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Why Do Rabbits Bite Humans?

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. April 27, 2020
Why Do Rabbits Bite Humans?

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Rabbits are sensitive animals, but this doesn't prevent them from being loving companions. As long as we provide the right level of care, we should provide the possibility of a happy and healthy life. If the relationship between a rabbit and a human does degenerate, we are often alerted by signs of aggression. One such sign is biting. To know the reasons why rabbits bite humans, we need to look at the situation from their perspective.

In this AnimalWised article we ask why do rabbits bite humans? We find the reasons why a rabbit may bite us, how dangerous it might be and better understand the practice of nibbling.

You may also be interested in: Why Does My Hamster Bite Its Cage?

Why rabbits bite

All animals engage with their worlds in different ways. Most humans have limbs and appendages with which to interact, using our combined senses to navigate. Rabbits do not have hands, but they are able to use their mouths to understand what is happening.

Rabbits use their mouths to look for food, defend against predators or even to keep their teeth in check. The last is important since a rabbit's teeth never stop growing. They bite hard surfaces to wear down their teeth and maintain healthy dentition. However, this would not explain why they bite humans. This is down to:

  • Defense
  • Stress
  • Poor socialization
  • Illness
  • Attention

To better understand why rabbits bite humans, something also known as nipping, we look at these behaviors individually. If you want to know more about general rabbit care, you can take a look at our article on how to build a rabbit hutch.

Defense

When rabbits bite humans, we often think of the problem being aggression. It is true that the rabbit may be taking an aggressive stance towards us, but the reason for this is defense. When a rabbit feels threatened, they will lash out to defend themselves. While we may only want to cuddle and show love to our lagomorph friends, they may see a much larger animal approaching them as if they were about to attack.

One of the most common reasons a rabbit might bite a human is due to mishandling. While they are robust animals, rabbits are also very sensitive. If they are picked up and carried in a way which makes them feel uncomfortable, they may bite to show their discomfort. By picking them up and holding them incorrectly, we might put pressure on sensitive areas which makes them think we want to do them harm.

If we approach a rabbit with an aggressive body language, their instinct will make them feel as if they are being attacked. Biting us is a way for them to protect themselves, especially in a hutch where there is nowhere else to run to.

When we pick a rabbit up, another way they might show their displeasure is to urinate. Our article on why your rabbit pees on you explains further.

Why Do Rabbits Bite Humans? - Defense

Stress

When a rabbit feels threatened in a given moment, they may bite. Once this moment is over, they may return to normal behavior. If a rabbit is stressed, it means their security is threatened over a prolonged period. There are many reasons why a rabbit might be stressed, many of which we may not have considered. Much of this has to do with their living situation.

  • Overcrowding: if you have too many rabbits in a hutch, they will not be able to carry out their normal rabbit behaviors. In turn, they will develop stress and may bite when we come to pick them up.
  • Hutch mate: the problem not only arises when they have too many rabbits. When we put a rabbit in a hutch with another and they don't get along, it can be torture for the animal. For example, generally two male rabbits will not get along together, especially if they are not neutered.
  • Other pets: if you live in a home with rabbits and other pets, we need to be aware that the rabbit may find them threatening. If your cat can approach the rabbit hutch, the rabbits may be stressed because they think they are being hunted. When we go to the hutch, we may get bitten due to this fear.
  • Hutch location: if we keep the rabbit's hutch somewhere where there is loud noise, cold air or other stressors, the rabbit's well-being is affected.
  • Poor care: if we do not feed the rabbit correctly, provide uncomfortable housing or in any other way provide poor care, the rabbit may be biting as an indirect response.

A healthy and happy rabbit will not bite you out of aggression. If their biting behavior continues, we need to ensure we work out what might be causing them harm.

Poor socialization

Another factor in a rabbit biting us is due to poor socialization. When rabbits develop as kits, it is important for them to spend time with humans so they can get used to them. If they haven't, the result is likely an animal which will be scared and bite because we are unknown to them. As especially timid animals, wild rabbits will not be able to be kept as pets.

