With special thanks to Wolf
and Katherine Milligan
Rabbits are a talkative bunch. Not only do they natter on about their moods and what is going on, they like an audience. They want us to pay attention. It isn’t just noise…they are communicating, and as their friends, we can learn a lot about these smart, funny, and loving beings by learning their language. Rabbit communication isn't hard to figure out, once you know what to look and listen for.
Sounds and Vocalizations
Hoomans unfamiliar with rabbit communication think they’re quiet as a mouse. Think again. From personal experience, while not all rabbits make all of these sounds, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear them.
PURRING or CHATTERING is that little clicky sound rabbits make, and when nice and quiet it is a sign of contentment. Purr back at them…they’ll understand!
GRUNTING isn’t always bad (see below). When Sunny Bunny is arranging things in her room, such as towels, she grunts while she puts everything in just the right place.
HONKING is similar to GRUNTING and not always bad. Sunny honks when she is excited about food. She’s a chubby bun and LOVES food. She also BINKIES when she sees us coming with breakfast or dinner. More on BINKIES shortly.
GRUNTING is exactly what it sounds like it would be. Your rabbit is angry, and is warning you of an imminent charge, bite, or other aggression. You are in trouble, and you better make it right. This can escalate to TEETH BARING, to a CHARGE, and even to a BITE if you do not stop offending your rabbit. You will probably be shunned for a bit after such an episode, and an apology is in order. No, we are not kidding. A little groveling is appropriate. There are anomalies to this like the one we mentioned in the Happy Sounds section.
TOOTH GRINDING is definitely something to pay attention to, and fast. This is a sign of pain, and you need to call the vet for a full work up. Those teeth are often the culprits – dental care cannot be emphasized enough. Seriously. Don’t ignore tooth grinding.
SCREAM – do we even need to define this one? Probably not, but when you hear a scream, run run run to your rabbit and see what is going on. Take your phone with you and start finding the number for the vet while you are rushing to your rabbit’s side. Your rabbit is terrified, and something truly bad has happened.
HONKING has a few meanings. It can be a mating behavior. If your bun isn’t spayed or neutered, he may honk at your or his favorite gorilla slippers like my buddy Basil did.
Some rabbits MUTTER to themselves. It sounds just like someone who has lived alone for a long time and has developed the habit of grumbling and sighing. A rabbit who mutters is unhappy or angry like when you cleaned their room. Their room was perfectly fine the way it was, thank you very much.
Vocalizing isn't the only way loveable lagomorphs tell us what they think. Rabbit communication requires that we do more than just listen, we have to watch too. Rabbits are quite capable of having dialogues with us, once we know how to speak their language.
Everyone who has been around rabbits knows about the BINKY…that leap for joy that our friends do when life is oh-so-good. This dance can include dashing about, twirling, hopping, twisting…really quite a celebration.
THE FLOP is what we call it when a rabbit throws herself over on her side rather suddenly. It is adorable, and means your friend is happy and maybe just had a great romp.
Does your bun resemble a LOAF of bread? The LOAF position means she is comfy and wants to half-nap, just like our beloved Spokesrabbit, Belinda.
Rocky (in front) loafs. Pippi and Sunny are flopped.
UPSIDE DOWN, FEET IN THE AIR means extreme happiness and worn-outedness. Yes, worn-outedness is a real word. I just made it one. It fits like no other words would. Your rabbit has probably just had the zoomies, run all over the house at top speed, and had a lovely time. She is now reliving the moment in her head.
BRICK position refers to that pretty typical pose, lying flat on the ground with legs sticking out. This is just a typical, relaxed, Zen kind of pose. Nothing upsetting, nothing exciting going on - your rabbit is just thinking about philosophy and quantum physics, maybe composing a haiku. I love it when their little leggies are all stretched out.
Does your rabbit get close to you and rub his chin against you? CHINNING is a sign of affection and, well, ownership. Take it as a compliment. Rabbits have scent glands under their chins, and they rub their scent on things they want to claim. Consider yourself claimed.
The NOSE BUMP is a demand for attention. My truple NOSE BUMPS me a lot while I’m working as my office is in their room. When I feel a NOSE BUMP, it’s time to take a break from writing blogs. Sometimes I might give them head scritches or “groom” them. Groom in this case doesn’t mean getting out the nail clippers and soft brushes. Instead, run your fingertips along your rabbit’s forehead (from front to back only), massage the base of the ears or maybe the back of the jaw. If you, do it right, you may get a PURR (see vocalizations and sounds). Don’t put your hand under your rabbit’s head: this is a demand that you be groomed in return, and, well, it’s just presumptuous. Ears used to respond in kind to a groom, but we noticed the amount of time we spent grooming increased compared with the time he groomed us. Oh well. Rabbits are narcissists.
STANDING ON HIND LEGS or PERISCOPING was originally just for getting a better look around out in the meadow. For our house rabbits, however, it proves to be such good treat bait (what human can resist?), and often becomes a begging behavior. Don’t fall for it, at least not often. Rabbits are smart – they do figure out how to manipulate us, and when goodies are involved, they can be relentless. I can’t resist bunny begging.
