Your rabbit isn’t vicious. It’s frightened. Any kind of punishment will simply make it worse. It may be terrified of you, particularly if you haven’t had it long or if it hasn’t given any human handling as a baby (Crowell-Davies, 2010, Zucca et al, 2012)). Some rabbits have been harmed by ignorant humans picking them up by the ears or without support. As many as one in four pet rabbits don’t like being picked up and two in a hundred bite regularly (Schepers et al., 2009).
Pain, from bad teeth, ear mites, a hidden injury, or arthritis, may prompt aggression in a previously friendly rabbit (Crowell-Davies, 2010). It is very important that the rabbit should be examined by a vet. Rabbits hide the fact that they are in pain. If the vet can find nothing wrong, ask about a pain trial. Very occasionally, a previously friendly male neutered rabbit which has started biting is suffering from adrenal cancer.
A female rabbit may be defending the nest territory. Rabbits are more aggressive in the breeding season (McBride & Wickens, 1997, citing McBride 1986). One way to diminish the female instinct to defend its nest will be to get a female rabbit spayed (Harcourt-Brown 2002). Some rabbits, however, will continue to bite even after being neutered. They have learned that biting makes humans retreat! So, unlike rabbits that are frightened and bite, these rabbits bite with confidence!
Too rich a diet without enough hay can also lead to aggression, as can housing without enough for the rabbit to do (McBride & Wicken, 1997). After a veterinary check, your next move should be to make sure your rabbit has a proper diet, good housing, it possible the company of another rabbit, and plenty to chew. The information is in these pages under What shall I feed my rabbit? Rabbit hutches and how to choose a good one. Introducing a new friend to your rabbit. What makes a good rabbit toy? Happy bunnies are less quick to bite.
If it keeps on biting… If the rabbit’s house is indoors, give it a little ramp or a couple of boxes to jump down to ground floor level –so it does not have to be handled. If it is outside, use a cat carrier, with a front entrance. Put the rabbit’s favourite food in it each time, and say to it “Box” every time you want it to get into it. When cleaning the rabbit house, lure the rabbit into the sleeping compartment with a food treat while cleaning the other area – and visa versa. In all, keep handling to a minimum. If you have to forcibly remove a rabbit (for a vet visit) then wear leather gloves or gauntlets (Crowell-Davies 2010).
To gain your rabbit’s trust, spend a lot of time with it on the floor. If the rabbit is very aggressive, you may need to start the other side of a barrier. Start giving it favourite titbits, putting the food in the palm of your hand not between your fingers. Then once it’s learned to trust you, start gentle petting. This may take several weeks or even months with a traumatised rabbit (Crowell-Davies, 2010)
Some rabbits are possessive about food and will bite while guarding their food bowl. Change where you put the bowl, so that it is not always in the same place. Place a new bowl with food, before taking out the old. When the rabbit is out of its hutch, feed titbits such as long pieces of hay or grass, so that it can eat at one end while you hold the other (McBride 1998)
Get an individual behaviour programme from www.rabbitbehaviour.co.uk – A website set up by three expert rabbit behaviourists, who will answer rabbit behaviour problems for a fee. For details on how to cope with or retrain an aggressive rabbit read Why Does My Rabbit…? by Anne McBride, Souvenir Books.
Crowell-Davis, S. L., (2010), ‘Rabbits’, ed Tynes, V. V., Behavior of Exotic Pets, Chichester, UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 69-77
Harcout-Brown, F., (2002), Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, Oxford UK, Butterworth-Heinemann.
McBride, E. A., & Wickens, S. M., (1997), ‘The Rabbit – An Exotic Pet With BEhaviour Problems,’ in eds Mills. D.S., Heath, S. E. & Harrrington, L. J., Proceedings of the First international Conference of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine, South Mimms , UK, UFAW, 197-203.
McBride, E. A., (1998), Why Does My Rabbit…?,London, UK, Souvenir Press.
Schepers, F., Koene, P. & Beerda, B., (2009), ‘Welfare assessment in pet rabbits,’ Animal Welfare, 18, 477-485.
Zucca, D., Redaelli V., Marelli S.P., Bonazza V., Heinzl E., Verga M. & Luzi F.,(2012), ‘Effect of handling in pre-weaned rabbits’, World Rabbit Science, 20, 97-101.