One of the world’s most popular pets, rabbits are known for their adorable ears, noses, and cotton tails, but little is commonly understood about their behavior. Indeed, a U.K. study revealed that 50% of rabbit owners misunderstood their rabbit’s basic needs, including diet and lifespan (Quesenberry and Carpenter, 2012). This lack of knowledge likely contributes to the fact that rabbits are the third most common pet found in shelters (Ellis, McCormick, and Tinawro, 2017). It’s probably not a stretch to assume that a thorough understanding of an animal’s needs, behavior, and biology would contribute significantly to the success of that animal and their human family in an adoptive home. Across the next three articles, I am going to detail some simple strategies to help set pet rabbits up for success in their adoptive homes. Each environment between surrender and adoption can be set up to help improve a rabbit’s chances at a happy life. A shelter is usually the first stop in the journey of a stray or surrendered pet, so that will be the focus of this article.
Caring for the animals’ basic needs is the first goal of any shelter. Feeding, providing fresh water, and maintaining a clean environment are the bare minimum of care any shelter rabbit should receive. Shelters rarely label themselves as “overstaffed” so, for many rabbits, this daily husbandry routine is the only human interaction they will receive all day. For that reason, the way this routine is conducted can have a massive impact on the adoptability of each rabbit.
Because shelters are often strapped for staff and overloaded with animals, getting the animals cleaned and cared for as quickly and efficiently as possible is the primary goal. For rabbits, this means that their runs are often cleaned while they are still inside of them. Quick movements, loud noises, and rearranging of the environment are not usually the favorite stimuli of prey animals like rabbits. Removing the animal from their cage or run is often not a viable option, either, as rabbits are naturally quite averse to being picked up. As a result, just providing a clean and healthy environment for the animal can be incredibly stressful and upsetting to them. Because this is often the only interaction they receive all day, the rabbits quickly learn that with humans come stressful events. An animal that associates people with stress will rarely exhibit behaviors that improve their chances of being adopted. Creating an efficient, stress-reducing husbandry routine can be the single best way to help a rabbit trust humans.
Treats are an easy way to help a rabbit feel more comfortable in their environment. By feeding the rabbit a pile of treats away from the area being cleaned, the rabbit is preoccupied and out of the way, allowing the cleaning to be done a little more easily. In addition, because the rabbit is likely to enjoy the food, they are more likely to perceive this one and only human interaction as positive. My favorite strategy to use when cleaning runs at my local shelter is something I call the “Half and Half” method. I usually bring a couple of different treats with me, and I offer them through the bars of the cage before opening it. If the rabbit takes, for example, the lettuce, I will open the cage and set the rabbit up with a large pile as close to one end of the cage as possible. While they eat, I clean the opposite side of the cage. Most of the rabbits are super eager to eat their daily pellet ration, so when I am ready to clean the other side, I place the pellets on the “clean” side and wait for the rabbit to hop over. If they want more lettuce, I give more lettuce! While the rabbit eats on the clean side, I clean the other half of the run. During this time, the rabbit is eating and enjoying something while I do something that could potentially be perceived as stressful. I am able to clean quickly because the rabbit is not in my way. The rabbit is also being reinforced for appropriate behavior while a person has their hands in the rabbit’s space. I’ll discuss the importance of this later in the article.
Basic body language
Like all animals, rabbits have their own system for communication. They make only a few vocalizations and use them rarely. The majority of their communication is done through body language, and much of this can be incredibly subtle. Misinterpretation of cues can lead to problem behavior, which can reduce adoptability and even potentially lead to euthanasia. Rather than detail all of the subtle cues that rabbits give off here, I’ll attach a graphic below that helps categorize different rabbit behaviors as they relate to cage cleaning. It is important to respond appropriately to stress indicators, as ignoring these can lead to an escalation of behavior.
