Rabbits are too cute to be real. Furry little adorable beasties, with soul-searching eyes and tails that just make us squeeeee. What is cuter than a binky? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing. So what do we do when we run across an aggressive rabbit? What does an aggressive rabbit even look like? Why is this rabbit acting like this? Can we help this rabbit get back to being a happy, friendly bun?
Let’s address that last question first: yes, you CAN help an aggressive rabbit overcome the behavior. No rabbit is born a monster. An aggressive rabbit has learned to be aggressive in certain situations, or has ended up using aggression to get her point across because nothing else is working.
Working through aggression issues can lead to an incredibly rewarding relationship with your rabbit. As you learn to understand their “thought” process and body language, and work with them to establish trust and rules, you may end up being closer to your rabbit than people who never have to pay such close attention!
Why Does Rabbit Aggression Happen?
Aggression happens when a rabbit is frightened or feels threatened. The aggression may be directed towards humans, other rabbits, other animals (, , , etc.), or even objects (, , , , ... any number of things). Aggression is far more common and harder to overcome with rabbits who are “intact” (not spayed or neutered).
Overcoming aggression is not an overnight thing. It can take a week or more to see the first hints of progress, but don’t despair. Once you're on the right road, you will see improvements come faster and faster. There may be a few setbacks, or plateaus. Keep at it. It gets easier. And easier.
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER HIT YOUR RABBIT. Don’t even thwack or tap them on the nose. Nothing at all like that. Don’t smack them with newspapers or towel rolls. Never use a foot to kick away a rabbit who is biting your ankles. This will make the problem SO SO VERY MUCH WORSE. Remember, aggression comes from fear or a feeling of being threatened. You and your whole body must remain affectionate and friendly at all times. Seriously. This can’t be emphasized enough. Wear boots, or gloves, or both if you must. Negative training does not work on rabbits, and will feed the problem.
Body Language and Signals of Aggressive Rabbit Behavior
Is your rabbit scary? It happens. Perhaps your rabbit has been in shelter for a while, and has developed some bad habits. Or maybe his previous home wasn't so great. Maybe he is just bored, or very shy... but no worries, because again, this behavior can be changed.
Aggressive rabbits typically escalate their behavior; they give warnings, and those warnings keep getting more and more serious, until ultimately the rabbit will attack with teeth and claw. Let’s take a look at the typical warning signs, more or less in the order they might appear.
Watch that ear position! Happy ears are forward and relaxed. As a rabbit tenses, the ears move back, and the open part tucks under and back as well. If you are putting food down in your rabbit’s area and notice those ears go back and flat, you are being warned. A thump or even a charge may ensue, as your hand invades their space.
Your rabbit's telling you that whatever you're doing is suspicious or annoying. Stop and take inventory. This is a terrific opportunity to avoid more aggressive behavior.
It is a gift!
Your rabbit is annoyed and has developed a bad habit because nobody has listened to her less aggressive signals. Your rabbit can learn to nudge your hand instead, and you can learn to listen more carefully to more gentle signals.
“Get off me get off me get off me don’t touch me” Your rabbit’s personal space is being invaded. Your rabbit needs confidence that you will do no harm. Just spend lots of time and patience being soft and quiet and slow, and pay attention to where your hand and feet are, how your rabbit may be interpreting all that.
See “Thumping” above.
This can be a real problem, especially when coupled with ankle-biting. Your rabbit has been frightened or hurt by a human in the past, and has learned that chasing and biting are effective methods to get rid of the menace. Put your boots on and wade in. Your rabbit has to learn that you cannot be chased away.
Your rabbit feels he is in direct and serious danger. This is an attempt to protect himself. Put on the gloves and boots, and respond with affection, patience, and kindness.
Your rabbit is attempting to bite fully and deeply, and may hang on with those teeth embedded. If she can, she will use both front and back claws as well.
Your rabbit is, in her mind, fighting for his life. This is a rabbit in survival mode. Wearing boots and gloves, and learning proper methods of holding and petting this rabbit, can turn this behavior around and relieve the stress of your poor rabbit living in such fear. If you are an inexperienced rabbit owner, you may want to find some support in learning how to use positive reinforcement training. You can do it! (And we think it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do!)
Identifying Triggers Of Aggressive Rabbit Behavior
We've talked about what an aggressive rabbit does, and we know that a rabbit does not attack without warning. There are signals, most often several of them, that give us the opportunity to avoid escalated aggression and turn the situation around.
Let’s say you go to put a new toy into your rabbit’s ex-pen. As your hand moves down into the area, the ears go back. Stop right there. You got a signal, and now you can use this situation to modify your rabbit’s response!
Watch your rabbit closely. As soon as you see an unhappy signal, stop and evaluate the whole environment.
2. Type of Movement
3. Invasion of Space
4. Improper Handling
5. Dangerous Smells
Are you making a noise? Are you moving quickly? What are your arms and legs doing?
