Behavior Essentials: The European Rabbit

Key Points

  • Rabbits are prey species.
  • Wild rabbits live in underground burrows or warrens.
  • Rabbits use latrines.
  • Rabbits are crepuscular.
  • Rabbits are voracious eaters.
  • Rabbits practice coprophagy and cecotrophy.
  • Rabbits are highly social.
  • Rabbits are territorial.
  • Rabbits employ a host of non-verbal communication cues.
  • Although considered relatively silent animals, rabbits can emit a range of sounds.
  • Negative sexual behaviors peak during adolescence.
  • Neutering improves the pet quality of the domestic rabbit.
  • Adult rabbits are calmer and more predictable.

Introduction

Rabbits are popular pets and they can make wonderful household companions, however real-life rabbits share few similarities with the images that are prevalent in popular culture (Fig 1) (AVMA 2012, Edgar 2011, Harrman 1995). Unfortunately, these prevalent images can leave the novice with the mistaken impression that they understand this complex species (Mayer 2003).

Rabbit images in pop culture

Figure 1. Although rabbit images are pervasive in pop culture, a true understanding of the real-life rabbit is less common. Shown here, a Easter-time take on Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Photo credit: Elliott Brown (left) and Warner Brother’s Bugs Bunny on the big screen at Loew’s Jersey Theatre, Rob DiCaterino (right). Both images via Flickr Creative Commons.

Domesticated since the early 16th century, the pet European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) retains many of the behavioral characteristics of its wild ancestor (Vella 2012, Bays 2006, Cowan 1987). The main difference is that domestication has resulted in an animal that is not stressed by confinement (Vella 2012, Bays 2006).

The spectrum of behaviors possible in house rabbits are generally not observed, or possible, in rabbits confined to a hutch or small cage. House rabbits thrive when they are provided mental stimulation and adequate space for exercise (Bays 2012, Harriman 1995).

If you are reading this article as part of the Basic Rabbit Care Teaching Module, please read a portion of the prey species section as well as the sections on burrows, latrine use, social animals, and sexual behaviors. Then take the brief quiz to test your knowledge.

 

Prey species

Rabbits in the wild

Measurements of fecal pellet densities suggest that rabbits forage in open areas significantly more than areas with cover (Hulbert 1996, Palomares 1994). As the distance from cover increases, so does the risk of predation. In order to survive, wild rabbits remain vigilant and respond quickly to changes in their environment using an acute sense of smell, sight, and hearing. The alert rabbit may periscope up onto the rear legs using its senses to evaluate its surroundings (Fig 2) (Bays 2006).

The alert, vigilant rabbit may sit up on its hind legs.

Figure 2. The alert, vigilant rabbit may sit up on its hind legs, peeking up much like a periscope above the grass–or couch. Photo credit: Tom Phillips via Flickr Creative Commons (right). Click images to enlarge.

If a potential threat is perceived, some individuals will vocalize but most will raise an alarm by “thumping” or drumming the ground with the hind feet (Vella 2012, Mayer 2003, Harriman 1995). When another rabbit detects this warning signal, the body is flattened against the ground while lying very still to avoid detection. If freezing is insufficient to avoid detection, the rabbit will then run for the safety of its burrow using quick bursts of speed and rapid changes in direction (Fig 3).

If freezing is insufficient to avoid detection, the rabbit will run for the safety of its burrow.

Figure 3. If freezing is insufficient to avoid detection, the rabbit will run for the safety of its burrow. Photo credit: Bradley Gordon via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Research suggests that rabbits are able to assess their actual risk of predation and show a threat-sensitive physiological response (Monclus 2009). Although the “flight” response is the most common reaction to danger, characterized by tachycardia and fueled by sympathetic tone, “tonic immobility” (TI) is the appropriate response when there is no means of escape from predation. During TI the rabbit is not merely “frozen in fear” but a significant decrease in heart rate and changes in heart rhythm also occur (Giannico 2014).

