You probably think Bugs Bunny is a pretty confident character, but I think we can all agree that real life rabbits are quite the opposite – timid and shy, rabbits often prefer to be left alone munching on hay over being cuddled. In fact, some rabbits may even be afraid of their surroundings, sudden noises or even their owners. So what causes fear in these anxious bunnies? In today’s article, we will discuss the causes of fear in rabbits and what you can do to help them be less afraid.
How to Know if a Rabbit is Scared
Rabbits are prey animals, which means that in the wild, showing weakness may mean being singled out by a predator – thus wild rabbits will generally prefer to hide when feeling threatened. Pet rabbits will still try and go to a secluded part of their hutch or garden, or hide inside nests if they can. However, in captivity, this isn’t always an option for them, so they may in fact become restless and more agitated, showing distress signs such as vocalisation, chewing cages, overgrooming, changes in diet or toileting, aggression, and so on. The signs of fear in rabbits are quite variable and it can be difficult not to assume there is another more obvious cause for their strange behaviour. Constant stress and fear can eventually lead to systemic illness, such as anorexia and gut stasis, so fear should never be ignored.
What Causes Fear?
While we may consider rabbits to be cuddly little pets, imagine how we look to a rabbit – perhaps as a giant hairless predator that keeps them locked up and occasionally picks them up to, as if we like to play with our food! Quite terrifying, no doubt.
Inside a rabbit’s head
We must not forget that rabbits are prey animals, and however much we domesticate them, we cannot get rid of the innate instinct to be afraid of the unknown. This means that a pet rabbit will still show fear over anything it feels threatened by. This may be a dog or cat, a wild animal, a human or even inanimate objects. Large shapes and quick movements especially can be very fear-inducing. Even the smell of potential predators can cause fear – we can’t really stop our own smell causing fear, but it may be a good idea to keep other animals (wildlife and pets), as well as strong chemical smells, away from our rabbits where possible.
Given time, rabbits can learn that the terrible beast keeping them locked up is not fattening them up for dinner, but instead is caring for them; indeed many rabbits exist quite comfortably alongside humans and our other pets. But just put yourself in your rabbit’s position occasionally, and consider if how you act around them could be causing fear.
Rabbits, like all animals, do have memories and learn from past experiences. This may mean that past negative experiences with certain things, even if harmless in the present, can cause a fear response as well. An example would be a rabbit that was attacked by a dog in the past may now be afraid of all dogs. This form of fear should hopefully be uncommon if you are a caring owner who brought their rabbit home when it was young. However, owners of rescue rabbits, for example, may find that there is hidden history that caused and continues to cause fear. Teaching a rabbit that these things are no longer scary can be very difficult – often it may be easier to try and remove the thing that is causing the fear response instead (such as not letting the dog inside the rabbit’s room).
Physical illness or disease
Finally, rabbits will also show fear when in pain or distress. Just as fear can present as illness, so too can illness present as fear. A rabbit with a systemic disease, such as gut stasis, may isolate itself and refuse to eat or drink, which is similar to how a fearful rabbit would react. A skilled vet will often be able to identify a systemic disease and know how to treat it, which may stop the fear. Therefore, it is usually best to rule out disease as a cause of fear before starting to investigate if there is something else giving your rabbit the spooks.
There are, of course, many other causes of fear in rabbits which may never be identified, and some rabbits will naturally be more fearful anyway. For the owner of any fearful rabbit, the following advice may be useful in stopping them being scaredy-bunnies.
How to Overcome Rabbit Fear?
We’ve already discussed that the best thing you can do when you know something is causing fear in your rabbit – remove that thing! If your rabbit is afraid of loud noises, put them in a quiet room. They don’t like the dog – then keep the dog away. The light from the blinds makes them hide in the corner – put a sheet over their cage. Simple changes can go a long way to improving fear when you know what causes it.
Don’t scare the bunnies!
As for us causing fear even when we don’t mean to, consider the following. When you’re interacting with your rabbit, don’t reach in and pull them out of their home, instead open the cage and gently coax them out with something tasty. Act quiet and calm, and don’t make sudden movements. Act like if you were trying to attract a wild rabbit (because many of our pets are closer to wild rabbits than we think!). Doing your best to not seem like a hungry predator to your rabbit will hopefully make it less afraid.
Unfortunately, when you don’t know what is making your rabbit afraid, addressing it can be a lot trickier. The best steps you can make are those that reduce overall stress- a rabbit living in a comfortable environment will be less stressed and less likely to be on edge and waiting to show signs of fear. Rabbits are social creatures, so having a friend they live with can make a world of difference; introduce a mate into their hutch (carefully!) and see if it makes a difference. Give them a place to exercise and run around in, as well as a healthy diet of grasses and leafy vegetables. Keep them in a quiet, secluded part of the house or garden with less comings and goings.
Socialising and getting young rabbits used to scary things can mean they are a lot braver as an adult. When you first bring a baby rabbit home, try and interact with them as much as possible (while being calm as described above) and get them used to human contact in a rabbit-friendly way. Reducing their negative experiences will prevent them learning that something should be considered a threat, so always put yourself in their little furry shoes and think what might make you afraid.
If your rabbit is afraid of something that really cannot be avoided, such as human contact or car journeys, you can take steps to teach them not to be afraid. Always start very slowly and introduce the scary thing gradually. This could be as simple as walking up to their cage every day then moving away, or putting them in a stationary car for a moment then returning them home – they will see the scary human or car, but notice nothing bad happened. Over time, they will see the thing as not scary, and you can move to gently touching them and eventually holding them, and from short car journeys to the full trip to the vets. Rabbits are not simple creatures, and can learn – with time, you can teach them that what they were afraid of is actually not scary at all!
Remember that you don’t have to be reducing fear in your rabbit alone, and your vet will be more than happy to offer advice, assist and guide you.
We know we’re not that scary, but it can be hard for a rabbit to know that. Though they are nervous by nature, rabbits certainly don’t have to live a life of fear. Being careful and calm with your rabbit, trying to work out what is making them scared, and introducing little positive changes can go a long way. Hopefully this article has given you some tips to show your rabbit that far from being a big scary rabbit-hungry beast, you are actually a kind and caring owner, and they have nothing to be afraid of.