Section 5: The need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
Rabbits have several specific behavioural needs which relate to their natural environment and their status as prey animals.
Some rabbits are naturally more confident than others. However, the way each rabbit behaves is largely influenced by experiences during the first few weeks of life. Rabbits which have not had early experiences with humans or other pets may find it difficult to cope with being in a normal home environment. They may be very nervous, hiding away a great deal of the time. Sometimes this may lead to fear-related aggression towards their owners.
Once your new rabbits are home, you should gradually introduce them to the different people they will come into contact with, normal sights and sounds, and to being handled, but always ensuring they have a safe place to which they can freely retreat. They should never be forced to interact, or chased if they try to retreat.
Rabbits should be lifted, where necessary, by holding their chest and supporting their hind legs firmly, keeping them upright or in a horizontal position. They should not be held or laid on their back to produce a "trance" as although rabbits may appear be relaxed in this position, they are likely to be stressed and may struggle when recovering. They should never be lifted by their ears.
Young children should not try to lift rabbits as rabbits can easily be injured when struggling to escape. A better idea is for young children to sit on the ground and wait for the rabbits to hop over to them. If older children are handling the rabbits, they should be carefully supervised.
Generally, rabbits that are well "socialised" at an early age will be better able to cope confidently with most new situations and people. If your rabbits are likely to come into contact with cats, dogs or other animals it is important to introduce them gradually and in a positive way at an early age. Never leave your rabbits alone with a cat or dog, even if they are familiar with each other.
You should supervise the introduction of any new toy, object or person to make sure that your rabbits are not frightened or stressed by its presence and provide them with the opportunity to escape to a safe hiding place. Forcing your rabbits to interact with this new object or person may lead to behavioural problems.
Rabbits which are roughly handled at any age may subsequently find all human contact distressing. Never shout at or punish your rabbits. They will not understand and can become more nervous and scared. If your rabbits' behaviour becomes an on-going problem, seek expert advice.
Getting away from danger
It is natural for rabbits to hide from a real or perceived danger as well as from stressful circumstances, such as noise, the presence of other animals or small children. Therefore, your rabbits should each have easy access to a secure hiding place (such as a wide tube, cardboard box or secluded part of the living area). To ensure these remain safe and secure, rabbits should never be trapped in or forcibly removed from their hiding places.
Signs of stress
Rabbits that are feeling content will appear calm and relaxed. They will nibble food, sit or lie stretched out and will be happy to approach and interact with their companion rabbits, people and objects.
Rabbits respond to stress in different ways. In most cases, when rabbits are feeling scared they prefer to run away to a quiet and hidden location. This is normal behaviour, but is reason for concern if it happens more than just once in a while. It is very important that rabbits have somewhere to hide. A rabbit which is scared but cannot get away to a safe place, or which is trapped or grabbed, may resort to biting. More general signs of stress may include: aggressiveness, restlessness, nervousness, lack of interest in food, excessive grooming, and maladaptive repetitive behaviour (repeated movements without purpose). It is important that you are able to recognise signs of stress or illness in your rabbits. If you are ever concerned, you should always contact your vet.
Typical things that can make your rabbits stressed include: boredom, lack of space, too many animals in the same space, loss of a companion, sudden noises, the presence of predators or unfamiliar people, or inability to perform normal behavioural patterns, such as running or digging.
Boredom and Frustration
Rabbits rely on you to provide everything for them, including entertainment. You should ensure that your rabbits have enough mental and physical stimulation from you and from their environment to avoid boredom and frustration. A rabbit with nothing to do will quickly become unhealthy, unhappy and possibly aggressive.
You should provide your rabbits with the opportunity to be mentally and physically stimulated. Suggestions include:
- foraging for food and having suitable objects to play with. Rabbits are inquisitive animals and should be given the opportunity to investigate and spend time with unfamiliar items that are safe for them to chew.
- the company of another rabbit or rabbits (See section 6).
- providing your rabbits with suitable materials that allow digging behaviour and areas to mark their territory with chin secretions, urine and droppings.
Rabbits are naturally most active in the early morning and evening, around dawn and dusk as well as overnight. These may be times when owners are not available to let their rabbits out into their run or activity area. In this case, it is important that the rabbits' living area should be attached to a run, so that the rabbits can access their run whenever they want to.