When you picture a rabbit, you probably imagine big ears, a furry little tail and, of course, buck teeth. Perfectly designed to snip off foliage in the wild, some of you may have discovered those sharp incisors can also hurt if your bunny has ever nipped you! If this is you, you may wonder why your rabbit bites you? Read on to find out.
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Lack of Handling
This is probably the most common cause of biting in young bunnies or those that have only just found a new home. It is important to remember that rabbits are small creatures being picked up by a strange animal many times their size. For rabbits that have not experienced this before, it can be frightening. While many rabbits will run or freeze with fear, when cornered some may bite to escape being handled.
With time and patience this sort of behaviour can be trained out of a rabbit. Start slow and get them used to having a person nearby. Gently hold out your hand or stroke them rather than going straight to picking them up. Gain their trust with lots of positive experiences – giving little bits of food as treats can help reinforce positive behaviour. Eventually your rabbit may be comfortable enough to jump into your lap or arms and may even allow you to pick them up. Picking a rabbit up is important to check they are healthy, so we encourage all owners to train their rabbits. Unfortunately, some rabbits will naturally be too frightened and may never comfortably accept handling – these may be more likely to bite you.
As mentioned above, rabbits are skittish animals and easily startled. Even the most socialised rabbit can be surprised and this can cause a fight or flight reaction. While many will escape, some rabbits or those without an obvious escape route may fight. This can be kicking, scratching and, yes, biting. Surprising a rabbit can happen if they don’t spot you coming, if they are busy eating, or they are asleep.
One other cause of surprise may be if your rabbit has reduced vision. As a rabbit ages, cataracts become more likely to occur, resulting in reduced vision and blindness. Blindness in rabbits is not always obvious at first, particularly if your rabbit’s environment has not changed, so rabbits suddenly becoming jumpy and aggressive could be a warning sign. Rabbits can also have reduced vision due to eye injuries, infection or dental disease – if a rabbit, especially a young one, is having difficulties seeing, please speak to your vet.
Most animals will learn from experience. This means that if a rabbit has had a negative experience with being handled or approached by humans, they may preempt a similar situation and bite to protect themselves. Rescue bunnies may be especially at risk of this if they had a stressful earlier life. Similarly, your own pet bunnies may start to bite if you accidentally frighten or hurt them during normal handling.
If your rabbit is like this, starting from scratch and training them like you would a new bunny may help teach them that handling is not a reason to bite, and they may become sociable again. As above, not all rabbits will re-learn how to properly interact with humans, and remain very aloof and nippy.
Stressed, Painful or Unhappy
No one feels very sociable when we’re in a bad mood, and this is true of rabbits as well. If a generally well-behaved rabbit suddenly starts to bite, could there be something wrong?
Stress is a big factor in rabbit health, and rabbits are especially vulnerable to it compared to other pets. This may be due to a sudden fright, a change in routine, a new rabbit or a companion passing away, not getting on with a companion, another pet disturbing them, loud noises and much more. Some stressors may be subtle and difficult to identify. Try and determine what could be stressing your rabbit out.
Pain is a big cause of behavioural changes, including biting.
Pain can be caused by various sources – some common ones include gut stasis, dental pain, arthritis in older bunnies, injuries, flystrike, ear infections, and more. Some of these may have obvious symptoms, but others, such as gut stasis, may be subtle. Check if your rabbit is also off their food, less active, hunched up or has a messy bottom. Pain should always be treated, so if you suspect pain go see your vet.
Not all rabbits are cuddly animals. Some can be quite dominant! This may commonly be seen in paired entire males, who may fight for the affection of a female rabbit. Female rabbits in heat may also show some aggressive behaviour. While most of these behaviours will be directed towards companions, some rabbits may suddenly become aggressive to their owners and start to bite. If this behaviour starts to become a problem, particularly if companion rabbits are being injured, we recommend castrating or spaying your rabbits.
Aggression can also occur if there is competition between resources, such as food, water and shelter. If there is any perceived scarcity, rabbits may fight or start to nip their owner. Ensure your rabbits always have plenty of resources, including space.
Not all biting is a problem, and rabbits have been known to give little ‘love-nips’ as a show of affection to owners. It may be down to the individual owner if it hurts and is a problem, or is an endearing aspect of their personality. As always, ensure it really is affection and not a sign of stress, disease or surprise.
- Aggression | Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF)
- Rabbit aggression – Spot the signs | Petplan
- Companion Rabbit Behaviour | Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
- Rabbits with naturally occurring cataracts referred for phacoemulsification and intraocular lens implantation: a preliminary study of 12 cases | Veterinary Ophthalmology