Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.
Bountiful Language of Bunnies
Once you start learning how your pet communicates, you'd be amazed by the richness of rabbit body language. Using posture, movement, and sounds, bunnies let their owners know how they feel—this includes emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, or romance. It's not a one-way street either. Rabbits read human body language too. The ability to detect intent in other species and communicate with their own have enabled the rabbit to survive for millions of years.
How This Helps You
More correctly, it helps both the owner and the pet. As the person in the “relationship,” it's our responsibility to work within our pet's emotional limits and needs. This establishes a good bond, which leads to security and enjoyment on both sides. A misunderstood rabbit is often perceived as troublesome. However, most issues can be identified and solved by learning their body language.
There are several ways your bunny displays happiness. They hop and race, clearly energized with excitement. In the lingo of rabbit owners, your pet also does something called the “binky” when very happy. It leaps and while still in the air, twist like an acrobat. The binky is the ultimate show of joy. A rabbit that is less boisterous, but still happy, might softly grind its teeth or faintly cluck like a chicken.
Rabbits show affection towards each other and people. Does your long-eared friend lope slowly around your feet in circles? This could be courting behavior. However, just like they sometimes heat butt their owners for attention, circling could demand your attention about something else, usually a snack or petting. Unsterilized males also hum when they feel amorous. The best show of affection comes in the form of rabbit kisses. Unfortunately, this behaviour is very rare, but basically involves your bunny giving your hand or face a lick.
I'm Warning You
The wonderful panorama of rabbit emotions includes anger and annoyance. When ticked off, rabbits send a warning by rapidly thumping a hind leg. If this behaviour is not directed at you, find out what the animal is challenging. It could be a predator or a strange object he doesn't like. If directed at another rabbit, defuse the situation immediately before there is an incident. Rabbits can and do fight ugly. Other signs to look out for is when your pet hisses, growls, or snorts. These all point to a really angry rabbit. Any of those sounds can happen right before a bite, so watch out when you hear them. Speaking of which, when physically handled, a displeased rabbit may take quick chomp at you.
Just like humans, rabbits experience different levels of fear. When panicky from being held, it might start kicking for all it's worth. Unwilling rabbits also whimper when they know they're about to get picked up by a person. When really scared, they do something called flattening. This is an instinctive attempt to hide (wild rabbits flatten in all sorts of vegetation and with great success). Your bunny will make itself as flat as possible, with the ears held tightly against the body. A rabbit in this position mustn't be ignored. Find out what's causing this fearful behaviour. If caused by a visitor or other animal, remove them or your pet from the situation. Should the rabbit be scared of you, allow it some space. A frightened animal might also rear up to bite. The worst way rabbits show fear is to scream. When mortally terrified, they produce a sound shockingly similar to human screaming.
Welcome these signs; they mean your pet is satisfied and healthy. A content bunny sometimes purrs like a cat. Sometimes, it rests on its side like a dog. The legs are extended in a relaxed way, either to one side or behind the animal while resting on its stomach—extremely relaxed rabbits sprawl on their backs. Mostly, a content rabbit sits in a calm manner, looking distinctly stress-free. The muscles are soft, ears are away from the body, and the eyes have a soft look. They'll also groom themselves.
There are glands underneath a rabbit's head specifically used to mark territory. This prompts an interesting behaviour called “chinning.” The rabbit hops over to furniture, its sleeping quarters or anything that takes its fancy and then rubs its chin on the desired object. This scent warns other rabbits the territory is taken. This behaviour should not be discouraged. The smell isn't detectable to humans, (it won't bother anyone) and chinning makes a rabbit feel secure.
A curious rabbit, or one that's investigating the possibility of danger has a very distinctive posture. They'll sit up, front legs dangling above the floor. Their nose and eyes will be laser-focused in a certain direction, or at an unknown person or object.
On the Alert
When Signs Are Symptoms
Body language can also show you when a rabbit is sick. Sometimes it's obvious; the pet behaves abnormally, is lethargic or hides. Other signs are not so clear. Frequent ear shaking should be investigated by a vet, as this could be symptomatic of an underlying condition. However, healthy rabbits shake their ears to show displeasure with food or when it wants to be left alone. A clear sign of trouble is tooth grinding. Soft grinding is a sign of happiness, but loud grinding needs vet attention since the rabbit is experiencing physical pain.
Learn Your Rabbit's Lingo
All rabbits follow the rules of their species' body language. However, these mammals also have unique personalities. Get to know your bunny's moods and tendencies, because as much as he or she behaves like a rabbit, you'll soon learn that each one communicates in ways that are unique to them, just like people.
© 2018 Jana Louise Smit
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on October 26, 2019:
Hi Susan. Thank you so much for volunteering at a shelter. Rabbits do make great pets when their owners understand "bunny speak." I hope they find homes soon. :)
Susan on October 25, 2019:
Thanks for the info. The animal shelter I volunteer for just got about 25 rabbits, and I need to know something about them when people come in to adopt.
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on December 19, 2018:
Thank you, Linda. :) I had one pet rabbit as a child, never forgot him. They make amazing pets.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on December 18, 2018:
This was very interesting to read, Jana. I've never had a pet rabbit, so I'm glad that I read your article and have learned about their behaviour.