IN RABBITS JSPCA FACT SHEET
Wild rabbits are prey animals.
If they feel threatened by a predator, they can freeze, run away or
fight. The eyes of rabbits are
positioned on the side of the head to offer the rabbit with good all round
vision. Their large ears
enable the rabbit to detect many sounds.
Both of these attributes enable the rabbit to spot a predator
quickly and hence make an escape as soon as possible.
If caught, the wild rabbit will use it teeth, long claws and
powerful back legs to fight for its survival.
Wild rabbits also use aggression to defend territories
against rival groups of rabbits. Female rabbits can fight for nest sites
and can be very aggressive in the late stages of pregnancy or when they
have young in the nest.
Aggression in domestic rabbits
If a rabbit has not become accustomed to handling when
it was young, it can view handling as a threat when its owners try to pick
it up or even stroke it. In
these situations, rabbits will use similar behaviours to those shown by
wild rabbits in the presence of predators.
They will either freeze, try to run away or show aggression.
In these scenarios, when the rabbit’s escape options are
restricted by the hutch in which it is kept, the rabbit can show
aggression, but this rabbit is scared and is using aggression as a last
Some rabbits show aggression towards their owner when
the owner places a hand into the hutch to fill the food bowl or to remove
dirty bedding. To the rabbit
this is seen as an invasion of their territory, so they treat the owner’s
hand as a threat and display territorial aggression.
Female rabbits can display aggressive behaviour
towards their owners or perhaps fellow rabbit companions during the spring,
which is the rabbits’ natural breeding season.
This aggression is hormonal and indicates the female rabbit’s
normal desire to defend her territory and ward off any rivals. This
behaviour can often disappear by the end of the summer and may not reappear
until the following spring.
The development of aggression in rabbits can often be
can sometimes become aggressive when they are in pain.
Regular check ups with your veterinary surgeon will ensure that your
rabbit is not unwell or suffering from any condition that may make handing
uncomfortable. Provide rabbits with sufficient space to enable them to
exercise regularly, with areas to explore and hide in so as to keep them
occupied and prevent boredom. This can prevent problems associated with
frustration, but also gives the rabbit the option of ‘escaping’ and
spending some time on its own.
A rabbit that is used to being around people and
handled regularly from a young age is less likely to become aggressive
towards its owners.
Learning to pick a rabbit correctly can prevent the
rabbit feeling scared and hence trying to avoid contact with its owner at
other times; rabbits can be easily frightened and require careful handling.
The animal should be approached slowly and can be picked up by
placing one hand over the back and the other underneath the belly, so that
its body weight is supported. Once
held firmly with both hands, it can be lifted up and held securely against
the handler’s chest. Always
place a rabbit down on a non-slip surface.
Rabbits must never be held or picked up by the ears as this is
extremely painful and distressing for the animal.
Neutering a rabbit when it is young can prevent the
development of certain types of aggression, particularly hormonal
aggression in female rabbits.
Male rabbits (bucks) are usually bolder than females.
Most are territorial, frequently spray urine and can be aggressive.
Neutered males are less aggressive.
If carefully introduced, they can live happily with a spayed
(neutered) female or even another neutered male.
Neutering males helps to stop urine spraying.
Castration can be performed as soon as the testicles descend (ten to
twelve weeks), but contact your veterinary surgery for advice on rabbit
castration and the actual timing of the operation.
Having a female rabbit (doe) spayed (neutered) is
equally important. Most female
rabbits become territorial and aggressive from sexual maturity (four to six
months) onwards. They can have
repeated false pregnancies. Neutering
can reduce these problems. Spayed
females are likely to live longer lives than their non-neutered sisters. Up to 80% of unspayed females develop uterine cancer by the
age of five years. Neutering a
female rabbit can be performed when the rabbit is four to six months old,
but contact your veterinary surgery for advice on spaying rabbits and the
actual timing of the operation.
Dealing with aggressive rabbits
If your rabbit is showing aggression towards you when
you try to pick him up and you think this is due to fear or nervousness,
then it may be necessary to consider following a programme designed to
teach your rabbit that you are not a threat:
Stop trying to stroke or pick up the rabbit for a period of two weeks.
Instead, in that time, start to hand feed the rabbit its treats and speak
calmly and reassuringly to him.
If the rabbit is now more relaxed, start to stroke him whilst he is eating
If the rabbit will take a treat, but won’t let you stroke him, you may
have to spend longer on the first stage.
Once the rabbit will accept stroking, increase the time and the areas of
the rabbit that are being touched.
You are now ready to start picking the rabbit up.
This should also be slowly introduced in stages using treats at each
level. For example, to start, the rabbit can be scooped onto your
lap to eat his treat.
Never use punishment as a training method. In most cases of aggression, the problem worsens as soon as the owner tries to reprimand the rabbit because the owner then appears more threatening. Most forms of aggression can be improved by giving the rabbit more space, daily exercise and access to a stimulating environment with lots of toys and areas to climb on or hide under.
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knowledge, provide for aged, sick, lost and unwanted animals.”
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Inc.)
1868 – Incorporated 1936
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