Category: behaviour-rabbits

Keeping your bunny amused

Does your rabbit have toys and objects to play with to keep him amused? Or have you never really thought about giving him something to play with?

Its readily accepted that cats and dogs need toys to keep themselves amused, but most people never think of giving their rabbits toys to play with.

Rabbits are intelligent and social animals, and as well as enjoying the company of other rabbits (and people), they need a lot of mental stimulation in order to keep their body and mind active and in peak condition. Toys encourage a rabbit to display and undertake their natural behaviours, such as digging, nibbling, throwing objects, and skipping and jumping, which helps to keep them fit and occupied.

Rabbits can have a wide and varied variety of toys. Toys made of strong, non-toxic plastic, cardboard, willow and wicker are ideal, although make sure that you inspect all the toys regularly for any sharp edges or dangerous holes which they could get a foot or their head stuck in or which may cause them an injury.

Shop bought toys

If you look in any pet shop nowadays they will have a wide selection of toys that have been designed especially for rabbits. These will include rattles, balls, chew blocks, tunnels, etc. However you don’t have to stick to rabbit toys some toys made for cats, dogs and birds are also equally suitable for rabbits, as are baby toys which are always tough and non-toxic.

Feeding balls/cubes which are designed to keep dogs amused are also ideal for rabbits. These allow the rabbit to play, whilst exercising and being rewarded with food. All or some of the rabbits daily food ration can be placed in the feeding ball in the morning to allow them amusement over the course of the day.

Home-made toys

You don’t have to spend a huge amount of money on toys for your rabbit. As well as buying toys, everyday items found around the home that would otherwise be thrown away can make ideal toys for rabbits.

The inner cardboard tubes from kitchen rolls and toilet rolls make good objects for rabbits to nibble on, tear and throw around. However, if the rabbit tries to swallow any of the cardboard then the tubes should be taken away and only given when the rabbit can be supervised.

Old magazines are a firm favourite with many rabbits for tearing and digging at, but again ensure the rabbit isn’t swallowing any of the paper and any staples are removed.

Large cardboard boxes that are filled with hay or shredded paper, with food items hidden inside them will provide a rabbit with hours of fun as they scramble around in the box, nibbling the hay and searching for the food.

Dangerous toys

Any item which can be swallowed, either whole or if the rabbit chews the toy, is dangerous and shouldn’t be given. Likewise items with sharp edges, those which may be poisonous or toxic should never be given. If you are in any doubt as to the safety of at toy then it is always safer not to give it and to give them something else.

In order to keep your rabbit amused, instead of allowing them access to all of their toys all of the time, you can change their toys each week so they have a different selection to play with.

As you can see supplying your rabbit with a selection of toys doesn’t have to be expensive and you will see a difference in your rabbits behaviour as they explore and discover how to play with toys of different textures, shapes and sizes, not only giving them hours of fun but also rewarding you with amusement as you watch them.


The fact that rabbits chew is obvious. On walks in the country you can see the evidence of rabbits having chewed the bark of young saplings, or the crop in the field. At home your pet rabbit may have nibbled his hutch, or worse your furniture, books or electric wiring. What is less obvious is why rabbits chew and what you can do about it.

Rabbits chew for a variety of reasons: to eat, to remove roots that are in the way of their tunnelling activities and out of curiosity – perhaps to find out whether a novel item is edible! All rabbits, wild or domestic, need to chew. Rabbit teeth grow continually throughout their lives and as a consequence they need to be worn down. In the wild this is done primarily by the rabbit feeding on grasses which it slices with its incisors and grinds with its molars. Wild rabbits spend some 60% of the time they are awake eating, that is chewing.

Whether you keep your rabbit outside, in a hutch or hutch and run, or inside as a house rabbit it is important that it is provided with a constant supply of suitable objects that it can chew. If not, it is highly likely to end up with mis-aligned teeth and you with many trips to the veterinary surgeon to have its teeth clipped or worse.

Provision of an unlimited source of grass hay (preferably organic) and a daily supply of fresh vegetables is the easiest and most natural way of satisfying your rabbit’s need to chew. Vegetables can include radish tops, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, dandelions, clover, spinach, parsley, pea plant stems and leaves, celery and slices of carrot. Also small twigs and branches of fruit trees that have not been sprayed with insecticides will help keep your rabbit’s teeth healthy and your rabbit appropriately occupied and out of mischief.

Of course all of this can be made more entertaining, for both you and the rabbit with a bit of creative thinking. For example, put the hay and some dried or fresh herbs or a bit of apple or banana (not too much, as the sugars in such fruit can promote tooth decay) into a paper bag. Tie the bag shut with some sisal or raffia and then punch a few holes in it so the aroma of the herbs comes out. Now give it to your rabbit who will have great fun tearing the bag open for the goodies inside and the whole thing can be eaten! A similar idea is to put a nice scented treat into the cardboard tube of a toilet roll and close the ends, or stuff the tube of a kitchen roll with hay.

Rabbits enjoy things to chew and play with and providing them with such mental stimulation will help keep them healthy and happy, and your belongings safer. Toys such as cardboard tubes and boxes, baby teething keys or balls with a bell or rattle inside are sure to be a hit.

