How do I understand my rabbit's behavior and what s/he is communicating?
Rabbits are usually silent but that does not mean that they have nothing to say. Body language is their primary mode of communication but they do make some vocalizations. In addition, rabbits are second language learners and can understand some human-speak. Their behavior and communication methods have evolved from their wild ancestors responses to their place in the animal kingdom as prey animals, their collective socialization patterns, and their individual dynamics of social behavior.
Characteristics of Prey Animals
Like most prey animals, rabbits come equipped with various predator detection and evasion enhancements. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads so that they can see almost 360 degrees around them. The sacrifice for this arrangement is a blind spot directly in front of the rabbit's face. Keep this in mind when you approach your rabbit or put your hand directly in front of his/her face. Rabbits will rely more on their senses of smell and hearing to identify you when they can't see you.
Another predator detection tool is their acute sense of hearing. Rabbits can hear up to a mile away. If something is amiss, they will stomp their hind feet to warn the warren, i.e. your household, that danger is about. You might recall Thumper in the movie, Bambi. Stomping can also have other translations. You'll have to rely on context and personal knowledge of your rabbit to interpret his/her meaning.
A rabbit's sense of smell far exceeds human capabilities and is used to monitor the environment for any whiff of predators. When a rabbit smells or hears something alarming, s/he will sit very still with ears arranged to catch sound from all directions and nose no longer twitching. S/he is deciding whether or not an escape effort should be executed.
All this constant scanning of the environment for danger and living on heightened alert makes rabbits easily over-stressed. To minimize stress, it is important to approach your rabbit in a calm, confident manner. Anxiety is particularly contagious to prey animals and if you communicate that you are anxious, your rabbit will respond accordingly.
To ease your rabbit's stress, speak to your rabbit as you approach so that s/he can identify you by the sound of your voice. Speak soothingly and in low tones. Place your hands where your rabbit can see what you are doing. Be careful about picking your rabbit up, making sure to support his/her hindquarters. Being picked up is frightening to most rabbits and many resist. In the wild if they are being picked up, most likely they are about to be eaten.
Rabbits speak to other rabbits and to humans by using extensive body language and a few vocalizations. Interpreting your rabbit's meaning or "personal dialect" depends on the context of the situation and you knowing your rabbit. The following general descriptions of rabbit language should help you translate.
Indicates anger or disapproval of a human's or another rabbit's behavior (invasion of their territory, for example) and may be followed by scratching or biting.
Translation: "Back off. Leave me alone. Put me down."
A soft, almost inaudible sound associated with courtship behavior; it is often accompanied by circling.
Translation: "Hey, hey, baby, would you be my girl or guy?"
A request for attention or a statement that the rabbit does not like something. It could also be a symptom of an upper respiratory infection.
Translation: "What do I have to do around here to get some pets? I'm annoyed. I may be sick."
Tooth clicking or "purring":
A light grinding or clicking of the teeth that indicates pleasure and contentment.
Translation: "I am a happy rabbit. I am completely relaxed and comfortable in my environment. I'll give you six hours to stop this wonderful stroking and petting."
Indicates severe pain, discomfort, or distress.
Translation: "I'm in great pain and need help."
Whimpering, squealing, and squeaks:
Are associated with pain and distress.
Translation: "That hurt! I don't feel well."
Some squeaking is done is close, intimate situations and is an indication of closeness.
Indicates mortal terror or severe pain.
Translation: "I think I am going to die and I'm terrified."
Non-Vocal Communication or Body Language
Your rabbit companion is still very influenced by his wild ancestors and demonstrates the
behavioral components to prove it. Prior to domestication, rabbits lived in groups called
warrens. To maintain peace and tranquility in their social groups, they established hierarchies
and systems of social etiquette. In the wild, males and females have separate hierarchies but
rabbits who live with humans do not necessairily form two separate ones. They do, however,
include their humans, whom they view as funny looking rabbits (FLRs), in the order of things.
This means that you must learn about rabbit dominance and turf.
Rabbits demonstrate dominance by mounting subordinates and by establishing who grooms whom. Grooming is often a one-way proposition, with the subordinate rabbit grooming the top rabbit but the top rabbit not returning the favor. Dominant rabbits may "barber" other subordinate rabbits by chewing off their whiskers. The rabbit with very short whiskers is the lowest rabbit on the totem pole. In all likelihood, your rabbit is going to top you on grooming and may not groom you back, but as with humans, some rabbits are less concerned with their social position than others and dispense with the grooming status rules by licking you back. As far as grooming goes, it is okay to be subordinate to your rabbit.