Rabbits in the home

Many of the anti-predator behaviors observed in free-ranging rabbits are also seen in pet rabbits including thumping (Video 1).

Video 1. House rabbits most commonly thump to communicate fear or displeasure.

 

When approaching a house rabbit, there are some recommendations that can appear unusual to the novice but will help when making friends with this prey species. Click here for advice on the clinical approach to the rabbit.

    • Meet the rabbit on her level and on her schedule

A timid rabbit is much more likely to accept and approach a human who places themselves on the rabbit’s level (Fig 4). Once the human is in the rabbit’s home space, allow the rabbit to initiate contact (Harriman 1995).

Like many wary animals, rabbits often respond better when given a choice in coming closer to the human.

Figure 4. Like many wary animals, rabbits often respond better when given a choice in coming closer to the human. Photo credit: Daniel Hall via Flickr Creative Commons (left) and Wei Tchou via Flickr Creative Commons (right). Click images to enlarge.

    • Pet the rabbit like a rabbit


The standard greeting to a new dog or cat, cautiously placing a fist just beneath the nose, will not win points with most rabbits. The reasons for this are at least two-fold, and relate to the rabbit’s special senses. First, although rabbits possess an extensive circular field of vision, the positioning of the eyes creates a central, blind spot just beneath the mouth. Rabbits are also long-sighted. Excellent long-distance vision serves them well when watching out for predators, however they possess relatively poor near vision. This means that a human hand thrust towards a rabbit’s face can be quite startling. A hand in this area may also irritate the sensitive vibrissae or tactile hairs surrounding the nose and mouth (Davis 2013, Bays 2006, Krempels 1998).

When stroking a rabbit for the first time, approach directly from the top of the head, not underneath the chin. Rabbits groom each other around the eyes, top of the nose, top of the head, ears, and down the back so stroking them in these areas may be well received (Harriman 1995).

    • Most rabbits do not like to be picked up

As with other companion animals, early handling and socialization can play a crucial role in house rabbit interactions with humans. For instance, most rabbits do not enjoy being picked up unless they have been handled a great deal when very young (Fig 5) (O’Meara 2013).

Unless accustomed to such handling from a very young age, most rabbits do not enjoy being picked up.

Figure 5. Unless accustomed to such handling from a very young age, most rabbits do not enjoy being picked up. Photo credits: Bart Everson via Flickr Creative Commons (left) and Daniel Hall via Flickr Creative Commons (right). Click images to enlarge.

Burrows

Rabbits in the wild

The scientific name of the European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, literally translates as “hare-like digger of underground passages”. Most, but not all, rabbits live in burrows that have been dug in the ground (Fig 6) (Smith 2003). Some rabbit populations live above ground, using shrubs as hiding places when threatened (Smith 2003, Kolb 1991, Wheeler 1981). Whether rabbits normally spend the day above or underground probably depends on soil drainage, the ease of digging, and the likelihood of flooding (Thompson 1994, Mykytowycz 1965).

Burrow entrances are usually about 10 to 20 cm wide.

Figure 6. Burrow entrances are usually 10 to 20 cm wide. Photo credit: Katy Erira via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

A warren is a network of underground burrows (Bays 2012, Smith 2003). Female rabbits do the majority of digging within the warren (Smith 2003, Lockley 1964). The network of burrows is like a series of small, “apartment-like” dwellings in which six to eight rabbits and their young live. Colonies can be quite large, sometimes numbering several hundred rabbits (Vella 2012, Parer 1977).

Rabbits in the home

The domestic rabbit is hardwired to seek burrow life like its wild ancestor. Just as wild rabbits spend long periods of time in their burrow during the day, house rabbits often readily adjust to spending part of their day in a large pen or cage. Large PVC tubes, paper bags, dryer hose, and/or cardboard boxes all support the need to burrow (Fig 7) (Bays 2012). Just as the rabbit warren will have multiple exits, house rabbits tend to prefer open-ended hide boxes to indulge that desire for a quick escape.

