To get to know your rabbit and enjoy the time you spend with him more, it helps to understand “bunny talk.”
Rabbits communicate with a unique language that they make up from body language, unmistakable signals, and unique sounds.
Most people don’t understand bunny talk and don’t even realize that their rabbits are trying to communicate with them, but the language of rabbits isn’t hard to learn.
The first rule of learning how to talk with your rabbit is to remember this:
Your rabbit isn’t your dog or your cat. Rabbits have developed ways of communicating that are completely unlike the languages of your other pets.
And the second rule of learning how to talk with your rabbit is to remember that:
There is no such thing as a dumb bunny. Rabbits can quickly learn your language to be able to obey your simple commands.
But you can train them a lot faster if you understand a very basic fact about rabbits that isn’t true of other pets.
Rabbits Live in a Very Hierarchical Society
In nature, rabbits spend a lot of time on the question of “Who is the boss rabbit?” Rabbits, as we all know, multiply.
There will be an alpha-rabbit that expects to be given respect at all times.
The way rabbits show respect to their superiors is by grooming them.
When a dominant rabbit asks for grooming, it’s not so much a request as a command.
Your rabbit is trying to find out if you believe them when they tell you that they are your boss.
The ironic thing is that many rabbit owners will interpret a little nip or nudge when they are petting their rabbits as a request to stop, when it’s actually a demand that they continue.
That is because of a very simple fact.
Where You Pet Your Rabbit Is a Statement to Them
Rabbits like to be petted on their heads. Petting them anywhere else is not socially acceptable.
When rabbits are mad at each other, they nip at each other’s rumps. If you rub your rabbit’s rump, the message you are sending is that you are angry with your rabbit.
Rubbing your rabbit’s hind end will result in their hopping away or nipping at you.
Many dogs loved to have their backs rubbed, but rabbits have the exact opposite reaction. Rabbits will be offended by rump rubs no matter how well-intentioned you may be.
Body language is a universal, instinctive language for rabbits. All rabbits give similar meanings to similar gestures.
However, you will need to learn to observe whole body posture, movements and sounds to get an accurate read on what your rabbit is trying to communicate.
There is a lot more to bunny talk than petting your rabbit on top of the head.
Rabbit Signals That Tell You Everything You Need to Know
Rabbits constantly signal what they are thinking and what they are feeling.
It is not hard to learn what your rabbits are telling each other and what they are telling you, but the same signal can have different meanings in different contexts.
Your rabbit may thump at you because you disturbed his nap, or he may thump at you to tell you he is afraid because there is a cat outside.
Rabbits mostly communicate by body language, but they make some noises, too.
Growling and grunting are excited communications saying “I am about to attack you if you don’t back off!”
If your rabbit grunts, growls and raises his front paws, he is warning of an attack, and he means business.
But rabbits also have grunts and growls that signal that they are excited to be picked up and petted or that they are contented with their food. Every signal your rabbit makes has a meaning that depends on context.
So, let’s take a closer look at the way rabbits talk.
Forward-Facing Body Postures
There are several forward-facing body postures, and each one has a slightly different meaning.
These are some of the most important rabbit gestures that you need to understand.
When your rabbit is facing you, and she is leaning slightly forward, and her ears are as far forward as they will go, she is telling you that she is curious.
This gesture will often be accompanied by nose twitching. Your rabbit’s ears may point in different directions.
The key here is leaning forward, which is a sign that your rabbit feels secure and is not frightened by her surroundings.
When your bunny is facing you, but his ears are more sideways than forward, the message is that your rabbit isn’t sure whether he wants you to approach.
Let your rabbit’s ears turn forward before you get closer and pick him up.
Ears lying down and pointing back when your rabbit is facing you is a sign that your rabbit is upset with you.
Ears lying down while your rabbit is showing you his backside is a sign you are really in the doghouse and your rabbit is very upset with you.
In all of your rabbit’s forward-facing postures, body angle (leaning forward or not) and how your rabbit holds her ears are very important.
