[rabbits] What to do when your new bunny is scared of EVERYTHING!

If only Avon sold boxes of hay...

My Bunny Is Scared! What do I do?!?!?!

Rabbits are the eponymous prey animals. They have been hunted for hundreds of thousands of years by nearly every carnivore they’ve ever had contact with. They’ve got a lot of history of fear in their collective past. Rabbits are by their nature survivalists who will even cause themselves harm to live a little longer, to escape danger. While I know you’re going to provide a safe, stimulating and calm environment for your bunny, they have no idea, and since they don’t speak human, they aren’t reassured when you tell them that it’s okay.

If only Avon sold boxes of hay...
Cleo was the scaredest rabbit when we first got her. Now she’s so brave, she sometimes tries to steal carrots from my plate at dinner time!

Signs of a frightened rabbit:

1. He stomped his foot: He’s not having a hissy fit, he’s telling you he’s scared. The foot stomp has many uses in nature: In a burrow, the shock might bring the roof of a burrow down for protection; in a field, the loud noise might disguise the quieter sounds of running away; the noise might also be an attempt to make a prey animal think there’s a larger animal nearby. To other rabbits, the foot stomp says “I’m in danger.” I see mixed responses from different rabbits. When we first brought Cleo home she was afraid of everything. After being a hutch rabbit for eight years, the transition to house rabbit was difficult. When Cleo stomped her foot, Banacek used to run to her to see what the problem was and would usually lick her face to tell her it was safe, but then she started doing it when she wanted him to pay her attention. This backfired; she’s stomped so much that he doesn’t really pay attention any more. Since he’s stopped giving her attention, her stomping has reduced over the past few months. When Katie stomps, however, Fifer runs in the opposite direction. I think he takes any danger warning as a sign to run away.

2. He bit you: This usually only happens when you’re carrying them – a rabbit’s strongest defence to any danger is being able to use their back legs to run away as fast as possible. When his back legs aren’t touching a flat surface, he will often scratch and sometimes bite you. The scratching isn’t actually aimed at you – it’s just a byproduct of him trying to run away while you’re holding him. The biting, on the other hand, is his last resort. Rabbits know they’re not very effective biters (although I have a scar on my left hand to remind me how effective they can be) so they tend to only use this when they’re out of options. If he’s bitten you, tap the bridge of his nose (don’t hurt him that’s the last thing you should ever do to a rabbit – pain doesn’t make them learn, it makes them more scared, I know this not from personal experience but from studying psychology – some of the studies done on rabbits were and still are awful) and say “NO” loudly. Eventually, positive experiences of being held and not dropped will reinforce to the bunnies that they are safe when you pick them up. Also, depending on how panicked the rabbit is, making sure their back legs are on a solid surface can really reassure them. Be careful though – if I give Katie anything for her back legs to kick off, she will wind me and fall five feet to the floor in her attempt to escape. Some rabbits just won’t let you pick them up, and it is best all round to accept this and let them be. There are ways around it, such as transporting them everywhere in a pet carrier.

3. His eyes are super-wide, you can see the whites of the eyes: Rabbits open their eyes as wide as they can when they’re scared – it’s not vastly wider than their normal eye-opening, but it’s subtly different. They do it so they can see as much as possible – most mammals do this during times of fear – at normal eye openness, the eyelashes and lids protect the eye from dirt and particles getting in and causing damage, but when fear strikes, the eye opens wider to gain a greater field of vision.

4. He’s running away from you, and you’re not trying to play chase the bunny: A rabbit who is scared will not stop running until he finds a safe place to calm down. Chasing him when he’s in this state, even though you’re trying to get to him to comfort him, will just make this go on for longer. Take a break, sit down (if you can), wait a few minutes for him to calm down. Then gently go towards him, don’t look at him (I turn my head in an obviously different direction so they don’t think I’ve seen them), crouch down or lean over, reach out a hand and stroke that nose. At first, you might not get as far as stroking the nose, but over a series of days, eventually the rabbits will learn to let you comfort them, as they start to accept you as part of their herd. With Cleo, it took her five months to let me stroke her nose. Now she can’t get enough of it.

grass hideaway
This toy could have been thrown away, it doesn’t look very picturesque, but I keep it around because its something familiar that makes the rabbits feel at home.  Also they like to chew it, which also makes them feel calm.

How can you prove to your rabbit that they are safe?

