|Newsletter Article Archives|
The Biting Rabbit
By George Flentke
(Wisconsin House Rabbit News)
So your “friend” decides they no longer want the rabbit and has given “it” to you, because you know so much about bunnies and you will give her a good home. At the time you didn’t know that “Bunnicula” was an appropriate name. The vicious beast seems to be trying to live on your blood. Fortunately all is not lost, because most rabbits can have their behavior modified in a non-aggressive healthy manner. This is a common problem for the HRS fosterer and will be seen by the local bunny expert. In this article I hope to give you some of the tools to help you deal with this kind of problem. I can’t guarantee these techniques will work for all rabbits, but they have been successful in helping us to address some of my most incorrigible cases.
First and foremost is the general health of the rabbit. You need to make sure that a physical problem is not the prime cause making the bunny aggressive. Rabbits in pain will be aggressive to avoid any more pain. Checking the rabbit for mites, wounds, burrs, or other problems can be done by you and a rabbit-savvy vet. Many times mites or a hidden burr can be driving the rabbit frantic. The second most important thing is to spay/neuter the rabbit. Female rabbits in particular can be very territorial. Many non-spayed female bunnies are fierce defenders of their cages. Spaying will dramatically decrease this tendency. In many but not all cases, it will stop much of the aggressive behavior. In those that it does not decrease the biting and aggressive lunging, a little behavior modification is called for.
Behavior modification involves convincing the rabbit that aggressive behavior is either nonproductive or not necessary. Behavior modification does not mean brainwashing. The rabbit is actually making the decisions with a little help from you. Behavior modification is teaching them that they do not need to bite. You may have a grouchy rabbit, and our goal is a non-biting grouchy rabbit.
If you eliminated physical problems and neutered your bunny and still see aggression then your bunny may have a behavioral problem that you might need to modify. There are several general rules that will speed the taming of Bunnicula. You need to be flexible in how you approach the problem. Flexibility is needed because many aggressive rabbits are on the high end of the IQ range for rabbits. A smart rabbit is both a help and a problem. Remember, many bunnies developed their behavior as a method of coping with a problem, and it worked. Many of these bunnies were picked up incorrectly or were constantly being prodded by little children. They were smart enough to develop a coping strategy. It will take time and some effort on your part to convince them otherwise.
A second contributing factor is that these aggressive rabbits tend to be female, and their behavior may be an extension of their territorial nature. You should always remember that the majority of such rabbits are not innately vicious rabbits; most of them use this coping strategy because they have become frightened of people. Remember that when you are bitten good and hard; it always helps me keep my temper to realize that I must help this bunny get over the fear someone else has caused. For me, the most successful method is to take advantage of their high IQ and the curiosity that goes along with it.
In many cases, not reacting to the bite will break the behavior. If the behavior does not elicit the desired effect, then many bunnies give it up. This is the easy end of the aggressive scale. These rabbits usually pinch very hard, but do not draw blood. If you can avoid reacting to the pinch, just leave your hand there and try not to jerk it away. Talk calmly, don’t raise your voice, and pretend that nothing important happened. This can break the mild biter in a few days to a few weeks. Remember though, a smart bunny may try it on the next new human, but generally they do not try it for long. As the pinching fails, they drop it from of their repertoire of behaviors.
Now what about “Bunnicula”, the rabbit who bites with a vengeance? This kind of rabbit may not let you put your hand into their space without a growl, lunge, and bite. My current technique is to develop more than one area for the bunny. Once she is used to her cage, I then open up an attached but limited play area. This attached area means you do not have to pick them up until further along in the process. I use a dog playpen that I have attached to the cage. This gives them a 4 by 8 foot play area. I let them go into the play area to feed them and water them. I change the litter by having another litterbox all set to go. I pull one and put in the new one with me in front of the door while they are in the play area. I don’t get bit if they can’t get to me. Otherwise, the cage is theirs; I try to interfere with that piece of personal space as little as possible. The playpen is the public area. This is where they get to run around and this is where you will start the process of breaking bad habits.
