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February 17, 2021

From Burrow to Bedroom: Rabbit Behaviors and Their Instinctual Origins

by Dr. Lorelei D'Avolio

Many rabbit behaviors are directly related to the fact that they are prey species.  This means that they are innately wired to be aware and responsive to the threat of being eaten. As crepuscular species (most active at dawn and dusk) a rabbit’s primary predators in the wild include:  

  • Birds of prey (hawks and owls) 
  • Foxes 
  • Weasels 
  • Snakes 

 Rabbits are highly perceptive to sounds, visuals, scents, and ground vibrations that may indicate a predator.  

Common Rabbit Behaviors Tied to Prey Instincts  

Rabbits live in large groups, sometimes sparring for territory, sometimes grooming and comforting, and sometimes protecting each other from predators. In pets, this translates to interesting behaviors that they use to communicate.  

  • An erect stance, ears focused up and forward, twitching nose, and a focused gaze are all signs that a rabbit has picked up on something of interest.  
  • Using underground burrows to escape to in the wild is an easy way to avoid predators and pet rabbits are often seeking ways to dig and hide if they want to get away. Being able to obtain privacy is important to prevent overwhelming stress responses.  
  • They also use their powerful hind legs to generate thumps and thuds on the ground to alert fellow rabbits of threats, as well as to scare off potential threats. When a rabbit is beating its back feet on the floor, something is bothering it tremendously.  
  • Another good defense mechanism is their agility and speed. Rabbits will kick out using their back claws (as if to spray dirt in the eyes of someone/thing chasing them) and take off at alarming speeds.  
  • While rabbits tend to be very quiet, they do use a range of grunts when threatened and are not shy to use their sharp front nails to box and scratch or their razor-sharp incisors to nip and bite if necessary.  
  • Rabbits inherently do not like being picked up; imagine a large bird or animal lifting them from the ground in their mouths and the panic that would cause. Gentle, careful handling should be started at a very young age to acclimate them and create trust.  

Signs of Comfort and Contentedness in Rabbits 

When a pet rabbit is comfortable and not feeling threatened, they exhibit a host of fun and engaging behaviors.  

Binky – A Playful Expression of Joy  

The rabbit “binky” is used to describe a physical jumping, twisting, and jiggling sort of dance that rabbits do when they are happy and playful. Sometimes it appears as a simple and spontaneous hop straight up or to the side, other times it comes as a series of wild running, zooming, and popping up in the air while twisting.  

Seeking Companionship 

  • A comfortable rabbit will also seek the companionship of other rabbits, animals, and people. 
  • They will nudge with their noses to obtain scents and express interest, and they enjoy petting, particularly around the head.  
  • They will also lick and sometimes give a gentle nip to solicit petting, food, or attention.  

Rest & Relaxation 

Most rabbits do not lounge on a lap for hours as a cat may, but they do enjoy physical contact and comfort. Sometimes, when very relaxed, they will sporadically flop over on their side and lay completely still to take a nap.  

Rabbit Cleanliness & Hygiene  

Other important behaviors of rabbits that owners should be aware of are that in the wild, rabbits are very hygienic. They do not like to urinate and defecate where they sleep and will dig ditches to deposit their waste. They also use their waste to mark territory. In captivity, rabbits will happily use a litter areaSpaying/neutering rabbits at a young age (under one-year-old) will help prevent some of the territorial/sexual markings with excrement.  

My Rabbit Eats What?!  Cecotrope Consumption  

As a pet parent, you may see your rabbit bend forward to reach their underside in an action that means they are eating their cecotropes. This behavior may be alarming to a new rabbit parent, but rest assured it’s a normal, healthy part of their routine.  Cecotropes are a special kind of feces that are an important part of their diet!  

Chewing: Instinctual Behavior 

Chewing is a vital and normal behavior of all rabbits. They spend a lot of time chewing fibrous material and require lots of safe chew items to perform this function. If not given appropriate chewing materials, some rabbits will turn to chewing electric cords, furniture, rugs, or baseboards.