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Compendium October 2006 (Vol 28, No 10)

Understanding Behavior: "Rabbit Behavior"

by Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB

    Domestic rabbits are increasingly popular pets. A significant change in the past couple of decades is that rabbits are increasingly being kept as house pets rather than in outdoor hutches. Preventing and treating behavior problems in pet rabbits requires an understanding of the natural behavior of their wild ancestors and how it impacts a rabbit's behavior in the house. The domestic rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is descended from the European rabbit, which is a highly social species that digs large warrens. This can confuse veterinarians who are familiar with the North American Sylvilagus sp (i.e., cottontail), which is generally solitary and does not form large, organized social groups. The cottontail digs small hollows to rest in during the day but does not dig extensive warrens characteristic of the European rabbit. Further use of the term rabbit in this column refers to the European rabbit.

    Litterbox Training

    A behavior that has been critical to the transition of keeping rabbits as house pets is the ease with which they can be trained to use a litterbox. Litterbox training of rabbits is based on the fact that they surround their warrens with specific elimination areas called latrines or scrapes, which serve as signals to rabbits from other warrens that they are encroaching on another rabbit's territory. The domestic descendant of the wild European rabbit maintains the predilection for selecting and consistently using one or more elimination sites. The basic principle of litterbox training a rabbit is to identify where the rabbit is eliminating and place a litterbox there. Most rabbits continue to use the same site. There are multiple ways to begin litterbox training, depending on how the rabbit will be housed (see box).

    Rabbits may eat litter, which limits the types that are safe to use. Clumping litters should not be used because they clump in a rabbit's gastrointestinal tract. Pine and cedar shavings as well as litters with possibly toxic materials (e.g., deodorant crystals) should not be used. Safe substrates include hay, straw, aspen bark, nonclumping unscented clay, peat moss, compressed sawdust, and litter made from paper products, alfalfa, or oats.

    As with cats, rabbits may exhibit individual preferences for certain substrates or combinations of substrates and for the size and shape (e.g., triangular or rectangular) of the litterbox. If a rabbit does not consistently use the litterbox, other substrates should be tried. Because rabbits may like to spend long periods sitting or lying in the litterbox, it is important that the litterbox be large enough for the rabbit to do so. If the rabbit frequently eliminates over the side of the litterbox, one with higher sides may be necessary.

    Unlike cats, rabbits may move their litterbox. If it is important that the litterbox not be significantly moved, the owner may need to clamp or tie the litterbox in place. However, it is important to consider whether the exact position of the box is important in the household. If not, the rabbit should be allowed to move the box wherever it wants. This behavior may be derived from the fact that rabbits in the wild manipulate their environment not only by creating warren tunnels and rooms, called stops, but also by relocating their latrines. Once a rabbit has identified the litterbox as its latrine, it may use the litterbox even if the owner moves it. Other rabbits remain "site loyal" and discontinue using the litterbox if it is moved.

    Digging and Chewing

    Centuries of living in cages has not eliminated digging and chewing behaviors in domestic rabbits. Because rabbits may chew on cords and wires, indoor areas accessible to the rabbit must be rabbit-proofed. Cords, especially electrical ones, should be moved out of the rabbit's reach or covered (e.g., with PVC pipe). Valuable objects should be placed out of the rabbit's reach. Owners can prevent rabbits from digging in couch cushions and chewing book covers by providing objects that rabbits may dig into, chew, and manipulate. Examples include various nontoxic toys available for rabbits (see box on this page). Many toys designed for parrots also work well for rabbits. A basket with hay or straw provides an area in which a rabbit can dig and form a nest. Many rabbits use digging motions to rearrange towels placed in a box for them.

    Introducing a New Rabbit

    Introduction of a new rabbit to a household with a rabbit(s) is a problem that many owners face. As with many species living in organized social groups, an established rabbit group generally does not welcome strangers. In addition, if an individual pet rabbit is ob­tained, especially as a juvenile, and is not exposed to other rabbits for months or years, it may have poor social skills. Therefore, a new rabbit should be gradually introduced to other rabbits to avoid injuries from fighting (see box).

    Aggression Towards Humans

    Although aggression toward other rabbits is motivated by a combination of territorial defense, dominance, and fear, rabbit aggression toward hu­mans is primarily motivated by fear. It is important to remember that even when human interactions with rabbits are motivated by a desire to help and be kind, rabbits can become comfortable with humans only by learning that interactions with them are safe and do not lead to pain and distress. In preparation for being pets, rabbit kittens should be handled by humans. Rabbit kittens handled by humans or exposed to a nonpredatory cat each day during the first week of life approach and do not show fear reactions to whichever species they were exposed to when tested after weaning.1

    Subsequent experiences with humans can alter a rabbit's behavior toward them. If a rabbit is held in a painful fashion or dropped while being held, it is likely to become afraid of being picked up by humans. This fear response may be generalized to all humans, even if they do not attempt to pick up the rabbit. Fearful rabbits respond in a variety of ways: They may run away, crouch and freeze, or attack. If the attack results in the human moving away and leaving the rabbit alone, the rabbit will learn to repeat this behavior to frighten away humans. Although biting and scratching by these rabbits can be intense, the motivation is still fear. This makes the handling of rabbits by young children particularly problematic. Young children are likely to mishandle rabbits, often through naiveté, nervousness, and lack of coordination rather than through genuine maliciousness. If a rabbit bites young children because they have hurt it, they are likely to retreat and teach the rabbit that biting is an effective defense. To prevent this, young children should be allowed to interact with rabbits only under direct supervision of an adult. They should not be allowed to pick up the rabbit. Instead, they should interact with the rabbit on the floor or a couch, if the rabbit is comfortable jumping on and off the couch. Mini and dwarf rabbit breeds may be at greater risk for injury by children than are larger breeds.

    If a rabbit has developed fear aggression, behavior modification should be conducted by an adult who is not afraid of the rabbit. Although experienced rabbit owners may be comfortable doing this, professional assistance may be necessary. Rabbits that have learned to defend themselves through aggression must learn not to be afraid of humans and that biting humans does not make them go away (see box).


    If species-specific behavior and principles of learning are understood and applied in the management and care of pet rabbits, behavior problems can be easily prevented and treated.

    See the Key Points box.

    See a list of Resources .

    1. Pongrácz P, Altbacker V, Fenes D: Human handling might interfere with conspecific recognition in the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Dev Psychobiol 39:53-62, 2001

    References »

    NEXT: Abstract Thoughts (October 2006)


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