The Rabbit – An Exotic Pet with Behaviour Problems

The Rabbit – An exotic pet with behaviour problems

The rabbit is a species which has, traditionally, been regarded as a suitable pet for children. The rabbit has subsequently proved to be accepted and appreciated by all ages and has even been utilized as a therapeutic tool in institutions for humans with depression.

Rabbits have increased in popularity in certain countries and in certain sectors of society. In the United Kingdom rabbits are the third most popular companion mammal, because they can be kept indoors, are, inherently, sociable creature and owners can develop interactive and rewarding relationships with members of this species.

The genetic origin of the pet bunny was the European wild rabbit. This is an extremely active, mobile and relatively intelligent animal which lives in large aggregations and within a well-defined social structure. The relationship between the sexes as well as between adults and their young is precisely regulated by instincts

The interest in rabbit veterinary medicine has also increased dramatically where illnesses and injuries are treated and sterilization of bucks and does have become more common and necessary. The realization that rabbits can develop behaviour problems has been studied for the past two to three decades. Rabbit behaviour, normal and abnormal, has been studied to help understand and solve disorders so that the enormous figures of euthanasia and relinquishment to rescue schemes are reduced.

Unlike the dog and cat, rabbits are a prey species which is fundamental in understanding this creature. The behaviours displayed by a prey species are very different to those shown by a predator such as a dog or cat. In general terms the behaviour repertoire is more subtle and more restricted because evolution has selected against obvious behaviour patterns such as extravagant greeting displays, signs of pain or fear as these habits draws attention to them and indicates the individual’s vulnerability.

When a rabbit of any species runs off in wild, oblique jumps with sudden zigzag directional changes these are inherent patterns to escape predation in nature but still rehearsed as part of a genuine survival technique – part of the flight syndrome.

Male rabbits mark their territory with a scent secreted by special chin and anal glands. In captivity they will continue to perform this in the cage, on strategic objects within the home or in the garden where they can be closer to the natural thing. By marking their territory they can form a specially designated scent path which the males patrol and frequent regularly. People cannot detect the odour. Male rabbits may urinate on the females to mark their ownership – may appear chauvinistic from an anthropomorphic point of view but it is in Lagomorphic terms, real affection!

Foot stomping or thumping is very common. This is used to express threats, warn the group members and hopefully ward off potential enemies.

When rabbits are excited their body posture becomes tense and their small fluffy tail becomes erect. When they are ready to attack the ears are held back against the body

A common rabbit behaviour which has been called ‘trancing’ involves placing the rabbit on its back. Initially, the rabbit may struggle but soon the muscles relax and the animal enters an apparent trance-like state in which the only movement is an occasional quivering of one or both hind-limbs. Loss of this state occurs as rapidly as it is attained; characterized by a sudden righting reflex and forward movement. If restraint is continued by holding the rabbit on its back it will struggle profusely and may become aggressive. These are instinctive prey behaviour self-preservation patterns similar to the freeze state entered into when grabbed by a predator.

Aggression is frequently reported as a problem behaviour in rabbits and often the reason for the animal being neglected, given up for re-homing, abandoned or euthanased. Aggressive behaviour is usually multi-factorial due to poor early socialization, fear, territoriality in the males, inappropriate handling, inadequate housing, nutritional imbalance as well as breed characteristics. The aggression may be directed at humans but mostly towards other rabbits of the same gender, same social status and insufficient environmental space.

It is important for rabbit owners to recognize the animal’s expressions with which it indicates moods and needs. When the pet bunny emits short barking growls it is aggressive and may follow with a biting or a scratching attack.

The grinding of their teeth is a sign that they feel safe, comfortable ad relaxed.

Socialisation is the ability for a young animal to be exposed to, and learn about, multiple species during its most impressionable period. This is important for companion animals which are expected to co-habit with humans, other rabbits, dogs, cats and other species. Socialisation also engenders recognition of individuals within the group.

Pain caused by rough handling techniques may cause aggression as a self-preservation response. Rabbits are capable of associative learning and negative associations can be learnt with only a single exposure to an aversive stimulus – the resulting fear response can become generalized enough to include a variety of provocative factors. Pain may be experienced when people are not informed about the correct methods of handling and restraint – although unintentional it does have detrimental side-effects to the human-rabbit bond.

