Primary Author: Susan Davis
People are often shocked the first time they see a rabbit display anger. Bunnies, after all, are supposed to be timid and sweet, not outspoken and nasty, and the sudden appearance of sharp teeth and raking claws can be disarming. But whether your rabbit is nipping the hand that feeds him, chasing you across the room, or latching his teeth into your calf, it’s not unusual and it’s not hopeless.
In fact, working with an aggressive rabbit can be extremely rewarding. Many House Rabbit Society members have found that aggressive rabbits are often very intelligent animals who are just trying to express themselves. Once they’re given some respect and some ground rules, that expression can turn to boundless energy, enthusiasm, and affection.
The Basics of Rabbit Aggression: Ballistic Bunnies 101
Aggressive rabbits can be scary. Rabbits bite hard, kick hard, and move fast, so it’s not unusual for owners to get intimated, or start dreaming of dumping Boopsie at the pound. So before you even approach Boopsie, convince yourself of the following principles:
1) Rabbits aren’t born mean. Ninety-nine percent of aggressive rabbits have a behavioral problem, not a genetic one. Behavior can be changed, so give your bunny a chance.
2) Your rabbit doesn’t hate you. There may be a slight chance that Boopsie has taken a personal dislike to one person. More likely, she’s afraid you’re going to hurt her.
3) You’re the only one who can solve the problem. Boopsie won’t wake up one day and say, “Gee, maybe I should be nicer to Jane.” It’s the humans who have to figure out what’s wrong and initiate new ways of interacting.
4) You can’t hit a rabbit. Some people try to “teach” their bunnies not to bite by swatting their noses or even hitting them with newspapers. This will only aggravate the problem. You need to reassure your rabbit that her environment is safe.
Common Aggression Scenarios
The first step in helping an aggressive rabbit is figuring out what’s making him tick. The following scenarios, all taken from real life, illustrate the basic causes of aggression and some easy ways to solve it. (Names have been changed to protect the reformed).
“Every time I walk in the room, Netty circles my feet and bites my ankles. Does she want something from me?”
She does–and you can’t give it to her. Circling, mounting, and biting are classic signs of a sexually frustrated bunny. It may be cute at first, but it can develop into a pretty nasty habit. Neutering males and spaying females can dramatically reduce aggressive behavior. In the meantime, try the suggestions listed below to protect you and your loved ones.
“When I put my hand down for my new rabbit, Jaws, to sniff she lunges at it. Doesn’t she like the way I smell?”
It ain’t the smell, it’s the motion and the position. Although rabbits have great long- distance eyesight, their near-distance vision isn’t so great. A human hand in front a rabbit’s face can be very startling, and a rabbit may lunge defensively at the perceived threat.
One should also consider natural rabbit communication, and how a hand in front of your bunny’s face might be perceived as a message of hostility. In rabbit social situtations, a dominant rabbit will often approach a subordinate from the front and place her face and body close to the subordinate’s nose. This “getting in her face” is one way rabbits maintain dominance, and the usual result is that the subordinate will give way and hop off to avoid a confrontation. But if the subordinate rabbit takes offense at this gesture, fur could fly! Thus, your rabbit may interpret your hand approaching her face as a sign of aggression on your part. She is doing no more than meeting your (perceived) aggression with a defensive lunge.
To break Jaws of her lunging habit, keep your hands above her head and away from her nose. When she looks aggravated, stroke her gently from above, avoiding her face except for her forehead, and speak in a soothing voice. Meeting aggression with more aggression will only escalate things. Positive reinforcement and understanding will go a long way towards getting your bunny to understand that you mean her no harm.
Some experienced rabbit people have found that carefully lifting an angry bunny and holding her with her spine against our breastbone–one hand around the rib cage, the other under the rump, all four feet and the mouth sticking straight out away from us, helps alleviate the anger and tells the bunny who’s “Top Bun” in a peaceful way. In this position, the rabbit feels totally secure, but is totally helpless and unable to bite.
“Attila is adorable. But when we reach into his cage to pull him out he bites our hands. What’s wrong?”
Rabbits can be very territorial. The first step to helping this rabbit is to stop dragging him out of his cage; he needs a place to call his own. Open the door and let him come and go on his own time. Wait until he’s out of his cage to clean it, change his water, or do other housekeeping chores.