Sideways-Facing Body Postures
Rabbits turn sideways to have a path for escape.
When your rabbit shows his side to you, he is telling you that he is in a position to flee if something happens that he doesn’t like. (Of course, if your rabbit is in a cage, there may not be any real pathway for escape, but your rabbit will still use the posture to communicate the intent.)
Showing you the side of their bodies is the way rabbits tell you “Don’t get pushy.” The appropriate response is to do the same thing.
You turn sideways to your rabbit, so they get the message that you could find other things to do, too.
If you continue moving forward when your rabbit has shown you his side, he will usually try to run off, unless he is a very aggressive rabbit and charges you.
Showing You Their Rump
As mentioned before, a rabbit shows she is very upset with you by turning her back on you.
It is never a good thing for a rabbit to turn its backside to you.
Head Extended and Laid Down Flat
An extended head laid down flat is a demand—not a request—for petting.
The more flat to the back the ears are when the head is laid down, the more insistent the rabbit is about being petted.
Failure to comply is taken as an insult to the rabbit and will result in vocal protest or maybe nip at you.
Grunting, Lunging, Boxing, and Other Aggressive Behavior
When your rabbit grunts, lunges at you or puts his dukes as if he is about to box you, he is showing ultra-aggressive behavior.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you have a mean rabbit.
Boxing is when a bunny lifts his front paws off the ground and makes very fast back and forth movements with them.
This is usually accompanied by lunging and is a sign that a bite is coming next.
The most common reason a female bunny would box at you is they have just given birth.
The most common reason a male bunny would box at you is that you carry the scent of a predator, such as a fox, a wolf, or a dog.
Rabbits may make grunts when they are protecting their cages.
This occurs when young bunnies are present, or when they have been attacked when you weren’t at home.
But there is a gesture you can make that your rabbit will understand as making peace.
Move your hand over your rabbit’s head and place it firmly over his head and neck. This is grooming that honors your rabbit’s need for recognition. Do not pet your rabbit under the neck.
This is a demand that your rabbit groom you, which is interpreted as an insult and increases aggressive behavior.
Be ready for your rabbit to become aggressive again once you remove your hand. But you will have bought some time to deal with whatever situation made your bunny upset.
Your rabbit’s ears are his most expressive feature, and the easiest way to read what your rabbit is feeling.
- Ears flat back mean disgust, anger, or discontent, depending on your rabbit’s body posture.
- Ears cocked in different directions or tuned in a single direction connote interest in what is going on, a kind of happy curiosity.
- Ears forward communicate friendly interest, shown by how much your rabbit leans forward.
- Ears straight up are neutral.
- Ears halfway back can communicate aggression or aloofness.
Rabbits also communicate with their tails.
A tail pointed straight up signals aggression, but a relaxed tail suggests the rabbit is happy with the situation.
Also read: Why Do Rabbits Wiggle Their Tails?
Rabbit sounds add a layered meaning to their body language.
Rabbits thump with their powerful back legs. A loud thump by itself may be a warning that a cat or some or predator is nearby.
But a loud thump with a display of the rump means that the rabbit is upset with something.
Rabbit grunts are a lot like pig grunts. A loud grunt is a warning of aggressive behavior, but a softer grunt can be a sign of contentment with petting, food, or security.
Growling is your rabbit’s way of saying “Mmm.” But in addition to meaning “Yummy,” it can also signal anger or displeasure.
Not all rabbits sigh.
Among those that do, a high-pitched sigh is a rabbit’s way of saying “Tsk, tsk,” the way a human might express disapproval.
But a lower-pitched sigh means your rabbit is contented.
The urban legend that rabbits usually scream when they die is based on fact.
A scream may also mean that your rabbit is in extreme pain or is extremely afraid.
Rabbits make a grinding sound with their teeth that almost sounds like a purr when they are contented.
You aren’t likely to hear it unless you are just a few inches away from them.
Also read: How to Keep Rabbits Teeth Short?