When a rabbit is held on one’s arm it sometimes gives off chirping sounds – it is merely expressing its desire to be put on terra firma where it can get a decent grip on the ground and be mobile – carrying rabbits around and turning them on their backs to scratch their tummies is putting them under serious pressure and vulnerability.

The digestive system of the rabbit has evolved to be extremely efficient at extracting the maximum amount of nutrients from low quality foods available in certain habitats in nature. Rabbits spend most of their time, awake, eating. In captivity most are fed commercial diets which provide high quality concentrated feed which reduces the time required to feed and receives an increase in energy intake. Concentrated feed, alterations in blood chemistry, less foraging and high energy levels contribute towards aggression.

In a natural environment there are varied stimuli whereas the captive individuals may spend virtually their entire lives in the confines of their cage which is often limited in size and presence of objects. Long-term lack of arousement can result in an over-reaction to relatively minor changes in the habitat or routine. Changes, when coping skills are lacking, are likely to be stressful for the rabbit and the animal may flee, freeze or fight.

Aggression can develop into a suitable means of dealing with stressful situations, such as being badly handled. By exhibiting antagonistic behaviour, most people would back off which then reinforces the power play by the rabbit and intensifies the lowering of the tolerance threshold for further negative interaction –  each incident makes the fearful, traumatized rabbit more pugnacious. Hostility towards humans need not be related only to past bad experiences and abuse but it may be due to a complete deficiency of positive contact during the imprinting period as a rabbit kitten.

The social system of rabbits is based on hierarchy principles similar to dogs and birds. Under certain circumstances people may be included in the group order and belligerence may be actively shown towards humans who do not understand the instinctive gregarious ranking and may have to be put in their place – this only occurs when people behave in a submissive way – which is most of the time!

Rabbit aggression will occur during breeding. Males and females may become violent for different reasons; the buck to defend its territory, reproductive domain and females while does will protect their kits and hutch. Hormones play a major role in these instinctive attitudes.

People need to know how to handle rabbit kittens gently on emergence from their nest. The youngsters should then be confidently, gently and firmly handled by people of both sexes and all age groups.

Rabbits should be given controlled access to safe, clean, suitable outdoor areas to be energized mentally, physically, physiologically and emotionally. There has to be environmental enrichment facilities whereby rabbits can hide in natural coves, forage under bushes with hay on the ground, climb ledges, gnaw on logs and run in open space.

The more confined a rabbit, the more stressed it will be and most likely have a much lowered resistance to disease.

Rabbits should never be kept as solitary pets. To rely entirely on human company is not ideal. Keeping rabbits in groups must be with the proviso that sterilization has been carried out on all individuals. The groupings are more successful, higher numbers will tolerate each other, if introduced at a very early age.

Chaos will occur if more than one male is kept in the same enclosure or if the does are intact.

Sometimes a male rabbit can be seen encircling members of the family bringing leaves, twigs or pieces of paper and emitting a soft humming noise – this may seem cute to some people but it is a species-specific expression of courtship behaviour whereby the buck supplies nesting material for the warren and for the benefit of the doe which may be ready to kindle soon.

Rabbits can be housed in spacious areas with other species such as guinea pigs, pheasants and aviary birds. The more space and the more places of refuge the healthier and more comfortable the rabbits will be.

Rabbits can live almost as long as most dog breeds and can offer numerous benefits to people.

Before acquiring rabbits read up about management principles and try and improve on the minimum requirements. Try and do more than the basics. You will also have to learn the basics of primary health care and the symptoms of a sick rabbit.

Sick rabbits must be taken to a veterinarian who has a special interest in exotic animals or pocket-money pets. One has to know normal behaviour before you can identify abnormal behaviour.

If a rabbit’s foot is so lucky, what happened to the rabbit?

A person who keeps many rabbits is usually a man by the name of Warren….

When many rabbits all in a row decide to back up one step, could this be construed as a receding hare-line?!

It is an unfortunate habit
Of the rabbit to breed like a rabbit
One can say without question
This leads to congestion
In the burrows that rabbits inhabit

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