Understanding Your Bunny
Your rabbit is talking to you, and wondering why you don't understand!
The power of cute compels you!! These images show Trapper and Noffy giving me a dirty look for disturbing them with the "fwashy box". I thought the red-eye should remain in these pictures. If it looks like they're annoyed, then you're beginning to understand.
Rabbits are very gentle creatures unless pushed past their breaking point. They are also very delicate animals, both physically and emotionally, so if you have a bunny, you need to try to understand what he/she is trying to tell you - they do communicate, they're just very subtle.
Rabbits are prey animals, so they are quiet. They are not silent, however, and if you listen carefully, you may hear vocalizations - this is your rabbit talking to you, and thinking that you understand. (Editor's note: your humble webmaster took years to figure out that his alpha female was criticizing the way she was being touched during petting sessions, and he finally figured it out and got it right, and now the alpha female has become quite the chatterbox about every topic under the sun).
This is Tamari. She was deathly afraid of humans when I first got her, but she learned over time that I wasn't a threat, and she always had Trapper to protect her (until he left, and then she became the Alpha and the rules changed - mostly, the rule that defined me as the "alpha mammal" was up for debate whenever she wanted to challenge my role).
They do a lot of communicating with each other without making sounds that will attract predators. This includes body language, thumping, slow blinking of the eyes, and physical contact. Communicating with your rabbit is very different from communicating with a dog or cat (which are both predators). If you are new to bunnies, please read this page.
Note: Although it is common for a bunny to be quiet in general, some bunnies (especially those comfortable around humans) are quite vocal - using grunts and snorts and huffs and whuffles (and all the other words for their utterances), some bunnies can be chatterboxes. If you have a chatterbox, try to clear your mind and understand what they're saying - you're bunny is talking to you, so it's only polite to listen). The quiet ones also talk to you, but listening to them is an art unto itself.
Tamari was a total chatterbox, and was always criticizing everything I did. At least she respected me enough to talk to me.
Rabbits are very social animals, and will appreciate living with other rabbits, as long as the other rabbits are not threats. Many rabbits do quite well with mates (male-female bonds are usually the easiest to achieve, but they should obviously be spayed/neutered first!), and will have much happier and more fulfilling lives. Every once in a while, a rabbit will express an interest in being an only rabbit (where their humans can give all of their attention to them) so usually, "bunny dating" is a good idea to see if two rabbits will get along. Please see the bonding page for information on successfully finding your bunny a friend.
Your relationship with your rabbit is based on trust. If you break that trust by mistreating the rabbit or failing to provide regular positive feedback, it will set your relationship back almost to the beginning. Once you have gained the trust of your rabbit you will really see what a wonderful animal he truly is.
Rabbits are often misunderstood by owners who know little about rabbit care, and invariably the rabbit ends up on the losing end of the deal. Many rabbits that wind up in shelters or set loose are simply misunderstood by their owners. Spraying is one unfortunate example of this. Sometimes people don't understand their rabbit's behavior and surrender it to a shelter because they don't know enough about their rabbit. Please take the time to understand a rabbit's unique behavior and you will see why they are the third most popular pet in the U.S. and U.K.
Other behaviors that are often misinterpreted by the uninitiated are nipping/light biting and boxing/clawing. Rabbits will often use their teeth to gently bite as a way of sending a message or of getting a grip on another rabbit as a show of dominance. Often these bites don't hurt that much but they can take you by surprise and it does take some getting used to. Sometimes rabbits will also give "hickeys" as a show of affection. Rabbits will also box (lunging with claws swinging) as a way to defend themselves if they are frightened. This should not be confused as aggressive behavior - in this case the rabbit is trying to push you away. Even after you are well-bonded with your rabbit, you may find it boxing as a way of showing frustration (such as if you are slow in getting a treat).
A note on destructive or messy behavior:
A note on punishment and animals:
There are two things you should be doing to try to accomplish your goals of discouraging bad behavior - one is positive reinforcement when you get the behavior you want. The other is, if you catch your bunny IN THE ACT of doing something you don't want him doing, then you can interrupt the behavioral pattern - clap your hands, make a thump sound on the floor with your hand or foot, say "no, (bunny's name), no" (but DO NOT YELL at him). The idea is to distract him for long enough that he forgets what he was up to and finds something else to do. If necessary, gently shoo him away from whatever he's doing, but don't use force or anger. It takes time, but eventually he'll learn that certain behaviors get rewarded and others get interrupted, and hopefully he'll seek the rewards and not the distractions and interference. You have to be gentle about this, or you'll damage the bond you've built with him.
Punishing animals just won't work, and anyone who tells you otherwise is giving you very bad advice. I can't stress this enough. I also think it's doubly important when dealing with prey animals to NOT exploit fear as a method of training, or you'll wind up with a very stressed-out pet.
One thing to keep in mind: rabbits will always do rabbity things.
Interesting FactsHere are some other interesting things about rabbits that you should know:
Communicating With Your Bunny
Here is a listing of some of the most common rabbit behaviors that you can interpret:
This means "leave me alone"; it can also be accompanied by lunging or scratching to fend off potential attacks, so you should heed the warning. You may also discover that you just have a very vocal chatterbox, and you'll find out soon enough. Some bunnies are fairly vocal with grunts, snorts, whuffles, coos, and many other sounds that you might not expect, since other rabbits never make a sound. The vocal rabbits are usually just criticizing everything you do.
Most rabbits use this when they want to be put down and allowed to run free. It is also used for criticizing humans in general, such as how they are petting or approaching.
This is an indication that the rabbit is either in extreme pain or great danger. If not in great danger, this means you need to get your bunny to the vet - it may be dying. (It is theorized that one of the reasons a dying rabbit may scream is simply to draw predators to finish the job and stop any suffering; it is not necessarily an indication that its death comes at great suffering).
