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Rabbiting on – do you speak the lagomorph lingo?

Rabbits are the UK’s fourth most popular family pet (after fish, dogs and cats), and at National Animal Welfare Trust, we’ve been rehoming rabbits for decades from our centres. The team at our Berkshire centre are currently creating a new Rabbit and Guinea Pig World to open later this year to share our passion for these popular pets.

Rabbits make fantastic family pets because they have wonderful personalities, are very intelligent and love to play. Just like their wild cousins, rabbits are social animals preferring to live in pairs or groups.

If you are reading this and thinking of homing a pet rabbit, or have recently taken one into your home, be patient, it may take a little while for a pet/owner bond to form, but once it has, it will be very rewarding.

Did you know that rabbits have a language all of their own? It’s how they communicate with their colony. What’s more, you can learn to speak rabbit too and help build a closer bond with your pet.

First remember rabbits are prey animals, so when spending time with your favourite bunny, make sure you get down to their level. Lifting rabbits into your arms from a standing position can make them feel like being captured by a bird of prey causing undue stress. Pet rabbits should be handled regularly and gently so making sure they enjoy their experience with you is your number one priority.

Rabbits are very inquisitive creatures, so once you’re down at their level, take your time to interact and observe the animal. You will probably find your curious little creature will come and say hello.

When spending time with your rabbit, speak softly; rabbits have very good ears, so ensure your voice is gentle in order not to startle your pet.

Rabbits ears tell you a lot about how they are feeling. If they are flat against the body, this is not a very happy bunny, but if the ears are upright, they are feeling more relaxed. This may be more subtle with lop eared rabbits, and the ability to move ears will vary between lops. Think of a rabbit’s ears a little like a radar, if they are moving around, they are taking in their surroundings, and are content and curious about what is going on.

Did you know that rabbits click their teeth when they feel contented, much like a cat purring? You may notice your rabbit rubbing their chin on items, much like a cat does. There are scent glands located just underneath a rabbit’s chin, so your pet is leaving little notices to say, “I’ve been here, this is now mine!” A rabbit can be known to nudge you for attention, as a way to say “hello, time for a stroke please!” They can also give you a little lick and a nibble as a sign of affection (or a nip as a sign to say, “that’s enough now thank you!”). Rabbits are known to “flop” in contentment, completely rolling onto their side.

If a rabbit is lying down, with a relaxed posture and legs tucked under their body, or with legs stretched out, they are very relaxed and content. Rabbits enjoy jumping and are naturally inquisitive, so if your pet is playing with toys, eating and drinking well, and moving around happily in their enclosure, you have a very happy and contented bunny.

Videos of Georgie and Popcorn at our Hertfordshire centre, and Flake and Icicle at our Somerset centre, show both pairs of rabbits being naturally inquisitive and alert. Their ears are upright and both pairs are enjoying exploring their surroundings and toys. Both videos also have lots of examples of enrichment, such as cardboard boxes and tubes. Introducing cost-effective items like these can help your rabbit feel more relaxed, and stop them from becoming bored of their environment. A bored rabbit can become quickly depressed, which can lead to further medical problems.

Let’s consider other signs that your bunny might not be happy.

A crouching or hunched rabbit with tense muscles means he or she is very worried or anxious; the head might also be close to the ground and ears wide apart and flattened against their back. If your pet rabbit is flicking with their back feet or thumping its back legs on the ground, it is showing signs that it needs to be left alone and given some space. A worried and anxious rabbit may also hide away, to show they don’t want anyone near them.

If your rabbit stands upright, with their front paws raised in a display of boxing behaviour, possibly growling, crouched, and/or bearing teeth, then he or she is very angry and unhappy, and needs to be left alone. A grunting rabbit feels threatened, and needs some space.

If your pet is normally alert and bright then changes to their appearance or behaviour, such as aggression or lots of hiding away, can be the first signs of poor health. If you are concerned that your rabbit is exhibiting some of these behaviours, you should consult with your vet, as they can be signs of a rabbit in pain. Other indicators of a poorly rabbit are changes in eating and drinking habits, over-grooming, bar chewing, teeth grinding, sitting hunched and not wanting to move.

Methods of communication are very important between animals, which is why you should never home a rabbit with a guinea pig. Rabbits and guinea pigs do not speak the same language, resulting in them causing serious harm to each other.  

Rabbits are all individual, and each rabbit will behave differently. Spending time to get to know your rabbit will help you notice any changes in their behaviour.

Have you got any special rabbit language tips to share? Please drop in the comments below.

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