As well as providing suitable objects for your rabbit to chew it is important that you ensure that access is denied to the unsuitable objects. This is especially true for the rabbit kept indoors where prized furniture, books, curtains and carpets can become ruined by a rabbit’s attentions. Even the inside of chairs and sofas are not exempt from a bit of chewing and digging! Electric wiring can be even more hazardous as the rabbit may be literally shocked to death or set off a spark that can cause a fire. Electric wires should be chased into the wall or enclosed in plastic tubing. Move other objects out of rabbit reach. Prevent access to wood or walls covered with lead-based paint and do not allow your rabbit to chew linoleum to prevent lead toxicity.This will probably mean that your rabbit only has access to one or two rooms that you have rabbit-proofed. It is a good rule that your rabbit should only have free access to the rooms when it is supervised, the rest of the time keep it safe in an indoor pen (an indoor dog kennel suits well) with a litter tray and plenty of things to chew.

While denying access to unsuitable objects is most important, it is also possible to reinforce the idea that some things are out of bounds with some training. Proprietary chew repellents designed to deter puppies can be effective. Teaching your rabbit ‘no‘ can also be helpful. As the rabbit approaches the object, say its name and ‘No’ firmly and immediately spray it with some water from an indoor plant watering spray. The rabbit will soon associate the word ‘No’ with the unpleasant, but harmless outcome of getting wet.

  • Dr Anne McBride BSc PhD FRSA, Animal Behaviour Clinic, New College, University of Southampton, The Avenue, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK.

Aggressive rabbits

Rabbits have a reputation for being cute and cuddly, and certainly don’t give an outward impression of being capable of aggression. However, aggressive behaviour towards people can be a common problem amongst domestic rabbits, and has many possible causes, with treatment aimed at improving the trust between an owner and the rabbit.

In order to begin to understand why a rabbit may be aggressive you have to look at both wild and domestic rabbits lifestyles and put yourself in the rabbit’s position. Wild rabbits rank towards the bottom of the food chain as they are prey to many predators (including humans). This explains why they are always on their guard for the first sign of danger and can react adversely when threatened.

If a rabbit senses danger it has a choice of 3 options, commonly known as the three Fs. It can either freeze in the hope that the potential danger will go away. If this fails the next option is to take flight and run away from the danger. If this fails and the rabbit is caught, then its last line of defence is to fight. Rabbits in fighting mode are formidable opponents; they will strike with their front feet, often growling and using their very sharp teeth and claws to inflict as much damage as possible in an attempt to escape.

Although domesticated, the natural behaviour of the rabbit has changed very little from that of its wild relatives. This means that pet rabbits retain the instinct of survival, so when faced with any situation which they perceive to be a danger, they will behave as a wild rabbit would.

Common examples of aggression in pet rabbits include:

Handling problems

Apart from the fact that the some rabbits don’t like to be picked up, if you were a rabbit with huge hands approaching you from above, which to you resembled a bird of prey, how would you feel? Putting this into concept and how a wild rabbit would react when faced with what it believes to be an attack from above, its first option is to freeze, but this wont work, as you will still attempt to pick the rabbit up. It cant always take flight as in a hutch or run where there is limited space and even in a house, there are only so many places to run and hide. Sometimes the rabbit’s only option is to fight for what it believes to be its life.

After a while the rabbit begins to associate approaching hands with being picked up (which it doesn’t like), so may attempt to bite at any opportunity when a hand is presented. If the action of biting stops you from picking the rabbit up, it will learn that whenever it doesn’t want to you do something to it, it just has to bite and you will stop.

Territorial aggression

Rabbits, even after they have been neutered, can be very protective of their territory (hutch, run, pen etc) and their possessions (food bowl, litter tray, toys etc) and any attempt to invade this territory may be met with aggression. In the wild, rabbits have to keep their territory safe from neighbouring groups of rabbits so it is a very natural instinct to protect and defend.

Some pet rabbits that are perhaps feeling that their territory is insecure, may display aggression towards their owners when they try to feed them, clean them out or put their hand in the cage to stroke them. This form of aggression is the often linked with possessions; if the rabbit thinks we are going to take something away from them, they will defend it.

Hormonal aggression

Hormones can play a factor in aggressive rabbits, particularly female rabbits. Such aggression is usually apparent at sexual maturity (between 3-6 months of age depending on breed) and may occur in territorial situations or be linked to sexual behaviour. Neutering will help with any aggression that is motivated by the hormones (such as territorial aggression) and should take place as soon as is medically safe. The benefits may take a couple of months to become fully apparent. Neutering will not help with forms of aggression that are caused by fear.


Rabbits who are in pain, may display aggression. Any aggression in a rabbit should first be checked out by a vet to determine that there is no medical cause or discomfort responsible for the change in behaviour.

