By Jade Perry, Behavior Specialist
Aggression in rabbits may be alarming to pet owners as we tend to think of rabbits as timid, sweet creatures. They are also prey animals in the wild, so naturally their first instinct is flight, not fight! But under certain circumstances, for many prey animals, fight may end up being the only option they see.
Your rabbit may lunge, growl, chase, box or bite when you present your hand, a toy or food, or perhaps, when you enter their space. They may even chase and bite at your ankles when you let them out to roam. All of these behaviors can be quite alarming and concerning. But, don’t worry! There is an explanation.
Hormones in any animal can have an effect on their behavior, which is why it is so important to spay and neuter your pets! Once you’ve checked that off the list, we can look at other possible causes. Another cause of aggression in rabbits is stress. Try to look at cases of aggression as cases of stress. Your rabbit’s first instinct is not to fight, but rather to run or avoid. It is important that when you experience these aggressive behaviors, to pay attention to the signals your rabbit is showing you. Before they lunge, growl or box, do you notice your bun may be frozen? Are they lowering their head and giving slow blinks? Are they turning away? Are their eyes wide? Are their ears held in a wide “v”? If you see these signals, stop what you’re doing. Your rabbit is trying to communicate to you that they are stressed. These are your rabbit’s attempts at making themselves small, or trying to avoid the situation.
Only when your rabbit feels they’ve exhausted all options of flight is when they will choose to fight. Common triggers for rabbits include motion, hands, touching things in their space, entering their space and approaching while they are chewing or digging. When you interact with your bun, make sure you are moving slowly and quietly. Rabbits have a near 360° peripheral, and while they have great long distance vision, their near distance vision is not so great. If you approach them too quickly, or from a certain angle, they may perceive you as a threat. When interacting with your bun it is best to approach from above their head and to one side. Rabbits have a blind spot directly in front of their nose. They also assert dominance by getting in each other’s faces. This is why it is so important to approach your rabbit slowly and appropriately, in a non-threatening way. Rabbits are also territorial, so if you notice your bun becoming aggressive when you are in their space or touching their things, try giving them some space. Make sure they have a hiding spot or a different area they can move to, to be away from you. If you are cleaning and trying to remove their litter pan and your rabbit lunges at your hands, you can try to direct their attention to another area. Try presenting a snack or a toy on the opposite side of their space. When they choose to move to that area, that is when you can reach in for the litter pan.
It is so important to listen to your animals and give them the choice of whether or not they are ready to interact with you. It’s not that your rabbit doesn’t want to be with you or doesn’t like you, they just need space! It is also important that you always present yourself as non-threatening because if you meet their aggression with aggression, it will only make matters worse. So, when your pet displays aggression, ask yourself, “what are they trying to tell me?” Aggression must be met with understanding and compassion.