by Phyllis O’Beollain
(Phyllis writes great articles about rabbits. You can subscribe to her articles here.)
Please note that most of the following techniques are also useful for helping timid, skittish rabbits, as both aggression and timidity are often based in fear.
Look at that face! Is that the cutest bunny face ever?
Guillermo (single photo) seemed much less cute when he was sinking his teeth into me, charging me, chasing me, boxing, slapping, lunging, growling…you get the picture. He was behaving this way because he had learned that humans are not safe.
Guillermo came under the care of Dayton Area Rabbit Network in the fall of 2009. He was a friendly, jolly little guy who didn’t mind being held and liked being petted. He lived with his DARN foster parents for several months until he was adopted by a seemingly nice family with older kids.
Five months later, G. was returned to the Humane Society of Greater Dayton; the only explanation given was that it “didn’t work out with the kids”. Returning him to the HSGD was the responsible thing to do, but G. was a changed bunny.
Once in his foster home, G huddled in the corner of his exercise pen and refused to eat. The usual protocols of medication, gentle massage and offers of a variety of tempting herbs and other delicacies did not entice him to eat. After 24 hours and just before G was to be taken to the emergency vet clinic for evaluation, he was apparently angered by a dandelion leaf being waved in front of him. Snap!! His teeth could be heard as he snapped at the dandelion, yanked it away…and ate it. His depression was replaced by anger and a hearty appetite.
The bad news is that he did not stop snapping and biting – at everyone and everything – for the next 5 months.
Why would a rabbit act like this?
Aggressive rabbits aren’t born that way.
You may have a bunny mill bunny who has never received any previous love or attention. You may have a bunny who was stuck in a hutch and ignored, making him territorial and aggressive (the sounds, sights and smells of a home, as compared to the solitary confinement of a hutch may be freaking him out too).
Aggression in rabbits can have a physical cause or a behavioral basis, although the overwhelming majority of aggressive rabbits have a behavioral problem, not a genetic or physical ailment. Start by taking your rabbit in to a bunny-savvy veterinarian for a physical workup.
Is the rabbit spayed or neutered?
Raging hormones can cause very aggressive behaviors in bunnies of both genders. Spaying or neutering the bunny can usually put a stop to the aggressive behavior in a couple of weeks post-op, once the hormone levels drop. Spaying and neutering prevents unwanted litters and homeless rabbits and promotes the physical and emotional well-being of the pet.
Arthritis, dental problems, mites - anything causing the rabbit discomfort can be the reason behind the aggressive behavior. As previously mentioned, the pet needs to be spayed or neutered. G immediately acted so ugly at his veterinary checkup that the vet assumed he had not yet been neutered.
In Guillermo’s case, he was a jolly bunny before his first adoption, so it is likely he was teased while at his adoptive home. He also reacts extremely negatively to dishtowels and dust rags, further supporting the idea that perhaps he had been teased. In fact, after a dental procedure, when calling to see if he had eaten after his surgery, the staff informed me, “Yes, he tried to eat our new vet tech” when she tried to arrange his (towel) bedding for him.
Lack of socialization or a lack of attention
Bunny mills are notorious for housing rabbits in horrible conditions and giving them NO attention. These rabbits are often sold around Easter here in the U.S., and must fend for food while in the mills, with the result being rabbits who have developed aggressive traits out of necessity and who also fear and dislike humans. Even rabbits who start out being socialized and friendly but who are then stuck out back in a hutch when the kids “get tired” of them and are given no attention beyond (maybe) food and water will frequently become cage aggressive. Cage aggressive rabbits are trying to defend the only safe ‘home’ that they can call their own, pitiful as that home may be.
Rabbits are not stupid - if growling and charging at people startles them and makes them back away, he learns quickly that this is the behavior of choice for discouraging unwanted attention. If he has been teased, ignored or otherwise treated unkindly he will assume that all attention is going to be unwanted.
Once you have had your bunny checked over for physical ailments and had her spayed or neutered, if s/he is still acting in an aggressive manner, you will need to try to figure out what triggers the behavior. Note what causes his undesirable behavior. He may become upset at seeing you in his line of vision; he may become aggravated at a particular sound, smell, or even the sight of an ordinary item.
The first step is to stop/alter whatever it is you are doing that upsets him. If he objects to the way you reach into his territory to pet or feed him, while you obviously still need to feed and pet him, you need to find a different way to go about it (a way that keeps you safe as well). Whatever you do, never ever hit your bunny, not with your hand or a rolled up newspaper or anything else. Never.
Protect yourself. Wear boots, jeans, long sleeves and leather work gloves to protect you from bunny’s teeth when working in or placing food dishes in his pen. Tongs can be used to place food into the pen or retrieve dishes. If bunny charges you, don’t react (you’re safe!), just finish what you are doing and withdraw the tongs. Bunny does not want confrontation; he just wants you to back off and leave him alone.
When cleaning bunny’s habitat, a lock out area (what zoos use for certain animals) can be helpful for both of you: use a baby gate or xpen to block off half of the pen from the bunny. Get a second litter box and switch them out quickly.
Next, set up the environment
Keep the sounds low and the lights at a moderate level. Some rabbits seem to enjoy music that has no major changes in volume or sharp abrupt sounds – some nice piano sonatas, that sort of thing.