Provide rabbits with something in which to burrow.

Figure 7. Provide rabbits with something in which to burrow. This untreated cardboard box (arrow) also allows chewing. Photo credit: Christal Pollock, DVM. Click image to enlarge.

In addition to the need for burrowing, domestic rabbits must also indulge their instinctive need to dig and chew. Female rabbits tend to be more prone to chewing and digging, even when spayed, however only pregnant or pseudopgregnant females attempt to dig very deep tunnels (Bays 2012, Vella 2012, Love 1994). Since these urges cannot be abolished, they must be diverted and redirected (Bays 2006). “Bunny proofing” prevents destruction of property while protecting the house rabbit from harm and offering appropriate items to dig or chew (Fig 8) (Bays 2012).

Like their wild ancestors, domestic rabbits will dig whenever given the opportunity.

Figure 8. Like their wild ancestors, domestic rabbits will dig whenever given the opportunity. Photo credit: Jannes Pockele via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Latrine use

Rabbits in the wild

As a creature that spends a significant portion of its day in its burrow or “den”, the wild rabbit prefers not to soil where it eats or sleeps. Instead rabbits eliminate in latrines or shallow, horseshoe-shaped “scrapes” in the ground, which signal the territory of their warren (Bays 2012, Vella 2012, DOE 2005). Adult males or “bucks” also deposit strong-smelling hard feces in scattered places to mark their territory” (Vella 2012).

Rabbits in the home

Fortunately house rabbits also tend to urinate and defecate in the same place each time. This habit of picking a latrine spot means most pet rabbits are relatively easy to litter train. Keep in mind that the goal of litter training the house rabbit is for the individual to urinate in the box. Defecation is a fairly continuous, passive process in healthy rabbits (Bays 2006). Not all fecal balls will be deposited in the litter box (Fig 9) (Bradley 2000).

The presence of fecal balls outside of the litter pan is NOT a sign of poor training in the rabbit.

Figure 9. The presence of fecal balls outside of the litter pan is NOT a sign of poor training in the rabbit. Owners should simply keep a broom handy! Photo credit: ‘msmornington’ via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Crepuscular nature

Rabbits in the wild

The semi-fossorial wild rabbit is “primarily nocturnal” (Bays 2006, Jilge 1991). Their active day usually beings in late afternoon or early evening, when rabbits emerge from their burrows and begin to feed. Wild rabbits stay up all night, and return to their daytime resting place, above or underground, soon after dawn. Rabbits rest through the morning hours, possible until mid-afternoon. How active rabbits are during the day seems to primarily depend on how hungry they are and therefore indirectly on population density relative to food supply (Thompson 1994).

Rabbits in the home

Interestingly, domestic rabbits have readily become diurnal due to exposure to noise, light, and of course feeding during the day (Bays 2006, Jilge 1991). House rabbits eat the most and are the most active at dawn and dusk (Vella 2012, Bays 2006). They are also most likely to display playful behavior during the early evening. When not playing or eating, house rabbits tend to rest quietly for long periods during the day, a schedule which suits the routines of many people quite well (Bays 2012, Harriman 1995). To minimize stress in pet rabbits, it is important to provide a consistent schedule and photoperiod (Bays 2006).

 

Voracious appetites

Rabbits have prodigious appetites, and the domestic rabbit should eat and defecate frequently and continuously throughout the day. Although house rabbits love to eat, they also have an instinctive need to forage just like their wild ancestor. Therefore it is important to provide foraging and environmental enrichment. Visit the House Rabbit Society website for a list of safe toy and enrichment sources (Bays 2012, Brown 2010, Brown 2009, Bays 2006, Harris 2001, Harriman 1995).

