Bad Behavior in Rabbits
Rabbits are not the timid, docile animals most people assume. When they need to defend themselves, rabbits can be ferocious fighters. Bunnies can be mild-mannered and cuddly, confident and gregarious, hyperactive and athletic, and sometimes aggressive. But even the most laid back rabbit can become aggressive under certain circumstances. They’re equipped with very sharp teeth and powerful hind legs that are capable of eviscerating another rabbit or other small animal.
Virtually all but the most submissive rabbits will guard their own territory from any bunny who intrudes, and often from their humans as well. Some rabbits will bite or scratch their owners when they try to clean the rabbits’ cages or hutches. Others may not be so aggressive, but insist on “supervising” all changes made to the area they regard as their territory.
Most of my rabbits follow me around when I’m cleaning their rooms, attacking the broom and tossing the dustpan around if I leave it unprotected on the floor. Occasionally they box my feet and try to chew on the cuffs of my jeans or my shoelaces. I’m not sure if this is playfulness or mild aggression – or maybe just an effort to “groom” me. But you always need to be aware that your furry little friend will defend his territory if he disapproves of your activities in his space.
Parents often think rabbits are ideal “starter” pets to help young children learn responsibility. But rabbits are highly sensitive and delicate, and young kids can be much too loud, active and rough with them. Children need to know the difference between a living creature and a toy before they can take proper care of a rabbit. They also need to understand that bunnies, if they can’t run, will defend themselves when threatened.
Rabbits aren’t comfortable when their feet aren’t firmly supported. Kids and adults need to know how to pick them up properly – not by the scruff of the neck or grabbed around the stomach. They will struggle and scratch to get free if they feel insecure or frightened. It’s best to get down on the floor to socialize with your rabbit. No rabbit really enjoys being picked up even if they like to cuddle. If you invite them, they’ll jump up on the chair or sofa to sit next to you or on your lap.
Even the most outgoing bunny prefers to be given her space Let her acclimate to her new home and new human companions. When she’s ready, she’ll approach you for pets or grooming. Rabbits will often attack anyone who reaches into their cage or hutch and tries to grab him. It’s always best to let them come to you, at least until they are comfortable enough with you and their environment to feel completely safe.
Competition and Aggression
Rabbits are social animals, and if you have the space and time to devote to multiple pets, it’s always best to have a pair or a small group. But it’s important to make sure they are compatible before finalizing the adoptions.
Most rabbit “experts” recommend pairing two males or a (neutered and spayed) male and female. For some reason, females are harder to match. But whatever the pairing, those cute furry little critters can do considerable damage to each other if they don’t hit it off. I’ve had two female siblings who were very compatible, but a second pair of unrelated females I tried to bond were at each other’s throats from the moment they moved in. I suspect this was because there was a very gentlemanly male in the picture.
Dominance can be tied to sexual competition or territoriality, but in any rabbit pair or group, the bunnies will have some sort of pecking order. If everyone finds his or her own comfortable place in the group, there’s no problem. But if you have more than one dominant rabbit personality you’ll have trouble. And even rabbits who get alone well need enough space to get away from each other from time to time.
Aggressively dominant rabbits will even try to dominate the humans and dogs or cats in what they consider “their” home. But they may just pick on one rabbit or human to take out their hostility on. I had a friend whose rabbit would savagely attack her husband whenever he was in the area. The final straw came when the little devil ripped open her husband’s trousers and gouged an 8-inch gash in his leg that required a couple dozen stitches.
Abusive Treatment and Personality Factors
Though it’s not always possible to know the background of a pet adopted from a shelter or rescue group, a history of abuse or trauma can cause personality and behavior problems in any animal. Rabbits are prey animals and need to feel safe and protected. If they’ve experienced cruel treatment or neglect, they may become unable to trust any human caretaker. All animals need some early positive socialization experience with humans and other rabbits to learn good social habits. They learn normal rabbit behavior from observing their mother and litter mates, and learn to trust humans by being handled with care and gentleness.
Fortunately, most abused or neglected rabbits can be rehabilitated, with lots of tender care. But whatever is causing your rabbit’s aggression, you will need patience, time, and understanding to become his trusted companion.