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.


Design and use

Although conventional litter boxes made for cats can be used, the triangular litter boxes that fit in the corners of cages often provide sufficient room without taking up large amounts of floor space. Like cats, some rabbits will eliminate over the side of the box, in which case the solution is to get a box with higher sides.

In most other respects, rabbits are different from cats in their litter box usage. Some rabbits like to move their litter box around, either grabbing it with their teeth and tossing or pulling it or pushing it with their paws or head. If this is a problem, it may be necessary to clamp or tie the litter box in place. Some litter boxes are designed with hooks to keep them stable. Also, rabbits do not bury their excrement as cats do but instead leave their fecal pellets lying on top of the litter while the urine soaks to the bottom of the box. In addition, rabbits may spend a lot of time in their litter boxes, just lying or sitting in them—this is normal.


The predilection of rabbits to eat their litter makes litter choice important. It is best to avoid clumping litter, pine or cedar shavings, and clay litters with deodorant crystals since consumption of these litters will compromise a rabbit's health. Litter made from paper pulp and recycled paper products, aspen bark, compressed sawdust, straw, peat moss, oats, alfalfa, or hay are usually safe for rabbits.

Disruption to litter box usage

Changes in routine or the layout of the house or stressful events can disrupt reliable litter box usage. Stressful events include changes in the makeup of the family (the addition or loss of a human family member or another pet), illness, injury, and frightening events. If a rabbit's consistent litter box usage is disrupted, it may be necessary to briefly confine the rabbit to a small area of the house while routines are stabilized and the rabbit has a chance to adapt to whatever change has occurred. If the rabbit avoids its litter box entirely, it may have developed an aversion to that specific box. In that case, the owner may need to provide a new box with different litter.


Rabbits have a variety of vocal communications, which are important to understand. When content, rabbits purr, click, or grind their teeth at a low volume. Loud tooth grinding, grunting, or growling is a threat. Loud tooth grinding can also indicate pain. As indicated above, a thump is an alarm call, while extreme fright is demonstrated by a loud scream, similar to that of a child.

Rabbits commonly leave olfactory communication signals by rubbing their chins on objects, leaving secretions from their chin glands. Urine spraying, in which urine is ejected backward in a spray, is most commonly exhibited by intact males toward subordinate males or toward estrous females being courted, wetting the other rabbit with urine. Males, especially intact males, that develop attachments to human caregivers may spray the caregivers.6,18 Neutering is the first line of treatment for this problem.

A relaxed rabbit will lie on its side or abdomen with its hindlimbs stretched out or will squat with its hindlimbs tucked underneath and its ears lain back. Rabbits exhibiting submission or fear will also crouch but will have their ears tightly against their heads while avoiding eye contact. Alert and attentive rabbits will have their ears up and mobile.

Like most animals that spend a large portion of their lives underground, rabbits have developed excellent senses of hearing and smell. The independently mobile, large pinna of the normal rabbit ear allows the rabbit to focus attention on sounds coming from particular directions. This ability is compromised in lop-eared breeds. The eyes are large and positioned on the side of the head, allowing for a field of vision of almost 360 degrees—an ability that is helpful for detecting predators.


Some behaviors that owners may classify as problem behaviors are really normal behaviors that need to be managed in a way that is acceptable to both rabbit and owner.


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