Unlike tooth grinding, a rabbit’s tooth clicking sound can be heard from several feet away.
It is their way of telling you they are sick.
Labored, heavy breathing can mean that your rabbit is extremely frightened.
But it can also mean that your rabbit is trying to figure out what she is smelling.
When rabbits are relaxed and content, their noses hardly move at all.
But when they are interested in something, they wiggle their noses very quickly.
Rabbits bathe all the time, which is the reason they are such clean indoor pets.
But when they start bathing in front of another rabbit or in front of you, they are sending the message “Leave me alone.”
Bathing in front of another rabbit has another rabbit sends a different message.
It is a way two rabbits can tell each other that they are secure and non-threatened in their current location.
Rabbits love to beg for treats. They stand up on their hind legs ready to snatch up any treat you put in their mouths.
Rabbits are top-heavy, so they can’t stand up very long, but they will get right back up and beg some more if they expect you to feed them.
Don’t feed bunnies every time they beg, or they will bother you all day asking for food.
Bulging eyes are a bunny’s distress signal.
They may be worried about something, or if they are thumping at the same time, both offended and upset about something going on around them.
Circling Your Feet
Male rabbits that have not been neutered circle, receptive females, in a kind of courtship dance.
If your unneutered male rabbit circles your feet, this may mean they have some issues with misdirected attention.
But most of the time, this gesture means your rabbit is happy to see you, in a non-sexual way.
Rabbits mark their territory with pheromonal scent glands under their chins. This scent tells other rabbits “This is mine.”
The practice is harmless for people, since humans can detect the smell.
Female rabbits that have not been spayed are constantly getting ready to build their nests by digging.
In spayed females and male rabbits, digging is a way of telling other rabbits “This is my territory.”
Peeing and Pooping Outside the Litter Box
Rabbits also mark their territory with pee and poop.
When a rabbit starts spreading pee and poop around the problem may be that some of its possessions have been removed, and it is marking anyplace they may be as its own.
This problem is usually resolved by moving the litter box. But if you have made your bunny angry, this may be its ultimate insult.
When a rabbit is unusually happy, she will flop her head down on its side, sometimes turning her head upside down.
The rest of the body follows until the rabbit is lying on her back. This is a sign of unusual contentment and safety.
Rabbits usually keep their legs tucked under their bodies, so they can sprint away from danger at a moment’s notice.
On rare occasions they feel completely secure, they may spread out, sprawling their legs outright over the floor.
The more their legs are spread out, the more contented they feel.
Binkies, also known as Bunny Dances
Rabbits have a kind of happy dance they do by zig-zagging as they run across the floor or even by jumping up in the air and doing a pirouette.
Rabbits can teach dances to each other.
A rabbit that nudges you with his nose (bonking) is gently trying to get your attention. Rabbit only bonk people they like.
Rabbits can think of you like a big, funny-looking rabbit.
If they like you, but they don’t feel secure enough to lick or groom you, they may get your attention by kissing your bare skin or your clothing.
This is a sign of deep respect and an invitation for petting your rabbit.
How Two Rabbits Would Communicate in the Wild
In the bunny world, a normal rabbit-to-rabbit conversation would go something like the following example.
One rabbit is sitting in his territory. An unknown rabbit hops up and stops a few feet away from the sitting rabbit.
If the home rabbit is interested in communicating with the visitor, she will turn her face directly at the visiting rabbit and twitch her nose.
If the at-home rabbit is apprehensive about meeting the visiting rabbit, she will turn sideways.
Or if she is really upset about having another rabbit enter her territory, she will turn around and show her rear end to the visiting bunny. Either of these gestures means “Scram. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
But another possibility is that the home rabbit is a dominant rabbit.
She will hop a couple of steps forward and put her head on the ground. This gesture means “I am the boss. Pet me on my head.”
If the visiting rabbit complies with the command, all is well. However, there may be several incidents of turning sideways or pointing butts at each other before one of the rabbits decides to submit.
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