Turf, however, is another matter. Rabbits are territorial and defend their turf against intruding rabbits, including funny looking ones. As Top Rabbit, you need to make clear to your rabbit what is his/her space and what is your space because this defines your leadership position in the "warren". Failure to establish yourself as Top Rabbit will result in a poorly trained rabbit with accompanying behavioral problems. Unfortunately, this only results in increased cage time for the rabbit. Respect for each other's space must be mutual. For example, clean your rabbit's living quarters when s/he is out and about.
As a general rule of thumb about posture, the least prepared a rabbit is to leap up and run, the more relaxed s/he is. Here are typical rabbit behaviors and their translation.
Running through the house at top speed, alone or chasing you or another rabbit just for the fun of it.
Translation: "I'm playing and having a great time."
A jump straight up with a mid-air half turn and a twist usually executed in mid-run.
Translation: "I am joyful!"
Rabbit stands on hind legs with their dukes up and throws punches.
Translation: "One step further and I'll punch your lights out."
Pushing, pulling, and biting bed linens, towels, pillows.
Translation: "I like to organize until everything is just right."
Translation: "My ancestors dug out their own homes before there were house rabbits."
A natural behavior.
Translation: "I must keep my teeth ground down. I must clear away these vines (electrical cords, etc.) that are encroaching on the entrance to my burrow."
Rubbing secretions from the scent glands under the chin to mark their territory. The scent is undetectable to humans.
Translation: "I've been here. This is mine."
Circling around their human's feet or another rabbit can be part of a courtship dance or a means of getting attention. If other aggressive indicators are displayed, e.g. an erect tail and laid back ears, an attack is about to take place. Separate the rabbits immediately.
Translation: "I think I'm in love. I want you to notice me. I'm going to get you."
Exploring and play behavior.
Translation: "Indiana Jones has nothing on me."
A natural behavior.
Translation: "I must dig a burrow. I must clear a place to lay down. I must escape. I need some attention or I have to go to the bath room (usually done on their human's chest or lap)."
It may also be a displacement behavior when the rabbit is angry but not going to attack.
A rabbit's sonar to determine what is going on around them.
Translation: both ears forward: "Something has my complete attention."
One ear forward, one ear back: "I am listening to you and to something else."
Both ears back against head: "I am really scared right now. I am submissive. I am about to attack (tail is also erect and the body tensed)."
Third eyelid showing in the corner of the eye.
Translation: "I am uneasy. I am stressed. I am afraid."
Rabbit literally throws his/herself onto their side which looks like they just keeled over.
Translation: "Life is wonderful and I am ready to relax and take a nap."
Invitation/demand to be groomed:
Rabbit comes up to you, gives you a nudge, and puts his/her head down to the floor in an extended position with ears at the side of the head and awaits your attention.
Translation: "I am in the mood for love. Pet me now."
An expression of affection that has nothing to do with salt.
Translation: "I love you. I trust you."
A sign of disapproval.
Translation: "Hey, what is going on here? What are you doing (with attitude)?"
Mating or dominance behavior.
Translation: "I feel like making love. Let's not forget that I am top rabbit."
Feels like a little pinch and can mean several things. It is not the rabbit's intention to bite.
Translation: "I want your attention now. I like you petting me so I will groom you. Move out of the way now. This is a warning."
Rabbit bonks you with his/her nose.
Translation: "Pay attention to me. Pet me. Get out of my way."
Rabbit stands up on hind legs and looks around.
Translation: "I'm checking things out."
Rabbit is laying with belly next to the floor, rear legs stretched out behind and front legs stretched out in front.
Translation: "I'm relaxed and comfortable but I can move quickly if necessary."
When erect, a sign of interest or aggression.
When wagging, it's a form of defiance or back-talk.
Translation: "Wow, that's interesting. You have just plucked my last nerve and I'm going to do something about it. I don't want to; you can't make me."
A play behavior or a demonstration of anger.
Translation: "This is great fun and it makes noise too! I am really ticked off."
A way to ask for attention, express anger, or warn of danger.
Translation: "I have an announcement to make. I'm angry. There's danger!"
Rabbits as Second-Language Learners
Rabbits can understand some human-speak. Most learn to respond to their name and come when called
but more in the manner of cats than dogs. Rabbits also understand yum-yum, come, let's go, no, box,
all gone, nite-nite, bye-bye, go-go-go, and you're such a handsome fellow/girl.
They respond to tone, appreciating praise and reconsidering their behavior when hearing firmness.
For More Information
For a detailed guide to rabbit communication, see ⇒"The Language of Lagomorphs".