Steps to take in dealing with bad behavior in rabbits

Rabbits can be one of the most adorable and affectionate pets a person could ever wish for. Unfortunately, some rabbits have had unpleasant experiences that have triggered bad behavior. Most of the things your rabbit does “wrong” are totally normal rabbit responses to uncomfortable situations you may not even be aware of! Once you can identify and solve the problem your rabbit is facing, you will quite probably find that your dear, little bunny will slowly but surely come back round to being the adorable little friend that all rabbits are at heart.

Things that can trigger “bad” behavior in rabbits

• Lack of attention and affection

The biggest mistake than anyone can make with a rabbit, by far, is having bunny in an outdoor cage. Rabbits are affectionate creatures that need a lot of love and attention in order to feel happy. Having bunny in a cage outside means she does not get to participate in your life. Without this attention, and without constant practice of how to be with people, bunny will develop anti-social behaviors that can really make her hard to deal with. Some rabbits that have come from difficult pasts have simply not been treated with enough affection, and it typically results in a grumpy and withdrawn pet, who prefers not to be touched.

• Boredom and lack of exercise

If bunny doesn’t get to run around outside of her cage each day for at least half an hour, she will have a lot of pent-up energy. That energy will be released into things like tearing up things loudly in her cage, purposefully making noise to get your attention, or misbehaving when she is finally let out to play. Not letting bunny exercise enough also creates health risks, such as obesity, breathing problems, and hair-balls.

• Feeling threatened

Rabbits are so quiet and gentle by nature. It is a good idea to follow their lead and be quiet and calm around them. Loud noises or stress in the household can easily intimidate and upset bunny, making her feel as though she needs to protect herself to survive. This can result in biting, scratching, the grunt-and-pounce attack (as I call it), or just wanting to hide from all contact. Try to spend enough gentle, quiet time (perhaps even without any touching) with your rabbit to make her start trusting that you are very safe.

• Other pets in the house

Bunny may feel scared, threatened, or just plain annoyed by another pet in your household. This can result in aggressive or withdrawn behavior. Try to give bunny enough time each day to run and play without being disturbed by the other pets. If another pet is constantly bothering her, start to arrange a new system where she is able to be in more control … by keeping doors closed, installing a baby-proofing fence between rooms, or making areas like large cardboard boxes where only bunny can fit through the entrance. Over time, you may be able to gently and carefully get your pets used to each other.

• Natural rabbit habits that require bunny-proofing

Some things that bunny does “wrong” are just part of her natural instincts. Rabbits naturally love to tear things apart. They love to chew through things. They love to pee in spots where they want to claim power. In these situations, bunny doesn’t have any idea that what she is doing is wrong. Stopping her from doing these things will need a combination of understanding (see below sections), patience, bunny-proofing (see section below) and careful redirecting of her attention.

• Needs to be spayed or neutered

Some rabbits get very aggressive or unpleasant when they reach puberty, because of the hormonal changes that happen at that time. It is a possibility that your rabbit’s behavior could be subdued by being spayed or neutered. Be sure to only allow a specialist rabbit veterinarian near your rabbit to spay or neuter him or her. There is a good list of such doctors on the website for the House Rabbit Society. Spaying and neutering also has major benefits for the long-term health of your rabbit.

”Bad” bunny behaviors and what could be causing them

• Biting or scratching

This normally means that bunny is frightened and you are invading her “personal space”. Give bunny a lot of time to be with you without trying to touch her at all. Allow her to come to you to be petted if she wants to be petted. Don’t ever pick her up quickly, but do it gently and slowly if necessary, by scooping her up under the back legs and supporting her weight carefully. Some rabbits do not like to be picked up for any reason, so respect that until you have built more trust. Instead, guide them without touching her or using scare tactics, using gentle arm movements like herding a sheep, to where she needs to go. You will find that she responds surprisingly well to such gentle guidance.

