So you think you want a bunny.
Bunnies are cute, lovable little animals that many of us have come to know under names like Peter Cotton Tail, Bugs Bunny, Thumper, the Uncle Remus Folk Tale of Brer Rabbit, and yes, even the Easter Bunny. And so we apply all kinds of behavioral characteristics to bunnies, some that are well earned and others that are purely imaginary.
Before you dive into owning a bunny it is important to separate fact from fiction and make sure that the cute, loveable furry little animal you are thinking of buying is truly the individual you have pictured in your mind. The best way to go about doing this is to do a little reading before buying. Your bunny is a living, breathing and very unique individual possessing a personality all of its own. An individual you will need to be introduced to and learn to know on his terms and not your own. You may notice that I often use the masculine personal pronoun “HE” when referring to your rabbit or bunny. Why? Well, for starters, I am not a political correctness freak and I do not believe in neutering the English language. I am also just more comfortable using the masculine reference, so please just accept it. I have nothing against women, so let’s not even go there.
Below are some bunny facts that I hope will help you get to know your bunny better and hopefully appreciate him as the creature he is with all his own personal qualities and unique behavioral characteristics.
To best understand your bunny you really need to learn a little about his long history and family background, and to do that we need to take a little detour into a short science lesson.
The fossil record of leporids encompass the approximately 50 species of rabbits and hares that make up the family Leporidae that together with the Pika comprise the order of lagomorphs of which your pet rabbit is a member. The lagomorphs extend to the middle Eocene epoch, a period of geologic time near the middle of the Tertiary Era about 45 million years ago. It is interesting to note that the Eocene Epoch marks the time when modern animals first begin to appear on the earth. Animals related to your bunny reach all the way pack to the Paleocene Epoch approximately 64 million years ago and the beginning of the Tertiary Era. So your bunny’s ancestors have been around for a very, very long time. Only two families of rabbits have survived to be passed down to the present time we live in, the Leporidae which include hares and rabbits and the Ochotonidae, of which only the Pika remains. A Pika is a hearty little mammal that makes its home in rock piles high in the mountains of western North America and Asia where they probably originated. They are about the size of a large hamster and are sometimes called a “Coney," "little chief” hare, or Rock Rabbit, even though they do not look much like a rabbit. Pikas have stocky bodies, short legs, and are almost tailless. A distinct grayish patch on the shoulder and neck forms the northern pika’s "collar," appearing in definite contrast to the white fur on its chest and stomach. Pikas have fur-covered feet, but bare toe pads. Their sharp, curved claws help them climb from rock to rock with ease. Pikas are highly alert, possessing excellent hearing and vision. When fully grown, they weigh about 5 ounces.
Lagomorphs were originally classified as rodents and it was not until 1912, that the distinction was made between Lagomorphs and Rodentia (rodents). Lagomorphs are different from rodent-like mammals because they have a second set of incisors, known as "peg" teeth, directly behind their front upper incisors. Compared to rodents, there are relatively few Lagomorph species and no one really knows why. Most likely, Lagomorphs branched away from rodents very slowly in early geological time as they developed the bounding locomotion we witness in modern rabbits today.
The family of Leporidae (rabbits and hares) is designed for speed to evade predators. Their long hind legs are adapted for bounding speed which is a characteristic not shared with rodents. Lagomorphs, and more specifically Leporidae, are known for their large ears and acute hearing. Your bunny has evolved the ability to rotate and move his ears with great precision to better sense and locate danger before it can get too close. This characteristic plus his bounding speed probably has a lot to do with the reason his family was able to survive over the millions of years to be alive today. It is the survival instinct of these animals to escape danger first and then ask questions later. The family Leporidae consists of 11 genera (Genus) and around 54 species all commonly known as hares and rabbits.
The genus Lepus includes Hares and the common Jackrabbit. Hares are generally larger then rabbits. They have longer black tipped ears, and live solitary lives. Hares are born with their eyes open, hair covering their bodies, and they can run within a few minutes of birth. Rabbits, on the other hand, are born blind, naked, and remain in a fur-lined nest for the first days of their lives.
The family Leporidae varies considerably in their locomotion. Some are accomplished leapers and bounders and avoid danger by outdistancing their predators. Jackrabbits that belong to the Genus Lepus have been clocked at speeds of 70 km per hour or about 45 miles per hour. Other members of the family Leporidae are scamperers. They rely on hiding rather than speed to avoid being eaten.
The genetics controlling the fur of these animals incorporates ingenious patterns of coloration for camouflage that when combined with their extreme speed enhances their chances for survival. It has been this pallet of genetically controlled colors that breeders have used to create the display of beautiful colors and patterns in today’s domestic rabbits. Female Leporids are generally larger than the males, a condition that is not common in the animal world. The habitat of Leporids includes forests, grasslands, and tundra. They feed on plants and are not known to store food. Leporids are prized for their fur, meat, recreational hunting and as pets.
As I have mentioned, the family Leporidae consists of 11 genera and around 54 species. Of the 11 Genera, we have mentioned only one, the Lepus common to hares and Jackrabbits. Another is the Oryctolagus or European rabbit; this is the genera that your bunny belongs to. The cottontail rabbit belongs to the genera Sylvilagus. The cottontail rabbit is very common in Montana and is the bunny we see so often bounding along the road side or in the fields and open grass lands and perhaps near your own home.
