This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.
Dogs definintely can.
Cats can, but choose to ignore it.
Rabbits are more akin to cats when it comes to understanding humans.
I know my rabbits know their names.
I KNOW that when I say ‘OI HOLLY!’ Holly understands that I mean ‘stop fucking chewing the fucking sofa’ but she actually doubles down and starts chomping super fast so I have to get up off the sofa.
She’s also learned that she can preempt a timeout by running back into her pen, so whilst she’s being punished, we both know, deep down, she won.
(I could bunny-proof the sofa, but it’s so chewed by various rabbits that there’s little point now)
Rabbits can learn many human words
Rabbits are pretty intelligent, but they also don’t care.
You can teach them words by either repeating them a lot (like their name, and commands like ‘bed’) or by only teaching them the words for stuff they like.
Words my rabbits know:
- Their names
- No (they dgaf though
- Bed (useful)
- Toast (they bloody love it, but they can’t have it because it’s not good for them – reserve for birthdays/getting medication into them)
- Dinner/breakfast time
They probably know more, but they don’t care about them.
If you worked hard, you could increase this. There’s probably no upper limit on the words you could teach rabbits to understand. But they are (mostly) NOT interested.
Humans have this inherent insistence that animals can only really communicate with us using our methods.
Even though we mostly use language to communicate and most animals don’t have the hardware (i.e. vocal cords) to talk.
What I’m saying is that rabbits don’t want to listen to us, and us wanting them to listen (because we think it’d be easier) doesn’t make a difference.
Rabbits often look like they can understand every world you say
Rabbits look at you more intently that cats or dogs, because eye contact is one of the ways they communicate that they’re relaxed.
Dogs, on the other hand, often use eye contact as a way of asserting dominance.
When I was a kid we used to walk past a farm that had two guard dogs (behind a gate) that barked so so loudly.
I was scared of most dogs as a kid because we had a greyhound that slept 23 hours a day and didn’t bark or jump up or anything.
My dad taught me to completely ignore them. It tells the dogs that their barking is so insignificant to you that you don’t even need to look at them.
(This example isn’t actually that great when it comes to walking past dogs, because they’re barking at you to get you to leave, and then you leave, so they’ve won, which is why dogs LOVE barking at the mailman – he ALWAYS comes up to door and leaves when they bark!)
Rabbits aren’t that bothered about eye contact – for one thing, their eyes can see a lot more than we (and dogs) can, since they have near 360 degree vision.
The fact that they’ll happily stare at you is key to why we THINK they can understand what we’re saying to them. Because when we’re talking to other humans, we look at them.
Your rabbit is just as likely to be thinking ‘why the fuck do thing I care what they’re going on about’ as they are to be thinking ‘ah yes, I see. I shan’t chew the sofa again if it vexes you so.’
Rabbits quickly learn their own name
So do dogs. So do cats.
But they don’t know it’s their name in the same way we do.
It’s just a word we say to them a lot, so it’s familiar to them. If we say it in a happy tone, perhaps they’ll get a treat, so it’s a word that it’s worth them remembering.
If someone gave you a treat every time they said the word ‘potato’ you’d start listening out for that word a lot. It doesn’t mean you think your name is potato.
Having said that, some animals DO know their name and kind of what it’s used for. My mum’s dog is called Emma and so is my sister in law. Sometimes my mum will shout ‘Emma, walk’ and the dog will look accusingly at my sister in law (the dog is an old whippet. She doesn’t want to go for a walk).
So whilst so animals ‘get’ names. Others don’t. And, tbh, it doesn’t really matter.
Rabbit can also learn words like ‘no’ and ‘bed’ pretty quickly
‘No’ can be learned quickly because there’s usually a tone that goes with it.
‘No’ needs to be combined with an action (I usually put them back in their pen), because if you just keep saying no over and over they’ll start to ignore you.
The most important thing you can teach ANYONE is that actions have consequences.
If consequence is just that someone will shout the word ‘no’ at them, your rabbit won’t learn to stop eating your skirting boards.
I teach ‘no’ and ‘bed’ together.
A ‘no’ is issued immediately, as soon as I see what they’re doing. Then I get up and walk towards the rabbit.
