By Caroline Charland
Rabbits are naturally friendly, but it can take time for a rabbit to trust a person. Because rabbits are prey animals, nature built in certain instincts so they can protect themselves from predators. Even in a home where there are no predators or dangers, these instincts are still used.
If you quickly walk into the room where your rabbit is, you may startle your rabbit. When a rabbit is startled he could thump or flee. A loud noise, the sight of an animal he hasn’t seen before, such as a cat or a dog, or even a different person can scare him. Rabbits have a panic mode in which they keep running if startled or scared. If they are in a cage, pen or small room, they can panic and run into the side of the pen or the wall of the room, which could badly injure them. If your rabbit gets startled, immediately stand still so he can calm down. Then move slowly and talk in a quiet, calm voice to help soothe your rabbit and let him know everything is OK.
Know Normal Rabbit Behavior
Understanding your rabbit and picking up on his cues is a good way to get to know your rabbit, and to get your rabbit to trust you. Often people mistake a rabbit’s reactions to different situations, such as running away or thumping, to mean that their rabbit doesn’t like them or doesn’t trust them. These are all normal rabbit traits. Four normal rabbit reactions often cause people to think that their rabbit doesn’t trust them.
1. The Thump
For wild rabbits, a thump means danger. But house rabbits that thump can just be voicing their opinion about something, or maybe disapproving.
If it’s playtime and your rabbit is out running around or lounging in the living room, you may hear a thump when you approach him. This can be his way to tell you, “No, I don’t want to be disturbed, picked up or put back in the bunny room.”
If you rearrange the room your rabbit lives in, you may get a thump when he notices everything is changed. He may disapprove, but he will just rearrange what he wants to and settle back in.
If your rabbit can see outside, he may thump at seeing the gardener or pool person. Or, if a cat strolls by the window or birds are in the garden, a thump may be made, because to your rabbit these could mean danger.
2. The Chase
Your rabbit has been out playing in the living room, and it’s time for you to put him back in his pen. Often after a thump he will make a quick getaway as you approach him. He will run behind the chair, sit under the table, go back behind the couch. All the places that are difficult for you to retrieve him.
3. The Pick-Up Struggle
It is not uncommon for rabbits to dislike being picked up and held. They tend to like all four feet on the ground. Most rabbit owners I speak with tell me that when they try to pick up their rabbit, the rabbit struggles and does not want to be held or picked up.
If a rabbit doesn’t feel safe, it will not trust you. Learn how to pick up your rabbit so he does feel safe in your arms. If you have a rabbit-knowledgeable veterinarian or a good rabbit rescue group in your area, one of them can show you the correct way to pick up and hold a rabbit.
Never scruff a rabbit, which means picking him up by the skin on the back of the neck. This is how a predator picks up a rabbit, so you can imagine how scary this would be.
Once you know how to pick up your rabbit, he will feel safe with you and will not struggle. He will trust you.
4. The Nip/Bite
People are often shocked when their rabbit gives them a quick nip or bite. This can happen when your rabbit is trying to get your attention and you are ignoring him. Have you ever been stroking your rabbit’s ears or back and stopped, only to have your rabbit give you a nip? He may have nudged you a couple of times first to remind you to start stroking again, but if that cue was not acknowledged a nip/bite may be next. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t trust you; it is his way of telling you what he wants — which is for you to keep stroking him.
Identify Your Rabbit’s Personality
What is the personality of your rabbit? Knowing this helps you understand your rabbit and allows you to work with your pet to help him feel safe and to trust you.
The first two types of rabbits listed below rarely have trouble adjusting to new situations. But it is still important to remember that they need safe, quiet rooms to live in to enjoy life.
1. The Outgoing Rabbit
Nothing seems to faze these rabbits. As soon as they arrive at your home and are set up in their pen, they act as if they have been living there their whole life. They jump into the litter box and start eating hay. They find their toys and start playing immediately. When you walk into the room, they come running up to you, standing on their back feet wanting attention. These rabbits seem to trust people right away in just about any situation.
