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.


Environmental enrichment

Figure 3. Rabbits readily learn to go on "hops" on a leash and harness, an activity that provides an opportunity for environmental enrichment, exercise, and sampling a variety of natural foods. Do not walk rabbits in areas where grass has been sprayed with toxins.
If kept in a small cage, a pet rabbit will survive as long as it is fed, given water, and kept adequately clean, but the rabbit is unable to engage in any of the complex behaviors that make it a good pet and that are important to its welfare. Keeping rabbits in larger housing or even loose in the house reveals an animal that is far more interesting. Rabbits play with toys or household items that they adopt as toys. They push toys around with their noses, bat them with forepaws, pick them up in their mouths and carry them around, and toss them. A rabbit that is well-socialized to people will seek them out to play or cuddle with. Rabbits can also be trained by using positive reinforcement techniques and can readily learn how to walk on a leash (Figure 3).10-17

While rabbits will use large spaces in which to hop around and even make strong leaps into the air, a place to hide—as discussed above—should always be available since they have not lost the species-specific tendency to seek a cave-like area for security and rest.


A pet rabbit's digestive system is designed for a high-fiber diet. It produces two kinds of droppings. The most common droppings are firm pellets about the size of small English peas. The second kind, caecotrophs, are generated in the cecum and are covered with mucus. Caecotrophs are produced and eaten when the rabbit is undisturbed, which is usually at night for pet rabbits and when underground for wild rabbits. The eating of caecotrophs should not be interfered with.


Common behavior problems in pet rabbits
A characteristic of rabbits that makes them successful house pets is the ease with which they can be litter-box-trained. A rabbit trained to use the litter box will leave most or all of its fecal pellets in the litter box.

Placement and training

Rabbits typically select one or more specific areas to be latrines and will almost always go there to eliminate. In the wild, this may be a scraped out area in the ground, called scrapes, which multiple rabbits may use.3-5 We can litter-box-train rabbits by taking advantage of their tendency to return to the same place to eliminate.

If a rabbit is kept in a large enclosure or cage, the owner should simply observe where the rabbit is eliminating and place a litter box there. Most rabbits will continue eliminating in the same place, even though the topography has changed by adding the litter box.

If a rabbit will be allowed to roam around the house, even part of the time, the owner should consider in advance where the litter box will be placed and begin allowing the rabbit its freedom only in that immediate vicinity. If the rabbit is already used to eliminating in a litter box in its enclosure, the rabbit may simply continue using the litter box in whatever location the owner chooses. If the rabbit is not already litter-box-trained, the owner should wait to see where the rabbit starts eliminating and place a litter box there. If the owner wants the litter box in a slightly different location than the one the rabbit initially picked, it may be possible to slowly move the box over several days without disrupting the rabbit's tendency to use the box. If the rabbit is going to be allowed access to a large area of the house, it will probably be necessary to offer multiple boxes spread throughout the house.


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