The Language of Lagomorphs
By Chandra Moira Beal
Rabbits have a reputation for being silent creatures who do nothing all day, but in reality they have a wide range of expressions and methods of communicating. It's easy and rewarding to learn the language of lagomorphs. Just sit back and let them teach you!
Grunting, Lunging and Boxing
When a rabbit grunts it usually indicates that he is unhappy or angry about something. Maybe you're rearranging his cage, or reaching in to lift him when he's trying to nap. Watch their body language, too. If they are tense and crouched, they mean business. Grunting is often accompanied by lunging forward and "boxing", or a flailing of the forepaws. All the rabbit is saying is, "Leave me alone." It's best to heed this warning unless you want to be bit.
Honking is different than grunting. It's a soft, low, rhythmic sound that is used primarily by males when they court females. Spaying and neutering does not totally eliminate the sexual urge, and rabbits will still chase and mount each other for pleasure. Rabbits will also mount each other as a form of dominance. Honking usually accompanies this chasing and circling, but Maia honks when I reach for the box of treats. It basically means, "I want you (or a treat)."
Running in circles around your feet is another behavior related to sexuality. This is a courtship ritual although, again, some rabbits will circle you because they are "in love with" getting a treat. If a rabbit is unaltered and circles you frequently, they are sexually mature and need to be neutered.
Males that are not neutered will mark their territory by spraying urine. Females will also spray but it is not as common. Altering your pet is the solution. Rabbits will continue to use droppings and urine to mark their territory even after they have been neutered, although most will use their litter box regularly. Droppings outside the litter box most often indicate a territoriality issue. Maybe you've brought another pet home, or have recently moved. This is the rabbit's way of saying, "This is my space."
This is one rabbit sound I hope you never have to hear. Rabbits only make this sound when they are extremely distressed, hurt or dying. It is unmistakable. If your rabbit screams, they need medical attention immediately. Maia screamed when I took her to the vet to be spayed. In this case, she was not in pain but was terrified of the experience.
Rabbits, both males and females, rub their chins on items to indicate that they belong to them. This includes furniture, food, other rabbits, and people. Rabbits have a scent gland under their chin that leaves a trace smell only they can recognize. Cats do the same thing by rubbing their foreheads on people and objects.
Witnessing a binky is one of the greatest joys of living with a rabbit. It looks like dancing or leaping in the air, often with body gyrations and kicks and flips. Sometimes rabbits get a running start before a binky; some just leap into the air from a sitting position. The binky indicates pure happiness and joy, and it's contagious. Other bunnies may join in, and you'll surely be moved to smile or laugh.
The flop is another way of expressing contentment and happiness. The rabbit goes quickly from a sitting or standing position to lying on its side, like a tree falling in the forest. The eyes roll back and the rabbit looks lifeless. This is different from a rabbit gradually lying down to nap. The motion is quick. New bunny people are often alarmed when they see this because the rabbit indeed looks ill or dead. As long as they continue to breathe, never fear. This is actually a sign of bunny bliss. Do not disturb!
In addition to the binky and the flop, rabbits enjoy a variety of ways to play. They push or toss objects around, bunch up towels, or shred and tear cardboard or paper. Some play hide and seek or chase games. They may race madly around the house or jump on and off of the couch. All this is very important to the wellness of the bunny psyche. It provides exercise, mental stimulation, and fun. Get down on the floor and get in the game!
When a rabbit stamps its hind foot, it means he's frightened, mad, or trying to tell you that there's danger. Maia thumps when I set her down after trimming her nails to say, "I don't like that!" Sometimes she thumps when I burn toast. And sometimes she thumps for what I perceive to be no reason at all. Rabbits have acute senses. The other night Maia thumped and I got out of bed and saw a raccoon in our yard. Although she was safe inside the house, she perceived the danger without even seeing the raccoon. Contrary to Disney's portrayal of rabbits in Bambi, rabbits don't thump repetitively but give one, loud stamp of the foot.
Ouch! Every bunny companion has probably been nipped at one time or another. It's important to remember that rabbits are not mean or aggressive by nature. They only bite when they feel threatened, and that could mean they don't have secure footing, or they've been startled, or they just want to be left alone. The nip is a quick warning bite. Some nipping should be tolerated, such as when you're trimming nails. Don't react and drop the rabbit! Rabbits can be taught that nipping is not acceptable by uttering a quick, high-pitched "Ouch!" The rabbit can relate this sound to experiencing pain. Be patient. Maia used to nip me whenever I picked her up for health care, but soon learned that I would not hurt her (and that her nipping hurt me) and stopped.
Teeth Grinding and Chattering
There are two kinds of tooth noise. One indicates contentment, like a cats purr. You can feel and see the cheeks vibrate rhythmically. The other is a loud grinding or scraping and can indicate pain. Body language will tell you the difference. If you are petting your rabbit and she is relaxed and chattering, she's probably happy. If she's hunched in a corner and flinches when touched, she may be in pain.
I like to think of this as the rabbit equivalent of sticking out your tongue. It's a rapid back-and-forth movement of the tail, usually while they're hopping away. This is the rabbit's way of being sassy. They're saying, "You can't make me!" I see tail twitching when I'm chasing a rabbit that does not want to be caught, or when I'm cleaning their cage.
If your female rabbit is plucking hair from her chest, she is preparing to build a nest for babies. She may be pregnant, of if she's already spayed, she could be experiencing a false pregnancy induced by the proximity to an un-neutered male. Either way, she needs attention from a veterinarian.
Rabbits will butt you with their heads or noses to indicate a variety of things. Usually it means, "move over" or "get out of my way." Sometimes it means, "stop petting me" or even "don't stop petting me." Again, knowing your rabbit's personality, habits and body language will help you understand what their nudges mean.
Have you ever watched a rabbit dozing and noticed their eyes and cheeks twitching, and their heads drooping off to one side? They're dreaming! The facial movements are indicative of "rapid eye movement," or the stage in which they achieve a deep sleep and dream, just like humans. The best thing you can do is let them be, and wonder what they're dreaming about.
A happy, relaxed rabbit will often lay on its stomach with the forepaws and hind legs stretched out. From above they look like they are flying, or they are flat as can be. Sometimes rabbits lay with their legs extended out but more to the side, as opposed to the hunched position when all limbs are tucked under the body. This just indicates a happy rabbit. For a prey animal that must be constantly on guard against danger, happy feet is a great indication that the rabbit feels comfortable and safe in their environment.
Rabbits groom each other, and their humans, to show affection. A rabbit licking your hand or face is a high compliment. The rabbit is saying, "Thank you. I love you." Humans can "groom" rabbits back by nuzzling their face with the fingers or your cheeks and nose, or simply through brushing and petting.
Rabbits just wouldn't be rabbits without those fabulous ears. Rabbit hearing is extremely sensitive, and acts like a radar of what's happening in the environment. Even while rabbits sleep, their ears are on duty. If the ears are pointed forward, they are tuning in to something. If they lay back on the head, they are defensive and ready to attack. There are many combinations in between. One ear may point up while the other hangs down, as if they are half listening.
As you can see, rabbits have a common language that expresses a wide range of feelings and thoughts. Individual rabbits develop a distinct language with their human and animal families that you will easily learn if you pay attention. Turn off the TV and turn on the Rabbit Channel!
© Copyright by Chandra Moira Beal. All rights reserved.
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