Most often, these signals occur during cage cleaning, which can be upsetting for a rabbit. Rabbits often react negatively to having their environment changed, so making this process as positive as possible is key to preventing unwanted behaviors from developing. The “Half and Half” method is really helpful in this aspect. If a rabbit eats the entire time, it’s a pretty surefire way of knowing that they are comfortable. However, a rabbit that displays any of the above stress indicators is uncomfortable. The best thing is simply to stop what you are doing. Does that mean a cage doesn’t get cleaned? Of course not! However, it does mean that it may be necessary to move more slowly when doing the “offensive” step, or it might be better to move on to something else for the moment. For example, let’s say that we are cleaning a rabbit’s cage using the “Half and Half” method. Bunny is enjoying some lettuce on one side of the cage. We remove the food and water dishes while he eats, but when we begin to ball up the newspaper that lines the bottom of the cage, he stops eating and wheels around to face our direction. We stop, allowing Bunny to process what is going on. Once he returns to eating lettuce, we resume balling up the paper, but this time, we roll the paper away from him, so the growing paper wad isn’t getting closer and closer to him. In addition, we move more slowly so it isn’t making as much noise so close to him. He continues to eat, comfortable with the changes we’ve made.
Of course, this is a hypothetical situation based on my experiences with shelter rabbits, and there are about a million different ways it could have gone. It isn’t necessary to go through each here, as the same general problem-solving techniques can be applied. If a rabbit displays any of the stress indicators listed on the graphic above, you can follow this process and it will often lead you to a positive result:
Stop what you are doing.
Think about what you were doing the instant the rabbit displayed the stress signal.
Try to think about how the rabbit is viewing what is going on, and potential ways to mitigate this. For example, let’s say the rabbit reacted when you put the new newspaper on the bottom of the cage. When you think about how you did it, you recall unfolding the paper outside of the cage, holding the sheet parallel to the floor, then moving the large piece into the cage and lowering it to the cage floor. You consider that you could try lining the paper up on the edge of the cage and sliding it in backward, rather than hovering it above the rabbit.
Wait for the rabbit to resume eating.
Try again, making the changes you thought of above.
It is important to note that some rabbits come into the shelter and are so fearful that they do not want to eat at all. Using the “Half and Half” method may be impossible with them, but it does not mean that a trust dialogue between rabbit and caretaker cannot be developed.
While this methodology may slow down the pace of the daily routine, it is of critical importance to take these extra few seconds or minutes to address a rabbit’s fears. A rabbit that learns they will be listened to will calm down and gradually not be inclined to react to such stimuli, so it won’t be necessary to stop as often. A rabbit that learns that their signals will be ignored, however, may develop a whole new set of challenging behaviors that will absolutely bring the daily routine to a grinding halt.
Rabbits are prey animals, so are often expected to be meek and fearful. Often, when they first come into the shelter, they are. Responding appropriately to the rabbit’s stress signals shows them that when they communicate, they are heard. A rabbit in a cage has no opportunity to flee. When a rabbit is ignored as they try to signal that they are uncomfortable and their opportunity to flee is nonexistent, they only have one choice: to fight. Rabbits are small, but they are lightning-fast and have extremely strong chiseled teeth. Aggression in rabbits is natural, but also very easy to prevent.
Rabbits often arrive at the shelter unaltered. Intact females have higher instances of “cage aggression,” which derives from a doe’s protective instincts toward her nesting chamber. The cage becomes the “chamber” that she needs to protect. These females are often the most difficult to deal with, as any movement in the cage, such as a hand, dustpan, or even a moving food dish can become the object of a lunge, box, and bite. Spaying female rabbits greatly reduces their aggression, and neutering does the same for an unaltered male. Intact males tend to have more aggression toward other rabbits, so going from one cage to the next, bringing the smells of other rabbits along, sets up a staff member or volunteer for a bite!
In any case, an animal with well-rehearsed aggression is likely to retain those behaviors post-op even if the behavior was originally hormonally driven. It is entirely possible to prevent rehearsal of these behaviors by heeding a rabbit’s stress indicators. Managing by offering treats while performing daily husbandry also helps these rabbits build positive associations with the movements of hands and objects in the cage. All of this together helps create a foundation of trust between rabbit and human.
Behaviors to improve adoptive success
All of the above techniques detail ways to help prevent unwanted behavior and set the shelter staff and volunteers up for success when performing daily husbandry with rabbits. Earlier, I mentioned that the husbandry routine is often, but not always, the only human interaction a rabbit will get all day. However, some lucky rabbits (and shelters) have staff or volunteers with time to dedicate to providing additional interaction with the animals throughout the day. Rabbits, as prey animals, are often fearful in the shelter environment. In addition, rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are most active during dawn and dusk, and least active during the day. These two factors often mean that rabbits aren’t the best at “selling themselves” in the shelter environment. There are some simple techniques that can be utilized to improve the chances of a rabbit capturing the eye of a potential adopter.