The rate at which NOSE WIGGLE is happening can show you your rabbit’s current level of interest. Fast wiggle – something is interesting. No wiggle – nothing going on here, I’m daydreaming. Fast wiggle with sudden stop –something caught your rabbit’s attention and has just become confusing. Your rabbit is taking a moment to contemplate and is deciding whether there is a threat or not.
Smelling is important when getting to know someone, so you might see a lot of nose action when your rabbit is making new friends. SNIFFING, however, is little sharp inhalations or exhalations, meaning indignation. Exasperation. Dismissal of your ridiculous self. It means just what it does when we do it. Think of your uppity great aunt, and that noise she makes when she disapproves.
GIVING YOU THE BUTT means you have been very disrespectful, and your rabbit is done with you until you mend your ways. This comes in a few versions of escalating severity. Depending upon how big an oaf you have been, your friend may turn away from you but look over one shoulder, with ears at half-mast. If you do not respond appropriately, the head will face away from you, the ears will go all the way down, the tail will face you completely, and there things will stay until you have repented. Abigail's brother, Bentley, gave Dad the butt for some unknown reason.
THUMPING with those powerful back legs is a big disapproving rabbit move. It means they are unhappy with the situation, and you are supposed to fix it right now. Make the terrible thing go away, human. Our writer, Abigail, thumped when she smelled wildfire smoke.
SCATTERED DROPPINGS, not all in a nice tidy pile, are a way of claiming territory. This most often happens when a rabbit comes into a new place (not just a new house, but a new room, or even a new corner). It almost always happens if a new rabbit joins the family. Your rabbit is just saying “mine, mine, mine.” Sunny is sure to SCATTER DROPPINGS around her Christmas tree. Yes, our rabbit has her very own tree, year-round.
CIRCLING YOUR FEET is a compliment or shows happiness. For instance, when my buns get their bedtime snack of Small Pet Select pellets, they circle our feet. CIRCLING can also be a mating behavior, and your rabbit is “in love.” Um, has your rabbit been spayed or neutered? If not, please do so.
SPRAYING and PULLING OUT FUR/COLLECTING NEST MATERIALS are behaviors related to mating and nesting. If your female bun has a false pregnancy that’s hormone-induced, you can see them do this. Even spayed buns have been known to do this.
Watch Those Ears
Rabbit ears are complicated. Are they up? Partly sideways? Sideways? Partly back? Fully back? Way way back? Is the fold facing in? Out? All of these ear poses are examples of rabbit communication messages, loud and clear.
Unfortunately, lop ears can’t do all the things that standy-up ears can, but the intention is there. So, watch a little more closely, especially near the base.
Sunny Bunny and Pippi
Context is everything. Forward facing ears can mean happy excitement or can be at full attention trying to figure out if that thing is a predator or not. Ears headed back can mean relaxation or anger, depending upon degree. Read gestures considering the full environment and prevailing mood.
When sleeping, asking for attention, or just sitting around watching the world go by, your rabbit’s ears are most likely POINTED BACKWARDS, FOLDS FACING OUT, in a relaxed way. Not pulled back tightly, not flattened, but just at rest.
When PERISCOPING and checking out the window for the Small Pet Select delivery, those ears are most likely straight up, moving around and taking in every sound.
If angry, the ears go through several phases. You may see your rabbit’s ears HEAD OFF TOWARDS THE SIDES AND MOVE STEADILY DOWN as displeasure increases. If the situation does not improve, those ears start MOVING BACK, BEHIND THE HEAD. Ohhh, you are in trouble now. Watch the way the folds change from facing out to facing down. Uh oh. If you get to the point where the ears are FLATTENED AGAINST THE HEAD, you are most likely hearing some GRUNTING, and we advise backing away with your hands in the air and logging onto your Small Pet Select account to buy your rabbit a make-up gift.
Make-Up Gift Suggestions
Fearful rabbits will also have EARS PULLED BACK AND CLOSE TO THE HEAD, so you've got to read the situation.
If your rabbit’s ears are DOING DIFFERENT THINGS (one is heading off to the side and one is up, for instance), your friend is possibly unhappy. Something is going on, and it is worth checking into what may be wrong. Is she not feeling well? Is he in pain? Just having a dreadful day. Some rabbits normally have “helicopter ears” – ears going off in different directions, as if one side is standy-up and one not so much. Of course, this is perfectly normal for Hellies – they are a special case, and too cute for words. Those helicopter ears do not mean there is anything wrong at all – in fact, let’s just send a shout out to all the adorable Hellies!
Marcus has helicopter ears
Don’t you wish we could telegraph so much information with our ears? Wouldn’t it be fun to give someone the ear?
While rabbit communication may not include words, they’re communicating. Now you have an idea of what your rabbit really thinks. This may or may not be a blessing. Last note – don’t laugh at an annoyed rabbit, unless you want to get the butt turned to you, and you have a good apology lined up. Off you go! Time for quality time with your rabbit. Tell them we said hi.
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