Aggression in rabbits is typically a behavioral, not genetic, problem. However, please note that what owners may see as aggression can be a normal communication for rabbits with each other. Nips on rabbit fur are much more gentle than nips directly on human skin!
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, they usually become 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 their 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 their cage or pen and charge and lunge upon a foreign hand entering their 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. However, rabbits may mellow out with age over a period of years with consistent positive interactions.
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 them. 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 they try to back away, let them. Do not slam or slap your rabbit, just hold their head to the floor. Rabbits will show dominance by laying over each other's shoulders, and this simulates the effect. This technique should not be used on fearful rabbits that may still be learning to trust you. Defensive behavior from a perceived threat requires a different approach. Reddit user /u/hutchkc goes into further detail:
hutchkc: "He thinks he's the alpha and is telling you what to do. I think we can all agree that is unacceptable so is probably something you'll want to correct. However, let's tackle the problem at hand, let's start by showing him your bigger/badder than he is and then tell him to piss off. You're going to have to claim his space, the very first step in establishing dominance. Always stand for these two steps, you want your size to be apparent.
If this seems weird or hard it's that your probably uncomfortable forcing your will, don't worry you have a serious advantage of size/strength.
1) Show your strength - Approach him, gently force his head to the floor and hold it there... don't worry about going over on time. Don't pet him, just put some pressure to hold his head down and so he knows there is a something heavy on his head. Bunnies force lower ranked bunnies into submission by using a similar manner, usually laying on them. If he pops his head up straight away repeat if you feel like it, if he acknowledges your his superior he'll raise his head up slowly.
2) Take what's his - Telling him your bigger/stronger than him isn't going to tell him you mean business. You have to take what he currently has and it's probably simpler than you think. You're going to claim where he is standing and make it your spot by forcing him to move. After you did the above step, tap him on the butt which is bunny language for move your ass. If he doesn't move keep pushing harder until he moves out of arms reach. Step into the spot he just vacated and claim it as yours. That piece of floor is your domain, he is not allowed to touch it.
If he approaches you, repeat, step 1 and then 2. Basically you're being a bully, I'm bigger than you and I like your spot, beat it, this is my spot now. He is forced to move on and bend to your will. Bunnies do this also and it usually leads to chasing which is why if chasing occurs a fight is usually close at hand during bonding. We don't want to put him into fight/flight mode, we just want to say I'm in charge.
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 them and teach them to trust you. If your rabbit does not allow your hand to approach them, 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 their cage or enclosure until they are comfortable with you petting in outside territory. Feeding a treat after a successful petting session may help in reducing their aggression.
Clean your rabbit's housing area while they are out exercising. Many rabbits after 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 they are 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 they can reach the food faster. If your rabbit gets overly excited about food, feed them on a schedule so that they 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, they are most likely 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 their aim.
- House Rabbit Society. (2013). FAQ: Aggression
- House Rabbit Society. (1998). Aggressive Rabbits
- The Rabbit House. Rabbit Behaviour Problem: Aggression Towards Humans
- Rabbit Haven. Biting
- Suzanne Trayhan. (2011). Bunny Bites
- Suzanne Trayhan. (2003). Taming the Aggressive Rabbit
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund. Aggression in Rabbits
- Marinell Harriman. (2011). Who Wants a Mean Rabbit?
- Zooh Corner. Dealing with the Aggressive, Nervous or Frightened Bunny
- Amy Shapiro. (2011). Rebel with Paws
The following are some experiences with rehabilitating aggressive rabbits:
- Marinell Harriman. (2013). Socializing the Antisocial Rabbit
- Kathleen Bourdelais. (2011). Helping Grumpy Rabbits
- Marinell Harriman. (1999). To Love a Mean Rabbit
Below are some relevant videos on the topic.
- Keeble, E & Meredith, A. (2006). Rabbit medicine & surgery: Self-assessment color review.
- Harcourt-Brown, F. (2001). Textbook of rabbit medicine. (1st ed.).
- Buseth, M.E & Saunders, R. (2015). Rabbit behaviour, health and care.
- Language of Lagomorphs. (2015). Prove That You Love Me. Retrieved from http://language.rabbitspeak.com/prove-that-you-love-me/
- Reddit. (2015). My bunny pees on my bed. Halp! Retrieved 26 Jan 2016 from https://www.reddit.com/r/Rabbits/comments/3vgwey/my_bunny_pees_on_my_bed_halp/cxnuy6r