Do you have a grumpy rabbit that can sometimes be a bit on the aggressive side? It could be down to territoriality. That’s why providing them with a spacious, enriching environment is so important.
According to companion pet experts at Bishop’s Stortford Veterinary Hospital, the natural behaviour of the rabbit has changed very little from that of its wild relatives. This means that pet rabbits retain the instinct of survival, and, when faced with any situation which they perceive to be a danger, will behave as a wild rabbit would.
Territorial aggression is a natural defence mechanism
One way this natural, hard-wired behaviour can manifest itself in our pet rabbits is by being territorial over space and possessions. The veterinary hospital states: “Rabbits can be very protective of their territory (hutch, run, pen etc) and their possessions (food bowl, litter tray, toys etc) and any attempt to invade this territory may be met with aggression. In the wild, rabbits have to keep their territory safe from neighbouring groups of rabbits, so it is a very natural instinct to protect and defend.”
The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) adds: “Some rabbits can show aggression towards their owner when a hand is placed into the hutch to fill their 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.”
DID YOU KNOW?
In the wild rabbit habitats can cover farmland, grassy lands, and moorland. Living in large groups, rabbits live in warrens, which are large underground tunnel systems. Rabbit warrens vary in size, with one study finding a five-year-old rabbit warren that had 150 entrances and had an incredible 517 metres of tunnels.
A rabbit in defence mode can be surprisingly intimidating. Bishop’s Stortford Veterinary Hospital says: “If the rabbit thinks we are going to take something away from them, they will defend it. Rabbits in fighting mode are formidable opponents; they will strike with their front feet, often growling and using their very sharp teeth and claws to inflict as much damage as possible in an attempt to escape.”
Turning aggressive behaviour around
The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) says: “Sadly, countless rabbits are rehomed or neglected because they are considered aggressive. The truth is that aggression can usually be rectified.”
The charity states that there may be many factors that can cause aggression in rabbits – from hormones: “Castrating male rabbits and spaying females is vital for many reasons, one of which is that it will help reduce aggressive behaviour, particularly towards each other”, to lack of socialisation, incorrect handling, or being in pain – always check with your vet if your usually friendly rabbit suddenly becomes aggressive. Providing unsuitable accommodation can also be at the root of the problem.
DID YOU KNOW?
Rabbits are highly social animals. In the wild, a group of rabbits is called a colony, or a ‘fluffle’. In these groups, there can be between 10 to 50 rabbits. Pet rabbits also need to live in suitable pairs or groups. Rabbits should only ever live with other rabbits, and they should both be neutered to prevent unwanted litters.
The right accommodation will result in happier rabbits
RWAF states: “Rabbits are very active and athletic animals and a hutch is simply not enough! Being confined to a restricted area does not allow a rabbit to be a rabbit. They cannot do the things they need to do – run, dig, jump, rear up or forage for example. This makes them frustrated, unhappy and often causes health problems. Rabbits that cannot stretch up tall develop spinal deformities that are painful when they are handled, which can result in aggressive behaviour. So, get their accommodation right and you’ll have happier rabbits.”
When you see things from a rabbit’s point of view then it makes perfect sense why they can be very particular about their favourite places to forage, snooze and play – and why disputes can cause a scuffle even between close bunny pals.
It also underpins the case for providing accommodation that provides your buns with plenty of different places to explore and hang out so they can lay claim to what they see as ‘theirs’ and spend time apart when they want to.
DID YOU KNOW?
Rabbits are crepuscular animals. This means they are most active during dawn and dusk and often have naps, rather than one long sleep. Pet rabbits typically sleep for around eight hours a day so need a cosy sleeping area to cuddle up in. Your rabbits’ sleeping area should be warm and dry, and away from any draughts. Use a rabbit-safe paper bedding and deep piles of dust-extracted, sweet smelling hay to create a comfy bed.
High welfare rabbit housing creates a home sweet home
Whether your rabbits live indoors or outdoors, the fundamentals of great rabbit housing are the same. Fundamentally, a rabbit hutch is not enough. Whether you have an indoor or outdoor rabbit hutch, the chances are, your rabbits need more space.
- RWAF recommends that a minimum enclosure size for two bonded rabbits is 3m x 2m x 1m highand that your rabbits have access to their sleeping area, toilet area, and exercise area at all times.
- If you already have a hutch the best way to give your rabbits their space is to adapt it. They need constant access to their exercise area, such as a rabbit run. An easy way to connect the two is using a burrow pipe with a door joiner, so your bunnies can hop in and out whenever they like.
- In the wild, rabbits are prey animals so they’re always on the lookout. Our pet rabbits are no different. They need a rabbit house that makes them feel safe and secure with lots of hiding places. They may want to hide when they’re feeling unwell, stressed, scared, or need some time alone. Some great examples of hiding places include tunnels, cardboard boxes, den snugs, low stools and platforms.
- Make sure every hiding place has two entrances/exits so your rabbits don’t feel trapped. And that there is at least one for each rabbit – ready for when they want some time apart.
- Rabbits are clever, curious creatures. To meet their behavioural needs, they need lots of things to enrich their day-to-day lives. Enrichment for rabbits can take many forms, including willow balls, puzzle feeders, burrow trays, cardboard boxes, dig boxes, turf trays and snuffle mats.
- Providing toys for rabbits doesn’t need to be expensive. You can make homemade rabbit toys with household items. For example, shredded paper in a cardboard box can provide endless fun. Simply stuffing an empty toilet roll with tasty feeding hay and some healthy forage will help encourage your buns to display their natural foraging behaviour.
With so much space to explore, foraging fun to be had and all sorts of places to hang out in, your buns can’t help but learn that it’s OK to chill out and enjoy their best bunny lives.
DID YOU KNOW?
85-90% of your rabbits’ diet should be high quality feeding hay or fresh grass. The easiest way to make sure they’re getting enough is to give them constant access around their accommodation. Rabbit hay racks or hay tubes can be hung around their housing or can be freestanding, and they encourage your rabbits to reach for their hay, which is great exercise for them.
- If you’re interested improving the health and welfare of all pet rabbits, find out more about the Rabbit Awareness Action Group >>
- You’ll also find lots of useful advice on how to create More Room for Rabbits >>
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