While most people think rabbits are harmless, they can inflict painful injuries by clawing with their front claws—which are
long and strong for digging—biting with their incisors, and kicking with their powerful hindlimbs. Most rabbits' human-directed
aggression is motivated by fear or anxiety, with specific learning sometimes contributing.
Preventing human-directed aggression is much easier than treating it. Rabbit kittens should be handled in a gentle and secure
fashion, and this handling should continue as a rabbit matures, so it learns that having people pick it up, hold it, and carry
it around will not result in harm or frightening incidents.
When children are in the household, it is essential that their handling of the rabbits be closely supervised. They also need
to be educated about appropriate ways to pick up and hold rabbits. Hand-feeding rabbits special treats on a regular basis
will help them learn that interactions with people can be a good thing. A rabbit raised this way will approach people and
solicit attention and will not attack.19
If a rabbit is inadequately socialized when young or has an unpleasant experience with a person, it may subsequently try to
bite or claw at hands reaching toward it. Initially, the biting or clawing is a simple attempt to defend itself from harm.
But if the biting results in the hands going away and the rabbit being left alone, the rabbit will continue to attack all
hands that approach it because of negative reinforcement (the behavior increases because it results in something unpleasant
going away or staying away). For a rabbit with fear aggression, desensitization and counterconditioning coupled with strict
avoidance of engaging in behaviors that frighten the rabbit will be necessary.
With desensitization, a rabbit is exposed to a stimulus that elicits a given response but at such a low level that the response
is not elicited. Over time and successive repetitions, the intensity of the stimulus is gradually increased, ideally without
eliciting the response. In this case, the stimulus is a person, and the response is fear.
With counterconditioning, a response is elicited that is both behaviorally and physiologically (emotionally) incompatible
with the undesired response. The details of implementing this treatment will vary, but in general, to begin, have the owner
sit next to the rabbit's housing. When the rabbit is comfortable with this, the owner can open the door and stick his or her
hand in the doorway without touching the rabbit. If the rabbit has developed the habit of charging hands and biting, it may
be necessary for the owner to wear a leather or Kevlar glove so he or she is not injured. When the rabbit no longer charges,
the owner can gradually move the hand closer and finally pet the rabbit gently and offer it treats. Once the rabbit is comfortable
with that, it can be carefully lifted out and interacted with outside the cage. Alternatively, the rabbit can be allowed to
leave the cage on its own and be interacted with once outside the cage.
Occasionally, rabbits will develop possessive aggression, in which they defend toys or other resources. Again desensitization
and counterconditioning can effectively treat the aggression, although with an assertive rabbit it may be necessary to add
gentle restraint when it charges people getting near its toys.
Rabbits can make excellent house pets. By understanding their wild ancestors' natural behavior and how these behavioral motivations
affect the way pet rabbits interact with people and the domestic environment, we can prevent or successfully treat behavior
problems in rabbits.
Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Department of Anatomy and Radiology
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602