Happy house rabbits: Understanding the behavior of pet rabbits (Proceedings)


A guide to understanding the behavior of pet rabbits

Prevalence of pet rabbits

  • AVMA survey of specialty and exotic pets in U.S. households

  • Rabbits: 4,813,000; Ferrets: 991,000; Hamsters: 881,000; Guinea Pigs: 629,000

Origins of the pet rabbit

  • Order Lagomorpha

  • Family Leporidae

  • Oryctolagus cuniculus

  • "Hare-like digger of underground passages"

  • Originated on the Iberian Peninsula [Spain and Portugal]

  • Keeping rabbits in cages began at least 2000 years ago, when Roman farmers kept them for meat. De Re Rustica Varro, 36 B.C.

Industrial revolution

  • People in cities had little room for "livestock" other than pigeons and rabbits. First "rabbit fancy" clubs developed in this environment.

Rabbits are not hares


  • born hairless and eyes closed, highly social, live underground except to feed, domesticated


  • born with fur and eyes open, solitary, live mainly above ground, no species domesticated

Social organization of wild rabbits

  • Live in groups-Multiple individuals watching for predators

  • The more rabbits are out, the less time any one individual spends "scanning", spotting and studying the landscape

  • Farther away from burrow or closer to potential hiding place of predator--> spots and studies more

  • When a pet rabbit is in an outside run, provide enclosed area can shelter in. Otherwise spends substantial time alert, and cannot relax.

  • Within a colony are several small, distinct social groups of 2-8 individuals. Females in the group usually closely related. Rigid dominance hierarchies among males maintained mainly by ritualized signaling rather than fighting

  • Ideally, keep pet rabbits in small groups

  • When young males mature enough to challenge senior buck are driven from the group and disperse to join new groups or leave warren to attempt to join another colony. Outside of breeding season, new bucks likely to be accepted into a colony

Digging of warrens

  • Scrabble with front paws

  • Kick soil away with hind limbs

  • Most tunnels narrow, about 15 cm. Only one rabbit can pass

  • Are widened sections about 40 cm, where rabbits can pass each other

  • Rabbits are diggers!

  • A large warren may have 50 exits

  • Normal entrance with gentle slope. Mound of earth nearby as is dug from outside.

  • Bolt hole: No mound of earth as is dug from within, Vertical tunnel, Often exits at a bush

  • Rabbits can drop down or leap up vertical tunnel, but difficult for many of their predators

  • Some tunnels end in a side gallery, which is a room where the rabbits rest, groom and ingesting fecal pellets Pet rabbits tend to have preferred areas for these activities as well. Make sure a pet house rabbit has access to a suitable area.


  • Shallow depressions, Roll in, Deposit feces in

  • Again, rabbits are diggers!

Sensory abilities

  • Olfactory: Spend much of life in lightless burrows, Excellent sense of smell

  • Auditory [Those big ears have a purpose]: Excellent hearing, Can hear very low volume sound,

  • Can manoeuvre ears independently of each other

  • Visual: Eyes are prominent on sides of head, Wide field of vision, almost 360 degrees

Communication: Auditory

  • Purr, Click, quiet tooth grinding: Contentment

  • Loud tooth grinding, grunt, growl: Threat

  • Loud tooth grinding: Pain

  • Thump: Alarm call

  • Scream: Extreme fright

Communication: Olfactory

  • Scent-marking

  • Fecal-Latrines

  • Anal glands

  • Chin glands->Chin rubbing

Urine spraying

  • Males spray toward subordinate males and, during courtship, toward an estrous female being courted

  • Spraying occurs by running past the individual being sprayed, lifting the hindquarters and twisting them to direct a quick spray of urine toward the individual being sprayed. Intact males kept as pets may spray people.

Communication: Visual

  • Relaxed: Lies on side or abdomen with hind limbs stretched out or squat with legs tucked beneath and ears laid back

  • Submission and fear: Crouch, avoid eye contact, ears laid back tightly

  • Alert: Ears up and mobile. May stand on hind limbs


  • Digestive system designed for high fiber diet

  • Soft droppings, generated in the cecum and covered in mucus are produced and eaten when are below ground.