Pet rabbits are generally offered small amounts of pellets and produce early in the morning and then again during the early evening. Hay should be available at all times. Although barbering will not be discussed in any detail here, rabbits on a low fiber diet sometimes barber themselves. Self-barbering can also be an expression of stress or boredom (Bays 2006, Mulder 1992).

 

Coprophagy and cecotrophy

Rabbits in the wild

The business of feeding and processing food claims much of the rabbit’s time (Thompson 1994). Although wild rabbits emerge from their burrows at dusk and continue to forage all night, this species’ continual demand for nourishment has given rise to the practice of reingestion (Thompson 1994). Cecotrophy is the ingestion of cecotropes, also known as cecals, directly from the anus. These soft, sweet-smelling clusters are nutrient-dense and their ingestion is essential for normal rabbit nutrition. In wild rabbits, cecals are usually passed during periods of rest underground 3 to 8 hours after feeding (Hornicke 1989).

Rabbits in the home

Cecotrophy occurs, but is only rarely observed and recognized, in house rabbits (Video 2). When cecotropes cannot be ingested, due to an overweight body condition or infirmity, the perianal region can become soiled relatively quickly and the rabbit is also at risk for malnutrition. It is not unusual to see a rabbit occasionally munch on a dry fecal pellet.

Video 2. Rabbits ingest cecotropes directly from the anus.

 

Social animals

Rabbits in the wild

Wild rabbits live in large, stable groups, sometimes numbering several hundred individuals (Vella 2012, Parer 1977). Colony life is a complex system. The buck or male rabbit fights for dominance, and the winner claims the loser’s burrow and mate and he also gets to eat the best food. The dominant female or doe raises her young in the main warren, and she aggressively protects her nest. Other colony members assume various levels within the social hierarchy (Bays 2006, Smith 2003, Thompson 1994, Mykytowycz 1958).

Rabbits in the home

Like their wild counterpart, the domestic rabbit is highly social. Although a recent survey shows that many pet rabbits live in solitude (Mullan 2006), most experts agree that the need for companionship can only be partially met by humans. House rabbits should be kept in bonded pairs or trios whenever possible (Fig 10) (Bayes 2012, Bays 2006). Group housing is also a successful form of environmental enrichment in the laboratory setting (Hansen 2000, Whary 1993).

Domestic rabbits who have rabbit buddies often spend much of the day together—they’ll eat together, sleep together, groom together, play together, even hop into the litter box at the same time to poop together—Davis 2003

Like their wild ancestors, domestic rabbits tend to thrive in groups.

Figure 10. Like their wild ancestors, domestic rabbits tend to thrive in groups. Click image to enlarge.

Signs that a “single” rabbit may benefit from companionship and stimulation can include evidence of withdrawal or listlessness, or even hyperactivity and destructiveness (Vella 2012, Bays 2006, Whary 1993, Huls 1991). Stereotypic behaviors, such as pawing at cage corners, excessive grooming, wire biting, and overeating can also be observed (Bays 2006, Hansen 2000, Whary 1993).

Despite their social nature, life in a multi-rabbit household is not always harmonious. Rabbits can inflict serious wounds and even fight to the death. It is crucial that introductions be performed carefully, using forethought and close monitoring. The smoothest introduction tends to be between a neutered male and spayed female or a group of intact females (Bays 2012, Vella 2012, Harriman 1995).

In rabbit groups of three or more individuals, one individual can sometimes become a social outcast. This “loner” rabbit must be monitored carefully to ensure it gets enough food and is not overly stressed by its living situation. Barbering, when a dominant rabbit pulls hair from a subordinate, can also be observed (Bays 2006).

If a multi-rabbit household proves to be too stressful for the “loner” rabbit or is not a viable option, the rabbit can also form strong social bonds with a non-rabbit, non-human friend (Harriman 1995).

