Pet Factsheets

Stress in rabbits

Sometimes scared rabbits will crouch low on the ground with their ears flat along their back

Rabbits are prey animals. They’re not like dogs or cats; they don’t overly broadcast when they’re feeling ill or stressed in case there’s a predator nearby watching for signs of weakness. Therefore, it’s easy to miss the subtle body language signs they give off which may indicate your rabbit is feeling stressed or scared.

What is normal for rabbits?

Rabbits are almost always alert to danger. When rabbits live in pairs or groups, they will take it in turns to be on the lookout for signs of a threat. This is one of many reasons why it’s so important that rabbits are not kept on their own.

What is normal for each rabbit will vary depending on the individual and the environment they’re kept in. Relaxed and stress-free rabbits will eat freely in their environment, be alert but able to relax, may sit with their eyes half closed, lie on their side, exercise and binky around their environment, eat grass and hay and breathe at a relaxed rate (unless after exercise, when their respiration rate will be increased).

What is abnormal and indicates stress?

When rabbits are stressed and fearful, they will be on full alert and unable to relax. Their ears will be raised (unless they are a lop-eared rabbit) and will move around to detect sounds. Rabbits can move each ear independently of the other to pick up sounds in different locations. They may adopt a poised position which indicates they are preparing to run away if they are scared. Stamping of the hind feet warns other rabbits there is a potential danger and they should all run for cover. Their respiratory and heart rates will increase, and they will stop eating or doing whatever they were before the danger become apparent. Their eyes will be wide and their nose will twitch quickly in an attempt to locate the scent of any danger.

Sometimes scared rabbits will also try and make themselves smaller and attempt to crouch low on the ground with their ears flat along their back. Their eyes will be wide and they will attempt to remain totally still. These rabbits are not relaxed but in a state of fear and highly stressed.

What causes stress and fear?

Being a prey animal, anything that is unfamiliar or that could be a potential threat will cause rabbits to feel stressed and fearful.

Two hormones are responsible for increased stress levels in the body. Cortisol is the hormone that is increased under long-term stress and adrenaline is increased under short-term stress. These hormones act on the nervous system, increasing and decreasing the blood supply to organs, as well as the heart rate and the effects these changes in blood supply have on the body.

Stress and fear in rabbits may be caused by:

  • Sight or smell of a predator.
  • Being picked up/handled.
  • Loss of a companion.
  • Bonding to a new companion.
  • New environment.
  • Sudden change of environmental temperature.
  • Illness.
  • Trip to the vets for routine appointments, such as vaccinations or nail clipping.
  • Anything unfamiliar.

What about Tonic Immobility (TI) or Trancing?

TI is when a rabbit is laid on their back and goes into a trance like state. TI is an alternative anti-predator behaviour which, when triggered, causes the rabbit to freeze and play dead. This reduces their heart rate. They are still very aware of their surroundings though, experiencing stress, and can move rapidly if an opportunity to escape presents itself. A rabbit in tonic immobility is a very stressed one and they should not be placed in this position.

How can I help to keep my rabbit stress-free?

It is impossible to keep rabbits lives totally stress-free, but we can aim to reduce their stress as much as possible. Rabbits should only be picked up and handled when it is absolutely necessary to do so – for health checks, administer medications, groom them, etc and not to cuddle them. The vast majority of rabbits do not like being picked up to be handled.

Never, ever place a rabbit into tonic immobility (TI) to get them to hold still to be handled. Keep rabbits with a companion in an environment that allows them to exhibit normal behaviours, such as digging, hopping, sunbathing, hiding, exploring, jumping up and down from boxes, going through tunnels, etc. Rabbits can choose to be in the location where they feel safest and retreat to that area if they feel threatened.

Do not allow predator species in the vicinity of your rabbits – even if the rabbits can’t see them, they will be able to smell them.

Never chase your rabbits in an attempt to pick them up – always sit at their level to interact with them and allow them to move away if they want to.

If your rabbits need to go to the vet, always keep bonded pairs or groups together to help reduce their stress levels. Keep the temperature comfortable for them and secure the carrier so they don’t move around on the journey. Waiting in the car may be preferable as there are likely to be cats and dogs in the waiting room. When bonding rabbits never use a stress-induced method of taking them on car journeys, etc; always use a slow method allowing them to live side by side for several days/weeks so they can become accustomed with each other’s scent before attempting bonding on neutral territory.

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