  • Other feces

  • Small, firm pellets

  • Scrapes around periphery of warren, marking territorial boundaries

  • Latrines

  • Communal toilets used by all members of the colony

  • Often on slight rise in terrain

Medicine and behavior

  • As with all species, illness and injury can result in behavior changes

  • However, as a prey animal, they have been strongly selected for hiding of illness or injury as well.

Basic care

  • Space to run

  • Traditional rabbit keeping derives from housing of rabbits kept for meat

  • Small cages available at pet store are inadequate for an adult rabbit, except as a sleeping area.

  • Lots of high fiber, low calorie food, i.e. hay [timothy, grass]

  • In the wild, spends about 12 hours/day eating

  • Water: Bowl or Water bottle


  • Rabbits select specific areas to eliminate

  • Note site rabbit has chosen and place box there

  • Initially limit, then gradually increase, the area the rabbit has access to.

  • If eventually has access to a large area, provide multiple litterboxes

  • Occasional fecal "accidents" will be firm pellets that are easy to pick up with a tissue.

  • If rabbit eliminates over the side of the box, get a box with higher sides

  • Routine and freedom from stress is important.

  • Disrupted schedules, addition of a new rabbit, etc. can lead to incidents of eliminating outside the box.

  • If tosses around, clamp in place

  • Rabbits are not cats with long ears!

  • They often spend a lot of time in their litterbox.

  • They do not "bury".

  • They may eat the litter.


  • Rough handling will produce a rabbit that is afraid of people and avoids them. As with dogs, the smaller breeds are probably more at risk than are the larger, bigger boned breeds. Appropriate handling, petting, and treats will produce a rabbit that approaches and solicits petting.


  • Forelimbs: Clawing

  • Teeth: Biting

  • Hindlimbs: Kicking


  • The animal is exposed to a stimulus that elicits a given response, but at such a low level that the response is not elicited. Over time and successive repetitions, then intensity of the stimulus is gradually increased, ideally without eliciting the response.


  • A response is elicited which is behaviorally and physiologically incompatible with another response.

Possessive aggression

  • DS & CC

  • May need to gently restrain

Fear aggression

  • When frightened, a rabbit may freeze, run away or attack

  • Inadequate socialization when young

  • Desensitization

  • Treats

  • Gloves if serious biter and rushes

Multiple rabbits

  • Social animals

  • Best to raise together from 6 to 12 weeks of age on

  • If introduce abruptly as older animals, fighting is likely, and can be fatal

  • Introducing unfamiliar rabbits

  • Expose to each other in side by side cage

  • Continue exposure in neutral area with adequate restraint and/or poor footing such that fights are difficult.

  • Harness with leash, Bathtub, Moving vehicle

  • Smaller cage inside larger cage

  • Fighting and minor injury still possible


  • Natural Behavior

  • Rabbit-proof areas that rabbits will be free in, especially cords

  • Provide rabbits with plenty of items that it is acceptable for them to chew and that are suitable chewing items, e.g. willowBlocks or sticks of non-toxic wood

  • Chewable willow basket provides nesting area that is chewable and diggable

  • "Playhouses" should be built of nontoxic cardboard or wood.

  • If rabbit chews a lot, will have to be replaced regularly


  • Non-toxic cardboard, Can dig and chew, Replace periodically

  • If a rabbit is persistent in chewing an unacceptable item, e.g. a furniture leg, use positive or negative punishment every time it does so.

Water spray

  • Verbal reprimand

  • Time out


  • Natural behavior

  • May dig holes in furniture or carpet

  • Provide acceptable way to dig, e.g. digging box

Environmental enrichment

  • In addition to food and water provide

  • Space to run

  • An area/substrate to dig in

  • Walks outside

  • Objects to toss, manipulate and chew

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