Why Do Rabbits Thump on Their Feet?
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Rabbits are great pets as they are cute, intelligent, playful and affectionate. To have a good bond with our rabbits we must understand their body language and behavior. This way, not only will we have a great relationship with our furry friends, but we can also know when their behavior is telling us to worry or take them to the veterinarian.
In this AnimalWised article, we are going to explain how to understand rabbit body language and rabbit behavior. You will learn why your rabbit is thumping their feet and behaving differently at times.
Wild rabbit behavior
Rabbits are small lagomorphic mammals, often confused with rodents because of their small size. They are herbivorous animals and in the wild act as a prey. They mainly stay active in twilight hours.
Understanding a wild rabbit's behavior will help you understand your pet rabbit's behavior in certain situations. For example, your rabbit is always very alert and sensitive to noises or sudden movements. As in the wild they serve as prey, their instinct will be to flee and hide from what they perceive as danger. This is why it's advised to speak softly to your rabbit and avoid sudden movements.
Another characteristic of rabbits are their large ears, sense of smell and advanced vision. In the wild they rely on these senses to detect and escape predators. This is why you often find them to alert in your home or patio. Rabbits are naturally very observant animals.
Nevertheless, domestic rabbits lose a part of that instinctive behavior and learn to trust us. This allows them to let their guard down when with us. Although their fearful character will still be present, it's much less than wild rabbits.
You may also be interested in the different domestic rabbit breeds.
How rabbits communicate
If you have a rabbit at home you will have surely been impressed many times by the number of expressions and forms of communication your rabbit has. Although these sweet animals are rather silent, they have a wide range of gestures, postures, as well as sounds.
Rabbit body language
Body language in rabbits is mainly intended to express how they feel through the movement of different parts of their body. In addition, they also express themselves through physiological responses, such as breathing or the secretion of odors that can be perceived by other animals with a good sense of smell (humans cannot perceive it). We can distinguish the following expressions:
- Fear: when a rabbit is afraid, they usually put their ears back, hooked to the body. They'll lower their head and hide their front legs under it. You may also observe their eyes are bulging. Their muscles will be stiff and their breathing quickens.
- Anger: when a rabbit does not want to be disturbed or is feelings angry, they will express themselves by tapping the ground with its paws. Therefore if your rabbit is thumping their feet, it means they are angry or upset. When they are showing signs like this it's best to not bother them as they may bite you. Learn more in our article about why rabbits may bite you.
- Joy: when a rabbit is happy, they have a rather playful character. You may see them jumping and running around the house up. Their ears will be up but their body will be relaxed (contrary to when they are afraid). They may also come to you for some cuddles.
- Calm: if you see your rabbit lying down, on their belly or on their side with their legs stretched out, it is a clear sign that they feel calm and safe. They may also drop their ears and eyelids, since they don't need to stay alert.
Rabbit communication sounds
Rabbits are rather silent animals. Still, they can make sounds at specific times to express your mood.
- Whining and growling: when a rabbit feels cornered or uncomfortable, it's common for them to whine or growl. Similarly, if they have no chance of running away, they may end up biting to defend themselves. Before biting they will usually growl as a warning to back away before they bite.
- Screech: rabbits may scream when they feel very intense fear. This heartbreaking sound is usually emitted when they are being chased by a predator or when they have been hunted, with the intention of communicating danger to other rabbits.
- Clucking: This sound is similar to a very slight cackle. Rabbits will emit this sound when they chew something very appetizing, whether it's food or any object that they like to gnaw on.
- Purring: when a rabbit is happy and calm you may hear them purr. For example, it's common to hear rabbits purr when being brushed or pet.
- Whistles: when a rabbit wants to kick another rabbit or animal, they will usually make a high-pitched whistling sound.
- Courtship sounds: when a male tries to court a female, he will make a series of unique sounds to try to get the female to notice him.
To learn more about rabbit communication, we encourage you to read our article on the most common rabbit sounds and their meaning.
Social behavior of rabbits
Rabbits are gregarious animals used to living in colonies within their burrows of between 2 and 9 individuals. These communities help them feel protected from external threats. This is one of the reasons it's recommended to adopt at least two rabbits. So they can keep each other's company, helping them feel more entertained and safe.
In the wild, these groups maintain hierarchies, made up of females and at least one male. If there is another male in the group, a dispute will arise. One of the males will have to adopt a submissive position or leave the nest. When living together, these animals will create bonds with each other.
