Rabbit Body Language

Rabbits are quiet but very expressive animals, who use body language and gesturing to convey a wide variety of moods and desires. By learning how to recognize rabbit body language and behavior, you can start understanding your bunny and learn how to communicate back! Perhaps even more importantly, by understanding what their different posturing means, you can recognize signs of illness in your rabbit, leading to quicker response times.

A comprehensive guide called the Language of the Lagomorphs can be found online here. It covers everything from the meaning of playful binkies to the signs of sadness and fear. Though an older website, it is possibly the best of its kind online.

Below is a quick reference guide by Nancy LaRoche, which lists a few of the common bunny behaviors that are most helpful to know.

Interpreting Common Bunny Behavior

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2008 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

Thumping
Thumping can mean a variety of things, depending on the context in which it occurs. It can signal danger, indicate nervousness, or be a statement of “I don’t like what you’re doing.” If it occurs when you are intruding into the rabbit’s home, it may be all three.

Bulging eyes
Rabbits’ eyes bulge because of either fear or pain. It obviously indicates fear if their eyes bulge when you enter their space.

Ears Laid Flat Against Shoulders
When rabbits lay their ears back, they are are frightened or preparing to do battle.

Ears Held Forward
When rabbits hold their ears forward, they are showing interest. If you are entering their space, such ears indicate that they are curious about you.

Quivering Cheeks
Rabbits “tooth purr” when they are very content and happy, by rubbing their teeth together gently. If you are walking past and happen to see this happening, about all you will notice is their cheeks appear to be quivering.

Binkies
When rabbits leap into the air and fling their rumps around, or do aerobics in the air, they are expressing the joy of being alive and having space. These dances in the air have come to be known as “binkies.”

Flopping Onto Side
Rabbits have a way of lifting their feet and falling onto their sides in a single sudden move that can make someone not familiar with rabbits think the rabbit has had a seizure or died on the spot. Actually, it’s just a way for rabbits to express that they feel very safe and relaxed.

Sitting Motionless For Long Periods
A depressed rabbit will sit in a single position for very long periods of time, staring at nothing. This is very similar to a severely depressed human and not to be confused with a sleepy rabbit. Happy rabbits nibble at hay or other food stuffs, groom themselves and perhaps their companions, play with toys, and generally take an interest in life.

Body Postures
Aggression: tail lifted high, ears back, leaping forward (some rabbits are very protective of their mates and will attack if you touch the mate)
Urinating: tail lifted slightly, crouching
Relaxed: tail not lifted, ears forward or hanging down (in the case of lops)

Tips For Feeding Rabbits

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2001
(May be copied for free distribution)

Vegetables

Rabbits are masters of the art of training humans. If they have three favorite vegetables, they will carefully teach you never to offer them any but these three.

•The rabbit makes the first move, which is to refuse the Brussels sprouts you’ve offered and turn her back on you with a motion which is the rabbit’s equivalent to rolling her eyes in disbelief you could possibly have committed such a gaffe.

•Desperately wanting her to have vegetables, which you know are good for her, you remove the offending matter and dash to the store for parsley.

•She rewards you by savoring every last morsel and smiling approvingly at you (yes, rabbit do smile).

•You sigh with relief and vow never to offend her delicate sensibilities again

Since this is not in the rabbit’s best interest, take control of the situation as follows:

•First, refer to a list of vegetables that rabbits can eat (Safe Veggie List). Choose an item and bring it home – let’s say it’s the Brussels sprouts.

•The first move is the rabbit’s again refusing the Brussels sprouts and giving you the look.

•You respond by cutting one of the sprouts open to display its freshness and leave it with her.

•She retaliates by lying in her litter box, eyes unfocused in a morass of despair over your stupidity, checking briefly from time to time to be sure you are noticing.

•You steadfastly ignore her plight, wish her goodnight, and go to bed. The next morning, when you invite her out for her morning romp while you eat breakfast, you remove the shriveling sprouts with no comment.

•For several days, as you work your way through your list of vegetables, all seems well. And then one day you foolishly bring home some fresh mint.

•She again demonstrates her deep disappointment in your lack of good judgment. She passes up her papaya tablet and pellets, ignores her hay, and sinks as deeply into her litter box as she can, sighing from time to time as though her heart might break unless her empty stomach kills her first.