Domestic rabbits will need to go through socialization with humans, other rabbits and other pets if they are to get along. This can be done and it is not uncommon for pet rabbits to get along with dogs, cats and many other animals if socialized correctly.

Illness

When a rabbit starts biting a human all of a sudden, it means something in their lives has changed. If they have always been stressed, they will likely bite all the time. However, when you have provided sufficient care and they are generally happy animals, a rabbit suddenly biting you may be trying to tell you something.

Just as we can become irritable when we are ill, a sick rabbit may bite out of frustration. Rabbits do not show signs of pain in the same way as humans. They are not very vocal animals, so their pain may show itself in biting behavior. The cause of this pain could be varied. They may have a viral or bacterial infection which depletes their immune system. However, internal injuries or abnormal growths can make them feel very tender. This may mean they will bite if we try to touch them somewhere painful.

One of the most common health issues affecting rabbits is dental pain. Since they do not stop growing, abnormal growth of their teeth can be very problematic. We need to ensure the veterinarian looks at their mouths during regular checkups. If we think illness or pain is the root cause of them biting us, we need to take them to a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis.

Attention

We need to be careful to distinguish between a rabbit biting us out of aggression and a rabbit showing affection. As we stated at the beginning of this article, the rabbit will use their mouth as a method of communication. In the case of wanting attention, a rabbit might nip us so we can look at them. If they are hungry or expect a treat, a little bite might be just a way to say “I'm over here”. We should be able to tell from the rest of their body language and behavior if they want attention or want us to leave.

Another distinction we should make is between nipping and nibbling. A bite or nip will be a sharp pain from a snap of the rabbit's jaws. A nibble will be small little bites which is the behavior rabbits employ when grooming another rabbit. Rabbits do this to each other to show affection and they can do the same to us. If it is painful, then it is not a nibble.

How to stop a rabbit biting us

The way we can stop a rabbit from biting us is to find out the reason. Unless the reason is obviously an environmental or care issue, we should take them to a veterinarian to rule out an underlying health problem. Once this is done and a physical issue has been ruled out, we should ask them for their advice.

We will be advised to stop the biting depending on the cause. For example, if the rabbit seems stressed by any factors such as other pets or loud noise, we need to remove them from their environment. Once they have had some time to adapt, they should stop biting. If not, it is possible they will always be acutely timid or there is another reason they do not feel secure.

With poor socialization, we need to make being around us a positive experience. Don't handle them incorrectly and don't pick them up if they are scared. It is a myth that rabbits cannot be trained. We need to do this with lots of positive reinforcement and not pushing them too hard. We need to take a gentle and caring approach, otherwise it is very difficult to earn a rabbit's trust. If we exercise patience and care, there are few reasons why the rabbit will not develop a strong bond with us.

Why Do Rabbits Bite Humans? - How to stop a rabbit biting us

Is rabbit nipping dangerous?

The last thing we need to look at is whether a rabbit biting us is dangerous. In general, it will be unlikely the rabbit will be dangerous to a human. Although they have strong jaws to break down all that hay, they are also small and it will be difficult for them to cause serious harm.

The few instances where a rabbit has attacked a human and caused serious harm tend to be if the person was vulnerable[1]. This could be dangerous if they are elderly or very young. A concern would be if the rabbit was to bite a major vein or artery as this could lead to blood loss. However, the likelihood of this occurring is very slim.

When a rabbit bites, they normally won't break the skin, especially if they are only nibbling. However, if they do, there is a concern over bacteria. Rabbits will have bacteria in their mouth which can transmit to a human's bloodstream. If the bite is severe, we should go to a doctor where they will likely provide antibiotics, even as a preventive measure.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Do Rabbits Bite Humans?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

References

1. Rabbets, B., & Bevan, T. (2015). Bloodthirsty 'Thugs Bunny' who attacks humans and sent one woman to hospital to see psychologist. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/bloodthirsty-thugs-bunny-who-attacks-7027757

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