This is a sign that the rabbit is very happy, but is hard to describe - it sounds a little like cooing or soft grunting, but without aggression. You can hear an example of a happy noise made by a bunny named Simon here. (Click on the image of musical notes) (NOTE: this recording is now included in a natural museum in England) (NOTE: if you play this sound and your bunnies hear it, they may go nuts with glee)
Rabbits purr by grinding their teeth softly (usually a series of soft rubbing sounds that are fairly subtle).
When a rabbit grinds its teeth in a crunching fashion, this is an indication that it is in pain, and you should take your rabbit to the vet immediately for treatment.
This is a greeting, show of approval, or request for attention
This is how a rabbit smiles
Also called a "happy dance", rabbits do this to express sheer joy. Sometimes a binky takes the form of a bunny jumping up, kicking out it's legs, and spinning around. Sometimes it's a simple hop upwards. Sometimes it's a full-body wiggle with the upper paws off the ground (almost like a dog shaking off water). Maybe all you'll see is a subtle butt-wiggle. Whatever form it takes, there's no mistaking that it is the act of a happy bunny. You can see one picture of a binky caught in mid-air here.
This is a sign of pure contentment and happiness with his surroundings, and is quite an amusing and endearing sight. Usually a flop is followed by a nap, unless the humans find it so irresistible that they must then pet the bunny, preventing the nap.
Both male and female rabbits will mark their territory this way, and there are scent glands under the chin for scent-marking in this manner. This can also mean "I will eat you later".
This is how rabbits communicate danger to other rabbits, and also annoyance with their humans. Please understand that one of the things the bunny may be annoyed at is the lack of attention from humans - thumping is often a cry for attention from bunnies that don't see their humans that much. Thumping is done by raising a hind foot and slamming it down on the ground or floor.
Rabbits lick their humans as a show of affection, in much the same way a dog does. Sometimes this licking is accompanied by gentle biting (chewing, actually) which is a form of social grooming - this should not be confused with aggressive biting!! (Note: not all rabbits lick - if your rabbit doesn't lick you, it doesn't mean he doesn't like you, just that he's not a licker).
Circling is a form of courting behavior, but it also means your rabbit wants a treat or some attention, or simply that he's excited because he knows a treat is coming.
Your bunny is enjoying his freedom and letting off steam.
Your bunny is annoyed with you and you should leave him alone. This is the quintessential "rabbit punch" - a one=two swipe at you, or perhaps both paws at the same time.
Some bunnies will lunge at you, particularly if they are in their cages. This kind of behavior is also known as "cage protectiveness" and usually develops when a bunny has been abused and spent most of his life in a cage, so because it's the only thing he considers his own property, he will defend it and may also try to tell you that he doesn't want to have contact with you (probably due to prior abuse that has instilled fear in him). If you want to try to get the bunny past these fears is to simply hang out very close by (such as lay on the floor right next to the bunny's cage, speak gently to him, and in general be a part of his surroundings without being either a threat or an intruder. After a while he should get more comfortable with you and become more friendly AND take more advantage of his freedom to wander around when given exercise time.
Bunnies bite for numerous reasons, and it doesn't necessarily indicate aggression. Some bunnies will bite to say "you're in my way", or to say "stop what you're doing". They may even try to use their teeth to push your hand out of the way (another way of them telling you to leave them alone). There is a wide range of behaviors that can all fit the category of nipping - anything from gently touching their teeth on your hand (most likely if you're petting them) to an all-out bite that goes through the skin and digs deep into the muscle tissue - if you get that kind of bite, you clearly have a bunny that is either extremely afraid or in extreme pain.
Rabbits stand up like this to get a better view of things (such as, what is on a coffee table, because there might be treats up there). The will also do this to beg for treats.
Besides doing this as part of playtime, if you're lucky enough to have free range rabbits that can get on your bed, you may find this behavior at 4:30 AM - we've found that this invariably means there's no more food and you need to get up and feed them. Other meanings of such behavior are meant to get your attention - perhaps your bunnies want attention, or they're just mischievous. They may even be inviting you to a game of "hide and seek" - if so, you've already lost.
RabbitWise's page on rabbit behavior and what it means
CircusWatch.org's article on animal emotions
The San Diego House Rabbit Society's index page of articles
Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society's page on understanding rabbit behavior
Sacramento House Rabbit Society's page on intrpreting your rabbit's behavior and body language
Rabbit Advocates' page on understanding your rabbit's behavior
The House Rabbit Society's page on understanding your bunny's communication
A must read for anyone interested in really interacting nonverbally with their rabbits.
The House Rabbit Society's thorough discussion of rabbit behavior and personalities, and has a wonderful example of the sense of humor rabbits have (a sequence of captured video stills)
The House Rabbit Society's collection of resources for veterinarians.
Some good articles to start with right here, and probably a good site for you to bookmark and return to.
Purdue University's site for the psychology of all aspects of the human-animal bond.
The House Rabbit Society's FAQ on agressive bunnies.
Wisconsin House Rabbit Society's article on rabbits that bite and how to deal with them.
The House Rabbit Society's article on dealing with a rabbit that seems "mean".
Understanding what your rabbit is saying to you. Also proper handling is covered.
Articles on all types of rabbit care.
VeterinaryPartner's article on rabbit behavior
The Rabbit Charity's article on rabbit sensory systems
Dana Krempels's article on rabbit vision
The Wisconsin House Rabbit Society's article on rabbit vision
VeterinaryPartner's article on rabbit behavior
The Rabbit Charity's article on rabbit behavior
A rather amusing take on interpreting your rabbit's body language and behavior
CircusWatch.org's must-read on animal emotions