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Right, I’m starting off this post on a slightly scary note, so I want to assure you before you run screaming to the vet, that my rabbit is a head shaker.
She does it to tell everyone that zoomies are soon to be on the agenda, but she likes to leave a 30 second gap between head shaking and then zoomies so that everyone in the audience can find their seats.
But head shaking can have a variety of meanings, and I’m to get the bad ones out of the way first.
Reasons your rabbit is shaking their head:
Your rabbit may shake their head because it has health issues
One of the reasons I think it’s important to keep a close eye on your bunny is you notice those subtle changes in behaviour that you might not notice if you only spend an hour or so with them daily.
Your rabbit may have ear mites
Rabbit ear mites (called Psoroptes cuniculi) are common among domestic rabbits. If you notice your bunny shaking their head, scratching their ears, neck, or cheeks, has crusty ears, droopy ears, has thinning hair, and is losing weight, get the vet to check for ear mites.
Please note that by time you notice actual mites, the infestation will be moderate to bad. Mites infest the deep inner ear first ,which is why if you notice any prolonged head shaking or scratching, it’s best to get to a vet asap.
Ear mites are extremely contagious, but indoor bunnies are less likely to be at risk – but not immune, since the mites can travel inside on our clothes and shoes.
Your rabbit is more likely to be at risk from ear mites if:
- They’re kept outside, since they’re likely to come into contact with wildlife
- They’re kept in overcrowded conditions – we’re pretty sure that’s why my bunny Daisy has head tilt. She’s been treated, it was only a very slight tilt, and we think it’s improving. Yay!
- They have compromised health – stressed, unwell bunnies are at high risk from ear mite infestations.
Luckily, treating ear mites is pretty straight forward – your vet will prescribe avermectin – something like Ivermectin or Selamectin (which is what Revolution/Stronghold is).
Should your rabbit be diagnosed with ear mites, you’ll need to move your bunny to a new area, since it’ll take 4-6 weeks for all the mites in their living space to be gone.
All bedding needs to be disposed of – and throw away the bedding from the temporary accommodation after the 4-6 weeks is up. Everywhere the rabbit has been will need to be sprayed with insecticide.
Following these steps will ensure your rabbit doesn’t get reinfected.
Your rabbit may have a build up of earwax
Bear in mind that what looks like ear wax could be mites, so get to the vet if you’re unsure. Like humans, some rabbits produce more ear wax than others, but it’s rarely a problem.
If you notice your bunny is shaking their head and you see a lot of wax, it’s best to have it extracted. I have had to do this before, and whilst it’s not painful, rabbits…hate it.
I recommend taking your rabbit to the vet, so that they can recommend an ear cleaning product, and either extract some wax safely and/or give you an ear swilling demo.
Basically, you make up the solution, shake it, and squirt it in your bunny’s ear. Then, with the reflexes of a cat, you massage the base of the rabbit’s ear to help dislodge the gunk.
So far, this sounds like any other account of cleaning a rabbit’s ear, BUT WHAT OTHER SITES DON’T TELL YOU is that the nanosecond one molecule of liquid touches your rabbit’s ear they will shake their head SUPER HARD, covering you, your rabbit, and your whole house, in ear-cleaning solution.
This article has a great step-by step ear-cleaning guide.
Your rabbit may have an ear infection
There are a variety of ear infections, in rabbits. Like humans, a major sign of infection is heat and redness. Your vet will probably prescribe antibiotics.
Your rabbit may have vestibular disease
This is the fancy name for head tilt, and can be caused by any of the factors I mentioned above. Like I said, one of our rabbits had head tilt and is doing really well. She’s more conscious about zoomies – she has a little practice in her house before she starts her laps around her pen. She hasn’t quite progressed to doing laps of the living room like her mum, but I’m confident she’ll get there.
Your rabbit may have dental issues
Rabbit’s teeth grow constantly, and if they don’t get consistently ground down, then they can end up with dental problems. I’ve also had older rabbit that started developing spurs on their teeth from uneven wear, which can cause pin and inflammation.
We opted to have our 11 year old bunny put to sleep when he started developing dental problems, because the treatment would have meant monthly operations which would have been extremely stressful for him. Usually regular trimmings or tooth extraction will put everything right, but George was drooling excessively which caused skin issues.
Paired with arthritis it was hardly fair to add monthly ops, so euthanasia was a fairly simple decision (simple is NOT the same a easy btw).
Whilst dental issues in bunnies are common, most can be avoided by ensuring your rabbit is eating plenty of hay (this article will you plenty of tips to get fussy buns to eat their hay).
Also, the paper I read on rabbit incisor malocclusion, seems pretty optimistic about the improvements in rabbit veterinary care, due to the rise in house rabbits and their gradual shift to being viewed as ‘proper’ pets.
FINALLY, more people are seeing what we see: having a rabbit is like having a cat or dog that doesn’t:
bark, smell, need walking, kill birds and mice…
…and to top it off, produces poop that not only doesn’t smell but is actually USEFUL.
I add boiling water, cool it, strain the poop and add the water to my house plant watering system.
Your rabbit may shake their head to tell you off
If you do something that makes your rabbit cross, such as brushing them, trimming their nails, or making them get out of their litter box so you can *shock horror* clean it out, you may be reprimanded with a head shake, often accompanied by a tail flick and little stomp.
It’s hilarious, and I love it when bunnies are cross at me when I’m only trying to help, but I’m always careful to act chastised. We both know they’re the boss.
Your rabbit may shake their head because they’re excited
Head shaking often precedes zoomies and binkies, and it’s so so cute to see. When we first got Holly and Daisy, Holly was really frightened and skittish (Daisy didn’t seem to even notice she was in a different environment) and would hide away in a dark corner in our TV cabinet.
A week or so after they’d arrived, we were drinking coffee one morning and Holly did a little head shake – kind of like a dog shaking of water – this got our attention, because head shakes can signal a lot of stuff.
After the head shake, she sat stock still for a good 30 seconds, and then took off around the pen like a mad fool. We’ve since learned that the head shake is the 30-second zoomie warning.
Your rabbit may shake their head because they’re playing
Holly LOVES playing, which is so sweet to see, because she’s never really had toys before and she’s taken a lot of time to learn what she likes.
Daisy on the other hand likes cups and washing Baby. Baby is a toy rabbit that we got to keep our single bunny company (she destroyed all her toys but never bunny, so I’m glad Baby is being so well cared for by Daisy).
Holly likes paper (the stuff that comes in Amazon boxes as packing medium) and boxes. She actually creates little obstacles courses out of boxes and paper and then runs around, shaking her head playfully. It’s incredible to watch.
Final thoughts on rabbits shaking their head
Whilst there are loads of bad reasons rabbits shake their heads, the happy, playful head shaking is far more common.
If your rabbit is head shaking because they’re itchy or in pain, it’s usually more prolonged, and more frequent, and they’ll itch their ear with their back leg and wash their ear more frequently than normal.
Speaking of which, isn’t it gross when rabbits clean their ear with their back foot and then eat whatever they find? I know they’re just cleaning their foot but dude…wipe your foot first.