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Rabbit Behaviour Problem: Aggression Towards Humans
Sound familiar? If you have an aggressive rabbit, like Lulu, read on to find out why your rabbit attacks and how to stop it.
Why is my rabbit aggressive?
Rabbits have a reputation for being cute and cuddly so facing a rabbit that bites, scratches, and kicks can be a bit of a shock. Rabbits can be aggressive towards people for several reasons, and there maybe more than one factor at work. To get to the root of the problem, first you need to rule out heath issues and hormones, which can make a happy rabbit into a grumpy aggressive one.
Step 1: Rule out Pain/Health Problems
Rabbits are good at hiding when they are unwell or in pain, because showing symptoms of illness would make them a target to predators in the wild. A sudden change in behaviour, such as unexpected aggression can be your rabbit's way of saying 'I'm feeling a bit off, please leave me alone'. Problems such as a sore mouth from overgrown teeth or a bladder infection can sometimes cause pain without showing any other symptoms. For this reason, the first step with an aggressive rabbit is to visit a vet for a health check to ensure that there is no underlying health reason for the aggression.
It's not just undetected illness that can make a rabbit lash out. Rabbits rely on their acute senses to detect people approaching them, this means rabbits usually have plenty of forewarning that that someone is about to interact with them. If their hearing or vision is impaired, they are more easily startled and that can make them nervous and prone to attacking things (such as your hand) that come near them unexpectedly. When the vet does your rabbit's health check, ask them check your rabbit's hearing and eyesight. Rabbits with red or blue eyes are particularly prone to vision problems.
If you do find out your rabbit is blind or deaf then changing the way you interact with him can reduce the aggression. The most import thing is to ensure that your rabbit is aware of where you are in relation to them, so if your rabbit is visually impaired then use sound to help them locate you and choreograph your actions. Move slowly and greet your rabbit by name so they know who is approaching. For rabbits with impaired hearing, make sure you approach from the front and slightly off centre (as rabbits have a blind spot right in front of their nose). Although the disability maybe the underlying cause for the aggression developing, it is still a form of fear/learnt aggression so see the section on that below for more help.
Step 2: Neuter to Rule out Hormones
The most common cause of aggression in rabbits is the hormones that drive them to compete for territory and protect their home from invaders. The arrival of sexual maturity, usually between 3-9 months, can trigger what seems like a complete personality change, turning a friendly baby rabbit into an aggressive teenager.
Hormonal aggression is most common in female rabbits and attacks usually take place when you put your hands (or self) into your rabbit's territory i.e. their cage, hutch, or pen. It can make it very difficult to do basic tasks, like topping up the food bowl or cleaning the cage, without being attacked.
The good news is this aggression is almost always resolved by neutering, as removing the reproductive organs also stops the hormone production. Female rabbits can be spayed from 3 months, although some vets prefer to wait until 5-6 months. With a vet experienced with rabbits, neutering is a routine operation. Many rescue centres routinely neuter female rabbits of all ages that put up for adoption. Neutering isn't an instant fix; the aggressive behaviour should decrease gradually a few weeks post-op as the hormone levels gradually decrease.
Breeding: An Alternative to Spaying? Nope
I've heard it suggested that breeding a female is a way to 'cure' aggression. This is not true. Although pregnancy does affect the hormones, any change is temporary (rabbit pregnancy only lasts 4 weeks) and having a litter of babies to protect can make a female even more defensive of their nest. It's also not a good idea to breed from a rabbit that has displayed aggression as they may pass on the genes to their off spring - imagine trying to find homes for a dozen rabbits as aggressive as yours is presently!
Male rabbits are less likely to direct hormonal aggression towards humans - they usually go after other rabbits. This is something to watch out for if you have more than one rabbit; if you handle one after the other without washing your hands, the scent may confuse your rabbit and they may attack without releasing it was you. Neutering should still be the next step in resolving aggression, so you can completely rule out any influence their hormones maybe having. You can get males neutered as soon as their testicles descend, usually around 12-16 weeks.
If your rabbit is already neutered, or neutering doesn't completely resolve the problem, then the aggressive behaviour may have become a habit or 'learnt behaviour', and you need to work with your rabbit to help him or her realise that aggression is not a good idea - read on to learn more.
Step 3: What if Neutering Doesn't Work? (Learnt Aggression)
Neutering helps with rabbit's hormonally driven behaviour, but aggression can also be a learnt behaviour. At some point, your rabbit may have learnt that aggression gets them something they want.
