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Rabbit Behaviour Problem: Chewing the Cage Bars
Does this sound familiar? If you have a rabbit that chews the cage bars, like Charlie, read on to learn why and how to stop it.
Why do rabbits chew the cage bars?
Chewing is a normally a natural behaviour for rabbits, they chew to obtain food and to investigate and alter their environment. It's not always desirable - most people would prefer their rabbit not chew a tunnel through their sofa - but it is normal.
However, not all chewing is a rabbit just being a rabbit. When chewing becomes repetitive and purposeless, such as when Charlie chews his cage bars all night, it is an abnormal or 'stereotypical' behaviour. When animals perform stereotypical behaviours like chewing the bars, pacing their cage, rattling their water bottle, or over grooming, it is a sign they are bored, stressed, or frustrated. It means that something about their living arrangement isn't meeting their needs.
It's important to understand that in this situation your rabbit isn't chewing because he wants something to gnaw on, hence just providing some chew sticks won't cure the problem. He's also not being 'naughty' so saying "no", spraying water, clapping your hands or any other method of expressing displeasure will not stop it, because training him not to show those feelings of frustration (which you're unlikely to manage anyway) won't make them go away. To stop it you need to address the underlying causes of that frustration.
The situation from your rabbit's point of view
- Rabbits are most active at night, just because you'd like to be asleep at 3am doesn't mean that your rabbit wants to be.
- As far as your rabbit is concerned, by closing the cage door, you have restricted access to parts of his own territory. That's like me putting a lock on some of the rooms in your house and saying you're only allowed in them when I say so.
- Whilst you may know your rabbit only has to wait patiently for a short time and you'll let them back out, your rabbit doesn't. If he does, he still doesn't understand why you've done it or think it's fair.
- If you're bored, you can go out, put something on the TV, email a friend etc. but your rabbit only has the activities you provide.
You can see why a rabbit might be frustrated!
Stopping your rabbit biting the cage bars
There are several ways you can address these issues, which in turn should help stop or reduce your rabbit's bar chewing.
1. Alter Your Rabbit's Housing
If your rabbit chews because he is upset about being confined to his cage, one of the first things to consider is whether you can avoid putting him in that situation. If you use a cage because you are worried about your rabbit causing damage to your home while you are not supervising, could you step up your bunny proofing so it is safe for your rabbit to freerange? If that is a bit daunting, could you restrict access to a single room (baby/puppy gates are great for this).
If free access isn't practical, you can increase the cage size by attaching a puppy pen. You can either attach the pen permanently to the cage, or attach it at night and then fold it back up and store it out of the way during the day. Increasing the area your rabbit has access to will give him more space to be active and play with toys instead of chewing the bars.
2. Change Your Rabbit's Routine
Rabbits are naturally most active in the evenings and early mornings, and sleep most in the afternoon. Your rabbit is most likely to chew the bars when confined at a time he is most active. Try noting when your rabbit sleeps and when he is active and adjusting your routine so he gets exercise during the active period to wear him out. Remember a rabbit should spend a minimum of 4-6 hours per day in an area large enough to exercise in; the smaller the cage the more time your rabbit will require out.
Try to time your routine so that your rabbit exercises and then goes back to his cage for mealtime. This will burn off excess energy before being confined and give your rabbit something to do (eating) instead of chewing the bars. It also helps associate going back to the cage with something good (getting dinner).
3. Provide Activities to Occupy Your Rabbit
Increasing the available space often helps, but preventing boredom and frustration is not just about space, it's also about having something to do. Even in a big pen, a rabbit can get bored if there is nothing to occupy him.
Think about what activities your rabbit could be doing instead of chewing the bars. Common rabbit activities are digging, eating, exploring their territory, and social interaction. Does your rabbit have access to these activities?
In the wild a rabbit would spend most of their time eating but pet rabbits often have too much concentrated food which is quick to eat. If you feed a lot of dry rabbit food, then try reducing the amount and increasing hay to compensate. This will encourage your rabbit to spend more time eating. You can make eating an even more time consuming activity by incorporating it into toys. For example, you could hang up vegetables so your rabbit has to stretch to reach them, use a treat ball for dry food, or hide food in scrunched up paper, boxes, or mix it into hay.
If you only have one rabbit then you are your rabbit's only source of social interaction. By confining your rabbit to his cage, you are also cutting of his access to you - another potential source of stress. Rabbits are very social, so if other commitments mean you can't be there much of the day (or night) then consider getting your rabbit a rabbit companion. Adopting from a rescue is a great way to do this - generally, a neutered rabbit of the opposite sex is the best match.
Rabbits can quickly become bored of toys if they have the same thing available all the time. You'll need to provide a wide range of toys/activities and rotate what is available every day so that your rabbit always has something different to. You could also make available extra toys over night, and take them away in the morning so they stay novel. Toys rabbits like include a box of paper or hay to dig in, things to pick up and throw, tunnels, and different sized cardboard boxes.
If you address the issues that are making your rabbit frustrated, the bar chewing should naturally decrease and your rabbit (and you!) will be happier. Remember, this is a lifestyle change; you need to continue to give your rabbit the opportunity to exercise and plenty of alternate activities to make the change permanent.
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