits are just as capable of having grumpy attitudes as their human companions. Like their wild ancestors, domesticated rabbits generally prefer to express themselves through body language, often displaying clear signs of aggression before physically lashing out. Learning to understand the cues your rabbit displays, determining the root cause(s) of aggressive behaviors, and patiently establishing trust can lead to a mutually rewarding, long-lasting friendship with even the most cantankerous of bunnies.
Common Signs of Aggression in Rabbits
Rabbits are incredibly intelligent animals and will do all they can to make sure their needs and preferences are being met. When they’re upset, rabbits may not be as vocal as cats or dogs, but if you take the time to understand their unique language, it’s clear they are just as expressive. Aggressive rabbits rarely jump straight into attack mode. Instead, they usually provide warnings that grow in intensity. If their initial cues are missed or ignored, your bunny may be provoked to strike out physically. Aggressive behaviors can be directed at human caregivers, bunny companions, or even inanimate objects (like power cords, furniture, rugs, etc). Below are common signs of aggression, ranging from more subtle hints of impending indignation to manifestation of absolute outrage.
Posturing - “Please don’t come any closer.”
- Bared teeth – lips pulled back to expose teeth
- Upright or flattened ears
- Raised tail – tail is often held up and out
- Intent eye contact – they’ll watch your every move; pupils are dilated
- Alert, upright posture – either with all four feet on the ground, or sitting up on their haunches (sometimes called a “boxer stance”)
- Thumping – a surprisingly loud sound made by smacking the ground with their powerful hind leg; they may thump once or multiple times
Vocalizations - “You’re not listening! I told you to back off!”
Physical Aggression – “If you won’t listen, I’ll show you I mean business!”
Why Do Rabbits Resort to Aggression?
There is always a reason a rabbit resorts to aggression. Though some individuals are naturally more confrontational than others, rabbits are not born mean. The overwhelming majority of grouchy bunnies have learned to express themselves aggressively as a way of meeting needs that have been overlooked or otherwise ignored.
The list below covers some of the more common reasons rabbits lash out, but it is important to note that there may be other factors playing a role in your bunny’s bad behavior. It is important to speak with a trusted, rabbit-savvy vet regarding concerning behaviors as soon as they appear.
- Hormones: Like moody human teenagers, a rabbit’s bad attitude is often hormonally driven. Rabbits tend to be quite territorial by nature, and if your rabbit is still intact (not spayed or neutered), an intense desire to procreate makes aggressive behavior much more common and difficult to deal with.
- Fear: Even the sweetest, most easygoing rabbits can show signs of aggression if they feel threatened and perceive a need to defend themselves.
- Pain: Rabbits have mastered the art of camouflaging illness or discomfort. Though this inherent behavior helps wild rabbits avoid predators, it can make it difficult for pet parents to determine whether their domestic rabbit’s nasty behavior is a sign of an underlying health concern. Any sudden behavior changes, including unexpected aggression, should be discussed with a trusted veterinarian as promptly as possible.
- Stress: Is your rabbit new to the household? Have you recently brought home a new baby or added another household pet? Have there been any home renovations or abrupt changes to your rabbit’s environment? Your bunny may have resorted to aggressive tactics as a stress response.
- Inappropriate Environment: Though less common, some rabbits will resort to aggressive behavior due to an inappropriately small, chronically unclean, or under-stimulating
Working With an Aggressive Rabbit
Though it takes time and patience, it is possible to build a strong, loving bond with an aggressive rabbit. Aside from working with an exotics-savvy veterinarian to rule out underlying health concerns, it may take some investigative work to uncover the root cause(s) of your bunny’s anger issues. As soon as your bunny displays signs of aggression, regardless of how small they seem, stop what you’re doing and evaluate the entire environment. What were you doing just before you noticed the behavior? Were you making any sounds? Were you touching something in their line of sight? Were you approaching their enclosure/environment? Is it possible you smell or look different than you usually do? If you can determine the cause of the behavior, you can take appropriate steps to limit future occurrences.
Following the steps below will help create a safe, comfortable, low-stress environment, and is essential when establishing a mutually positive relationship with an ill-tempered rabbit.
- Get Your Rabbit Spayed or Neutered: Spaying or neutering your rabbit can go a long way in minimizing the risk of aggressive behavior, especially if the operation is performed before your rabbit has reached sexual maturity. It can take several weeks for a rabbit’s hormones to stabilize after the operation, however, so it is not an instantaneous fix.
- Stay Safe: If you’re worried your bunny might bite, kick, or scratch, it’s best to wear long sleeves, long pants, and shoes when you interact with your feisty furry friend. You might also consider donning a pair of gloves if you must have your hand(s) anywhere near your rabbit’s face (e.g., feeding time). If your skin is protected when your rabbit lunges, you are much less likely to jump, squeal, or make any sudden movements, which could further exacerbate your rabbit’s foul mood.
- Remain Calm: Rabbits tend to be quite stubborn and will often cling to behaviors that have served them well in the past. Your job as pet parent is to alter your crabby bunny’s perception of reality and meet his aggressive behavior with patience and affection. While it might seem counterproductive, if you remain calm and composed when your bunny lashes out, they will soon realize their behavior isn’t getting the intended result and that you mean them no harm.
- No Physical Punishment!: Never, ever hit a rabbit! Don’t pop them on the nose. Don’t swat their behinds. Don’t push or kick them away. This can be difficult to remember if you have a livid lagomorph on your heels, but it is essential to maintain your composure and meet your bunny’s aggression with affection and understanding. Keep in mind rabbits are often expressing fear in the form of aggression. Physical discipline will only make the situation worse.
- Establish Trust: Other than avoiding physical punishment, one of the best ways to establish trust and make your rabbit feels safe is to stop picking them up and forcing interaction. Despite many humans’ desire to snuggle all things soft, many rabbits, regardless of their innate personality, do not enjoy being picked up as it puts them in a very vulnerable position. Instead of forcing your grumpy bunny to cuddle, it’s best to sit quietly on the floor and allow your rabbit to come to you on their terms.
- Create a Healthy, Comforting Space: Rabbits are active, agile, and smart, and need daily exercise and plenty of mental enrichment to remain happy and well-adjusted. If their enclosure, or the environment to which they are allowed access, is too small or under-stimulating, your rabbit may become bored and resort to aggression out of frustration. When it comes time to clean your rabbit’s habitat, allow them the opportunity to leave their enclosure on their own (vs reaching in and picking them up) before you start messing with anything. Rabbits are quite territorial and may not appreciate your attempts at sprucing up.
- Review Your Rabbit’s Diet: A healthy, well-balanced diet is important for all living things, but it rings especially true for small herbivores, like rabbits. Thanks to their unique physiology, rabbits must have a near-constant intake of fiber to keep their specialized digestive tract running smoothly and keep their constantly growing teeth worn down. If their diet is inappropriate or insufficient, it could lead to a host of health concerns, which may manifest as aggressive behavior in your little one.
- Consult a Trusted Vet: As mentioned above, any time your furry friend exhibits behavior changes (aggressive or otherwise), it is best to speak with an exotics veterinarian who is well-versed in rabbit care. It is helpful to bring a list of behaviors you have noted and any corresponding activities or environmental changes that proceeded your bun’s quarrelsome demeanor.
It takes dedication to meet aggression with affection instead of fear or anger, but it is so worth the effort. Treating your grumpy bunny with patience, consistency, and understanding will help establish a strong, trusting bond and alleviate much of your rabbit’s insecurities. Though changes will not be instantaneous, there’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve created a comforting, nurturing environment in which your rabbit can flourish.