Understanding rabbit behavior and preventing and treating behavior problems - Veterinary Medicine
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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.


Once both rabbits are comfortable with the harnesses, they can be harnessed, placed in a neutral area, and allowed to approach each other. Sniffing and lying next to each other are desirable behaviors that should be allowed and encouraged. Mounting should also be allowed as long as it does not trigger fighting. If a fight erupts, the rabbits must be immediately separated since they can seriously injure each other by biting and by raking with their claws. If the rabbits are not harnessed, towels can be used to both bundle the rabbits and protect the person trying to separate the rabbits.

Similar to the introduction of unfamiliar individuals of other species, the time required for a successful and peaceful introduction of rabbits varies tremendously. Some rabbits will get along well within minutes, while others may require weeks or may not be able to be kept together at all.


Lagomorph-specific behavior is substantially driven by the fact rabbits are prey animals. When considering pet rabbits, it is important to remember that their ancestors escaped predators by freezing, hiding, and, most important, escaping underground. As a result, a pet rabbit can often be seen standing on its hindlimbs, scanning the surrounding area—what lookout rabbits do in the wild. If anything alarms the rabbit, it will thump.

Figure 2. Grooming is a sign that a rabbit is comfortable with its environment. In this case, the rabbit is outside on a leash and harness.
If a pet rabbit frequently thumps, this indicates that the environment is too stimulating or threatening. In such cases, the environment should be evaluated, and the cause of the rabbit's repeated alarm should be ameliorated. Providing the rabbit with a place to hide, such as a wooden or cardboard box with an entry that is just large enough for the rabbit, can be helpful and will provide an opportunity for the rabbit to mimic normal resting behavior in the wild. Grooming is one behavior that indicates a rabbit is comfortable with its environment (Figure 2). Wild rabbits retreat to special galleries within the warren to rest, consume fecal pellets, and groom themselves.5,8,9


Appropriate housing is critical both to a rabbit's quality of life and to the development of the complex and interesting behaviors that make a rabbit a good family pet.

Origin of cage confinement

Roman farmers kept rabbits in cages as meat animals at least 2,000 years ago.10 It was the keeping of rabbits as meat animals, rather than as pets, that is the origin of the custom of keeping them confined in small cages. After rabbits were domesticated as meat animals, the custom of keeping them spread throughout Europe. By the 6th century, monks were breeding rabbits for size and color. Rabbits were successfully introduced to Britain during the Norman Invasion, which began in 1066.

Later, during the industrial revolution, as people moved from farms to cities and were forced to leave large livestock behind, the keeping of small livestock, such as pigeons and rabbits, became common. A rabbit fancy emerged, with further breeding for various sizes, colors, textures, and coat lengths as well as for face length, ear size, and whether the ear was upright or lop. As part of the domestication process, rabbits would have been selected for tolerance of housing in small cages, as wild caught rabbits that were overly stressed by this unnatural condition would not have survived to reproduce in captivity.


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