After a few weeks, you can begin to try to touch him in his cage, but don’t grab him or mess with his stuff. Wear gloves so you don’t jerk your hand around, which may provoke him. Keep your hand above his head and then calmly and quickly bring it down to the top of his head. If he lets you touch his head, very softly stroke it. Tell him what a great big, brave, beautiful rabbit he is. Then let him alone until the next day, when you try the exercise again. Eventually he should associate your hand in the cage with a nice nose rub, not being grabbed.
“Sometimes when I try to stop Baby from eating the carpet she nips my hands. Am I hurting her?”
No, you’re bugging her. Nipping is often a rabbit’s way of saying “back-off ” or “get out of my way” or “quit putting the wet stuff in my ears.” It’s understandable, but it’s not the greatest behavior for a house pet. You can try pressing her head down. You can also try squealing “EEEK!” when she nips, so she realizes she’s actually hurting you. Many rabbits will learn to nudge your hand instead, or simply hop away. You might also decide that little nips as communication are ok in your household.
“Piggy has started biting my hands when I put the food down. What’s her problem?”
Piggy is probably an enthusiastic eater. But she may not be sure you’re going to put the food down. If you’re putting the bowl down, make sure you put it right down–don’t make her beg or dance for it. Feed her on a regular schedule so she can count on chow at a certain time of day. And don’t overdo the snacks–it makes some rabbits expect a treat every time you walk in the room.
If she bites when you hand feed her, it’s probably because she can’t see what smells so good. Try feeding her larger treats (like parsley sprigs or carrots) until she gets her aim down (some rabbits have to practice). You can also try feeding small treats, like raisins or banana, with wooden spoons or tongs. That way you can hold the treat steady for her without losing a thumb.
Extremely Aggressive Rabbits: Bunnies Who Run With the Wolves
Some rabbits are so “mean” they seem more like predators than prey. These are the rabbits who chase you across the room and up into chairs, who sink their teeth into your tender limbs and refuse to let go, or who growl at you when you approach. They’re the rabbits most likely to be dumped or put to sleep. Unfortunately, they’re often the ones who have suffered the most in life because somewhere along the line they learned that humans, or life itself, is not safe.
If your rabbit is neutered or spayed, there can be any number of reasons he’s aggressive. If you just got him, he may be stressed out by the move. His last owner may have frightened him somehow. He may have never had much contact with a human before. Or, if he used to be a hutch rabbit, the noises, smells, and sights of a house may be overwhelming him. One of the best things you can do for your relationship with this kind of rabbit is to protect yourself. Wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and real shoes when you’re around him. This will protect your flesh. It will also help you keep calm. If your skin is protected, you’re not as likely to jump, squeal or flail your arms, all of which might provoke or frighten him more.
Now start playing detective. Watch him closely to see what provokes him. It may be your touching anything in his view. It may be the movement of your legs when you walk . It may be a certain sound–like a rattling newspaper or the vacuum cleaner. It may be your reaching out to touch him or feed him. Whatever it is, don’t do it. He needs to learn that you’re not out to get him.
Then turn on the charm. One of the key lessons that House Rabbit Society members have learned is that affection works wonders on psycho bunnies. Try acting like he’s the greatest thing that ever happened in your life, despite the bandages on your hand and the boots on your feet. Give him a big hello when you see him. Greet his every act of aggression with good humor too. When he charges your arm, say “why hello, you little pumpkin!” while calmly removing your arm from his reach. If he growls and thumps, say, “yes, you’re a BIG rabbit –I love that about you!” If he streaks across the room with murder in his eyes, simply say, “hey buddy, are you coming to see me?”
You can ruffle his fur, sing a little song, say a little prayer, whatever it takes to greet his bad temper with joy, affection, and calmness. It takes courage, but if you have gloves and shoes on, you’re safe. If he looks like he’s going to bite, put your hand on his head, but continue to be cheerful. You can try saying EEK too–but be careful with this. Some nervous rabbits are provoked by a high-pitched squeal.
Rabbits think in patterns; your job is to change the pattern, so he realizes that his approach provokes affection from you, not harm. Eventually he’ll associate you with kind words, nice pats, and enthusiasm for his particular personality.
Your bunny probably won’t change overnight. It can take weeks for a rabbit to learn to trust. But that’s what’s so rewarding, and so moving, about helping aggressive rabbits. Your not just changing his behavior; your changing his perception of the world. As you do so, you’ll alleviate a lot of his suffering.