    • Guinea pig

Guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are sometimes selected as rabbit companions but there are potential drawbacks (Fig 11). Apparently healthy rabbits can harbor Bordetella bronchiseptica, which can make guinea pigs clinically ill. Healthy guinea pigs may harbor Pasteurella spp. Some rabbits also tend to “bully” their smaller guinea pig companion, creating stress and monopolizing resources (Vella 2012).

Guinea pigs and rabbits can sometimes make good companions.

Figure 11. Guinea pigs and rabbits can sometimes make good companions, but there are medical and possibly behavioral drawbacks. Photo credit: Chris Parfitt via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    • Cat or dog

A cat or dog can serve as a house rabbit companion, particularly when exposed to rabbits from an early age, however there are some important considerations (Fig 12) (Vella 2012). The dog must be mild-mannered and trained not to chase the rabbit if it runs. When pairing a cat and rabbit, it generally helps to match body size whenever possible. Introducing a very small rabbit to a full-grown cat is generally inviting disaster, however a large breed rabbit can also bully a smaller cat. Cats and rabbits of all ages should have their nails trimmed very short (Harriman 1995).

Because a single mishap can mean death, destruction and mayhem, these combinations require careful consideration and planning (Harriman 1995). Domestication also does not eradicate natural instincts of predator species, therefore all interactions should always be supervised by a responsible adult (Bays 2012).

Cats and dogs can make acceptable rabbit companions when exposed to this species from a very young age and consistently supervised by a responsible adult.

Figure 12. Cats and dogs can make acceptable rabbit companions when exposed to this species from a very young age and consistently supervised by a responsible adult. Photo credits: Alisha Vargas via Flickr Creative Commons (left) and Brent More via Flickr Creative Commons (right). Click image to enlarge..

    • Other

Small mammals, like caged hamsters and mice, as well companion parrots can also serve as rabbit companions. Even a stuffed toy can serve as a companion for select house rabbits (Video 3) (Bays 2006, Harriman 1995).

Video 3. House rabbit companions can dramatically improve the animal’s quality of life and can sometimes include inanimate objects like this stuffed toy. (Inanimate objects should be inspected regularly and removed if evidence of chewing is observed).

Territoriality

Rabbits in the wild

Territorial behavior in the rabbit is intimately related to reproduction. Males maintain territorial boundaries to protect females from other males, while females protect their burrow against other females (Thompson 1994).

Scent marking is a common, territorial behavior observed in both sexes in which glandular secretions are used to mark other animals and inanimate objects (Bays 2006, Harriman 1995). Gland size and the degree of marking are androgen-dependent, therefore these glands are more developed in male rabbits and males mark more frequently than females. Intact, dominant male rabbits scent mark more frequently than subordinates, and dominants mark most frequently in the presence of subordinate rivals (Hoffman 2010). Female rabbits will scent mark their kits, and does are openly hostile to other young, even pursuing and killing young from other colonies (Bays 2006)

  • The submandibular chin gland secretes up to 34 volatile compounds, including pheromones. Dominant rabbit secretions include 2-pheoxyethanol, which is the fixative used by the perfume industry. This special compound allows scent markings to persist for longer in environment (Vella 2012, Hayes 2003).The gland opens on the underside of the chin, and rabbits commonly scent mark items in their environment by chin rubbing or “chinning” (Fig 14). Chin gland secretions are precisely applied by dominant males onto all objects within their territory as well as the bodies of subordinate members of the group (Thompson 1994)
  • The inguinal glands are a pair of relatively large, pocket-like perineal glands that are often filled with a yellow-brown, ceruminous material. Rabbits scent mark with the inguinal glands by rubbing the genital area on an item (Vella 2012, O’Malley 2005)
  • Secretions of the anal glands coat the surfaces of hard pellets as they pass through the rectum, creating the classic ‘rabbity’ smell. Bucks regularly deposit droppings on strategic sites to mark territorial boundaries (Thompson 1994).