Are you “coming in from above” like a dangerous predatory animal would? Remember rabbits are not only prey, and therefore wary of anything coming from above, but your rabbit may have some bad experiences from a past home.
Rabbits don’t like to be picked up. Your rabbit may have been in a place where they were picked up often, or improperly. She may now have learned that hands coming from above mean being handled poorly.
Did your hand just appear suddenly in front of your rabbit’s face, and startle him? Rabbit have terrific distance vision, so they can identify and react to predatory threats. Their near vision, however, isn’t good at all. A hand in front of your rabbit’s face can be a startling threat. If we think like a rabbit a little bit more, we remember that rabbits get in each other’s faces as part of dominance negotiations… the submissive rabbit runs away. So your hand may also be interpreted by your rabbit as a dominance move. A submissive rabbit may run away, but a more confident dominant rabbit may nip or even bite.
Do you smell like something that might be dangerous? Rabbits have a great sense of smell, and we know they are not only super sensitive to predator threats but they also don’t like new stuff.
The smallest things can be triggers, and each rabbit has their own set of fears. It is important to take the time and think about every little detail, no matter how small. Use all the senses. Break down every factor into smaller parts. It could be that your rabbit is afraid of bracelets, because once she got a paw tangled up in one. Or maybe she’s afraid of eyeglasses, because a pair once fell on her and scared her.
Make some notes. Study each situation: feeding, opening the play area door, cleaning the litter box. Keep everything as constant as humanly possible. Eliminating variables will help you determine the triggers more quickly.
Modifying Aggressive Rabbit Behavior
We urge you to live by these rules when trying to change your rabbit's behavior:
Meet everything your rabbit does with affection and friendliness.
Use no negative reinforcement.
Don’t let the aggressive behavior chase you away.
One of the most important things you can do to start building a trust relationship with your rabbit is to stop picking them up. Yes, they are so darn cute, and our instinct as humans is to pick them up and snuggle them. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Think of how big and strong we are in comparison… and think of how helpless they are in our hands. Consider how much trust they must have before they can relax in to that kind of situation! Sit on the floor and give your rabbit the gift of choice. Allow them to come to you, climb up on you, by choice.
Respect their language. Pay attention to their signals. Understand what may be scary or upsetting.
But What If...
1. My Rabbit Goes For My Hand?
Your rabbit must learn that your hands are bringing good things, so your hands must always bring good things. In other words, your hands cannot bring a toy you have identified as scary into the play area. Your hands cannot bring the scent of a dog, if you suspect your rabbit is afraid of dogs.
Your rabbit must also learn that biting will not chase your hand away. Wear some thick protective gloves and when your rabbit charges, do not move away. While your rabbit is trying to bite your hand, stay still. When possible, use that gloved hand to gently stroke your rabbit’s head and forehead. Say soothing loving things.
When your rabbit calls off the attack for moment, give him so high value treats with that gloved hand.
2. My Rabbit Bites My Ankles/Legs?
Your rabbit must learn that your feet and legs will never kick out or do harm, and that biting is not a way to get you out of the area. Put on some boots. Move slowly. Allow your rabbit to do his worst, all the while saying soothing, friendly things. Do not move away. Move in… move closer.
With a gloved hand, reach down and stroke your rabbit’s head and forehead. (Even if your rabbit does not typically go after your hand, in this situation gloves are a good idea – your rabbit is in aggression mode and may lash out without noticing whether the target is a hand or foot.)
When your rabbit calls off the attack and gives in, even for a moment, use that gloved hand to feed a high value treat.
3. My Rabbit Lunges and Nips When I'm Trying to Clean the Ex-Pen/Litter Box?
Rabbits are very territorial critters, and also big on things not ever changing. They want things where they want them, and they don’t like any decorating advice. Make sure when you clean their area that everything goes back just the way it was, exactly as your rabbit likes it. Rabbits have a great sense of smell, so avoid any bedding that has been laundered with scented detergent and may smell foreign to them. Use only unscented litters. Just by respecting their space, some rabbits will learn that cleaning time isn’t a big deal.
If you are physically able to stand during the entire process, then put on those boots and gloves and have at it. Don’t swat your upset rabbit away. Hold your ground and allow him to do his thing. He can have a tantrum, you aren’t going to stop. Say nice friendly things. When he gives up, he gets a yummy from your gloved hand.
If you are unable to stand during the entire process, then is best to let your rabbit out to play, go in to the ex-pen, close the door, and do your cleaning. If you have to crouch or kneel, you open up unprotected leg area and you may end up injured. When you are done, your rabbit gets a treat, to show that good things happen when it is cleaning time.
Need some good options for yummies to help with aggressive behavior modification?
While rabbit aggressiveness may intimidate us, the good news is an aggressive rabbit isn’t hopeless by any means. With time, love, and attention, an aggressive rabbit can blossom into a loving and trusting member of the family.
We wish you and your bunzilla all the best in growing closer.