Domesticated rabbits are one of the most unique and gentle animals on the planet. Aggression against humans is not natural for them. Even so, boxing, lunging or otherwise displaying harsh behaviors can be a real problem. It is easy to jump to conclusions about the cause but it is important to realize that the rabbit’s past might be responsible.
Surging hormones can cause aggressive behavior which increases the closer a rabbit gets to adulthood. If hormones are to blame, spaying/neutering (alteration surgery) will most often resolve it. Aggression that persists after a several week healing period, something else is likely to blame.
When Hormones Are Not To Blame
Aggression might not be obvious when a rabbit is initially rescued or rehomed. Rabbits are usually subdued because of the stress of being rehomed, at least initially. Once the animal has had time to settle in, aggressive behaviors can be a problem. Don’t get frustrated. Just imagine how difficult the rabbit’s past living situation must have been for him to behave in a way that is contrary to his base nature. If you have a rabbit showing signs of aggression, consider whether one or more of the following things might be responsible.
- Overcaging (kept in cage most or all of the time)
- Lack of exercise; lack of space to run and play
- Forced to live on wire mesh or other inappropriate/harmful flooring which causes pain and/or injury (these problems are often not noticed by humans because rabbits are experts at hiding pain and discomfort)
- Lack of socialization (has no animal partner and has had little or no compassionate social contact with humans)
- Outright neglect by human owners
- Bonded rabbits have begun fighting and owner has ignored the need to: separate them, resolve the issue and then rebond them (if rebonding is wise/possible)
- Abandonment by prior owners (dumping a rabbit or “setting him free” can cause trust issues, confusion, depression and aggression. Dumped animals often have to fight with predators or other animals when they are not used to doing so)
- Illness or injury, especially when not properly treated
- Ongoing or constant stress in primary living environment (human owners fighting or other chaos in the home, dogs barking or other loud/disruptive sounds, mishandling by unsupervised children or others who do not understand safe handling techniques)
- Being forced into environment with other animals when owner has not properly bonded them (this exposes the rabbit to recurrent fighting, injury and fear)
- Mishandling or unsafe carrying by humans (causes a lack of trust)
- Previous injury or harm caused by humans (causes a lack of trust)
- Being chased and/or cornered (forced into situations where the rabbit feels threatened or unsafe)
- Refusing to respect a rabbit (example: holding a rabbit that does not want to be held). NOTE: it is important to learn rabbit body language and respect what the animal is trying to say
- Irresponsible feeding/not enough hay/malnutrition
- Being hit (outright abuse), sprayed with water or otherwise subjected to physical “punishment”
Be Patient, Be Kind
Remember that you are just experiencing the animal’s defense mechanism. Like any living thing, he wants to protect himself from further harm. Disciplining the rabbit or being unkind when dealing with trauma-based behaviors will only make matters worse.
A rabbit that comes from an unpleasant environment will sometimes box or lunge at you, make grunting noises or even growl. It might take quite some time for him to realize that his new home is a a safe place. He no longer needs those defensive behaviors to survive, but he doesn’t know that yet.
In fact, a rabbit coming from an unkind environment has no reason whatsoever to trust a human. Your job is to start building trust by replacing the rabbit’s bad memories and experiences with good ones. He needs reasons to trust you, and he needs time to adjust.
What You Can Do
- Be gentle, even when the rabbit bites, lunges at your or scratches. Never punish him. You don’t want to reinforce his mistrust of humans or make the behaviors worse.
- Let him adjust to his new environment. If he retreats to hiding places or in a crate or cage, just let him be. Forcing yourself into his space will just make it harder for him to adjust.
- Closely follow the do’s and do-not’s of bringing a new rabbit home (excellent information about what to do after bringing a rabbit home is documented in Jana Brock’s paperback book, Bunny Conversations ~ The Entertaining Dialogue of Pet Rabbits. The $9 paperback version is available on Amazon by CLICKING HERE).
- Spend a lot of time quietly sitting near his primary enclosure with the door open. Let him approach you. This may take time. Always bring a healthy, rabbit-safe treat with you when you sit near him so that he associates you with something he likes. This is a type of positive reinforcement that is quite effective – even if it takes time for him to come get the treat from you (the first few times, you may have to toss the treat close to him and then back away. He will eventually come out and get it).
- Keep his new environment quiet and slowly let him get used to house noises (keep music and television turned down, keep voices down, keep him away from noisy children and other animals, et cetera).
- Protect him from what he perceives to be dangerous or stressful. Meaning, do not “pass him around” and let others hold him or closely interact with him until he feels safe. You will know when he feels safe, as he will approach you and others on his own.
- Wash your hands if you have handled other animals prior to sitting near his cage – make sure other animal scents are not on you when you are near him.
- Do not “rush” your hand up to his face or head. Rabbits have a blind spot directly in front of their face. If you must approach the rabbit, do so slowly and from the side of the head so that the rabbit can see your hand. If he cowers or backs away, do not continue trying to pet him. (The book, Bunny Conversations by Author Jana Brock, has more information on this topic).
- Do not try to grab him from behind. Always let him see you are near him and move very slowly. Even rabbits that do not have a harsh past do not like to be surprised.
- Feed at designated times (morning and night is good practice). This is often overlooked, but rabbits form habits and know when it is feeding time. Be there on time. They will learn to associate you with someone they trust and can count on for what they need.
- Be respectful of things that adversely affect the rabbit…and do not do those things around him. For example, loud music, clapping hands, whistling, et cetera.
- Be kind. Be patient. Understand best care practices and provide consistently responsible care.
There are other techniques to use, including tips and tricks, when working with an aggressive rabbit. In the interest of space we could not list everything here.
Rehabilitating Rabbits – Not For Everyone
Rescuing and rehabilitating rabbits that have aggressive behaviors is rewarding work, but it is not for everyone. It might require a commitment to a very long rehabilitation process. Some rabbits settle into healthy environments in a matter of weeks. For others, it might be months or even years. Some rabbits never recover from harsh beginnings. In those cases, new owners just have to work around the behaviors.
If you have acquired a rabbit that is displaying aggressive/defensive behaviors and you are unable to care for him (no judgment – this is not always an easy task), find someone who can.
Many private rescuers with rehab experience are very skilled and successful resolving aggression problems. They are not all registered as 501(c)(3) businesses. The designation of 503(c)(3) does not determine whether or not someone is experienced or qualified to do rehabilitation work. Check with your local Humane Society or House Rabbit Society to see if they have someone they can refer you to. Just be certain that whomever you relinquish the animal to will be kind. They need to have at least a basic understanding of these animals or be willing to learn very quickly.
For more information about dealing with aggression in rabbits, watch for our future articles in this Rabbit Rehab series (access by using the pull-down menu “About Rabbits” atop this page, and click on “Rabbit Rehab Series“). Thank you for being kind to animals. It matters!
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