Bunny Behavior 101: Aggression

What behaviors define aggression in rabbits? Lunging, boxing, chasing, grunting, mounting, nipping/biting (all usually performed with the ears laid flat back) are all displays of rabbit aggression. Here are six common reasons rabbits exhibit aggressive behavior (several are closely related):

Sexual maturity: Once a rabbit reaches the age of 4-6 months, hormones play a significant role in determining behavior. In males, the most common hormone-driven behavior is mounting; the buck may attempt to mount the caretaker’s arm or leg, biting to maintain his grip. The doe, on the other hand, becomes increasingly protective of her territory (see below), as everything in her system prepares her to kindle a litter. Solution: spaying or neutering can eliminate, or greatly decrease, hormone-driven behaviors in both sexes.

Protecting territory: Experienced rabbit caretakers have observed that females are often more territorial than males. Even after spaying, some females continue to exhibit cage aggression; boxing, lunging, and nipping at hands that are attempting to perform routine husbandry tasks. Solution: Place one hand on the rabbit’s head, and exert gentle pressure while removing or replacing bowls, bottles, and litter box with the other hand. Do not release pressure on the head until in-cage tasks have been completed and the “working hand” has been removed from the cage.

Dominance: Individual rabbits vary greatly with respect to dominance. Some extremely dominant rabbits exhibit aggression toward the caretaker (usually lunging and nipping) as well as toward other rabbits (usually mounting, chasing and nipping) in order to maintain their dominance. In bonded pairs where one rabbit is clearly dominant, it is not unusual for the dominant rabbit to become aggressive when the partner rabbit is receiving attention from (or being handled by) the caretaker. Solution: Avoid situations where the dominant rabbit will be “challenged.” With bonded pairs, for example, stroke the dominant rabbit first, or stroke both rabbits simultaneously. With some pairs, when access to the submissive rabbit is needed, it may be helpful to follow this sequence: 1) remove the dominant rabbit from the cage or pen; 2) remove the submissive rabbit (for medication, etc.); 3) return the submissive rabbit to the cage; 4) return the dominant rabbit to the cage.

Pain: A rabbit in pain can exhibit a broad spectrum of responses, ranging from withdrawal and hunching to sudden irritability and aggression. In my experience, well-localized pain is more likely to result in aggression than more global, systemic pain, but this varies with the individual rabbit. Solution: If aggression occurs suddenly in a rabbit who is normally not aggressive, a thorough physical examination may be indicated.

Poor close vision: Although rabbits have excellent distance vision, the placement of their eyes makes it difficult for them to see objects directly in front of themselves at close range. They will often lunge and box at fast-moving objects approaching them from the front (such as hands entering their cages to provide food or water). Solution: Approach the rabbit from the side, pausing briefly a foot or so from the rabbit’s face before attempting to touch him.

Poor handling: When picked up or handled in ways that cause fear, discomfort, or stress, many rabbits develop a repertoire of behaviors (including lunging, boxing, grunting, nipping) aimed at keeping hands at a distance. I have known two rabbits who actually learned to hold their mouths wide open in readiness as they saw humans approach. Solution: control the rabbits head as described above (see “Protecting territory”), and work toward developing alternative ways of lifting and handling the rabbit. Support the front quarters with one hand under the thorax (rather than the abdomen), while using the other hand to support the entire hindquarters.

When dealing with aggressive behavior, it is usually counterproductive to try to “discipline” a rabbit, since this can exacerbate the problem, rather than resolving it. Patience and a calm approach are much more likely to yield satisfactory results.

author: Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D., LVT
House Rabbit Society, 2003