Rabbits are timid, gentle, curious, and affectionate if given the opportunity. However, they lack the ability to communicate directly with people and this can lead to miscommunication between rabbits and people. The use of body language (e.g. thumping their feet, biting, or licking you) is the only way they have to make their feelings known. When your rabbit licks you, feel privileged. It is an open display of trust and affection. But biting can break down the human-animal bond, and lead to isolation of your rabbit from your family. To prevent this happening, it is important to understand why your rabbit may bite you and how to prevent it happening.
Rabbits must never be punished for biting. It completely destroys the bond between you and your rabbits and will lead to far greater problems.
Rabbits may bite for several reasons, none of which have anything to do with being vicious, deliberately naughty, or wishing to upset you. Most rabbits only bite as a last resort – as a ‘prey’ species, flight is more natural to them than fight. They are much better adapted for running than fighting, and of course they will have noticed that you’re much bigger than them! So, they will only bite you once they’re backed into a corner and out of other options. Since rabbits who resort to biting are usually also very stressed, finding a solution will make both of you happier in the long run.
We mentioned earlier about your rabbits using their body language to communicate with us. It is vital that we learn to understand this body language and respond appropriately. Rabbits who don’t want you to get any closer may:
- crouch low
- hunch their body
- freeze in place
- flatten their ears
- try to run away.
If your rabbit behaves like this, back off and give them some space. This gives you some time to think about what is happening and work out some solutions. This is known as the ‘ABC’ of animal behaviour, A = Antecedent; B = Behaviour; and C = Consequence.
This refers to the social and environment conditions that led to the Behaviour (in this case, biting). There are several reasons rabbits will bite, but they never bite out of spite. A biting rabbit is usually a very scared rabbit, and this may be due to one of the following reasons:
- They have not bonded with you, either because they are new to the household, or this vital process has not been completed yet. Attempts to pick up your rabbit may lead to several loud thumps as a warning. If this warning is ignored, and your rabbit can’t escape, they may charge at you and bite in an attempt to frighten you off. If you then (understandably) back off (inadvertently reinforcing an unwanted behaviour), charging and biting can turn into a learned, repetitive behaviour – experience has taught your rabbits that it works.
- Some rabbits, even ones who have bonded with you, don’t like been picked up or hugged – this is not a normal thing for them. As they cannot run away, they may end up biting in an attempt to escape.
- Entire rabbits, especially bucks, can become quite territorial. If you ignore their warning thumps, a bite may be the next level of territorial aggression.
- If your rabbit is constantly stressed, e.g. their enclosure is to too small and uninteresting, especially without daily freedom to exercise, they can become frustrated. This leads to unusual behaviours such as biting.
This is what the rabbit does, expressed clearly and simply. You must not try to interpret the reasons for the bite using human emotions such as anger, hate, and jealousy – you cannot verbally communicate with your bunny to find out how they feel, and so you should not attribute emotions that may not be there; e.g. that my rabbit ‘doesn’t like me’, that they hate people, or that they are jealous of other rabbits, etc. This attribution may stop you thinking about other possible causes and result in you ignoring these causes.
This is what the rabbit gets out of biting. Often, this is obvious – you put the rabbit down on the ground, and they run away feeling safer. Other times it is very difficult for us to understand this behaviour, but it is vital that we try.
In order to change B (the Behaviour), we must change either A (the Antecedent) or C (the Consequence). As we don’t usually recommend ‘taking the bite’ and ignoring it, we focus instead on the causes of the behaviour.
There are some simple solutions to help reduce biting:
- Ensure your rabbit is desexed, whether male or female – find an experienced rabbit veterinarian 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 specifically 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 they are only doing what is natural to protect themself and it is likely to increase aggression. If your bunny won’t come near you, you’ll have to persuade them that coming to you is a really good thing. The easiest way is with food rewards:
- Find a food item they really like and which isn’t part of their 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 their attention. Keep going until they will come to you, or near you, to get the treat. Gradually you can work up to making them take it from your hand, and then gradually letting you stroke (not pat) them. The ultimate aim is for you to be able to stroke them for a moment or two while they are calm and receptive, and reward them for that calm behaviour with a treat. It is important not to give too many treats – just a couple over five minutes or so is sufficient every day.
- If your rabbit bites you when you are cleaning the enclosure, distract them with a treat (as described above), or allow them to leave the enclosure for some exercise while you do the cleaning. Alternatively, provide your rabbit with somewhere to hide or shelter – somewhere safe to go when you are changing the food/hay.
- Spend time on the floor just ignoring them and they will probably become curious and come up. Let them dictate how much contact they want and let them approach you. Have treats ready so that when they do approach and are calm, they can be rewarded for this behaviour and so they start 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 are not at risk of attack from a cat, dog, or other predator. 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. For more information, see our articles on what to feed your rabbit, dental disease in rabbits and how to keep your rabbit entertained, alert, and interested in their surroundings.
What if none of this works?
If your previously placid rabbit has started biting you suddenly, get a veterinarian to examine them for possible sources of pain. There may well be a physical problem that needs to be identified and treated.