Rabbit language - what is your rabbit saying?
Rabbits don’t often vocalise but they do communicate in other ways. It is important to know what these signs mean as they can indicate ill health, danger, anger and other emotions.
How do rabbits communicate?
The rabbit will be teetering on their hind legs. This is the rabbit’s way of seeing what is above them, it can also be a learned behaviour to beg for food.
Leaping in the air (binkying)
When rabbits run around at full speed, leap into the air and twist and turn acrobatically. This indicates that your rabbit is really happy and feels safe in their environment.
The rabbit will be sitting on their hind legs and boxing or scratching with their front legs. This happens when the rabbit is defending something or warning you to back off. You must not continue what you are trying to do, as the rabbit is likely to bite to continue to defend themselves. This behaviour is seen more commonly in entire female rabbits.
The rabbit is marking its territory and items which it perceives belong to them by rubbing the underside of their chin on the item. Both males and female rabbits will chin items, including neutered rabbits. The scent left is completely odourless to people and causes no damage to the items.
This behaviour is seen mostly in entire male rabbits as a courting behaviour. The rabbit will run around an item or the owner’s legs in a circle as an attention demanding behaviour.
Rabbits will scatter droppings to mark territory. A previously well litter trained rabbit may start to scatter droppings due to a change in the environment or introduction of another rabbit. Neutering rabbits vastly improves their litter training, but it is normal for rabbits to leave the odd dropping scattered around.
Turning their back to you
Your rabbit is ignoring you. You have caused upset to your rabbit in some way (common after a trip to the vet).
Ears back, closing ears together
The rabbit is relaxed and resting.
Tensing body, with ears back, slightly apart, tail up
The rabbit is feeling threatened and may lunge or bite if you come any closer. You will soon learn to detect this subtle change in ear position.
Flicking hind feet whilst hopping away
Your rabbit is disgusted with you – something you have done has caused them upset.
Flopping on their side on the floor
The rabbit is completely relaxed, content, in bliss. This position can cause concern to owners when first seen, but it means your rabbit is really happy and feels safe to be ‘off guard’.
If they are pressing their stomach into the ground this is often a sign of pain and should be monitored closely. With other pain signs a vet visit is needed.
One of the few vocal sounds that rabbits make is when they growl. The rabbit feels threatened and may bite or box if the threatening behaviour continues from human/other rabbit/other animal. This is often seen in entire female rabbits and neutering at a young age is highly recommended to help remove or lessen this behaviour.
The rabbit is in love with you/another rabbit. This behaviour often accompanies circling behaviour from entire male rabbits and may be followed by mounting an object.
Rabbits will lick and groom their companion rabbit and also sometimes their owner. This is an affectionate behaviour and shows that your rabbit loves you or the other rabbit. Some rabbits do not groom their owners, but this doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy your company. Some rabbits lick more than others.
Putting their head down when in front of you
This is also done with other rabbits. They are trying to get you to rub their head or, in the case of another rabbit, groom them.
This behaviour is normally shown alongside growling. The rabbit is really annoyed at something or you have scared them.
Climbing on top of another rabbit or even a soft toy: Most common in unneutered rabbits, but also seen when a rabbit is trying to establish the hierarchy, eg during early stages of bonding, or during scuffles to remind the other rabbit who's in charge.
Nudging with their nose
The rabbit is trying to move item out of the way, or demand attention.
Standing on their hind legs, looking around to survey the environment for risks.
This is a truly awful sound. The rabbit emits a loud scream. This means the rabbit feels in extreme danger or excruciating pain. You must stop what you are doing immediately as rabbits can go into heart failure when screaming due to the stress and shock.
The rabbit is displeased or anxious, especially heard during unwanted advances from a male.
Spraying of urine
Rabbits mark their territory by spraying urine on items. This is normally seen in entire male rabbits and castration should stop the behaviour in most circumstances.
The rabbit is moving it out of the way or playing. Rabbits love to have toys to throw around such as cardboard tubes.
Thumping of the back feet
This is how rabbits warn other rabbits of potential danger, and sometimes how an angry or frightened rabbit will express their annoyance.
There are two types of tooth grinding and they mean very different things.
Loud grinding, often accompanied by other body language (the rabbit may be in an unusual position, tense, hunched up in a corner, or stretched out awkwardly, off their food, etc), indicates severe pain, discomfort, or stress. The rabbit must be taken to see your vet straight away.
If they are grinding their back teeth gently, head/mouth shuddering with the action, sometimes their eyes may be closed, this is similar to a cat purring. It indicates happiness and often occurs whilst being stroked in their favourite place.
What should I do if I don’t know what my rabbit is saying?
With time and experience you should be able to recognise even the most subtle of communications from your rabbit. Some express more signs than others, but it is important to be able to recognise what signs indicate your rabbit is unwell, which ones show they are scared, or unhappy, and which ones show your rabbit feels safe and happy.