Aggression in rabbits is typically a behavioral, not genetic, problem. If the behavior is not dealt with, it may consequently cycle into a neglected rabbit because no one wants to be a victim of an aggressive bunny.
If aggression suddenly develops in your rabbit, especially after a neutering, a veterinary examination is advisable to ensure that the rabbit is not in any discomfort.
Reasons for aggression
- The most common scenarios for displayed aggression are with an unaltered rabbit. As a rabbit reaches sexual maturity, it usually becomes more territorial and aggressive due to unsatisfied sexual frustrations and other hormonal reasons. Territorial behavior may also increase during some times of the year such as the main rabbit breeding season of January to August in the northern hemisphere. Unwanted aggressive behaviors can include actions such as mounting, circling, and biting in the cage. Spaying and neutering can dramatically reduce aggressive behavior in an intact rabbit.
- Fear is also a common reason for aggression. As a prey animal, a rabbit's natural instinct is to flee and hide, but when cornered, a rabbit can be forced to bite out in defense. When unwanted reaching hands disappear due to their aggression, rabbits learn that biting and lunging get results that they want and reinforces the aggressive behavior.
- Change in its environment and routine can cause a rabbit do display aggression. Sometimes, a rabbit may take a scare that owners unwittingly do and consequently lose all confidence in their interactions.
- If two rabbits are kept together, territorial instincts may cause them to fight each other for dominance. Rabbits do not easily get along with any other rabbit. See Bonding for more details. A rabbit may also be territorial of its cage or pen and charge and lunge upon a foreign hand entering its area.
- A rabbit may accidentally bite or nip an owner thinking fingers are food or due to overzealous grooming.
- Pain in rabbits can result in aggressive behavior. A rabbit that is normally docile but starts to be aggressive should be examined carefully for a source of pain. Some common reasons are dental disease and the formation of sharp hooks on the molars or painful musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis or vertebral spondylitis. Radiographs of the spine, abdoment and jaw should be included in a veterinary check. A rabbit with a sedentary history in a cage will often develop a deformed spine, making it painful to be lifted.
- Deafness has also been reported as a cause of aggression. Deaf rabbits may be startled by owners coming up on them unexpectedly and sometimes their response is to bite.
- Rabbits can also display redirected aggression towards their humans. Frustration as a result of being chased, being in pain, or being unable to obtain something can result in an agitated rabbit.
Solutions to aggression
Never hit a rabbit to teach them not to bite. Your hands should only be seen as a source of affection, bring food or pets. Spanking and hitting your rabbit will result in your rabbit learning to distrust you and make your aggression problem worse.
Only you can solve the aggression problem. Rabbits will not miraculously learn not to be aggressive with no initiation from a human.
Try not to react when a rabbit nips or bites you. If your rabbit has a history of biting, wear long jeans, sweatpants, long-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, and work gloves to prevent injury to yourself. If you can train yourself not to flinch when your rabbit attacks, your rabbit will learn that biting will not work to make the hands move away.
Make a high pitched shriek when your rabbit nips or bites you. This will let the rabbit know that you are hurt as it is how rabbits communicate about pain. If your rabbit does not react, try thumping your hand or foot and turning your back on him. This is how rabbits show disapproval. If that still doesn't work, loudly say "NO!" and gently push your rabbits head down to the ground for one to two seconds, and if he tries to back away, let him. Don't slam or slap your rabbit, just hold his head to the floor. Rabbits will show dominance by laying over each other's shoulders, and this simulates the effect.
Spend as much time as you can daily to petting your rabbit slowly from head to tail. This will reinforce to your rabbit that hands will not hurt it and teach it to trust you. If your rabbit does not allow your hand to approach it, start with using a long handled duster or paintbrush until there is no reaction, then try while wearing rose or leather gloves, and then lastly with your bare hands. Do not attempt to pet your rabbit in its cage or enclosure until it is comfortable with you petting in outside territory. Feeding a treat after a successful petting session may help in reducing his aggression.
Clean your rabbit's housing area while it is out exercising. Many rabbits upon spaying or neutering may still be territorial about their cage or pen and do not appreciate their owners moving their belongings and cleaning up their area. To easily alleviate this problem, only clean your rabbit's area when it is not there.
Feed your rabbit regularly with no hesitation. Put down your aggressive rabbit's food down without pausing as any hesitation can be seen as taunting or teasing by your rabbit. The rabbit may be lunging and charging at you in attempt to knock the food out of your hands so that it can reach the food faster. If your rabbit gets overly excited about food, feed it on a schedule so that it can learn to expect food at around the same time every day.
Feed food on a large plate or on the floor in multiple rabbit households. Sprinkle daily portions of pellets over a large area to prevent chasing and squabbles. In the wild, there are occasions when rabbits must defend scarce food rations against other rabbits.
Practice hand-feeding with larger and longer treats. Rabbits are naturally far-sighted and do not have good close-up vision. If your rabbit is biting your fingers during hand-feeding, he most likely is overshooting the food and accidentally nipping you. Practice with a set of tongs or chopsticks or food with long stems such as a leaf of lettuce or cilantro or parsley stems until your rabbit has improved its aim.
- House Rabbit Society, FAQ: Aggression
- Pet Care Veterinary Hospital, Bunny Behavior 101: Aggression
- House Rabbit Society, HRJ Letters - 1998, Aggressive Rabbits
- Wisconsin House Rabbit Society, George Flentke, The Biting Rabbit
- Rabbit Haven, Biting
- Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society, Tanya Hulsey, My Bunny Bites and Lunges!
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, Biting the Hand That Feeds
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, My rabbit's turned vicious - help
- House Rabbit Society, Marinell Harriman, Who Wants a Mean Rabbit?
- House Rabbit Society, Marinell Harriman, To Love a Mean Rabbit
- Zooh Corner, Dealing with the Aggressive, Nervous or Frightened Bunny
- EXtension, Rabbit Behavioral Problems: Biting
- Phyllis O'Beollain, Causes of aggression in house rabbits
- Phyllis O'Beollain, Working with the aggressive rabbit part one
- Phyllis O'Beollain, Working with the aggressive rabbit part two
- House Rabbit Society, Amy Shapiro, Rebel with Paws
The following are some experiences with rehabilitating aggressive rabbits:
- House Rabbit Society, Marinell Harriman, Socializing the Antisocial Rabbit
Below are some relevant videos on the topic.
- YouTube, Scott Miller Pet Priory and the aggressive rabbit
- Howcast, How to Make a Rabbit Less Aggressive | Pet Rabbits
- CL Harley, How to tame an aggressive rabbit
- Emma Keeble, Anna Meredith, et al., Rabbit Medicine & Surgery, 2006.
- Frances Harcourt-Brown, Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2002.
- Marit Emilie Buseth & Richard Saunders, [Rabbit Behaviour, Health and Care http://www.amazon.com/Rabbit-Behaviour-Health-Emilie-Buseth/dp/1780641907/]
- Language of Lagomorphs, Prove That You Love Me