• Tearing up clothes and furniture

This is something that is fun for a rabbit to do. The trick is to provide bunny with enough activities where she can practice these “skills” safely. Put toilet-paper rolls, cardboard boxes, newspaper and fabrics in her cage so she can practice shredding and folding and organizing. When she tries to practice on things that are yours, give a sharp, quick “NO”, and clap your hands once. She will be distracted enough from her activity to move on to something else. This is not so much a punishment as a distraction, which is essentially how you train a rabbit to be “good”. Soon she will not be in the habit of tearing up anything except her own things.

Watch your rabbit and see how she always goes on a set “route” around the room. If someone puts their suitcase in the way of her favorite route, she will try and chew or tear her way through it. Avoid putting things down in spots along her route.

• Eating electrical cords

Electrical cords are dangerous for rabbits. They look like weeds. Bunnies love to chew weeds, both for food and for their love of cleaning up. It is your responsibility as a rabbit owner to make sure electrical cords are out of reach – either stapled along the wall or covered. Eating through electrical wires is a danger to bunny’s life, and can also be costly to replace ruined items. This needn’t happen at all if you are careful enough.

• Runs away from you and can’t be caught

Even though rabbits are so loyal and loving, they are also independent at heart. Bunnies in a group will naturally go off and do their own thing. Let your rabbit approach YOU when she wants affection. Eventually she will be so trusting of you that she won’t leave you alone. Try the herding technique (mentioned above) for when you need to move her somewhere and you can’t catch her.

• Peeing and pooping everywhere

Rabbits can be easily litter trained, making them perfect house pets. Look at the House Rabbit Society website for great advice on bunny litter box training. Even when you have trained her to go potty in her litter box, however, she may still poop around the house at times. This is sometimes just done without your rabbit even realizing she is doing it, and can easily be vacuumed up, leaving no smell or stain.

• Purposefully peeing on your bed

People often complain about their pet rabbits purposefully going to their owner’s bed and peeing on it. This is to do with the pure comfort and relaxation the rabbit feels being on your bed. It is also a reaction to the overload of wonderful owner smells in the bed. Your bunny may feel that she needs to claim the bed as her own, because she loves this place so much, because she loves YOU so much! The best idea is to keep your bed strictly off limits.

• Making a lot of noise in his or her cage

This is an attention-seeking behavior that comes from not having enough attention, playtime or exercise. Your rabbit can’t bark or meow like a dog or cat, so she might bash her bowl up against the bars of her cage, or tear newspaper loudly. She wants your attention. She wants to tell you that it’s dinner time, or that she is bored. She is saying “wake up! Come play with me!”

Ways to “discipline” a rabbit

• Make him or her feel safe and respected

The best way to build a wonderful friendship with your rabbit is to make her feel safe and respected. Avoid putting your hands in her cage or area: this is her “personal space” that shouldn’t be encroached upon. Instead, let her approach you when she wants affection. Alternatively, you can approach her very slowly and quietly at ground level, and very gently reaching out to pet her head to see if she is in the mood for affection. If she is, she will stop what she is doing and just sit there, calm and happy.

• Clap your hands

A quick, single clap will distract your bunny from beginning to pee or chew on something, and will make her run to her safe-spot, which is normally her litter box (if you have litter-trained her correctly). This is not so much a punishment as it is a distraction technique to get her focused on something else.

• Gentle guiding without touch

Use your arms to guide her across the room just as you would a person without making physical contact. This is like herding a little sheep, and works remarkably well instead of having to try and catch your rabbit. This will also make your bunny feel as though she is making her own decisions.

• A stern, fast “No” 

A stern, fast “NO”, will also help to distract your bunny from what she is doing. Eventually she will learn to recognize this command, and will stop and look at you when you say this.

• Shift bunny’s attention to something better 

”Punishment” isn’t really an option with a rabbit. She will not understand any form of punishment that you dish out to her. The only way for her to learn to behave like you want her to is by the building of trust, distracting her when she is behaving badly, redirecting her attention to something acceptable, and the eventual learning of good behaviors through habit.

• Bunny-proof

Be sure to bunny-proof your house. Keep electrical wires away from your rabbit at all cost. Keep your house tidy and you will find your rabbit causes much less damage. Much of her destruction comes from trying to “tidy up” in her own way. Make your home her home too – one that is comfortable and safe and happy for you both!