Stress affects your rabbit's health
Rabbits have several specific behavioural needs that can make them a complex pet to keep. These needs relate to rabbits being prey animals and easily frightened. Fear is a response that enables an animal to avoid dangerous situations. However, animals that are put in situations where they are constantly fearful become very stressed. This will affect their health and welfare.
Early experiences of rabbits
If you are thinking of getting a rabbit, you should be satisfied that the rabbit is over eight weeks old and able to live without its mother. The rabbit should be bright and alert and should not appear stressed or lethargic. You should find out what breed it is so you know how big it will grow.
Every rabbit is an individual and some are naturally more confident than others. However, the way each rabbit behaves is largely influenced by experiences during the first few weeks of life.
Socialisation and rabbits
Socialisation with people and rabbits is an essential part of early learning. This process starts with the breeder who should make sure that the baby rabbit is introduced appropriately to different people, objects and sounds so that they develop into confident adult rabbits. Rabbits that are well ‘socialised’ at an early age will be able to cope with most new situations and people confidently.
If your rabbit is likely to come into contact with other animals it is important to introduce and socialise them gradually at an early age. Never leave your rabbit alone with a cat or dog, even if they are familiar with each other.
Once your new rabbit is home you should continue to gradually introduce it to being handled by people and normal sights and sounds, always ensuring it has a safe place where it can retreat.
How to lift a rabbit
To lift a rabbit, place one hand under the rabbit’s chest and the other hand under its bottom. Hold the rabbit close so that it feels secure and it is prevented from falling.
Forcing your rabbit to interact may lead to behaviour problems. A rabbit owner should make new situations as relaxed and pleasant as possible for their rabbit so that it will want to investigate.
Signs of stress
Rabbits respond to stress in different ways. It is important that you can recognise any changes in the behaviour of your rabbit. In most cases, where rabbits are afraid they prefer to run away to a quiet and hidden location. This is normal behaviour, but is reason for concern if it happens more than just once in a while.
You should be able to recognise signs of stress in your rabbit. Signs of stress may include:
- appearing nervous (freezing, hunched up with ears flat against the body)
- being excessively jumpy and watchful (bulging eyes)
- being aggressive to people or other rabbits, particularly if the behaviour is unusual
- being aggressive when handled
- lethargy and lack of interest in its surroundings, food and so on
- being restless
- being very inactive
- hiding or trying to run away
- breathing heavily
- altered feeding or toileting habits
- not grooming
- showing repeated movements that do not seem to have a purpose, such as biting a water bottle, biting bars, circling or head bobbing
If you see any of these signs of stress you should contact your vet quickly. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best course of action.
You should take reasonable steps to protect your rabbit from being stressed. Typical things that can make your rabbit stressed include:
- novelty (for example the first trip in a car or being handled by a stranger)
- fear-inducing stimuli (for example sudden noises)
- social stress (for example too many individuals in a small space, loss of a companion, living alone)
- inability to behave normally (for example a lack of companionship or mental stimulation, insufficient exercise or being unable to run away from something that is causing stress)
- pain, discomfort or illness
- being unable to control environmental factors (for example lighting or temperature)
- lack of space
- withdrawal of food or water
- lack of adequate ventilation
Bored rabbits become unhealthy
Rabbits rely on you to provide everything for them, including entertainment. You should make sure that your rabbit has enough mental stimulation from you and from its environment to avoid boredom and frustration.
A rabbit with nothing to do will quickly become unhealthy, unhappy and possibly aggressive. It is your responsibility to provide opportunities for your rabbit to satisfy all of its behavioural needs.
- foraging for food and having suitable objects to play with are excellent ways of ensuring a rabbit is kept properly occupied
- the company of another rabbit as rabbits are social animals in nearly every case
- the opportunity to investigate and spend time with unfamiliar items (as rabbits are inquisitive animals)
- providing your rabbit with suitable materials that allow digging behaviour and areas to mark its territory with chin secretions, urine and droppings
You should supervise the introduction of any new object to make sure that your rabbit is not frightened or stressed by its presence (see above for signs of stress).
Never shout at or punish your rabbit. It is unlikely to understand and can become more nervous or scared. If your rabbit’s behaviour becomes an ongoing problem, seek expert advice.
Reproduction is one aspect of a rabbit’s natural behaviour. However, owners should consider neutering pet rabbits.
Housing, diet, disease
Find out more about housing rabbits, the need for a suitable diet and protecting them from pain, injury and disease: