Rabbit Behavior, Body Language of Rabbits
Rabbits are usually silent but that does not mean that they have nothing to say. Body language is their primary mode of communication but they do make some vocalizations. In addition, rabbits are second language learners and can understand some human-speak. Their behavior and communication methods have evolved from their wild ancestors responses to their place in the animal kingdom as prey animals, their collective socialization patterns, and their individual dynamics of social behavior.
Understanding rabbit body language and common postures is helpful in building a relationship with your rabbit! Rabbits have a wide range of body language which they use to communicate with us and other rabbits. You can use your own unique sign language to communicate with your rabbit like a downward single finger position on the entrance of the cage to signal you want them to come to the front of the cage to be petted. Please note if you plan on clipping their nails or picking them up you should not use the same signal!!! You will lose their trust immediately. It is very useful to learn this language and gain an insight into what they are saying, particularly as they do not make any proper noises like cats or dogs to get our attention. If you live closely with a rabbit for any length of time, you will notice certain postures that they adopt on a regular basis. Some of these can mean several things; for example, sitting up on the hind legs could mean "I am looking around for danger" or "I want some food" or "open that door for me". Furthermore, every rabbit is different and may therefore communicate slightly differently.Wide eyes, ears forward, feet tucked... If it is a new rabbit it could mean "I am not sure I trust you yet". Approach the rabbit with the top of your hand (not your fingers) slowly and quietly. Once they let you close to their face bring your fingers out calmly and quietly and pet the back of the head, behind the ears, and below and behind the face (not the nose). If they pull away or run away let them go and try again in a few hours. You have to earn their love. Do not rush bonding with your rabbit. It will be worth the wait and you will have a wonderful friend in the end! This ca also be the look of a rabbit that has been woken up from sleeping or disturbed by something like a noise or bumping its cage.
Sitting like a ball with legs tucked in or front toes just showing, ears at rest or half up and eyes half closed - the "loaf". Your rabbit is sleeping or dozing. Rabbits can sleep with their eyes open but some rabbits may twitch their eyelids and droop their heads when sleeping.
Lying on tummy with legs stretched out behind or to the side, head up or stretched out with chin on the ground, ears at rest. Your rabbit is relaxing, doing nothing in particular. It may have just filled its tummy with food and be happily digesting it.
Rolling or flopped onto their side with legs relaxed and eyes sometimes closed - the "bunnyflop". Your rabbit is extremely relaxed and happy. It is a sign that it is calm and comfortable in it's surroundings. It may have just finished a good meal, be enjoying a patch of sunshine or is relaxing after grooming itself.
Sitting up with weight on bottom, forelegs stretched, ears up and looking alert - the "classic" rabbit pose. Your rabbit is looking around to see what's going on, usually thinking about what to do next and is often a prelude to grooming. It may be rocking slightly due to its weight being balanced on its four feet close together.
Sitting with weight on bottom, washing face with front feet, pulling ears down to lick them, twisting around to groom back and sides. No prizes for this one - your rabbit is grooming itself!
Leaning back with its nose buried in its bottom, then sitting upright again and chewing. Your rabbit is taking soft caecal droppings from its bottom and eating them - this is perfectly normal and provides important nutrients to you rabbit that also aid in digestion. You may never witness this as this is typically a night time or early morning behavior.
Standing frozen with weight equally on all four legs in a braced stance, ears straight up and eyes wide open. Your rabbit has heard something and is waiting to see if it is dangerous. May be followed by thumping its back leg hard and may dash away to hide. This is warning sign for danger that your rabbit is scared, identified danger, or not happy with something.
Sitting up on hind legs with ears up and nose pointed up (except Lop eared rabbits). Wild rabbits do this just to get a better view and have a look around for possible danger. Domestic rabbits are could be requesting food that you are holding or trying to get your attention.
Laying head flat on ground. Your rabbit is showing submission to you or another rabbit and may be requesting petting or grooming. They will also perform this act with other rabbits and family pets as shown in the photo above.
Shaking ears followed by scratching inside them with a hind foot. Your rabbit may have hair in its ears after a grooming session and be trying to get rid of it. If frequent, this could indicate ear mites. Mites can be easily resolved. If mites are in the fur and ears use diatomaceous earth powder in the fur and mineral oil in the ears. If you do not have mineral oil you can use Neosporin antibiotic ointment or Vaseline. The mineral oil coats and protects the ear from the mites where the natural ear wax coating the ear may be compromised.
Shaking ears followed by a little hop or jump. Your rabbit is inviting you to play or is excited about something, for example if you are about to feed it.
Nudging your hand, leg or foot forcefully. Tricky one - if you are stroking your rabbit, it may be asking you to stop. But, if you have just stopped stroking it, it may be asking you to continue. If you are just minding your own business and your rabbit nudges you lightly, it is probably trying to get your attention or is requesting food. Please note that this could also mean please put me in my cage or give me access quickly to my litter box so I can go to the bathroom :o) Rabbits that have bonded with you would respectfully not want to soil you if you are holding them. Also, keep in mind if they "really" have to go they may not be able to hold it very long. Do not punish them for peeing or pooping on you. It is punishment enough for them to have to do it on you in the first place and not in a familiar place they typically go. You should comfort them and apologize with love if they have an accident on you or they may prefer to be left alone to mentally regroup for awhile as you did not know what they required. Some fresh hay or a treat in the comfort of their cage can go a long way.
Digging or biting at your feet or hands. Your rabbit may be trying to get your attention or be asking you to move your feet out of its way. If it is biting there could be a health issue that needs to be researched by your vet. One day I had a call from a rabbit pet owner that stated their young rabbit was biting their daughters hand. When they brought it to me to look at its teeth were overgrown and hurting the rabbit. It was trying to tell them it was in pain. I clipped its teeth for them and suggested they see a veterinarian for further care. Also, please reference number 13 above.
Turning its back on you or moving away, flicking hind feet and/or tail out behind it. Your rabbit is annoyed with you for doing something it disapproves of, such as cleaning out its litter tray or clipping its nails.