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Agressive Behaviour In Rabbbits - Rabbit Welfare Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund

It's a sad fact that many rabbits are rehomed for aggressive behaviour because many owners feel that there is nothing they can do. This section explains how aggressive behaviour can be prevented, and what to do if your rabbit is trying to bite you.

When aggression is normal

  • Rabbits in the wild are prey animals. If they feel under threat from a predator they have three options - to freeze, to run away or to fight. Having eyes on the side of the head for all round vision and large ears for picking up the slightest sound helps the rabbit to spot a predator and get away as quickly as possible. If caught, the rabbit will use its teeth, long claws and powerful back legs to fight for its survival.
  • Wild rabbits also use aggression to defend territories against rival groups of rabbits. Female rabbits will sometimes fight to the death for nest sites and can be very aggressive in the later stages of pregnancy or when they have young in the nest.

Rabbits will only stay healthy if they have the correct diet. Follow the guidelines in the Feeding section of this booklet and don't let your rabbits get fat. Overweight rabbits can develop all sorts of problems including flystrike.

Aggression in pet rabbits: why does it happen?

  • If a rabbit has not been accustomed to handling when it was young, it can view its owners as a threat when they try to pick it up or stroke it. In these situations, rabbits will use similar behaviours to those shown in the presence of a predator. They will either freeze, try to run away or show aggression. When there is nowhere for them to run, they cannot avoid contact altogether so they are left with aggression as their last line of defence.
  • Some rabbits can show aggression towards their owners when a hand is placed into their enclosure to fill their food bowl or to remove dirty bedding. To the rabbit this is seen as an invasion of their territory so they treat the owner's hand as a threat and display territorial aggression.
  • Un-spayed female rabbits can display aggressive behaviour towards their owners or perhaps companions during the spring – rabbits' natural breeding season. This aggression is hormonal and indicates a normal desire to defend her territory and ward off any rivals. This behaviour can often disappear by the end of the summer and may not reappear until the following spring.
  • Rabbits can often be aggressive when they are in pain. Regular check-ups with your veterinary surgeon can ensure that your rabbits are not unwell or suffering from any condition that may make handling uncomfortable.
  • Pain when handling: incorrect housing can cause spinal deformities leading to pain ie being confined to a hutch.

Rabbits can often be aggressive when they are in pain

How to prevent/reduce aggressive behaviour in pet rabbits

  • Provide rabbits with sufficient space to enable them to exercise regularly, with areas to explore and hide in, to keep them stimulated.
  • A rabbit that is used to being around people and handled regularly from a young age is less likely to become aggressive towards its owners.
  • Train your rabbit to like being with you! Clicker training may work very well - talk to an animal behaviourist if you need advice.
  • Learning to pick up a rabbit correctly can prevent the rabbit feeling afraid of you, and trying to avoid contact at other times. There are many right and wrong ways to pick up a rabbit but as a general rule one hand under the front legs supporting the chest, while the other is under the rabbit's bottom, taking the bulk of the weight. Never scruff a rabbit (holding by loose skin on back of the neck) or forget to put a hand under its bottom –if a rabbit feels unsafe it will struggle and if dropped, may suffer severe injuries.
  • Neutering a rabbit when it is young can prevent the development of certain types of aggression. This can be discussed with your veterinary surgeon. Refer to the Neutering section of this booklet.

Think about it...
Rabbits are prey animals. The only time a wild rabbit leaves the ground is when it is about to be eaten! So, although you can and should train your pet rabbits to tolerate routine handling, they may never enjoy being picked up and cuddled.

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