Feed treats throughout the afternoon
Rabbits are naturally inactive during the day, but they are quick learners and adjust easily to the schedule of their person. If it suddenly becomes worth their time to make a trip to the front of the cage for a treat, they definitely will “keep an ear out” for a person passing through! The goal is for the rabbit to see or hear a person approaching, and come up to the front of the cage, anticipating a treat. For this exercise, simply make the rounds to the rabbit runs with a banana, which is a high-value treat for most rabbits. Allow the rabbit to take a bite or two through the cage bars, then move on. Don’t worry about those rabbits who stay hiding in the back. Give them 30 seconds to come to the front, then move on. If they don’t come, no big deal. They just need more repetition, and that’s okay. Do this as often as possible throughout the afternoon, creating many opportunities for them to practice this behavior. You should begin to see rabbits eagerly awaiting snacks when you enter the room!
An animal playing with a toy is almost guaranteed to catch the eye of any passerby. Rather than feeding rabbits their pellets in a bowl, consider putting hay in a paper bag, sprinkling their pellets inside, then feeding them that way. A rabbit that is head and shoulders in a paper bag is always a crowd pleaser! Toilet paper tubes stuffed with hay, cardboard boxes, phone books, and tissue paper are all great inexpensive rabbit toys.
Let them out!
If the shelter has a way to hook an ex-pen up to the rabbit run, do so and let the rabbit out for some playtime. Some rabbits are too afraid to come out at first, but that’s okay. Repeated exposure helps a rabbit learn that the outside is safe. Rabbits playing in a pen are more likely to catch the eye of a potential adopter, and if you sit in the pen with a rabbit, you are helping them become acclimated to the presence of a person, and you have the opportunity to learn what that rabbit likes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the best way a shelter staff member or volunteer can set a rabbit up for success is by educating potential adopters. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are many misconceptions about rabbit ownership. By letting a potential adopter know about what a rabbit’s basic needs are, a shelter representative can give an adopter a realistic picture of what life with a rabbit is like. Here are five important tips any potential rabbit adopter should be aware of before taking a new rabbit home:
- Rabbits require lots of space! It’s fairly safe to assume that any “rabbit” cage found in a pet store is far too small for a rabbit of any size. Large dog crates or ex-pens serve as adequate “houses” for rabbits, depending on their size. However, a properly sized rabbit house is only the beginning, as rabbits need time outside of their cage daily for exercise and mental stimulation (Quesenberry and Carpenter, 2012). A rabbit-proofed room or area will need to be set up or, if the adopter chooses, the house can be rabbit-proofed and the rabbit can live free-roaming like a dog or cat. A great resource for rabbit house sizing is The Rabbit House website.
- Rabbits are highly social, and require either a buddy or lots of human interaction. An adopter wanting to house a single rabbit should be prepared to spend time daily to provide for that rabbit’s social needs. In addition, rabbits require mental stimulation, toys, and enrichment. A bored rabbit quickly becomes destructive and disruptive.
- Rabbits need free-choice access to timothy hay, daily fresh veggies, and a high-quality, timothy-based pelleted diet. Visit this link for a great resource on building a proper rabbit diet.
- Rabbits prefer to be interacted with at their level rather than being picked up. Most people really want to cuddle their rabbit and, while there are exceptions to this rule, an adopter who wants to hold their rabbit should consider another type of pet.
- Again, rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They are more likely to be active at night than during the day. If a rabbit is bored, they are likely to develop stereotypical and destructive behaviors that can keep a human up at night!
Rabbits are wonderful animals to live and work with, but there is a lot more to them than most people expect! For this reason, it is unfortunately true that shelters and rescues are often full of rabbits. Using the simple strategies detailed above and providing proper education to adopters is sure to improve the adoption and retention rate of rabbits in shelters. Stay tuned for the next article, which will focus on the foster home!
Emily Cassell has spent her training career working with multiple species in various settings. Beginning as a pet dog trainer working both in group classes and in the home, she gradually moved on to her current line of work with orangutans, tigers, and other species as a zookeeper. Throughout her career, she worked with owners of pocket pets by assisting with husbandry, nutrition, and welfare. After teaching a workshop on rabbit behavior through PPG, Emily started Small Animal Resources, a consulting service and Facebook page to broaden her ability to help pocket pets and their people. Her passion is improving the lives of rabbits and other small pets by demonstrating the value of training and enrichment