Advice from the expert: Rabbit behaviour

By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.

Rabbits are very unlike cats and dogs; they are a prey species which means their body language and behaviour can be different and seem unusual.

They are quiet animals so reading their body language and ear position can give us an insight into how they feel. An interested rabbit will generally have ears up and tilted towards anything they are listening to.

Relaxed rabbits generally sit and hold their ears at around 45 degrees to their body but can lie them flat along their back, the key is that their body will remain relaxed. Lop eared rabbits cannot lift their ears but you can see the rotation at the base. If sitting at rest, they can be in any position from legs tucked under them but with their posture relaxed.

A very relaxed and safe rabbit will extend legs out either behind them or even just lie flat out on their sides – this ‘dead bunny flop’ can look pretty scary if you find them like this but they will behave as normal if disturbed. This extension of their back legs is important, rabbits are prey species and by doing this they are putting themselves in a position where it will take some time to get up. They must feel safe to do this. Rabbits will sometimes present themselves to an owner or another rabbit by lowering their chest and lying their head on the floor. This is done to get the owner or other rabbit to groom them and is often the rabbit higher in the hierarchy that will do this – the more submissive rabbit will groom the more dominant. If a rabbit is alert, they will also have their ears raised, but less directional and more directly upwards to scan for any predators. Their ears can move separately, they can fix one ear on a specific sound and continue to scan with the other. They often sit in a more alert posture, legs underneath the body ready to run away from danger if needed. There will be more tension in the body, and this can be seen. It is often seen if they are introduced to a new area. If you are seeing this regularly in your rabbit it is worth making sure they have areas within their environment where they can feel safe. They may ‘periscope’, standing up on their back legs to increase their field of vision and their nose may twitch more rapidly as they take in any smells.

Signs to look out for

Animals in pain have certain behaviours we can look out for, but they can be fairly subtle, as a prey animal showing weakness can risk them being predated. If they have stomach pain, they will often press their stomach into the floor, often with their legs a little further behind than normal. Being hunched, reduction in exploring and exercising, tooth grinding and any changes to eating, grooming or toileting can also be signs of an issue. If you see any of these signs you should see a vet immediately. Very scared or aggressive rabbits will lie their ears flat in a similar position to very relaxed rabbits, making it important to view the body language as a whole. Unlike a relaxed rabbit, the scared or aggressive rabbit will be very tense, make themselves look as small as possible, have all four legs tight underneath them ready to attack or run away and will be low to the ground.

A rabbit likely to attack will raise and stiffen its tail, a common response if cornered and they feel they have no other option. If your rabbit is showing fearful behaviours, then it is important they have a safe place to feel secure. A dark, quiet shelter for them to be able to run into can make them feel more secure, this is particularly important in outside runs as they are often made of mesh, making the rabbit feel very exposed. Shelters should have at least two exits, stopping them from feeling trapped.

Handling your pet

Handling should be minimal; most rabbits are not keen on being picked up at the best of times and handling a frightened rabbit will likely lead to you being scratched or bitten. If you must pick them up and move them, using a towel to ensure they are safe and secure and to protect yourself from injury is advised. Avoid approaching them from above, approach them from the side where they are less likely to be surprised and lash out. Be aware they may kick out and if not handled properly they can do serious damage to their spine which can be fatal. Rabbits can make wonderful pets, but a good understanding of their behaviour and how to make them feel secure is essential to ensure they are as happy as we can make them.

Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).