A lot of the time, just walking towards them will make them run into their pen (you know, in case you decide to eat them).
Once you reach them, you say ‘bed’ and give a treat.
After a while, you may get some defiance, and they’ll stand their ground when you walk over to them. Say ‘bed’ and reward if they go to their bed.
If they don’t go, put them in.
I usually do this by shuffling my feet and herding them into their bed.
If you walk normally they can dive between your feet and you kind of lose the flow – you need to get them into their bed (by which I mean their whole pen) ASAP.
Once they’re in their pen, say ‘bed’ again and give them a treat.
I know it seems like you’re treating them for eating the sofa, but there’s enough time between them eating the sofa and ending up in bed that they should know that they’re actually being rewarded for going back into their pen.
Holly has started being a little troll about going back into bed, and she hunkers down and refuses to move.
Picking her up would set us back too far (she’s only just started letting me stroke her) so I have to do this thing where I put both my hands under her bum and push her – after half a second she launches herself into her pen, but to outsiders, it looks like I’ve yeeted her like a volleyball.
Some rabbits can understand and reflect emotions
Rabbits simply don’t care about words like we do, because they can’t use them.
But they can often understand our emotions.
If you’re crying, some rabbits will try to comfort you, by sitting next to you.
(some will try to lick your tears, because there’s always someone looking to benefit from your misfortune)
If your rabbit hides away or ignores you, it’s not because they don’t care (though, tbh, they probably don’t) it’s because, I’m sorry to say, you’re making them uncomfortable.
See! Rabbits are just like people!
Responding to the emotions of other animals is something that a lot of animals do. It’s probably a survival strategy – mirroring the behaviour of others makes them like us, and therefore (we hope) less likely to eat us.
Rabbits will definitely understand your tone
Anyone else remember crying because your dad called your dog old and stinky (he’s a cruel man lol) in a saccharine-swee tone?
The dog’s tail would be wagging as my dad rubbed his (the dog’s) belly, calling him a stinky poo, whilst I was howling ‘STOP IT, IT’S NOT HIS FAULT HE DOESN’T LIKE BATHS’ (eventually we conned him into thinking the garden hose was a fun toy, the same way my mum conned me into eating fruit by giving me tinned pineapple for ‘dessert’).
So there’s my dad trying to calm me down before my mum heard me crying, frantically telling me the dog doesn’t understand what he saying, just how he says it.
Small me is then HORRIFIED that my daddy, who reads me a story every night, puts my sandwich in a bowl even though mum wants me to use a plate (I was a weird kid), and spends much of his time rehabilitating the hedgehogs that fell foul of the main was LYING to the DOG.
I’m afraid he was right.
You could read the goriest true crime to your rabbit (I mean, if you want to) and they wouldn’t care what you were saying as long as you keep your tone perky.
And now I call my rabbit a stinky-stank (I don’t know why), which four-year-old me would surely be very aggrieved by.
Do rabbits like being talked to?
Yes, I think they do. Mine quite like an audiobook, and DEFINITELY prefer Tony Robinson reading Discworld books over Taylor Swift (I love both equally).
Interesting, I’ve never had a rabbit that liked music. I’ve had some that hated it, and some that didn’t seem to care, but I’ve never had one that perked up when I put some power ballads on to clean to.
Please let me know if any of your bunnies like to rock out!
Even if your rabbits don’t seem to care about being talked to, it’s always a good idea to say a couple of words to them when you pass.
I didn’t realise how much I talk to my rabbits until we didn’t have one, and the house seemed SO QUIET. We lost Isobel when she was 11, and she pretty quiet for the few years prior to that, so it wasn’t that rabbits were noisy, it was that I could talk to them, and break the silence a bit.
You may not think that you talk to your bunnies much, but if you’re anything like me, you do it more than you think.
I don’t talk to my rabbits because I’m trying to get them to understand me – I do it so that they get used to my voice, and so that I never accidentally sneak up on them. Your voice is a good way to remind your rabbits that you’re there, so if you’ve been chilling on the sofa for a few hours, it’s a good idea to say something before you move, rather than leaping of the sofa and startling them.