Anxiety in rabbits
Pet rabbits can soon become stressed and anxious if we don’t provide the right kind of life for them, or if they experience anything they feel threatens their safety.
As prey animals, designed to look strong and healthy to deter would-be predators from chancing an easy meal, rabbits try not to give much away to show how they’re feeling. There are, however, some tell-tale signs that they are feeling unwell, in pain or anxious.
Perhaps you’ve had your rabbit for a while and you recognize their normal behaviour, or maybe your rabbit is new to you and you’re just getting to know them. In either case, if you know what to look for, their behaviour can give you some clues to how they’re feeling.
How do you know whether your rabbits are happy?
If you watch healthy wild rabbits, you’ll notice that they spend much of their time grazing and foraging with their companions. They hop gently about, occasionally taking a scratch, interacting with other rabbits or doing binkies (where they leap into the air, twisting their rear end, in play and excitement). If anything frightens them, they dash immediately for their burrow, where they can find security until the threat has passed.
Pet rabbits who feel happy, relaxed and healthy tend to behave in the same way. They’ll hop around, exploring their environment, twitching their noses and browsing their food. Content rabbits will have calm interactions with their companions. Sitting up and having a wash or lying side-by-side in the shade are more signs that your rabbits are feeling happy and relaxed. Moments of sprinting around and the occasional binky are also normal.
How do anxious rabbits behave?
Anxious rabbits may perform some tell-tale types of behaviour that should make you suspicious.
If your rabbit starts to display signs of anxiety when previously you felt they were happy, ask your vet to check them over so that medical causes can be ruled out.
Illness and anxiety go hand in hand: Rabbits who feel unwell will become stressed, while unhappy, anxious rabbits can soon become unwell. If no underlying causes are found, try to work out what could be affecting them and what you could improve.
Signs of anxiety in rabbits
It’s normal for rabbits to hide if they perceive a threat, or if they need to do something that makes them vulnerable, such as eating their caecotrophs. Once the threat has passed, they’ll come out into the open again. Excessive hiding should ring alarm bells. If your rabbits seems to spend a lot of time hiding, they may be anxious. Rather than trying to get them out into the open, look at the rest of their environment and consider why they might want to stay hidden.
Wild rabbits can hide in their burrows, where the temperature varies less than it does outside. Pet rabbits may try to hide if they’re too hot or feeling cold.
Rabbits who don’t want to move around could be feeling stressed or unwell. If you haven’t already asked your vet to check your rabbit over, this would be a sign that it’s time to rule out medical problems.
Obsessive, repetitive behaviour, such as hopping back and forth along one side of their enclosure or circling around inside the perimeter could signal that there’s more to this than simple exercise. Sometimes, anxious rabbits will use excessive movement as a coping behaviour.
Aimless interactions with their environment, such as chewing at the bars of their house or run, playing with the water bottle spout, or repeatedly going over and drinking from it, can be more signs of a stressed rabbit.
Overgrooming can be another coping behaviour for stressed rabbits. You might spot hairless patches on a rabbit who is overgrooming, or they may just seem to spend a lot of time grooming themselves.
Anxious rabbits may display altered eating or toileting habits. A rabbit who is off their food at all, or who is producing fewer than their usual number of droppings, is a veterinary emergency and must not be left to see whether they ‘pick up’.
A stressed rabbit’s body language will present an overall picture of tension. They might hold their body hunched, or sometimes flattened to the ground, when they sense something scary and want to appear as inconspicuous as possible.
Where a happy rabbit has relaxed ears and neck, with their nose twitching gently and extended as they explore their environment, an unhappy, anxious rabbit will often hold their chin tucked in against their chest, with their nose hardly twitching, and their ears flat to their back.
If your rabbits chase each other, watch them from a distance to find out which rabbits seem to chase and which are being chased. How often does it happen?
It could be play, but it might be a sign that your rabbits aren’t getting on as well as you’d hoped.
Struggling or freezing when being handled, and hiding or running away when you approach, are signs that your rabbit is worried about interacting with you.
You may see wild rabbits thumping the ground with their hind feet to warn each other of nearby danger.
Worried pet rabbits will also thump if they are scared. In extreme situations, rabbits may even scream loudly.
How to reduce stress and anxiety in your rabbits
Remember that the needs of pet rabbits are just the same as those of wild ones. Pet rabbits will, of course, encounter lots of situations that wild ones never experience. With patient, gentle training from an early age, rabbits can learn that they’re safe being handled or being around other pets.
Whether you’re concerned your rabbits seem stressed, or whether you’re about to welcome rabbits into the family and you want to provide the best life for them from the beginning, you’ll need to ensure their five welfare needs are being met. Making their environment as rabbit friendly as possible and following some handling tips should help to ensure both you and your rabbits are happy together.