•You steadfastly ignore her plight, wish her goodnight, and go to bed. The next morning, when you invite her out for her morning romp while you eat breakfast, you remove the wilting mint with no comment, but you do happen to notice that the papaya tablet is gone, her pellet dish is empty, and she needs more hay.

•This little charade may go on for weeks. And then one day, certain you have wasted your money, you bring home Brussels sprouts for the eighth time, give them to her, and notice as she turns to her pellets. You sit down across the room and and apparently get lost in your newspaper, but actually watching her out of the corner of your eye.

•She stops eating pellets and turns her head toward the Brussels sprouts, knowing that if she ignores them, you are too dense to understand she is requesting – nay, demanding – something more to her liking. She sniffs at them, wrinkling her nose in disgust, but a look of surprise appears before she can suppress it. She checks to be sure you didn’t notice. There was a most interesting odor there… she sniffs again, takes a nibble, pretends to be interested in rubbing her chin on one of her toys and carefully chews so as not to be noticed. And suddenly, it doesn’t matter any more… she admits to herself that, although you aren’t the most intelligent creature in the world, you did happen to stumble on something which isn’t all that bad.

•Half way through, she decides it isn’t one of her favorites but it is tolerable. She leaves some of it, polishes off her pellets and hay, and contentedly lies down for the night.

•The next day, you remove what is left. Three weeks later, you find the next time you offer the Brussels sprout, it is gone by morning. And it strikes you as interesting that she seems to have forgotten entirely how stupid and untrainable you once were.

Dr. Susan Brown, of Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital in Westchester, Illinois, makes these suggestions on changing your rabbit’s diet:

“If your rabbit is not used to getting vegetables on a daily basis, then start out gradually with the green leafy vegetables and add a new food item from the list every 5 to 7 days. If the addition of a new food item leads to diarrhea or unformed stools in 24 to 48 hours, then remove it from the diet. Once your pet is eating these foods, give at least 3 types daily.”

Obesity In Rabbits

Obesity in rabbits is far more serious than in humans, or even in cats and dogs. Among the problems caused by obesity are the following:

Rabbits’ lungs occupy a mere one-fifth of its body, in comparison to one-third in ours. Obviously, obesity can be an extreme strain on the heart and lungs.

All rabbits eventually develop some arthritis. Obesity can bring it on earlier, and cause it to be more painful. The following summarizes points made in an article written by Jeffrey R. Jenkins, DVM, of the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital in San Diego. The article was published in the Fall, 1998 issue of the “San Diego Rabbit News.”

When a rabbit perceives danger or encounters a frightening situation, chemical changes occur, causing the heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate to increase, the eyes to dilate, and blood sugar (fuel for the body) to soar. These chemical changes make the rabbit better able to sense the danger and to run from it. But if the condition lasts for very long, it can cause serious problems.

For one thing, it can cause the contents of the intestine to stop moving. It can also cause diarrhea, inflammation of the intestinal tract, or even the production of poisons by bacteria in the intestinal tract. And, liver energy stores can be depleted – this is called shock disease, and it may be fatal! Shock disease occurs when rabbits who are obese or have been on a pellet-rich diet, undergo a prolonged stressful event (e.g., infested with maggots (fly strike) or left on a balcony overnight, etc.). A poor diet causes fatty changes in the rabbit’s liver, and when stressed, the result is starvation of body tissues.

Stress can’t be entirely avoided, but you can protect your rabbit from some of the more dangerous effects of stress by providing a good diet. A diet high in fiber (that means mostly good quality grass hay) helps to protect the GI tract from toxins produced in the intestine; helps to keep the contents of the intestine moving; and helps prevent the development of fatty liver. If your rabbit is stressed by some situation or event, get him back to a normal environment as soon as possible. Be sure he eats and drinks. If he becomes depressed or weak, he needs to see a veterinarian immediately.
Ways to help a rabbit regain prime weight:

•Exercise is probably the most important aspect of helping your rabbit regain his or her sleek body. Play with your rabbit, encouraging gentle chase games, or simply follow her around and keep her hopping (but not to the point of exhaustion or labored breathing); provide tunnels and boxes and sheets of newspaper to encourage active play – tear the paper to demonstrate it’s delightful ripping sound, etc. Get a rabbit friend of the opposite sex to encourage activity (the friend must be altered, of course)

•Minimize treats of high caloric content.

