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Signs of Stress in Rabbits

 
By Matthew Nesbitt, Journalist specialized in animal welfare. Updated: October 4, 2018
Signs of Stress in Rabbits

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The popularity of rabbits as a pet ebbs and flows, but has increased significantly in the USA since 2001[1]. As this popularity grows, veterinarians need to be better able to treat the increasing population. However, the onus of responsibility lies on rabbit guardians who not only tend to their basic requirements, but need to ensure their health and well-being is maintained properly. This means keeping them clean, well-groomed (especially with longhair rabbit breeds) and monitoring them for health problems.

Health problems in rabbits include physical pathologies, but too often we neglect stress and anxiety symptoms which can equally deteriorate their health. This is why AnimalWised brings you 5 signs of stress in rabbits so that you can recognize when you might need to change their circumstances and improve quality of life.

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Rabbit behavior

To better know how to identify signs of stress in rabbits, we need to understand their normal behavior. While domesticated rabbits will bond with their owner, the behavior of rabbits and pets can sometimes seem similar to their wild counterparts. In their natural habitat they can be easy prey for predators such as eagles, badgers, foxes, raptors and many more[2]. For this reason, many rabbits are naturally nervous and timid creatures.

In domestic situations, the presence of other pets, noise pollution such as loud music and various other surprises, intentional or otherwise, can threaten a rabbit's sense of security. Staying safe from predators in the wild requires constant vigilance, something maintained by many domestic rabbits. For this reason, we should never approach our rabbit too aggressively or make loud noises close to them.

Helping your rabbit to bond with you and reducing their temerity around people in general needs to be done gradually. You can start by approaching them calmly and waiting until they come to you. Don't force interaction or manipulation. When they do approach, you can reward them with treats. When you do get to the point when you will be able to pick them up, you should scoop them up by stabilizing them underneath with one hand and supporting the back with the other. Never pick a rabbit up by the ears.

Although the domestication of rabbits has occurred for thousands of years, this is still less than some animals such as dogs and cats. Their natural habitat has been burrows which they leave for grazing and interaction. This free movement in the countryside means that keeping them in small hutches can lead to stress. For their own protection, they will need to be kept in cages or hutches. However, they should also be allowed to roam as far as they can in a safe way either around the garden, in a run or around the house. Do not let them have a chance of escaping and ensure there are no predators around such as neighborhood cats.

Signs of Stress in Rabbits - Rabbit behavior

Other stressful situations for rabbits

We also need to take into account the cleanliness of a rabbit's cage or hutch. Rabbits are very hygienic animals, but they will not be able to clean their living area themselves. Clean with non-abrasive products and ensure the right bedding is used and replaced regularly. If a rabbit has to live in dirty or soiled environments, they will become stressed.

Temperature is also very important. Although they are fur covered animals, they cannot be too cold, especially if they are left in a place with a draft. In warmer climes, they will need a cool place to rest and should not spend much time in direct sunlight. These are often hidden stressors which can cause the rabbit to be upset.

Pain either from an injury or an underlying medical condition is very stressful for rabbits, as it is for all living creatures. While looking out for the signs of stress in rabbits, we also need to ensure we keep an eye out for signs of pain.

Not providing the right diet is also a potential cause of stress in rabbits. Feeding the right food is very important as their health will deteriorate if they are not given all the vitamins and minerals they need. Hay is very important for rabbits as it serves many functions and they need access to it at all times. It not only provides necessary nutrients, but it aids digestion. As rabbit teeth grow continuously, they also need hay to ensure they don't develop dental problems. These dental problems can be very stressful and will lead to other health problems as they will not be able to eat properly.

While we need to be careful our own interactions with the rabbits don't cause stress, living with other animals can equally cause problems. If the rabbit lives with other rabbits, they will likely fight for dominance or may mount them for mating. Other pets in the house may not get on well with the animal and may even scare them as they perceive them as predators.

Lastly, a stressful situation for rabbits is when you lay them on their back. People call this trancing a rabbit as the bunny goes into a trance like state and doesn't move. While it may look like they are at peace, it is actually an automatic response which increases their heart rate and is believed to be in a heightened state of fear. While it may be done occasionally by qualified handlers, it can lead to generalized anxiety if performed regularly.

Signs of Stress in Rabbits - Other stressful situations for rabbits

5 Signs of Stress in rabbits

Stress in rabbits can make the bunnies feel fear, nervousness and anxiety. Unfortunately, these signs may not be obvious to us even if the rabbit is feeling them acutely. Treating stress is performed by amending the causes described above in this article. Knowing when your bunny is stressed means looking out for these signs:

  1. Panting in rabbits can be a sign of stress, often accompanied by short or agitated grunts. If they are also stomping or kicking the floor, then this is a sure sign they are unhappy.
  2. A stereotypy is a an excessive and/or repetitive behavior which is symptomatic of psychological stress. In rabbits, stereotypies can include constantly licking themselves, over grooming hutch mates, incessantly gnawing at cages as well as many others. Although these signs can be the result of a veterinary health problem, they likely show the rabbit is not comfortable in their environment and something needs to be changed. Ensuring the rabbit has the right about of time outside and their environment has enough for then to interact with is important.
  3. If a rabbit holds their ears back tight to their head, it is generally a sign of stress. Similarly, if you see a curled up rabbit in their cage, it could be due to anxiousness. When in the wild, a rabbit will curl up in a ball to protect themselves from predators. The fear the rabbit may feel may be from various sources. They may smell a cat or other animal and think it is a predator. Of course, some rabbits may also simply sleep in a ball, so we need to be careful in determining what is a sign of stress and what is normal rabbit behavior.
  4. Although rabbits are normally very quiet animals, they can emit noise. They can make a screeching sound which will imply they are in a heightened state of stress. However, they will also make aggressive grunting noises if they are trying to establish dominance, so it is important not to confuse the two.
  5. A more extreme sign of stress is self-mutilation. When a rabbit is in pain or very stressed, they may gnaw at themselves. This can lead to removing patches of fur, but it is also possible they will draw blood if they break the skin. It is something very common laboratory rabbits which are under extreme duress[3].

If you want to read similar articles to Signs of Stress in Rabbits, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

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