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There’s a common misconception out there that rabbits are naturally friendly, and er, that’s not necessarily true.
In reality, a rabbit’s temperament is just part of who they are, and you can’t really change that.
However, much like dogs, you can modify your behaviour to be a better caregiver to your bunny If your bunny is happy, well cared for, and content, then they will be more likely to show friendly behaviour.
But whilst rabbits are like dogs in that respect, they’re also like cats in that they’re really not that bothered about pleasing their caregiver, and they don’t seem to have any desire to learn anything new unless it evolves a prison break or destruction.
You’ll need a lot of patience and even more treats.
Understand why your rabbit is unfriendly
Sometimes, you just get grumpy buns. It’s a fact of life – just like you get grumpy rabbits.
But it’s also important to think about the situation from your rabbit’s perspective. Rabbits are prey animals that are hard wired to run from any threat. But they can’t run from you, so their only option is to fight you if they’re scared.
You literally have the power to kill a rabbit, and they have no reason to trust that you won’t, especially if they’ve previously been abused.
You might think that a rabbit doesn’t have much in the way of weapons for defending itself, but actually, they’re in possession of some pretty powerful ones.
A warning nip from a rabbit is enough to draw blood – a full-on bite can take out a chunk of flesh. They have powerful back feet, and claws on front and back feet.
They don’t come to play.
Just because you know that your bunny is safe and that no one’s going to hurt them doesn’t mean that they do. They will need time to trust you, and you’ll need to show them that you can be trusted.
First of all though:
Get them spayed/neutered
Once they’re old enough (I like to wait until they’re at least 6 months old).
I have a whole article on why it’s so important to get your rabbit fixed, and I personally think that the health benefits are the most important reason.
However, desexed rabbits are, in general, more friendly than intact ones. Now, there isn’t a guarantee that once you have your rabbit neutered that they’ll turn into an angel, but it does tend to significantly reduce aggression.
How to behave around your bunny to get them to trust you
Our aggressive rabbit was spayed, so I know that spaying isn’t the be all and end all, but it really can help. We still needed to spend months learning how to read her body language and gain her trust (it worked, but she was always boisterous).
Don’t pick them up
Some bunnies don’t mind being picked up, but the vast majority hate it, and for good reason.
The old-fashioned general advice is to pick up and handle your bunny as much as you can, so that they get used to it over time. I personally don’t like this advice.
Rabbits have good reasons to want to keep all four paws on the ground. They feel safer there (because you can’t be dropped if you’re already on the ground) and more in control.
The only time a rabbit would experience being lifted off the ground in the wild would be if a bird of prey grabbed them – it’s natural that they’d panic and start to kick if they find themselves suddenly rising off the ground.
Besides, there’s no reason to pick up your rabbit. Even things like nail clipping and guiding them into a vet box can be done at floor level.
Don’t invade their space
I’ve touched on this before but I think it’s important.
Your rabbit needs to have somewhere where they won’t be grabbed. Ours have a cardboard box – cheap, easy to move and replace – and we don’t ever get them out of it. If we need to catch them for whatever reason, we still won’t grab them from in the box. it’s their territory, and we respect it.
Be quiet, calm, and gentle
There’s every chance that your rabbit is none of these things, but I’m afraid it’s different strokes for different folks.
Rabbits don’t like loud noises, quick movements, or any number of other things that can be specific to each individual rabbit. Mine don’t mind fireworks at all but if next door’s baby plays with his meowing cat toy, they will thump continuously until another toy is selected.
Don’t rush over and grab your rabbit, especially when you first bring them home. Learn to coexist peacefully, so your rabbit can settle in without having to worry that you’re going to be poking and prodding them all the time.
Establish a routine with them
My rabbits get fed their pellets first thing in the morning after we get up, and at 8pm. They also get fresh hay twice a day, a little while after their pellets. Treats come at 9pm when we have our pre-bed snack.
Like humans, rabbits like to know when their next meal is coming. It allows them to relax a little more.
If your rabbits are in an x-pen, it can be useful to establish a routine for free roam time too. Holly is more than happy to spend all day in her pen when she’s alone, but if I’m in the sofa she stares at me until I let her out.
I always used to think she wanted to be out after her breakfast, but after changing my routine I realised that she thinks that if I’m on the sofa, she should be free. I can’t really argue with that.
Let them approach you
Don’t go up to your new bunny and expect them to let you stroke them. They haven’t yet established that you’re not a threat.
So, how do you convince them that you’re not a threat? Well, don’t, er, be a threat.
Sit down on the floor (I like to lean on the sofa, since it helps with the whole ‘just casually chilling on the floor vibe’) and wait for your rabbit to approach you.
I won’t lie, this can take weeks to have any effect, but be patient and try to be consistent. Some rabbits are incredibly nosy and will be straight over to check why you’re sat on the floor. Others will avoid you like the plague and then sit and look at you like you’ve ruined their life.
I’d say it’s about a 50:50 split. If your rabbit falls into the latter category, take solace in the fact that I am too, and you will get there in the end.
Learn what treats they like, and how they like to be petted
Once your rabbit has deigned to approach you, you need to be ready to reward them. Give them something high value, like banana or herbs. They’ll probably run off with it (in case you steal it back off them I assume) but they’ll definitely remember that the Floor Human is a Good Thing.
DO NOT TRY TO PET THEM STRAIGHT AWAY. Wait until they settle down near you, or are consistently running up to you.
As for how you pet them, I like to use the same method as if I were petting a dog I hadn’t met before – let them smell my hand and then pet their head.
Animals aren’t that bothered about smelling your hand (I don’t think), but you need to make sure that they can see your hand when it’s coming towards them, because you don’t want to surprise them.
Rabbits vary when it comes to how they like to be petted, but I’ve not found one that didn’t like gentle head scratches.
Start with this, and don’t move to petting their back until you’re pretty sure they trust you. I had a rabbit that had zero interest in being petted anywhere other than between her eyes, so we just respected that.
It can sometimes feel like a one-step-forward-two-steps-back journey, especially if you inadvertently scare your bun, but your patience will be rewarded. I can’t promise that your rabbit will become super friendly, but once you’ve established that:
- You’re not going to hurt your bunny and
- You have all the good treats
your bunny should be less inclined to be aggressive.
I’m afraid there’s no guarantee that you won’t get an arsehole. It’s the gamble you take when you get a rabbit. I personally love a sassy rabbit. As long as I’m certain they’re happy and not in pain, I don’t mind having rabbits that have no interest in me whatsoever.