•Provide straw for chewing: it is different, so your rabbit may see it as a treat, but straw is essentially without calories.

•Hide tiny bits of low-calorie treats around the house. Once the rabbits begins to realize this happens every day, they will begin searching for the treats, thereby being more active.
Feeding your rabbit properly is essential to the health of these specialized creatures. Although it may present an interesting challenge for you, when done sucessfully, it brings rich rewards in your rabbit having a long and active life.

Games To Play With Your Rabbit

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 1997 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

By definition, a game should be something that is fun. But there can be some serious purposes for playing a game. When we play with our rabbits, we are increasing their bond to us, stimulating them mentally and encouraging stretching and exercising of muscles. Try some of the following:

•Hold a papaya tablet or other treat in a loosely closed fist. Hold both fists out to the rabbit. Make him use his nose to find which hand the treat is in before giving it to him.
•Hold a treat high enough above your rabbit’s head so he has to stretch to get it. He will stretch highest if he can brace himself on the side of the cage, but he’ll exercise his ability to balance if he has to stretch without that support.
•With your rabbit on a box or table (cover with a towel or something so it isn’t slippery), offer a treat below the edge of the box or table so he has to stretch his neck down to get it.
•Get a cardboard form for pouring cement pillars. Block one end with a phone book pressed against the wall. Rabbits will go in to explore and get exercise backing out. This is the same movement they would get backing out of a hole if they were digging it. Of course, letting them actually dig such a hole is even better exercise, but cave it in after you’ve removed them, so they can’t make it so long that you can’t get them when it’s time to come in.
•Use anything which will roll and that the rabbit can pick up with her teeth. Wire cat balls with bells in them are ideal. Roll the ball to the rabbit so it gently bumps her nose. Some rabbits will toss it back to you repeatedly once they’ve gotten the idea.
•Watch for a time when your rabbit is running toward you. Crawl or run away as though the rabbit is chasing you. Then turn and playfully chase her. After a few hops, turn and run away again, encouraging her to become the pursuer again. Don’t worry if your rabbit doesn’t catch on well enough for a rousing game of tag. She’ll get some exercise and enjoy being chased as she learns that it’s just a game.
•Hold your rabbit up to a window. She may find looking out to be a fascinating pastime.
•Lie quietly on your stomach until your rabbit jumps on your back. You might have someone put a bit of a treat on your back each time you do this so the bunny becomes eager to jump up. •When he is at ease with being on your back, move your back muscles a little, so he gets used to the idea of the “ground” moving. Gradually, over time, you may be able to teach him to ride on your back while you crawl around. Jumping down from your back will also be good exercise.
•Jumping to a reasonable height and down again is good exercise. Sit in a chair when offering your rabbits bananas so they learn to jump into your lap to get them. Let them jump off on their own accord when they wish.
•Play peek-a-boo with a towel over your rabbit. Observe her carefully to see what she enjoys and what may worry her.

In general, there are two ways you can develop games to play with your rabbits:

•Spend time watching what they naturally enjoy playing with and then figure out how to include yourself in the action.
•Spend time interacting with your rabbits, trying various things, observing their reactions and modifying your activities accordingly.

The keys to playing with your rabbits are to spend time and to be observant. If you’re willing to take the time, you will be richly rewarded with a deepening bond and brighter, healthier, happier rabbits.

Making Friends With Your Rabbit

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2006 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

Some rabbits are happy to have you be their slave, and give nothing in return. This can be quite frustrating for care-takers, who expect and desire a mutual relationship. There are several things that you can do to encourage your rabbits’ friendliness with you.

Communication

It will help your rabbits if they know what your intentions are, so I suggest using three words, which have very different sounds, whenever you are interacting with them:

“Treat” means you have something especially yummy for them (a slice of fruit, or a papaya tablet, for example)
“Love” means you are going to pet them. Continue to repeat this word as you are stroking them
“Pickup” means you are going to pick them up. Once you say, “Pickup,” you must follow through, and pick them up no matter what.