Many rabbits are aggressive through fear which is usually linked to a lack of appropriate handling and socialisation at an early age. There are things that can be done to try and lessen the aggression, although you may not be able to totally eliminate it. If the aggression started at puberty and seems to be linked with possession or territory, then neutering may be the first option. If the aggression is linked to handling then you need to adopt a gentle programme to begin building up the trust your rabbit has in you, to show it that you aren’t a threat to it. This can be achieved by the following methods:

  • Stop attempting to pick the rabbit up. Obviously you still need to feed your rabbit and it still needs exercise from its hutch, cage, etc. but you can get around these problems by having two food bowls. Before taking the empty one away, give the rabbit its food in the other bowl, so it is eating that before you take the empty bowl away. Try to alter the rabbit’s living environment, perhaps by placing their hutch in their run, so they can go in and out as they please, so there is no need to pick them up. If they are a houserabbit, try and coax them in and out of their pen with their favourite treats. Never chase the rabbit and don’t clean out their hutch/cage when they are in it.
  • Offer the rabbit its favourite treats in an attempt to get it to come to you. Don’t make any sudden movements or attempt to pick the rabbit up at this stage. If the rabbit tries to bite you or wont take the treat, then you may need to spend more time trying not to invade the rabbit’s space. There will be no set timescale as each rabbit is an individual.
  • Once the rabbit will come to you to take a treat and doesn’t seem nervous of you, try stroking them with your hand or a long-handled soft brush (if they attempt to bite you then they bite the brush and not you. The brush can also be kept still so that they do not learn that aggression works). Gradually build up the areas that are being touched. If your rabbit has a particular area where it doesn’t like to be touched, avoid this area in the early stages.
  • Once the rabbit is happy and accepting of being brushed you can attempt to replace the brush with your hand.
  • The final stage is to pick the rabbit up. Only raise the rabbit a couple of inches off the ground, perhaps onto your lap and then offer them their favourite treat. Repeat this exercise several times a day, gradually increasing the height you lift the rabbit up to, until you are able to pick them up and carry them a short distance, say from their hutch to their run.

This whole process may take many months and you may have to stay at any of these stages for weeks or even months until you feel that the rabbit is able to move on to the next step. Sadly there are no quick wonder cures for this behaviour problem.

Rabbits are ground dwelling animals and are most happy when they have all four feet firmly on the ground. Picking up rabbits should only be done when necessary (to give medication, examine the rabbit, clip claws, put the rabbit in its run/hutch etc), and not just for the sake of it. Adults or older children should pick up rabbits – younger children are often too small to confidentially handle rabbits, especially if they struggle or attempt to bite or kick, which can result in the rabbit being dropped and suffering potentially fatal injuries. Rabbits have very fragile skeletons, with their lumber spine especially prone to dislocation or fracture from incorrect handling or struggling.

The best way to pick up rabbits is to place one hand over the loose skin on the neck (scruff of the neck) and one hand under the rump (bottom) of the rabbit. The rabbit should be lifted from underneath using the hand on the rump to lift the rabbit and the hand on the scruff of the neck to support the rabbit. Once you have lifted the rabbit quickly bring the rabbit into your body for support. Always ensure their hind quarters are supported and if the rabbit begins to struggle put it on the floor or in a safe area as quickly as possible.

Never lift a rabbit using their ears or the scruff of the neck and don’t attempt to wrestle with the rabbit if you lose control. These actions will cause the rabbit to avoid all contact with you next time.

When rabbits bite, it can be very painful, and can be hard to remember that they bite usually out of fear, rather than nastiness. It is also wise to ensure that your own tetanus protection is up-to-date. However, whatever you do, never punish the rabbit by shouting or smacking it, as this will only make a fearful rabbit fear you even more and just compound the aggression problems.

You have to be realistic with the aims you set. It is hard to turn an aggressive rabbit into a cuddly, docile bunny, but you can often improve the situation, with months of hard work and dedication so be prepared to be patient and committed. There are lots of options for aggressive rabbits; from having them neutered, to adopting a socialising programme; perhaps adapting their living quarters to give them more space and stimulation and getting them another rabbit for company.

Undoubtedly there are rabbits that don’t respond to treatment and these rabbits pose a huge problem. The best option is to get them a bunny friend and allow them to literally live free range in a secure and safe enclosure in the garden, with minimal human contact, but under many circumstances this may not be possible. You can ask your vet for a referral to a qualified behaviourist familiar with rabbit behaviour to see if they are able to suggest any treatment aimed specifically at your rabbit.

Rehoming centres are always full to capacity with rabbits looking for new homes and understandably there aren’t many people who want to take on an aggressive rabbit, so getting a rescue centre to take the rabbit may be impossible. Rabbits are more than capable of inflicting very nasty injuries on both people and other animals and if you have tried everything then sadly the only option may be to have the rabbit put to sleep. However, this option should never be taken lightly and should only be carried out after immense thought and discussion with your vet and a behaviourist.

For behaviour advice, contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors at PO Box 46, Worcester, WR8 9YS, UK. Tel: 01386 751151Website: .

Further reading

  • Magnus E (2002) How to Have a Relaxed Rabbit. The Essential Handbook for Rabbit Owners. Ed: Appleby D. The Pet Behaviour Centre. ASIN: B009C5HDYK.
  • McBride A (2000)Why Does My Rabbit…? Souvenir Press. ISBN: 978-0285635500.