The most common reason a rabbit learns to use aggression as a tool is that they are frightened of interacting with people. At some point, they were scared and lashed out and it made the scary thing (the person/hand) go away, so next time they got scared they tried it again, and it kept working. They learnt being aggressive helped them avoid a situation they found frightening. We call this 'fear aggression'.
You need to tackle this kind of aggression on two fronts, first, you need to show your rabbit that there is no need to be scared, and second that attacking isn't a successful technique for making you go away. There is no quick fix for this, it will take your rabbit time to completely rework their feelings on interaction with people. You'll need to be patient and understanding during the process - remember your rabbit might be acting tough but really he or she is frightened.
Minimise Stress & Avoid Triggers
Try to avoid putting your rabbit in a situation that triggers their instinct to defend themselves or their territory. Grabbing, reaching towards, touching, and chasing your rabbit (for example to catch it) may all be considered aggression actions by your rabbit. Try to avoid these confrontational movements, as your rabbit may react aggressively in retaliation or defence. For example, don't reach into the cage to lift your rabbit out, encourage them to hop out themselves. If you need to access to the cage, for example to clean, remove your rabbit first. Once your rabbit is safely contained elsewhere then go ahead. You can entice your rabbit into a pet carrier by putting some food in and waiting patiently. If you stick to a routine, your rabbit will learn when feeding, exercise and bedtime is and what action you expect of them.
Make sure you meet your rabbit's need for exercise and mental stimulation. Rabbits that are bored and frustrated are more likely to be tense and that can increase aggression. Give your rabbit plenty of exercise time and things to do. Ideally connect the living and exercise space together so they can move between without your intervention. If that's not possible, you can use a pet carrier to transport them to avoid a confrontation over picking up.
Socialise Your Bunny
Usually with a rabbit that is fearful of people, you would sit or lie on the floor and let the rabbit investigate you in their own time, so they could learn there is nothing scary. With an aggressive rabbit, you need to do the same thing but also avoid putting yourself at risk of injury. There are several ways to do this:
Wear an old item of clothing and then give it to your rabbit to investigate, this allows your rabbit to get used to your scent in a non-threatening setting. It's likely to get nibble marks so pick something old. You could put a few treats on top to associate your scent with something positive i.e. tasty food. You can repeat this several times to refresh the scent.
Sit next to your rabbit's cage or pen, so you are nearby but safe from injury. Your rabbit needs to get used to you being around them; the more time you spend nearby with nothing bad happening the more relaxed your rabbit will be around you. Don't make it so the only time you get close is when you are going to invade your rabbit's space or pick them up. Talking to your rabbit will also help your rabbit adjust to your presence and having a verbal signal for things like opening the door will help prevent your rabbit being startled.
Get some thick boots - wellingtons are great for this, and stand in your rabbit's pen (or sit on a chair). That way your rabbit can investigate your feet/legs, but you have protection from nips. If you rabbit attacks, just ignore it, this will help your rabbit learn that attacking your ankles doesn't make you go away, but also that nothing bad will happen because you are there. Offer food to your rabbit, if you don't want to get your fingers close, tape a clothes peg to a stick and hold the food in that. Don't offer food whilst your rabbit is attacking - you don't want to teach your rabbit to bite in return for a food reward!
If your rabbit is happy to come close but bites if you touch, use an arm extension (like a toothbrush) so they can attack, learn it doesn't go away and then investigate what it was. Your rabbits should learn that attacking is not necessary because touching doesn't hurt and being aggressive doesn't get him anywhere anyway.
A very small minority of rabbits with aggression do not fall into the above categories. These rabbits remain aggressive after neutering and are often unpredictable in that they will be friendly sometimes and bite with little warning at others. It may be that they have a neurological problem or it is just a factor of their personality that cannot be completely overcome by behavioural conditioning. In this situation, you may have to accept that your rabbit cannot be completely cured, and you will have to work around the problem.
Aggression in unneutered rabbits is almost always cured or lessened by neutering. Often rabbits that are aggressive after neutering are really just scared and need time and patience to learn that the people that come near them aren't going to cause harm and they don't need to chase them away. If you find it difficult working with your rabbit to resolve aggression, you may like to talk to an expert at your local rescue or ask your vet to refer you to an animal behaviourist.
Did this article help you understand your rabbit's behaviour? If so, you might like to try my book: Understanding Your Rabbit's Habits
- Learn to speak bunny with an illustrated guide to body language
- Understand the motivation behind your bunnies behaviours
- Find out how to support your bunnies behavioural needs