Setting the Stage

The Way to a Bunny’s Heart – “Treat”
You can offer a treat any time, no matter whether the rabbits are in their crate or running around. Sometimes, it may be necessary to separate one rabbit from another, if one is very eager and the other very shy – otherwise, the eager rabbit may get all the treats and the shy one may never get up enough nerve to get any at all.

First, be sure the rabbits know what the treat is and be sure you’ve selected something they really like. Most rabbits are crazy about a slice of banana, but some rabbits don’t like them at all. It’s necessary they know what the treat is and like it before you can use it to bribe them. After the rabbit knows what he likes this treat, require him to take it from your hand.

In extreme cases, lie on the floor, extending your arm above your head and hold the treat so the rabbit doesn’t have to approach your body to get it. Lie very quietly. It may help to close your eyes. Great patience is required for especially shy rabbits. If the rabbit doesn’t eventually take the treat from your hand, don’t leave it for him. He needs to learn he must take it from your fingers to get the treat. He will simply learn to out-wait you if you leave the treat for him. As the rabbit takes the treat from your fingers, repeat the word, “Treat,” so he’ll learn to associate the word with the pleasure of tasting something yummy.

Petting Your Rabbit – “Love”
Some rabbits avoid contact by ducking away whenever you approach them. If your rabbit does this, you need to create a space, roughly 4′ x 8′. A bathroom may provide a good space if you block the space behind the toilet. But you can also create such a space using cardboard or fencing material.
At first, spend time sitting or lying on the floor, ignoring the rabbit. Reading a book or watching TV is a good way to do this. When the rabbits begin to relax with you being in the space with them, you’re ready for the next step which you will do on your feet.

Turn your hand completely over, using the back of your fingers to drop toward the rabbit, between the eyes. Come from above the rabbit, so he can’t successfully lunge at you. If he ducks away, follow him, repeating the word “Love,” until he finally crouches down and lets your hand come down between his eyes. Don’t move too slowly when doing this, as you will create tension by “creeping up on the rabbit.” Of course, don’t move very fast, either.

Repeat the word “Love,” as you stroke his face, still with the backs of your fingers. Then turn your fingers over and continue stroking and saying “Love.” If he allows you to move around the base of his ears, on his neck, or on his jaws, do so.
Ideally, you want to be the one to choose to stop, rather than having the rabbit make the decision about when you are done, so keep the first petting sessions short, but repeat them frequently throughout the day, gradually making them longer as the rabbit begins to tolerate them and even enjoy them.
If you like, you can also give a treat following a petting session (switching to “Treat!”), but be careful not to give too much fruit, or other treats which can cause gastric upset. Never try to pick up or otherwise restrain the rabbit if you say “Treat” or “Love.”

Picking Up Your Rabbit – “Pick Up”
Most rabbits don’t like the sensation of being lifted, nor do they like relinquishing control of their bodies. However, it is important to get them accustomed to being picked up. The day will come when they get sick and need to be taken to a veterinarian, requiring you to pick them up. If they aren’t accustomed to it, you will stress them badly at a time when they can least tolerate it.

When the rabbit learns what “Pick Up” means, she may immediately run away. You simply have to follow her in the same way you would if you were just going to pet her, only don’t use the word “Love.” Once she has allowed you to stroke her face, with her facing you, slip your right hand (if you’re right-handed) under her rib cage, coming from her left side. Put your left and on her rump, above her tail, with your left arm against her right side. Press her body against your left arm, and lift her quickly off her feet, bringing her into your body.
Once she is in your arms, rub around the base of the ears to make the session as pleasant as possible. After 10 to 15 seconds, set her in your lap. Continue to rub around the base of the ears, but let go of her, so she can leave if she wishes. At first, she will probably bolt off, but gradually she will realize she can leave any time she wants to, and will decide to stay for a few minutes of pleasure.

In general, you want to give treats and love frequently throughout the day and pick the rabbit up once or twice every day. The more contact you have, the quicker your rabbits will learn to trust you and enjoy your company.
Finally, a full-body, therapeutic massage and clicker-training are also methods to help shy rabbits begin to be comfortable with you. There are books available to help you with either method.