There’s no quick and easy way to tell a bunny they are in a safe place. Backing off a lot helps, patience, and letting them have control over some aspects of their existence. Don’t try and pick them up and cuddle them – they don’t find it reassuring the way we do. I find that leaving their chewed up cardboard toys around, even when they start to become a bit unsightly (as long as they’re still safe), leaving some of their own bunny droppings in the new litter tray (I pinch a few from the old one when I empty it) so it smells of them, and leaving their things where they’ve left them, makes them feel like this is a place for them.

Basically I just treat the rabbit’s property as if it’s… their property. I know a lot of people disagree and think pets should know their place, but with rabbits it’s important for their cognitive development to let them feel safe. There are limits to this, of course, such as if the rabbit’s toys are in disrepair, if they’ve claimed something that you don’t want them to have (e.g. a shoe that you like), and if they’ve had “accidents” on their toys. In these instances, reclaim the shoe, clean the “accident” if you can, if it’s cardboard, will that piece cut off without losing the rest? And if the toys are in disrepair, it’s time to throw them out. Always replace like with like.

If their favourite tunnel has to be thrown out, make sure they get a new tunnel asap. You can make a tunnel easily from cardboard, and you can often buy them from the pet store. If their squeaky toy bit the dust, buy them another one. If their wicker basket got too chewed up, get them something else made of wicker. Do you get the idea? Try and keep the rabbit’s environment as stable as possible, make sure their hutch or sleeping space is sacred to change, and they will start overcoming their fears and learn to become inquisitive, vivacious and loving companions.

Mostly I’ve been discussing the lounge or rabbit room toys so far. Let’s talk about their living area. The way the living area is designed and furnished can also go a long way to making rabbits feel safe.

How to make your rabbits feel safe in their home:

Firstly, make sure they’ve got places to hide. Unless it’s an emergency, treat these areas as totally sacrosanct. Not even the Pope or Antonio Banderas can go in there. Boxes or a platform work well.

Secondly, they will reorganize the contents according to where they want them. Unless this is stopping them getting in and out of their hutch or a significant part of it, leave it all where they put it. It might not look tidy to you, but rabbits are obsessive compulsive. They will find where they think something looks best and will make it be there. This is also why they need cardboard “projects” – boxes they can chew into new shapes. I imagine them as Feng Shui experts moving things to places where their mysterious energy is flowing best. They’re not, of course, but I like to imagine it because they can be very particular about their reorganizing. You will upset your bunnies and make them feel they don’t belong in your home if you interfere with this (again, if it’s soiled, dangerously broken or you didn’t want them to have it, take it out).

Thirdly, they will not interact with items in the way you want them to. Having had dogs, who chew bones, I expected rabbits to chew their little toy hemp carrots by putting them between their front paws and chomping on them for hours. They actually delicately nibble them for a few minutes, then move on to something else, then later they’ll come back and nibble some more, or throw them in the air and wave them around. They don’t recognise their pet bed as a bed – they lie next to it for warmth, not on top of it. They do like to sleep on a good piece of carpet, but you have to be careful that they don’t eat any of it. Making them feel safe and confident includes being accepting that they have their own minds and their own ways of doing things and using things. Obviously, look out for their safety and make sure their needs are being met, but what I mean is, don’t be selfish and don’t stop giving them cardboard because they keep chewing it up. If you don’t want a chewy pet, get a cat or a tortoise or something instead of a rabbit.

Fourthly, if it’s time to let them out for the day, let them come out in their own time. If you keep going into their hutch when they’re asleep or playing and dragging them out and putting them elsewhere, they will not feel that they have enough control over what they do in their lives and that makes for a sad bunny who doesn’t know what to do when you finally get them out of their hutch. Let them come out in their own time, unless there’s a pressing reason, and reassure them that you’ve missed them. I repeat “hello, hello, I’ve missed you, I’ve missed you.” In the same exact tone and speed of voice every day, so they recognise the sound pattern as “time to get up.” Now when they hear me say it, they are usually by the entrance to their hutch ready to hop out and they generally come straight downstairs to meet with their herd. This is part of respecting their choices – by not coming out, they express a preference for staying inside.

These come from the following principles, which in my opinion should govern interaction with any people or pets, regardless of status, intelligence or species:

1. Respect their belongings.

2. Respect their home and environment.

3. Listen to their opinions and respect their choices, if they express any.

4. Take care of them for their benefit, not yours. Make decisions that are in their best interests.

If more people followed this with their pets, children and disabled relatives, there would be far less problems in the world. But it would be a start if this was applied to bunnies. They will love you for it, once they start feeling less scared (which will be pretty quickly once they stop feeling threatened).

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