2. The Funny Bunny
These rabbits are a lot of fun. They love attention and play with you to get it. They do comical things and play games with you. They are often at home no matter where they are. They will follow you around, jump on the couch with you and be the center of attention.
3. The Shy Rabbit
The shy rabbit is one that will hide in the hidey-house or corner of the pen or litter box. When you approach the rabbit, he will let you stroke him but will cower down and won’t be happy about your approach.
A shy rabbit often comes around with time. To help him feel safe and build trust, sit in the pen with the rabbit. Don’t approach the rabbit, let the rabbit approach you. Offer a few healthy treats from your hand once you have been in the pen for a while. If you do this often, the rabbit will realize that you mean no harm. Never move quickly and avoid making loud noises. Bonding a shy rabbit to another rabbit often helps, too.
4. The Scared Rabbit
The scared rabbit runs away from you, even in a pen. Be very careful, as they can run and bounce off the sides of the pen to try to get away from you. They feel fear and don’t know what will happen when you catch them. Rabbits that are very scared will let out a high-pitched, shrill scream when you catch them. This means they think a predator has them, and the scream is to scare the predator into letting them go.
To help him feel safe and build trust, use the same approach as with the shy rabbit. Again, bonding the rabbit to another bunny or two is a good idea.
5. The Withdrawn Rabbit
Depending on where you get your rabbit from, it can be difficult to know the rabbit’s temperament. If your rabbit seems withdrawn, it could mean your rabbit is ill. A change in environment or care can put rabbits into gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, which is when the GI system slows down or stops. This can happen from a bad diet or an underlying illness, but it can also happen because of stress. If your rabbit is withdrawn and stops eating, get him to an exotic veterinarian right away.
6. The Aggressive Rabbit
Rabbits can be aggressive. Aggression is normally the result of not being spayed or neutered and/or being kept in a small cage or area. Rabbits that are not spayed or neutered get very hormonal and want to find a mate. When they are kept in a small cage, they have the instinct to protect it and will often box, grunt or even bite you when you put your hand in. This is normally solved by spaying or neutering and getting the proper-sized living quarters. But sometimes even after changing these two things a small percentage of rabbits can still be aggressive.
In my experience, bonding an aggressive rabbit to live with another rabbit can help curb aggressive behavior. We don’t always know why rabbits act the way they do, but being kind, gentle and understanding to a rabbit is the first step to starting a relationship.
Does Your Rabbit Trust You?
Use the following questions to help you determine whether your rabbit trusts you.
- Does your rabbit show interest when he sees you? Does he run over to you, standing up? Or even just look into your eyes?
- Does your rabbit like to take treats or veggies from your hand?
- How about when you spend time with your rabbit, does he stretch out? Purr (tooth chatter), nudge your hand for more attention?
- When you lie on the floor, does your rabbit come and lay by you?
- Do you catch your rabbit running around having fun and doing binkies (twists in mid-air)?
- Does your rabbit do a bunny smile, which is when a rabbit is all stretched-out with his back legs behind him?
All of the above actions mean that your rabbit trusts you.
Educate, Don’t Abandon
At the Bunny Bunch, the rabbit rescue organization I founded, we receive hundreds of calls from people who have a rabbit that they don’t want anymore. When we ask why, the reason is often because the rabbit is aggressive. Once we explain about spaying or neutering and the proper setup some people are open to trying it. We get calls of thanks and stories of how the rabbit is now enjoying life with them and has no more aggression.
At the Bunny Bunch we rescue hundreds of rabbits every year. We rescue them from city and county shelters, or from park or school grounds where they were abandoned to fend for themselves. We don’t know anything about their past. We often don’t know their age. We don’t know what their living situation was, what their diet was, how they were handled and if they were cared for properly or not. It’s all a guessing game. One thing we do know, though, is that they do not all act the same. We love all rabbits and believe all rabbits, with time and the proper care and understanding, will show people trust and love — even if it takes years, it’s worth it.
Do rabbits trust humans? The answer is yes.