Congratulations! You’ve just adopted one of the most popular pets on the planet. (Ellis, McCormick, Tinawro, 2017). To allow for focusing on the behavior aspects of life with a rabbit, let’s assume that you’ve set up a proper environment for your bunny, have the correct diet, and that your bunny is litter trained. If you are unsure about proper rabbit housing and diets, check out Part 1 of this series for resources. If you aren’t sure about how to litter train your bunny, check out Part 2 of this series. Part 3 will focus on building a relationship with your bunny, training behaviors that facilitate low-stress care, and preventing problem behaviors.
Bringing bunny home
Rabbits often take a while to adjust to new environments. Place your rabbit in their smaller space (ex-pen, run) without access to their exercise area at first. Too much space too quickly can be overwhelming. In addition, good litter box habits can be transferred more easily in a smaller space. The hardest part of bringing home a new rabbit is taking a step back and giving them time to acclimate, including time to explore their new home, use their new litter box, and, perhaps most importantly, sleep. Rabbits are the least active during the day (Stone, 2011), which is, more likely than not, when you’ll be bringing them home. For a rabbit, bringing them to a new environment at 2p.m. is a bit like moving into a new house with a new family at 3 a.m.! Check on your rabbit regularly, and watch for signs of relaxation. The move will likely be stressful for the rabbit, so it’s important that they have an opportunity to rest before you attempt to interact with them.
When you set up your rabbit’s area before bringing them home, place a variety of greens, veggies, and small bits of different treats (such as pieces of carrot, apple, or banana) in their new home. This serves a few purposes. Providing preferred foods will encourage the rabbit to eat, preventing a stress-induced stasis episode. Gastrointestinal stasis is caused by not eating for long periods, and can be fatal (Quesenberry and Carpenter, 2012). Rinsing the veggies beforehand also offers a little extra hydration, another helpful stasis preventative. Additionally, eating is an indicator of relaxation, as a highly stressed rabbit will not eat. Observe your rabbit and see what they eat first. Knowing what your rabbit’s favorite food is will help you make friends!
Less is more
While dogs and cats are often quick to seek out human attention, rabbits typically take a little longer to warm up. Some rabbits are naturally very bold and curious, but this inquisitiveness can sometimes be punished by a well-intended but overly hands-on response. When it comes to making friends with rabbits, less is more. Have some treats handy, and sit on the floor with your rabbit. Any time your rabbit approaches, slowly offer a treat. You associate your presence with good things, and reinforce the rabbit for orienting toward you. If your rabbit just hops around and ignores you, no big deal!
Rabbits are prey animals, and all of their senses have developed to aid them in sensing danger in the environment. As a result, rabbits are highly perceptive and can switch from curious to frightened very quickly (Stone, 2011). When interacting with a rabbit, trying to be as mindful of the environment as the rabbit is a helpful strategy. For example, let’s say you are sitting on the floor with your hands in your lap. The rabbit approaches you, so you extend the back of your hand toward the rabbit to let them sniff you. The rabbit quickly turns and hops away, flicking their feet in your direction to make sure you got the message! What went wrong? Think about what was going on when the rabbit decided to move toward you. You were sitting still, hands in your lap. Your body position at the moment the rabbit decided to move toward you is what they felt comfortable with. You changed that, and the situation didn’t feel safe anymore, causing the rabbit to move away. Watching what the rabbit moves toward and away from will help you learn more about what makes the rabbit feel safe.
What if your bunny approaches you but doesn’t take treats? This is really common! Often, rabbits are keener to explore a new environment before they settle down to eat anything. One of my favorite techniques for becoming a part of that is to become a “human jungle gym.” Sit on the floor with your shoulders leaning against a wall. Scoot forward to create a tunnel behind you that the bunny can fit through. Plant your feet flat on the floor with your knees up, creating another tunnel. Rabbits love exploring tunnels, and are usually eager to explore you when you sit this way! Have your treats handy, and watch to see if your rabbit’s nose twitches, looking for snacks! The more time your rabbit spends in their new environment, the more likely they will be to take treats.
Clicker training is an excellent way to achieve almost any behavior or husbandry goal with a rabbit, or any pet for that matter. Clicker training essentially allows for a communication pathway to open up between rabbit and trainer. It allows the trainer to convey to the rabbit “You did the right thing — here comes a treat!” The rabbit is able to easily understand how to access rewards, and learns to make choices to get what they want. This is incredibly powerful for a prey animal like a rabbit. By encouraging the rabbit to make choices and rewarding them for doing so, the rabbit gains confidence and learns that by taking action, they can control their environment. To learn more about how clicker training works, how to get started, and more, check out this article.
Rabbits are experts at hiding illness (Stone, 2011). One of the best ways to track your rabbit’s health is to weigh them. Teaching your rabbit to hop on the scale under their own volition is likely to be far less stressful than grabbing them and putting them on. I highly recommend purchasing your own scale. For a small rabbit, a food scale will suffice. Larger breeds may need a cat or baby scale, which are more expensive but not too unreasonable, and easy to find online. Both will need some modification to make them more comfortable for the rabbit. Drawer liner or a cut-up bath mat will help add some traction to a cat scale. Rabbits have furry feet, so adding traction will help them feel more stable on the scale. While a food scale may be able to measure a smaller rabbit’s weight, it will likely be too small for them to comfortably sit on it. Adding a bucket or tray to the scale will help the rabbit have more space to comfortably settle.
Oral medication conditioning
Most rabbits will need medication at some point in their lives. If a rabbit only experiences eating out of a syringe when they are sick, they are unlikely to know what to do when the syringe is offered. This may result in a stressful experience where the rabbit is restrained and forced to take the medication, making each dose more and more difficult as the rabbit begins to associate all of this with the syringe. A much easier approach is to begin associating the syringe with good things and teaching the rabbit how to eat out of the syringe early on. It’s not a difficult concept to grasp, but it still requires teaching, as the rabbit does not immediately know what to do with a syringe when it is presented.
Offer a 1cc syringe (the most common size for delivering rabbit meds) filled with all-natural applesauce, pureed fruit, or all-natural fruit or veggie baby food. Dip the outside of the syringe in the food so the rabbit can lick it off the edges. As the rabbit approaches the tip, slowly dispense some of the food. As the rabbit begins to understand and eagerly grabs at the syringe, begin to wait to dispense the food until the rabbit puts their lips on the syringe, then their teeth, then takes the whole end in their mouth. Often, meds don’t taste good. If the rabbit learns that it has to grab the whole syringe in its mouth to get the treats dispensed, it will be much easier to quickly get the medication in the rabbit successfully. I also like to condition the rabbit to be comfortable with pushing the syringe in slightly, as well as being comfortable with dispensing large amounts of food quickly. This also helps increase successful administration. Always follow up gross meds with a syringe full of “good stuff” to reinforce the rabbit. Frequently offer syringes full of treats while the rabbit is on medication so that the “gross stuff” almost seems like a fluke to the rabbit. If, for example, a rabbit is on a twice-daily antibiotic, try to aim for at least five syringe feedings a day, so three are just treats and two have meds.
Below is a video showing oral medication administration while treating Hemingway, who needed antibiotics for an infection.
Training tricks may seem pretty pointless, but it can be the best confidence- and relationship-builder for a rabbit! The cool thing about trick training is it places no pressure on the trainer and, subsequently, on the rabbit. If the rabbit isn’t quite “getting” the scale behavior, the trainer may feel stress because they are unable to assess the rabbit’s health. If the rabbit isn’t quite “getting” how to jump through a hoop, who cares! Training tricks allows the trainer to learn how to work with the rabbit, and it allows the rabbit to understand the training game. As the trainer and rabbit are successful together, the relationship develops, opening the door for trust-based husbandry behaviors, such as being comfortable being handled, voluntary injections, and more. A brand-new trainer is likely not ready to begin teaching these complex behaviors just yet, and a quick way to gain some experience is to teach tricks. Rabbits can even earn titles in tricks through domorewithyourdog.com. This program offers a list of tricks of varying difficulty that trainers can use to structure their goals. Below is a video of Hemingway, a rescued bunny who had been previously neglected and likely abused. He learned to trust people again through trick training. To learn more about titling tricks with your rabbit, contact Small Animal Resources to learn more about joining a free SPARK group specifically for rabbits!
A critical component of rabbit care is allowing them to spend time outside of their living quarters, no matter the size, daily (Quesenberry and Carpenter, 2012). Encouraging them to explore a new environment, spend time in a different area, and experience a different view of the world is an important way to stimulate and enrich them. However, it is not uncommon for rabbits to be reluctant to return to their home once they’ve been given a larger space to explore. This can lead to herding, chasing, or other stressful (for rabbit and person!) techniques to return the rabbit home. It is important that the rabbit learns to “go home” on their own, otherwise the simple presence of a person in the environment can elicit stress. Often, a rabbit is “closed down” at night, when the person is unable to supervise because they are going to sleep. This is important for the rabbit’s safety, but remember that rabbits are more active at night than during the day, so this goes against their natural rhythm.
Altering the rabbit’s feeding routine can help create a very positive association with going into the pen, as well as providing the rabbit with activities to do throughout the night. Save the rabbit’s pellets and veggies for “going to bed,” while leaving free-choice access to timothy hay all day. When it’s time for the rabbit to go to bed, provide a simple foraging activity, such as sprinkling the pellets in some hay. Call to the bunny, encouraging them to come to you and go into the pen. Wait until the bunny hops into the pen before placing the veggies and pellets inside. Once the bunny is in, reward with the veggies and pellets, and close the door!
As you establish this routine, the calling to the rabbit will become a “dinner bell.” If the rabbit is fearful, waiting until they are already inside of the pen, perhaps in the litter box, resting, or munching on hay, then placing the food inside, can be a more successful approach. It may require a bit of observation to catch the rabbit in the act but, if the training is working, the observer may notice the rabbit naturally going into the pen around this same time every night. Keeping a consistent “bedtime” can also help the rabbit learn to anticipate what is going to happen.
Other rabbit behaviors
Anyone who has taken the time to get to know a rabbit, build a relationship with them, and experience the love they can give will attest to the fact that these animals can be just as interactive and fun as dogs and cats. Rabbits simply require a bit more effort on the part of their people to really open up and trust. This is quite understandable, as rabbits have evolved to be “nature’s fast food,” and are on the menu of almost every predator there is. Given that fact, it isn’t surprising that they tend to be guarded in their interactions.
Unlike many domesticated animals, rabbits simply do not tolerate rough handling, force, or misunderstanding of their condition. In my opinion, building a relationship with a rabbit, who has every reason to trust no one, is one of the most beautiful ways to show how capable we humans are of kindness. Sharing a home with a rabbit can be incredibly rewarding if both human and rabbit are set up for success. Understanding what to expect from the animal and what it will take to bond with them is one of the best ways to do so. It is my hope that this series will help shelters, fosters, bunny parents, and rabbits live happily together through mutual understanding.