How to Make a Pet Rabbit Less Aggressive

Learn how to make a pet rabbit less aggressive in this Howcast video featuring bunny lover Amy Sedaris and rabbit expert Mary E. Cotter.

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Rabbits make wonderful pets. If you're thinking of getting one, check out these videos: Actress Amy Sedaris, who is a loving mom to her own pet bunny, helps rabbit expert Mary E. Cotter, Ed.D., LVT answer all your questions about how to take care of a pet rabbit. It's not always easy, but it's worth the work.

 
 

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So a lot of people contact us to ask us what to do about a bunny who has become aggressive. And most people will tell us that the bunny was not aggressive when they acquired him or her but has progressively become more so while living in their homes. This is a tricky question because the very first you want to do with a rabbit is get him or her spayed or neutered so that whatever behavior you're seen is not just hormonally driven behavior. Once the bunny is spayed or neutered, if you continue to see the same level of aggressiveness, then you want to start working with the bunny because bunnies are not born being aggressive toward human hands. That's something they learn and they learn it because they're scared of the human hand approaching them. So let's take a look. We've set up this cage not because it's a bunny's regular cage, it's not. This is just a demo cage that we can show a couple of techniques for approaching bunnies that will reduce aggression. So, one thing to remember is when you buy a cage in a store, if that's where you get your bunny cage, if you can, avoid cages that have very small, front opening doors. Rabbits are prey animals and like most prey animals their eyes are placed in the sides of their head, so that they can't see very well directly in front of themselves. And when you have to get a rabbit out of a front opening cage, the rabbit will just see something moving toward its head or its face and may lunge at whatever that object is, and it could be your hand. So, what you want to do s get a cage with a door that's big enough to comfortably fit your hand in without having it centered right at the rabbit every time you open it. On of our volunteers has noticed that if you put your head in, the top of your head in, the rabbit tends to be more comfortable than if you first address the rabbit with your hand. But I'll show you what I do. I open the cage door here and I always give the rabbit a chance to back off and to move away. I never continue to move toward a rabbit if the rabbit backs off. Without stopping, waiting and trying again. And that respect of the rabbit's space pays huge dividends because the rabbit learns very quickly that it doesn't have to get away from you. Well, this is great, how do you get a rabbit out of the cage? Open the door, right? So when you're working with a rabbit who is aggressive, and I'm told by the adopter that this rabbit used to be very aggressive and she's been working with her for a while now and the rabbit is less aggressive. But what you want to do now with a rabbit who will lunge at you, is use your hand carefully on the side of the rabbit's face rather than directly in front. So you bring your hand in, let's see, how will we arrange this? Loretta, may I have you? There you go. You bring your hand into the cage without moving directly toward the rabbit. Without reaching your hand in and grasping the rabbit. You bring your hand in and pause about six inches from the rabbit's eye. Pause your hand so that the rabbit doesn't see continued motion towards its head. So that it has a choice about what to do. I move my hand and I pause. the rabbit's exploring my hand now. I bring it in again on the side rather than directly in front and I pause. And then what I do is I start touching the rabbit's head very briefly. There, I touch her head and I remove my hand. I touch it and I remove my hand. Touch remove my hand. Touch remove my hand. Touch remove my hand. Why am I doing this? Because I am removing my hand to keep under the rabbit's threshold of tolerance. The rabbit may or may not want you to touch her head and you're giving her an opportunity to react and let you know what she wants. If I touch and remove my hand and touch and remove my hand and then I bring it in and the rabbit turns toward it, she may be asking me to move it out or she may be asking me for more grooming. In this instance, she's asking me for more grooming because she pushed at my hand and then she settled back down like don't stop now. Let me try it again. I'm in her space so I'm being very careful and respectful of her.May I touch your head? Good girl. Good girl. I think what people do is they have their own intentions so much in the forefront of their minds that they forget that this is a living creature and you can't just say I'm going to go in and remove the rabbit. You're not doing something to the rabbit, you're doing something with the rabbit, preferably. And if you learn how to wait for the rabbit's reaction and work with that reaction rather than imposing yourself on the rabbit, both you and the rabbit will be much happier long term. You want some more? You want some more? What do you think? May I touch your head? I know rabbit's don't speak English, but I always say may I touch your head, may I touch your head? And I wait for them to show me with their body language whether they want to be touched or not. And if they do want to be touched, how long they want to be touched. I think anyone who's worked with cats, and many rabbit owners seemed to have worked with cats in my experience, people know that when you stroke a cat there are what we call three stroke cats, five stroke cats. You stroke a cat and you get to a certain stroke and that's it. That tail will start flicking back and forth and the cat will dramatically let you know that he or she has had enough. Rabbits let you know in different ways and they'll do it by pushing at your hand, pushing it out of the way, lunging at you, whatever. But you have to become as skilled as interpreting body language from rabbits as you are at interpreting body language from other creatures. So again, you want to bring your hand in, wait for the rabbit's reaction and ask her permission either with your voice or with your body and remove your hand before she removes it. What you don't want is to stay on the rabbit's head so long that she is taking er head and thrusting it to get rid of your hand. That's a rabbit who's past her threshold. You have been there too long. Here she's coming to explore me. Hi. Hi. May I touch your head? May I? Thank you.And she settles down. You probably can't see her. I'm going to pick this up so that you can see her. The change in her body posture. She just settled down. I know I took your little box away. She settled down and flattened herself on the towel in a very relaxed posture, which indicates to me, that my touching her is pleasurable rather than frightening. So if your rabbit is aggressive, bear in mind that she wan't born that way. She didn't get aggressive overnight. She got aggressive over time as a means of keeping hands away from her and keeping herself safe. She's not mean, she's not going to hurt you. You just have to work with her really carefully and respectfully until she realizes that hands are not gonna grab her every time she sees them. Right? are hands gonna grab you? No they're not. Let me see your face. Oh, what a good girl you are. What a good girl.

Expert

  • Mary E. Cotter

    Mary E. Cotter, M.A., Ed.D., LVT is the founder of the NY-based Rabbit Rescue & Rehab. She serves as chapter manager of the NYC House Rabbit Society and is vice president of the International House Rabbit Society. Involved with rabbit rescue since 1982, she speaks and writes frequently on rabbit-related topics, addressing owners, veterinary professionals and shelter workers. Mary is an adjunct assistant professor in the veterinary technology department of LaGuardia Community College (City University of New York) and co-manages a 7,000-member Internet mailing list focused on rabbit health, care and behavior.