Through mutual grooming, they demonstrate their affection and acceptance of the group. They also sleep together to keep everyone warm and safe. A domestic rabbit will also show this type of affection with their human companion. They may groom you and fall asleep on your lap or in your arms as they see you as part of their community.
Learn more in our article about how to encourage rabbits to be more affectionate.
Common rabbit behaviors
Some rabbit behavior you may see everyday in your domestic rabbit may include:
- Grooming: rabbits are very clean animals and therefore it is natural that when they are comfortable and relaxed they groom themselves. In these cases, we will see how they lick and rub with their feet to remove dirt and tidy their fur. Consequently, if your rabbit is stressed or sick, they may stop performing this behavior.
- Standing on two legs: as we have previously mentioned, rabbits are animals that are constantly alert. For this reason, they will stand up on their hind legs to widen their field of vision. This helps them see beyond the ground and observe a certain environment when they're curious.
- Rubbing their chin on objects: rabbits also communicate with each other through smell, as they have a highly developed sense of smell. These animals are also very territorial. For this reason, it is common for these animals to mark their territory and the members of their group with their scent. They do this by rubbing their chin on a certain surface. This allows them to secrete pheromones with their individual scent thanks to the glands located in their chin area.
- Spraying urine: another way to leave their scent is through urine and feces. In this case, rabbits (especially males) may mark their territory by spraying urine.
- Eating droppings: Sometimes your rabbit can surprise you by performing this behavior. If this behavior is not excessive and if the feces are normal, you should not be alarmed, as it is a natural behavior of the rabbit. Rabbits usually perform this behavior in order to make the most of the nutrients from the excrement. However, if you believe your rabbit is doing this too much, it's best to go to the veterinarian for a check-up.
- Gnaw: Rabbits are animals that like to gnaw all kinds of items, either to eat or to make a nest. This is a perfectly normal behavior that you've surely witnessed.
- Dig: Rabbits are animals that usually live in burrows underground. They're able to do this in the wild thanks to their strong legs. For this reason, it's normal to see your rabbit dig in order to make a comfortable nest for themselves. It's an instinctive behavior.
Abnormal behavior in rabbits
Like with any other animal, when rabbits are feeling sad or when they're in pain, their behavior will reflect it. Whenever you see your rabbit showing these symptoms, it's best to take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible to be properly diagnosed and treated. These abnormal behavior include:
- Reduced activity if your rabbit is not feeling well, you will see them be less active than usual.
- Diet and hydration changes: they may stop eating or drinking in severe cases. It's best to take them to the veterinarian as their health can worsen quickly due to the weight loss and dehydration.
- Lack of hygiene: as we've previously mentioned, grooming is a behavior rabbits due when they are happy and at ease. It's no surprise that if they are not feeling well they will stop grooming themselves.
- Cranky mood: if your rabbit is not feeling well, they will surely want to stay isolated and will be upset if you try to catch them or even get close to them.
- Hyperactivity: if your rabbit is stressed or frustrated, perhaps for their lack of exercise, they may express themselves by gnawing excessively or digging nervously in order to discharge their energy.
- Teeth grinding: when a rabbit gnashes their teeth, it's usually because they are trying to communicate that they are suffering.
- Strange sounds: Your rabbit may make all kinds of strange vocalizations or other sounds when they are not feeling well, for example if they're having difficulty breathing. If this is the case, it's best you bring them to the veterinarian.
You may also be interested in our article where we discuss the most common diseases in rabbits.
Mating behavior in rabbits
When rabbits are in heat, a male will try to show their interest in a female by producing a series of unique sounds. He will also try to chase her. If she is interested, she will run around taking short breaks to be playful with the male. When she does this and the male sees she is interested, he will begin his exhibition. This consists or strutting around and walking on his hind legs stretched out. He will do this while moving away and re-approaching the female three or four times in a row.
This position is accompanied by their tail staying upright, which transmits the smell coming from the glands located in his groin. In addition, it's common for the male to spray the female with his urine. This may cause her to flee. Lastly, if the interest is mutual, rabbits may lick each other's ears and snout. This is a sign of acceptance.
If the male has been turned down, he will feel frustrated and may dig nervously or fight another male with whom he competes with.
If you wish to learn more, we encourage you to read our article on how rabbits mate.
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- Mykytowycz, R. (1968). Territorial marking by rabbits. Scientific American.
- Olivero, R. (1998). Rabbit behavior . INIA Disclosure Sheet.
- Yllera Fernández, MM, Camiña García, M., Cantalapiedra Álvarez, J. (2016). Behavior and sense organs of animals. Monographs of Ibader - Livestock Series 2. Ibader. University of Santiago de Compostela.