Basics of Bunny Handling and Behavior

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2008 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

The Crate, From the Rabbit’s Point of View
Rabbits in a crate view that crate as their home. When you enter it, you are violating their space. A few rabbits may welcome you, and run forward to be petted. But most will view you as an unwelcome intruder, just as you would view someone entering your home without invitation.

Interpreting Common Bunny Behavior
Thumping
Thumping can mean a variety of things, depending on the context in which it occurs. It can signal danger, indicate nervousness, or be a statement of “I don’t like what you’re doing.” If it occurs when you are intruding into the rabbit’s home, it may be all three.

Bulging eyes
Rabbits’ eyes bulge because of either fear or pain. It obviously indicates fear if their eyes bulge when you enter their space.

Ears laid flat against the shoulders
When rabbits lay their ears back, they are are frightened or preparing to do battle.

Ears held forward
When rabbits hold their ears forward, they are showing interest. If you are entering their space, such ears indicate that they are curious about you.

Quivering cheeks
Rabbits “tooth purr” when they are very content and happy, by rubbing their teeth together gently. If you are walking past and happen to see this happening, about all you will notice is their cheeks appear to be quivering.

Binkies
When rabbits leap into the air and fling their rumps around, or do aerobics in the air, they are expressing the joy of being alive and having space. These dances in the air have come to be known as “binkies.”

Flopping onto the side
Rabbits have a way of lifting their feet and falling onto their sides in a single sudden move that can make someone not familiar with rabbits think the rabbit has had a seizure or died on the spot. Actually, it’s just a way for rabbits to express that they feel very safe and relaxed.

Sitting motionless for long periods
A depressed rabbit will sit in a single position for very long periods of time, staring at nothing. This is very similar to a severely depressed human and not to be confused with a sleepy rabbit. Happy rabbits nibble at hay or other food stuffs, groom themselves and perhaps their companions, play with toys, and generally take an interest in life.

Body Postures
Aggression: tail lifted high, ears back, leaping forward (some rabbits are very protective of their mates and will attack if you touch the mate)
Urinating: tail lifted slightly, crouching
Relaxed: tail not lifted, ears forward or hanging down (in the case of lops)

Initial approach
When you approach a rabbit in a crate, be aware you are violating the rabbit’s space and the rabbit may not appreciate it. The proper way to approach a rabbit is with the back of your fingers coming down between the rabbit’s eyes. You may need to be on a stool in order to be high enough to do this.

If you bring your hand toward the rabbit horizontally, one of two things may happen:
1. The rabbit will be able to lunge at it.
2. The rabbit cannot see fingers in front of their nose. If your fingers smell like something to good to eat, they may take a bite.

Rabbits you approach in their crates will typically have one of three responses:
1. Friendly response: The rabbit comes forward, lowers her head as your fingers come down between her eyes, and allows herself to be picked up easily.
2. Frightened response: The rabbit hides in a corner, or behind something, and tries to avoid you. Sometimes, frightened rabbits remain still and drop their heads as your hand lowers between their eyes and allow themselves to be picked up. Others will flee from corner to corner trying to avoid you. With these, you may need to wait until they are in the litter box, then quickly and sharply pull the box toward you, grabbing the rabbit’s scruff to hold them still, and then pick them up.

(Note: NEVER lift a rabbit by the scruff. Be prepared for the rabbit to use his back legs to scratch at your hand and arm to free himself. You must be very quick to lift the rabbit using the techniques indicated below.)
3. Aggressive response: The rabbit lunges at you. Keep you hand above the rabbit’s head, coming down between the eyes with the backs of your fingers. Follow the rabbit around the crate until he drops his head (usually when he’s cornered).

Picking Up a Rabbit
Because the spine of a rabbit is the most fragile and easily damaged part of their bodies, it is essential you prevent the spine from flexing backwards when lifting them!

1.Move the rabbit into a position facing you
2.Slide your right hand under the rabbit’s rib cage
3.Put your left hand on the rabbit’s rump, above the tail
4.Press the rabbit’s body with your right hand against your left arm,
and lift quickly to get those powerful back feet off the floor
5.Fold your left arm into your body, so the rabbit is against your body

(Left handed people will probably be more comfortable reversing the above directions.)