Rabbits are timid, gentle, curious, and affectionate if given the opportunity. When your rabbit licks you, feel privileged. It is an open display of trust and affection.
However, some rabbits (not all) may become a little bit aggressive in certain situations. There are several reasons why this may happen including:
- no bond with the owner (main cause)
- not desexed
- cage housing - too small and uninteresting, especially without daily freedom to exercise
- an abusive past
It is important to determine the underlying cause of the aggressive behaviour including when it tends to occur, such as when you attempt to pick him/her up from their ‘home’ or when you pick them up to put them back in their ‘home’. Also, rabbits shouldn’t be hugged or cuddled as this can be very frightening, as they feel captured and vulnerable. It is best to get down to ‘bunny level’, i.e. ground/floor level and pet bunny there. The most common reason is that they are guarding their territory especially if your rabbit is caged most of the time and is not desexed.
Thus, there are four simple solutions to help reduce biting if this is the cause;
- Ensure your rabbit is desexed, whether male or female – find an experienced rabbit vet to do this. The option of keeping bunny as a desexed house-rabbit increases the opportunity of bonding, quality of life for bunny, and the house/enclosure never has to be cleaned (just a litter tray).
- Interact with your rabbit every day so that they become your friend and will not see you as a threat entering their territory. Remember, your bunny is not being naughty or nasty, they are just trying to protect themselves. The best training tip is to use reward-based training in these situations. Never punish a bunny as it is confusing as she is only doing what is natural in protecting herself and it is likely to increase aggression. If your bunny won't come near you, you'll have to persuade her that coming to you is a really good thing.
The easiest way is with food rewards:
- Find a food item she really likes and isn’t part of normal diet (e.g. quarter of a sultana or other tiny piece of dried fruit or banana) and then move it around a bit to help get her attention. Keep going until she will come to you, or near you, to get the treat. Gradually you can work up to making her take it from your hand, and then gradually letting you stroke (not pat) her. The ultimate aim is for you to be able to stroke her for a moment or two while she is calm and receptive, and reward her for that calm behaviour with a treat. It is important not to give too many treats – just a couple over 5 minutes or so is sufficient every day.
- Spend time on the floor just ignoring her and she will probably become curious and come up. Let her dictate how much contact she wants and let her approach you. Have treats ready so that when she does approach and is calm she can be rewarded for this behaviour and also so she starts to associate you with treats (something very positive!).
- Allow your rabbit time and space to explore outside their normal environment, so if they spend most of their time inside with you or are kept in an outside rabbit house, let them out every day but ensure it is safe to do so. It is essential that they cannot escape, access toxic plants or be at risk of attack from a cat or dog. If you are unable to let them outside every day, then provide enrichment toys to keep them occupied on the days when outside exercise isn’t possible. It's also important to provide adequate 'chewing' opportunities by providing a constant supply of meadow hay - this is essential for dental and mental health in rabbits. You should also make sure your rabbit has somewhere else to go when you are changing the food/hay (i.e., provide an escape route if she needs some space). This way they can dictate how much contact they are comfortable with. If their behavioural or social needs are not being met this may also be an underlying reason for unwanted behaviour.
- Modify your rabbit’s home if necessary, so bunny does not have to lifted in and out, i.e. add a pet door.
Please see these links for more information:
The Rabbit Welfare Fund also has other information articles including tips about how to prevent aggression.