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Understanding rabbit behavior and preventing and treating behavior problems

Most behaviors exhibited by pet rabbits can be linked back to their ancestors' lifestyles. Understanding how to manage these natural behaviors in a home environment as well as knowing how to prevent and treat problem behaviors will help rabbits and owners coexist peacefully.
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Feb 01, 2007

A pet rabbit's behaviors—and behavior problems—are consequences of the way its wild ancestors and their captive descendants lived and survived. This article outlines the natural behaviors of rabbits and shows how you can help rabbit owners prevent or manage common problem behaviors.

ORIGIN OF DOMESTIC RABBITS

Throughout the world there are more than 50 different species of wild rabbits and hares, members of the order Lagomorpha. The domestic or pet rabbit is descended from the European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, which originated on the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain and Portugal). The wild European rabbit is a highly social species that lives in complex social groups in warrens that sometimes become large.1-5

The Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and other wild rabbits common in the United States are lagomorphs but are in different genera than the domesticated rabbit. Most do not build warrens.

SOCIAL ORGANIZATION

Within a colony, multiple subgroups of two to eight rabbits spend most of their time together.1,2,4 The females in the subgroup are typically related, while the males maintain a rigid dominance hierarchy by ritualized signaling. As young bucks mature, they are usually driven out of the subgroup by the older bucks and will seek to join another subgroup or even a different warren.6 The young bucks are most likely to integrate into a new subgroup or colony outside of the breeding season. Members of the subgroup and colony all watch for predators when outside feeding.

This living arrangement is often in sharp contrast to that of pet rabbits. Just as the highly social horse is often kept in the social isolation of stalls, the highly social rabbit is often kept in the social isolation of a hutch or cage. In general, rabbits are probably better off if kept in groups of two or more animals. However, as with all social species, appropriate social behavior is learned. A rabbit that is adopted as a kitten and subsequently kept alone will have poor social skills and is likely to be either extremely aggressive or extremely timid when it encounters a member of its own species. Nevertheless, some rabbits can be habituated, desensitized, and counterconditioned to other rabbits. How long this process takes varies; some rabbits are calm and adapt readily to new situations, while others are reactive and less tolerant of new situations.

Introducing unfamiliar rabbits


Figure 1. Rabbits should be separated during initial introductions so they can see, smell, and hear each other but cannot engage in serious fights.
Ideally, rabbits that are not littermates and are going to live together as pets should be introduced when they are still young, at about 6 to 12 weeks of age.7 Unfamiliar rabbits should be introduced gradually, especially if they are adults and one or both rabbits have spent a lot of time isolated from other rabbits. If possible, owners should begin by placing both rabbits' housing adjacent to each other so the rabbits can see, smell, and hear each other without being able to fight. If one or more rabbits are in a large enclosure or room, a new rabbit can also be placed—inside its own cage—within the enclosure or room (Figure 1).

Since rabbits are more likely to be aggressive when in their core area of activity, introductions outside of a cage should be done in a neutral area, rather than in or near either rabbit's regular housing. For direct introduction, harnessing each rabbit can be useful because it is easy to pull the rabbits apart if either one becomes aggressive. If either rabbit is unfamiliar with a harness, it should become so before the introduction, so that the rabbit does not associate the harness with meeting a new rabbit. While a rabbit may freeze the first time it is harnessed, it will generally adapt faster than most cats do and will begin hopping around. Ideally, owners should take the harnessed rabbit to a lawn with clover and other plants it can graze on, so it associates the harness with pleasant experiences.