Territorial eliminations are an additional way to scent mark territory. Rabbits may leave piles of strategically placed fecal balls (Fig 13), and dominant males will also mark territory by spraying strong-smelling urine on objects and sometimes other rabbits.

Strategically placed fecal balls can be used to mark rabbit territory.

Figure 13. Strategically placed fecal balls can be used to mark rabbit territory. Photo credit: ‘Jastrow’ via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.


Rabbits in the home

All of the territorial behaviors observed in the wild rabbit can also be observed in the house rabbit (Fig 14). Territory is scent marked by chin rubbing and scattering fecal pellets at perceived territorial boundaries.

Scent marking is observed in house rabbits.

Figure 14. Scent marking is observed in house rabbits. Click image to enlarge.

Territorial scent marking is most prominent in intact male rabbits, which may urinate on their perceived boundaries or even caregivers. Chewing and digging can also be observed, particularly in does. Aggression between rabbits often arises from defense of territory (Bays 2012).

 

Non-verbal communication cues

The successful rabbit owner—and rabbit veterinarian–will become adept at reading non-verbal communication cues. Rabbits possess few muscles of facial expression, however they can express themselves eloquently through actions, such as thumping, or postures.

    • The relaxed rabbit: A relaxed rabbit may stretch out flat on its belly or flop onto its side with the hind limbs extended straight out (Vella 2012, Harriman 1995).
    • The alert rabbit: An alert rabbit may raise up on its rear limbs and scan the environment (Fig 2), but there are other more subtle signs. An erect tail communicates excitement. The underlying stimulus can be positive like a tasty treat or negative such as a potential threat. Ears that are directed up and forward are also seen in the alert rabbit. These signals may be combined with head bobbing, often performed as the rabbit tries to carefully evaluate a novel stimulus in its environment (Vella 2012, Harriman 1995).
    • The tense or fearful rabbit: Crouching is a tense posture, often seen with bulging eyes and flattened ears (Fig 15). This posture can communicate subordination or fear, as the rabbit tries to make itself look smaller by lying flat to the ground (Vella 2012, Harriman 1995).

      This rabbit’s body language (flattened body, ears back) suggests tension and/or fear.

      Figure 15. This rabbit’s body language (flattened body, ears back) suggests tension and/or fear. Photo credit: Daniel Hall via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    • Presentation for grooming: The rabbit sits flat with the feet tucked underneath, the head extended forward, and the chin may be laid out flat on the ground (Fig 16). This is how subordinate rabbits present themselves to their superiors, but this is also the position assumed by a dominant being groomed by a subordinate (Harriman 1995).

      A dominant rabbit may present its head beneath a subordinate’s for grooming.

      Figure 16. A dominant rabbit may present its head beneath a subordinate’s for grooming. Photo credit: Daniel Hall via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    • Ear shaking, head shaking, or body shudder: Often a sign of displeasure, ear, head, or body shaking can be done in response to an annoying smell or unwanted handling (Fig 17). This behavior can also be observed as the rabbit settles down and becomes relaxed enough to eat or groom.

      Head shaking can be a sign of displeasure in the rabbit.

      Figure 17. Head shaking can be a sign of displeasure in the rabbit. Click image to enlarge.

    • Nudging or nuzzling: The house rabbit often uses its nose to nudge or nuzzle its human’s hand or foot to seek attention or petting (Fig 18). When the rabbit has “had enough” it may also push the human’s hand away (Bays 2012).

      A rabbit seeking attention may nudge or nuzzle its human.

      Figure 18. A rabbit seeking attention may nudge or nuzzle its human. Photo credit: Josh Semans via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    • Licking: Licking is a sign of affection and social acceptance in the rabbit (Fig 19) (Bradley 2000, Harriman 1995). Mutual grooming or allogrooming, is believed to strengthen the bond between rabbits (Vella 2012, Love 1994).

