When I think of pet rabbits, a few adjectives come to mind: Sweet, adorable, energetic and anxious! Of course, not every rabbit is prone to stress and anxiety but, in my experience, the words ‘worrywart’ and ‘rabbit’ tend to go hand in hand.
The tricky thing is, many rabbits are experts at hiding their anxiety. They have evolved to be like this over the years as they are ‘prey animals’ in the wild, so acting stressed could have once meant that they would have been singled out by the wolf or the fox as a good dinner option to pursue. This can be problematic as many owners will have stressed out rabbits and won’t suspect a thing. Additionally, they are always on high alert and can find it hard to wind down and relax.
Rabbits are social, prey species, and benefit from companionship from another bonded rabbit in order to feels more confident and secure in their owner environment. Neutering can help prevent fighting between rabbits when they reach sexual maturity.
Big stress triggers for most rabbits tend to be things that would not be normal for them in the wild. This can include living alongside cats and dogs, being handled frequently and being surrounded by lots of noisy people. There is no doubt that some rabbits have grown up in this manner and are accustomed to it but this is not true for every bunny and some can find it hard to handle ‘family life’.
Rabbits generally do not like being picked up from the floor, since this can mimic a wild bird picking them up from the ground. It is best to interact with your rabbit on the floor where they feel more safe. Ensure there are plenty of hiding places so your rabbit feels safe and can choose to have some ‘quiet time’
Signs to watch out for can be very subtle and include:
- Sitting in a way to try and make themselves seem small
- Putting their ears down and moving less
- Being very skittish at all times
- Over grooming
- Fast breathing
More obvious signs of a worried rabbit are:
- Foot stamping
- Walking in circles
- Yelping, squeaking or even screaming loudly
Confident rabbits that feel safe will happily sit out in the open and act like a normal bunny; hopping about and eating everything in sight. Those that are calm enough to rest and sleep beside you are clearly very content indeed.
To reduce anxiety in your pet rabbit, be considerate and remember that they are not as well domesticated as cats and dogs and can find living with people and/or other pets a challenge. It can take time to forge a relationship and this is not something that should be rushed. Give them space and try hard to read their body language. Avoid handling them too much and try your best not to startle them by being loud or moving quickly in their direction. It is also sensible to try to keep their environment and routine predictable, avoiding big changes like moving their hutch to a new location.
It can help to talk calmly to your rabbit and to sit down, letting them come to you and allowing them to hop away once they have decided they are finished with the interaction.
Consider leaving the television or radio on at low volume when the bunny is indoors so they can get used to a variety of noises and won’t feel threatened by them. This is especially beneficial in young buns.
Treats are your friend. Use tasty treats to encourage bonding and also to relieve stress during activities such as grooming.
The happiest rabbit is one who can exhibit all of their normal, wonderful ‘bunny behaviours’ such as grazing, digging, hiding, playing and moving about lots.