Ways to reduce stress and anxiety in rabbits
Wild rabbits have almost unlimited space to run, play, forage and get away from each other when needed. For many of us, it would take a considerable effort to make our gardens safe from all hazards for free-range rabbits – many garden plants are toxic when nibbled and some pets and wildlife – including birds – might view pet rabbits as prey. So, what’s the next best thing?
Rabbits require a total area of at least 3m x 2m and head clearance of 1m. A hutch alone, even a very large one, doesn’t provide adequate space. Rabbits need a comfortable place to sleep, secure from predators and safe from temperature extremes, so a large, sturdy enclosure can offer this. Alternatively, sheds can provide plenty of floor space to run and explore but, unless they’re properly insulated, they can become very hot or cold during extreme weather. Also, it’s important to make sure any rabbit accommodation is rat-proof. Whether you decide to keep your rabbits in a large hutch or a shed, they still need an outdoor run so that they can forage, dig and play.
Rabbits feel more confident when they have a variety of hiding places to escape threats from the air as well as on the ground. You can buy ready-made hiding dens, but the more choice, the better. So, repurpose cardboard boxes, large plastic tubes or even cat igloos. Hiding places could be small and snug or they could cover a larger area and have multiple exits where rabbits can move freely around underneath. Large, flattened cardboard boxes supported on sturdy blocks work well.
If you have other pets, ensure your rabbits can go about their day without being bothered by them. Rabbits can get used to other pets coming and looking at them in their run, but they need time to learn that they are safe and can hide from them when necessary.
Hiding places in the wild also enable rabbits to keep cool, so try to find ways to create shady retreats for your rabbits.
Rabbits should never be kept on their own. They have evolved to live in family groups and ideally, they should be kept with at least one companion with whom they’ve been carefully introduced. Both rabbits should be neutered to prevent unwanted litters and to reduce the chances of aggression. Your vet will advise you about the timing of neutering if this hasn’t already been done before your rabbits arrive.
Avoid separating your rabbits once they are bonded. If one needs to see your vet, take their companion with them. The only time it might be better to separate them is if you need to monitor eating and drinking, or droppings production. If one has a suspected infectious disease, the chances are that the other has already been exposed to it and will need to be checked too.
Rabbits are designed to live mainly on fibre, which is provided by grass and hay. This is vital from a nutritional perspective, but it’s also essential for their teeth, which grow constantly and must be worn down by the silica particles contained in grass and hay.
Many people are now aware of the risks of insect-borne infections and vaccinate their rabbits against myxomatosis and both strains of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD 1 and 2). Vaccination appointments are about more than just the injections, though: During the appointment, your vet will give your rabbits a thorough examination, including checking that both front and back teeth are healthy and not developing painful spurs.
It's also important to ensure you protect your rabbit from flystrike. Products are available from your vet to help prevent flystrike. Seasonal flystrike products are a part of our Complete Care Health Plan for rabbits, which also includes their annual vaccinations against myxomatosis, RHD1 and RHD2, as well as a range of other perks.
An appropriate, hay- or grass-based diet will give your rabbits the best chance of healthy teeth. Even then, some rabbits may be genetically more likely to develop dental problems that could require regular treatment.
Your vet will also help you ensure that your rabbits are maintaining a healthy body condition score.
You might not be too happy about your rabbits digging up your lawn but digging is an important behaviour to them. Just check that they aren’t in danger of burrowing out of their run! You could provide your rabbits with a sand or soil box for digging.
Find opportunities for your rabbits to forage, to nibble at fresh food as well as their hay and grass, to explore rabbit-friendly toys and to interact with one another amid plenty of space. Rabbits love to chew, so rabbit-safe chews are a great way to encourage this behaviour safely.
Rabbits are inquisitive and, once they are confident with people, they can be playful pets!
Rabbits are happiest on the ground (or underground!) and don’t enjoy being picked up. If rabbits get frightened during handling, they can wriggle and kick hard. You can get badly scratched and, tragically, it can lead to a broken back, or to broken legs if they’re dropped or leap from your arms. You can do most things with your rabbit at ground level, allowing them to come and visit you when you sit on the ground. You can even carry out grooming, bottom checking, and nail trimming sitting on the ground with your rabbit in your lap if you need to.
There will be times when your rabbit needs to be picked up, so practice this while kneeling on the ground, and keep it to very short sessions. Lift your rabbit by scooping them up, supporting both ends, and holding them securely against your body without squashing them. Never restrain them by the scruff of their neck and never by their ears.
It was once believed that rabbits went into a trance if they were tipped slowly onto their back, and this was used in the past to enable handling for procedures. We now recognise that this is so terrifying for a rabbit, they’re actually playing dead, so avoid it at all costs.
When your rabbit needs to go in their carrier, it will be much less frightening if they are already happy going inside it.
You can leave a carrier filled with hay and with the door removed in your rabbit’s run, so they have plenty of time to explore and even hide inside it, well before you need to fasten them into it.
Just watch out for them using it as a chew toy!
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