      Licking is a sign of affection or social acceptance

      Figure 19. As with many domestic animals, licking is a sign of affection or social acceptance. Photo credit: Brent Moore via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    • Nipping: Nipping is frequently perceived as an expression of anger or annoyance, however it can also be done merely to solicit attention (Fig 20) (Harriman 1995).

      Shown here, a rabbit lightly nipping his human’s finger.

      Figure 20. Shown here, a rabbit lightly nipping his human’s finger. Click image to enlarge.

  • “Happy Hop”: During the “happy hop”, “binky”, or “dancing” the rabbit runs around quickly and kicks up its rear limbs, possibly leaping into the air with all four feet off of the ground. “Happy hops” are most often observed during the early evening and are considered an expression of exuberance in the domestic rabbit (Video 4)(Bays 2006, Harriman 1995).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmft43qUPaM

    Video 4. The “happy hop” or “binky” is considered a sign of exuberance

Sounds

Like postural cues, most vocalizations produced by rabbits are much better understood and more widely described in the house rabbit.

    • Purring, tooth purring, or clicking: A series of light, quick vibrations of the teeth create a low-pitched hum or “purring” while the whiskers quiver (Video 5). Tooth purring is often activated by gentle stroking behind the ears and signifies contentment or relaxation (Vella 2012, Harriman 1995).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6WruNjy0iE

      Video 5. Tooth purring or clicking indicates contentment or relaxation

 

    • Honking or oinking: “Honk” or “oink”-like sounds are most often created to gain attention (Video 6). Since rabbits seem to draw very little distinction between sexual and social behavior, honking is typically associated with the desire either for food or courtship, even in neutered rabbits (Harriman 1995).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kNzfRwdUjI

      Video 6. Rabbits can “honk” or “oink” to gain attention.

 

    • Wheezing or sniffing: “Talkative” rabbits sometimes create nasal sounds that can be confused with respiratory noise (Video 7). These vocal sounds are intermittent, however, and are stimulated by social interaction with the owner.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pwA5WrkEEE

      Video 7. Vocal rabbits sometimes create a nasal sound that can be confused with respiratory noise

 

    • Whimpering or low squealing: Rabbits, particularly pregnant or pseuopregnant does, sometimes create this fretful noise to indicate displeasure when being picked up or removed from the cage (Harriman 1995).
    • Snorting, short barking growl, or hissing: The snorting or growling rabbit often displays flattened ears and an erect tail. These warning sounds can be associated with fear and/or aggression and frequently precede lunging and biting (Video 8) (Harriman 1995).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFY90ZLSSDk

      Video 8. Snorting and growling are warning sounds. Note the grunt, lunge, bite sequence. Also note this person deserves to be bitten.

 

  • Teeth grinding or bruxism: Loud, slow teeth grinding or “tooth crunching” is often seen with illness or discomfort, particularly gastrointestinal pain. Although both teeth crunching and tooth purring (above) involve grinding of the teeth, the sounds are quite different. Context also helps to distinguish teeth crunching and tooth purring (Harriman 1995).
  • Screaming: This loud, shrill sound, which can resemble the sound of a human infant crying, denotes intense terror or pain (Video 9) (Vella 2012). In clinical practice, screaming is most commonly encountered in wild, orphaned baby bunnies.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxBL14eRK7U

    Video 9. Screaming baby bunnies. Note: The handlers should have spoken quietly and calmly while using a small towel to herd one youngster at a time into a corner for manual restraint.

Sexual behaviors

Puberty

The juvenile rabbit reaches puberty just after its maximal rate of growth. Therefore the onset of sexual maturity varies with the rabbit breed with smaller breeds reaching puberty earlier than large breed rabbits (Table 1). Does usually reach puberty before bucks.

