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.



Wild rabbits dig extensive warrens by scrabbling with their front claws and kicking soil away with their hindlimbs. Within the warren, most tunnels are narrow, allowing only one rabbit to pass at a time, although there are occasional wider sections that allow two or more rabbits to pass each other. Because digging is a natural behavior for rabbits, it is often exhibited by pet rabbits, which can be annoying to the owners of rabbits that choose to dig into quilts, seat cushions, or carpets.

This behavior is best managed by providing the rabbit with acceptable means of digging. If allowed outside, the rabbit can dig in the dirt. If a rabbit is kept in a large pen during good weather, a large volume of hay will allow the rabbit to dig and shape a mini-warren within the hay pile. Within the household, specific mats or pillows can be assigned to the rabbit. If the rabbit is allowed to dig without interruption into a certain object or in a certain area but is interrupted every time it tries to dig elsewhere, it will be likely to engage in this natural behavior where it is not interrupted.


Rabbits naturally chew a lot. Since pet rabbits may chew on harmful items—such as electrical cords—as well as valuable items—such as antique furniture—it is essential to rabbit-proof houses in which rabbits will roam freely. Once the potentially harmful items are removed or barricaded (e.g. put electrical cords in PVC pipe), it is important to provide the rabbit with numerous toys that it is allowed to chew on and play with. Nontoxic willow and apple wood sticks make good rabbit chew toys.

If a rabbit persists in attempting to chew on an item the owner wants it to leave alone, such as a chair leg, the owner should first try distracting the rabbit with a handclap and then redirecting its chewing to something acceptable. If the rabbit is persistent, mild punishment may be tried, such as tossing wadded up socks at the rabbit or squirting it with water. If any of the punishments frighten the rabbit, its use should be discontinued. The main disadvantage of using punishment techniques is the potential for causing fear responses. This must be carefully avoided. In some cases, rather than resorting to punishment, it may be best to revisit management, such as moving a valuable piece of furniture that the rabbit persists in chewing to an area of the house where the rabbit is not allowed.


Sudden changes in behavior may be indicative of medical problems rather than true behavior problems. For example, rabbits that suddenly become aggressive or fearful or exhibit a decrease in playful interactions should be thoroughly evaluated for medical problems before behavior problems are considered.

However, behavior and medical problems can interact. All pet rabbits are unique individuals with preferences that need to be watched for and addressed. For example, some rabbits prefer to drink from a bowl while others prefer a drip bottle. Some rabbits prefer one kind of food over another. If these preferences are not recognized, medical problems may develop. Rabbits may become dehydrated if not offered water in the method they prefer or may develop gastrointestinal problems and lose weight if not offered the food they like, regardless of how nutritious the food is. Moreover, some rabbits have a preferred type of toy or play style. Such rabbits may get inadequate exercise, which can lead to obesity and musculoskeletal problems, if not offered the appropriate toys and space to play in.

As prey animals, rabbits often hide the fact that they are injured or sick, an aspect of their behavior that is critical to survival in the wild. As a consequence, casual observation of a seriously ill or injured rabbit (e.g. a rabbit with a broken limb or pneumonia) may be insufficient to identify that it needs medical attention. Rabbit owners should pay close attention to any changes in behavior, even subtle ones, since these can indicate the beginning of a serious problem. Owners should also physically check pet rabbits at least twice a day, running their hands over the body and looking at the area under the tail, for any changes from normal. Waiting to provide medical care until a rabbit's disease or debility is so advanced that it is obvious to even a casual observer may be too late, resulting in death.


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