When Bunny Misbehaves Disciplining Do's and Don'ts
From time to time I am asked for advice about what to do when a bunny suddenly nips or bites. Usually this question comes several days after the bunny comes home, or when the bunny goes into puberty and his or her behavior suddenly changes.
If this change in behavior comes shortly after bringing Bunny home, you can bet your bottom dollar that Bunny is testing his new boundaries. The uncertainty of his new environment has worn off. He realizes he is still getting fed regularly, people are talking to him nicely, he gets attention and new toys. He is living the high life and he knows it! Bunny might be given more freedom than he can handle in a short amount of time, like hopping around in the house, getting a feel for cozy carpeting under his feet, maybe even hanging out on the couch, watching TV with the family. When it is time for Bunny to go back into his cage, he may have a hissy fit and run away. When he is finally caught, he may bite or scratch in an effort to get away. He is acting like a toddler who doesn't understand that it's time to go back into his cage and he is going to tell you about it, by golly! Since rabbits can't talk, they have three options for voicing their displeasure:
Nipping or biting (a nip doesn't draw blood, but a bite does)
Scratching and kicking with the hind legs
Running away and hiding
Bunnies, like toddlers, thrive on routine. That's why they sit by the door of their cages at feeding time or when you come home from work. They like to know what happens next. When a bunny pushes the boundaries you are setting, you need to tell him that you are the Big Bunny in the house and that he has to listen to you and respect your authority. It's actually quite easy to get a bunny to do this, but it can take a few battles before the message completely sinks in.
First of all, DO NOT
hit the bunny
spank the bunny
drop the bunny
yell at the bunny
or withhold food or water from the bunny
as punishment for nipping, biting, scratching, or trying to run away. You will make things worse if you do any of those things. You need to think like a rabbit in order to get through to a rabbit. What do rabbits do to communicate displeasure to other rabbits?
They thump their foot loudly
They will attack another bunny and go for the neck area
When Bunny does something mildly displeasing, like hop towards an area that is off-limits, give a very loud thump with your foot. If that doesn't do the trick, give another loud thump with a deep, growling "NO!". If that doesn't work, it's time to put bunny back in his cage. No treats, no pets. Just pop him in his cage, close the door, and walk away. Bunny needs to learn to listen to the Big Bunny. No matter how cute he looks, with his sorrowful, pleading eyes, ignore him for a good 15 minutes. After he has time to feel really sorry (and not pretend sorry), you can go back to see if he will apologize by behaving nicely and giving you kisses.
If Bunny bites you while in her cage (if you have a doe, she may become cage defensive when she reaches breeding age), quickly but firmly grasp the bunny around the neck (making a "C" shape with your hand) and push her head down to the floor for a solid 10 seconds. Combine it with a thump and a loud, firm "No!" You are putting the bunny in a submissive position while taking the dominant role. Bunny will try to kick and fight her way out if this method of discipline is brand new. Do not back down. You are not trying to hurt the Bun, you just want to tell her that you mean business and you are not going to tolerate being bitten. If bunny lunges toward you or acts aggressive in any way, the head to the floor is the quickest way of getting through to them. My toughest bunny required four "doses" of this discipline and now she is as sweet as can be.
Please note: if you have an expectant doe, she may become cage defensive due to hormones. This is not her fault and it is always best to handle pregnant does with extreme caution. I let my hormonally nippy does out to play (one at a time, of course) while I clean their cages, to avoid any situation where she could feel threatened. I do not use the head to the floor method on my pregnant does.
If your Bunny runs away and hides when you want to tuck him in for the night, you have a few issues to deal with. First you need to help him establish a routine. Feeding time is at 6pm, playtime in the exercise pen is from 6:30-8:00, snuggle time is from 8-10, and bedtime is at 10 (or whatever you want your bunny's schedule to look like.) Secondly, keep his world pretty small in the beginning. He lives in his cage and exercises in his pen until he knows you, trusts you, listens to you as the Big Bunny, and is using his litter box well. After he has these behaviors down pat, then start giving him small amounts of freedom, but stay with him at all times. He needs to associate you with the carpet, the couch, playing on the stairs, or whatever special things you like to do with him. If you simply open the door to his cage and say, "Go play," he is going to want to be in charge and make his own plans. Combine this with an independent natured bunny and you could have quite the challenge to reign him back in again.
A boundary-testing bunny wants to know that you have his best interest at heart. He wants to know that it's ok to run, play, and binky, but that you are there for him to run home to, and that you share his joys and adventures with him.
Another thought: If you have had your Bun for quite a while and he or she suddenly becomes aggressive, a trip to your bunny knowledgeable veterinarian may be in order. Sudden changes in temperament could suggest that your pet is in pain or not feeling well.
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Hot Cross Buns Holland Lops is a small-scale, family-run breeder located in Oberlin, Ohio. ARBA & HLRSC members.