A good hiding box
Sometimes a good hiding box will make all the difference. Not only will a good hiding place make the bunny feel more secure, but being able to sit on top of the box may make a difference in bunny’s behavior.
When working with my own aggressive rabbit Guillermo, I provided him with a Cottontail Cottage. He spent most of his time on the roof of the cottage, surveying his kingdom. If he was on the roof of the cottage, he was more receptive to our presence in the room, and would accept treats without growling or charging us. We theorized that he felt less intimidated now that we no longer completely towered over him (when he was on the roof).
Try a Cottontail Cottage or some other mechanism by which the rabbit can get closer to your level, OR try sitting on the floor with the rabbit…unless this aggravates or upsets him, as it did with G.
The food service industry recognizes the effects of color on humans, as the fast food industry chooses reds and oranges to increase the appetite and move patrons along, while the upscale restaurants that wish you to linger will utilize muted colors, perhaps in greens and aquas.
Blues and greens are said to be colors that promote relaxation, calmness and stress reduction. It is easy enough to purchase colored indoor/outdoor type carpet squares and put them into the cage or xpen; the rabbit can sit on them as he chooses.
When Your Rabbit Needs Special Care by Lucille Moore is invaluable in assisting with the color therapy and other alternative therapies.
Once you have the environment set up, let your rabbit settle in. Don’t try to pet him or forcibly remove him from his new home. Keep his environment calm and quiet.
After providing your bunny with a calm, safe environment and providing for your own safety when working around him, you may wish to try some or all of the following therapies. These therapies can all be used simultaneously.
The field of homeopathy can be somewhat overwhelming;Bach’s Rescue Remedy combines 5 different flower essences to combat tension, irritability and other emotional reactions to stress and trauma. 3 drops of Rescue Remedy can be placed on a slice of banana or other treat.
Newton’s also puts out a line of homeopathic remedies aimed at pets; however, homeopathy is not species-specific. Dogs, cats, people, fish, birds, rabbits – everyone can benefit from homeopathy without the risk of negative side effects. Locally, both Newton’s and Bach’s RR can be found at Olympia Health Foods, and you can also buy Bach’s RR from Meowza! at the Dayton Mall.
Sometimes a stuffed animal can be a companion for a single bunny. Oftentimes the aggressive bunny seems to be more calm (and less lonely?) as he grooms and snuggles next to a stuffed toy. Make sure there are no buttons, ribbons or other parts that bunny could chew off and swallow.
If you have other bunnies, you might consider locating your aggressive bunny’s xpen in the same room as the other. Not near enough to get nipped through the bars, of course, but somewhere in the room so s/he can see and smell that there are others of his kind nearby. This definitely seems to have a cheering effect on some rabbits. Similarly, giving your aggressive bunny some hand-me-down toys from another bunny can provide interest for the new arrival.
Give him space
Don’t forcibly remove him from his cage or xpen (the one place he thinks is his own). Open the xpen or cage door and let him wander out on his own – then set about cleaning his habitat.
If possible, sit in the pen for awhile and just hang out and read or watch TV and ignore the rabbit. Later place some greens in the pen and continue to ignore the bunny. Let the bunny get used to your presence.
You’re dying to pet him, aren’t you?
Don’t go sticking your hand inside his xpen or cage and trying to pet him – first attempts at petting are better done when bunny is outside of ‘his’ territory. Also, do not put your hand in front of his face. Rabbits are very far-sighted, and the sight of your hand suddenly appearing in front of their face will be very startling and probably provoke a reflexive lunge at your hand. Instead, wait until bunny is outside his xpen, wear those leather gloves, and try to gently touch bunny on the top of the head, gently stroking the top of his head (avoid his face) and talking softly. Do this for (seriously) a few seconds, working your way up to longer bunny-petting intervals. Offering a little treat afterwards couldn’t hurt.
When bunny tolerates a minute or two of petting in this manner, you can start working on trying to pet him when he is inside his xpen,but use the same procedure (no touching his face) and resist the urge to move his stuff around or change the litterbox – just focus on trying to pet him for a few seconds. Wear the gloves. Talk softly. Put a treat in his bowl if he lets you touch him.
In addition to using tongs as necessary to protect yourself, make sure you are quickly putting the food bowl into the bunny’s living area – don’t be hesitant, don’t hold the bowl above bunny’s head “Oh, see what I have here? Oh boy, it’s dinner time” because the rabbit sees this as teasing him, not tempting him. The bunny may lunge and smack the bowl out of your hands in an attempt to get at the food, not you. Feed your rabbit at about the same time every day so that he doesn’t get overly excited at the sudden appearance of food – he will learn that he can count on being fed every day.
Peel me a grape
Rabbits are quite far-sighted in order to be able to see the predators coming from far away; this means they really cannot see well up close. Rabbits who are not used to being hand fed may overshoot their target and nip your fingers by accident, as they cannot differentiate between the smell of that tasty raisin and the smell of your fingers with the tasty raisin smell on them. Either feed larger treats (carrot toothpicks, strands of cilantro) or use the tongs to deliver the treats until bunny has enough practice at this to improve his aim.
Patience patience patience
Aggressive bunnies did not become this way overnight, and their issues will not resolve overnight. Protect yourself, stay calm, speak softly to bunny, and be very, very patient. Bunny will improve over time but it may take weeks for bunny to feel secure and safe.
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