I have had several of these ultra-smart rabbits put themselves to bed at night. I make the motions to put them to bed and they jump into their cage by themselves. I won’t say you will always get this lucky, but it is another example of the adaptability in these kinds of rabbits.
The next level is to get them used to people; this can take up to a month. Most of the time (all the time for really scared rabbits) this is essentially spending time in the play area, staying out of the cage and doing whatever you want. I suggest reading books (but not the newspaper!), using a cordless telephone, or even watching TV if you can. My favorite trick is to take advantage of their innate curiosity by turning your back to the cage and most of the play area. Pay no attention to the rabbit. For a lot of us this is hard to do, but I find this vital. This gives these ultra-smart rabbits a chance to meet a human who is not reaching for them with hands. Many of these bunnies are, deep down, scared or angry. I feel that it is important at this stage to (1) let the bunny come to you, and (2) do not ever reach for the bunny with your hands. Strangely enough, phone conversations seem to be really soothing to the bunny. My aggressive rabbit area is in my office at home. I think it helps to have me doing a lot of quiet non-rabbit things in the area around their playpen. It will not take them very long to raise their curiosity. I have a low level of violence from these kinds of get-togethers in the playpen. Being outside the cage seems to decrease the need to bite. This is where you start allowing the bunny to interact with you rather than around you on his terms. I start by putting my hand down in a rabbit path, a route he takes regularly, but is not using at that moment. Eventually they will find the hand already there and not moving. Do I get bit? Occasionally yes, but I usually put my hand back and talk to the bunny. Again, the area outside the cage has a greater level of tolerance. A major factor is that this is not the usual behavior of humans getting bit. The ears go up and the rabbit starts thinking. I get bit very rarely after the first week of this, and the bites are never like the bites of going into the cage. I call this my first plateau.
However, petting a bunny like this requires dirty tricks, my favorite is to give them a treat and then start petting. The smart bunny is gravely annoyed at first, because they realize they cannot eat the treat and bite the person at the same time. With time though, petting is something they figure out is okay. Some of my smarter bunnies hesitate at treats or grab and run. This is one of the ways I rate the IQ. One bunny would sit next to her food dish waiting for me to leave before she would eat. This standoff lasted for a week! It took her only two feedings to learn the game. We still got around it with a few carrots. This was before I worked out the playpen setup. If I had done treats with the playpen, I suspect it would have gone faster with this obstinate little lady. I would not have been in her space with my hands.
Once you can pet in the play area it’s time for the next level, the cage itself. This is the real test and can take some serious time. Usually, I include the bunny in filling the food dish, but not in changing the litter pan. Again, for the smart bunny, you already showed that you are OK, but you are on their turf. A bunny with their mouth full has a hard time biting. Remember to continue the playpen routine while adding the feeding.
One of the things I have noticed is that I am not getting these bunnies to quit the aggressive behavior; instead, the bunnies are modifying it. Thus one bunny would still lunge at me, but would duck her head at the last moment for a petting session. Another hates hands, but if we approach face to face, she will accept my hand for petting after the presenting the face. (Author’s note: This is a dangerous maneuver especially on an unknown bunny and should not be used if there is any worry at all of being bitten in the face. The author also wears glasses as a precaution). If I just reach out, she will grunt and box. This beats her “grab on and lock jaw behavior”; she has a little further to go. If I worked at it, I might be able to remove the lunge, but first thing’s first.
To give you an example of the personalities you may be dealing with I’ll give you my favorite “vicious bunny” story. The bunny is a very smart small female rabbit that bounces all over the playpen when I come in. I went out of town for a week, when I came back, I went into the playpen to pet her. She let me pet her once or twice then she bit down hard, immediately let go, ran into her cage, and sat in her litterbox. When I went back 15 minutes later, she was bouncing all around the playpen, excited to see me. We had a long petting session. My interpretation is that she first punished and then forgave me, pretty magnanimous of her! Smart rabbits are a treat, but they do require effort when they have been abused and learned improper behaviors for dealing with us humans. If you take the extra time you will not be disappointed with the gem under the rough exterior.