Table 1. Typical age of onset of puberty in various rabbit breeds
Small breeds3.5-5 months
Medium-sized breeds4-6 months
Large breeds5-8 months

Sexual behavior in the buck

Sexual behavior in the growing buck frequently manifests as territoriality. Chinning is frequently observed, and even juveniles that were previously litter trained may urinate and defecate outside of the box. Bucks may spray urine on the floor, walls, furniture, other pets, and humans in the household. Males can also show signs of constant libido. The buck may attempt to mount and hump inanimate objects, human feet, and other pets, including dogs and cats, and this mounting behavior can lead to fighting among cage mates. Aggression is particularly prevalent among pubescent males, and serious injury can follow if rabbits are not separated (Bays 2012, Bays 2006).

Sexual behavior in the doe

Chinning, circling, honking or oinking, as well as nesting behavior, including destructive digging and chewing, are all frequently observed in the reproductively active female rabbit. Like the buck, the doe may also mount companions and spray urine. She will often display intense mood swings being more aloof, more irritable, and even aggressive towards other rabbits, other pets, and people as she protects her territory (Bays 2012). The doe may also display hyperactivity or restlessness that does not abate until she is mounted by the buck (Bays 2006).

Pet rabbits are often surrendered to shelters during adolescence (Fig 21). Many owners do not realize these negative sexual behaviors can diminish over time as long as they are properly addressed through sexual sterilization (see below), proper use of behavioral reinforcement, and appropriate environmental enrichment (Fig 21) (Bays 2012, Harriman 1995).

Many pet rabbits are surrendered during adolescence.

Figure 21. Although cute and malleable at a young age, many pet rabbits are surrendered during adolescence by owners that do not realize their negative sexual behavior can be a temporary function of adolescence when managed appropriately. Click image to enlarge.

Castration

By reducing hormonal influence on behavior, neutering the domestic rabbit improves litter box habits while reducing territorial aggression and other sexual behaviors like mounting (Bays 2012, Harriman 1995). As with other companion animals, it is prudent to neuter the rabbit while it is young as sexual behavior such as mounting can become a “habit” (Bays 2012). Spaying the doe while she is young also reduces the risk of uterine neoplasia.

Negative sexual activity usually begins to decrease after sexual sterilization within 2 to 4 weeks, and is usually absent in 2 to 4 months in males although this process can take 6 to 8 months in large breed rabbits (Bays 2012). Behavioral changes generally take longer in female rabbits when compared to males.

Beware that sexual behavior should decrease, but will not necessarily end with sterilization. Sexual behavior generally remains a basic part of the rabbit’s behavioral repertoire (Harriman 1995). For instance, both neutered male and female rabbits will continue to weave in and out of owner’s feet to gain attention as if ‘courting’ them (Bays 2012).

 

Life stages and breed differences

Young house rabbits are hyperactive and playful. Other terms frequently used to describe juvenile rabbits include “rambunctious”, “mischievous”, and “curious” (Bays 2006). After about 1 year of age, adult rabbits become more sedate and predictable with occasional periods of activity (Bays 2006).

Breed differences in personality may also be observed. As a general rule, large breed rabbits tend to be calmer than smaller breeds, which tend to be more excitable however there can be profound individual variations in personality. Domestic rabbits are generally considered geriatric after 5 to 6 years of age. Senior rabbits tend to sleep more and move more slowly (Bays 2006, Harriman 1995).

 

Conclusion

Rabbit behavior is complex, meeting at the fascinating intersection of taxonomy, anatomy, physiology, and husbandry. Much of the behavior exhibited by rabbits is instinctive, and closely resembles wild rabbit behavior. This semi-fossorial, prey species is extremely social, and most individuals thrive on contact with other rabbits. Rabbits communicate with each other and with humans via territorial marking, various sounds, as well as postures and actions. Finally, sexual behavior is an intrinsic part of the rabbit, but fortunately the negative sexual behaviors that peak during puberty, can usually be modified with time, careful management, and surgical sterilization.

 

Test your knowledge

As part of the Basic Level Rabbit Teaching Module, quiz questions cover several sections including prey species, burrows, latrine use, social animals, and sexual behaviors.

 

References