Of the remaining other 8 genera, most of these rabbits are in decline or are counted as endangered species due mostly to the loss of their select habitat. Only the Oryctolagus is not in danger and is found in the wild across most of Europe. Due mostly to domestication, this rabbit has now been spread across the entire world. Your bunny belongs to this genus as do virtually all of the other domesticated rabbits that are raised in captivity. This may seem strange when you study the list of some 54 ARBA (American Rabbit Breeders Association) recognized rabbit breeds. But with few if any exceptions, they all owe their origin to Oryctolagus. The large numbers of breeds that often look so different from each other are the sole product of human intervention that has capitalized on genetic mutations and careful cross breeding to develop the current breeds, Each individual breed having particular distinguishing characteristics including their meat, behavior, fur color, fur length, fur texture, body form and head shape.
Let’s settle one common misconception right now. A bunny is a rabbit. He will never behave like your dog or your cat, so please do not expect him to do so. Your bunny will display behaviors that are unique to rabbits. The unique behaviors of your bunny will be just as special and just as fun to learn about as are the behaviors of other animals that you may be more familiar with.
Rabbits are very emotionally complex creatures and are a product of millions of years of evolution that have worked to make him the master survivalist that he is. Joel Chandler Harris did much to exemplify the survivalist nature of the rabbit in his gathering of African American folktales that included the Brer Rabbit stories of the mischievous Brer Rabbit who continually outwitted the wily wolf and dim witted Brer Bear. Brer Rabbit has become one of the worlds leading children’s storybook characters. We all learned to love the character of Brer Rabbit because he behaved in a way we might like to expect rabbits to behave. Brer Rabbit was the underdog who by using his head and quick footed speed was able to out wit and out run the bigger bullies who would have liked to stick poor ole Brer Rabbit in their stew pot.
You must keep in mind that the way your rabbit behaves toward you and the other animals that live around him is in part due to the fact that he is very much aware of his perilous position on nature’s food chain. Rabbits are the natural food of most carnivores including Man. Oops, maybe you were not aware that your bunny might really think you see him as a tasty main dish. Well guess what? Man has been hunting rabbits since he first learned to throw rocks and no rabbit with plans for a long life has forgotten that little detail, including your bunny. It will be up to you to persuade him differently.
Stories abound about the prolific reproductive nature of rabbits and so it is not surprising that the rabbit should have become a symbol of fertility in many cultures and religions. As the Christian influence spread this symbol became associated with Easter and before long the Easter Bunny was born and was soon followed by the hiding of Easter eggs. Have you ever wondered if chickens get the day off on Easter?
Nearly everyone remembers Beatrix Potter’s 1902 children’s book about The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Peter’s mother goes to the market, leaving Peter and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail to play in the forest. Disobeying his mother's orders, Peter sneaks into Mr. McGregor's garden and gets into trouble when he tries to eat as many vegetables as he can. Mr. McGregor spots him and starts chasing him; Peter runs as fast as he can and eventually manages to escape. But not before losing his jacket and his shoes, which Mr. McGregor uses to make his new scarecrow. Once again we have a tale about the misadventures of a mischievous little rabbit and his daring escape from danger.
The other day I was reading an article written by a lady who, after listening to the glowing reports from people who were expressing the joys of sharing their home with a house rabbit, had gone out and purchased one for herself, only to find that her experience fell far short of her expectations. She described her disappointment over the lack of response she got from her rabbit as compared to that of her dog. She noted her complaint over her rabbit’s preoccupation with chewing up the carpet, the legs of her dinning room chairs, the lamp cords and other things within range of what she called “the little beast!” And of course, there was her complaint about “bunny raisins" showing up all over the house along with the bunny's persistent habit of marking every upholstered chair the lady had in her room. She was so very disappointed that her experience did not match that described by her friends. Her list went on and on for several pages making the measure of her disenchantment very evident. This lady was definitely not a happy camper.
The lady's complaint was typical of the person who makes the decision to purchase a pet for all the wrong reasons. She had neither the temperament for dealing with a pet rabbit nor the understanding of the demands her decision would place on her as the owner of such a pet. Her expectations were based solely on assumptions. Had she first taken a realistic assessment of what her desires were in a pet and then matched them to what she could reasonably expect from the animal she chose, the lady might well have avoided making the mistake that she did. She often compared the rabbit’s short comings to the wonderful memories she had of her dog and the relationship she had with that pet that was so missing in the rabbit she had chosen. Again the lady was drawing on assumptions without knowing the facts. A rabbit is not a dog and never will be regardless of how hard she might try to make it so. What a shame for both the lady and for her rabbit. With a little education in rabbit psychology her experiences might have been far different and much more satisfying.
What the lady failed to understand was that the rabbit was behaving in exactly the manner that anyone having any experience with rabbits would have expected. The rabbit was complying in the most normal manner that any rabbit would be expected to behave in a similar situation. The problem arose because the lady had failed to prepare her home and herself for the needs and habits of her hew pet. It is unfortunate that movies and stories so often portray animals as having personalities similar to those of other animals or of humans. Though having such tendencies may help to endear rabbits to us; it has the unfortunate affect of depriving us from the chance to learn what wonderfully unique individual’s rabbits really are in their own right. Instead too often people are left with expectations that no animal can ever be expected to live up to. And so, like the lady, they are set up for disappointment.
If you have plans on living with a rabbit then you must expect to incorporate the life style of your rabbit into your shared home. Carpets would not be the best idea to have in those rooms where your rabbit will be expected to live. Rabbits will chew on carpet fibers just like they chew on grass growing up from the ground. Chair legs and any other exposed wood surfaces should either be protected or moved beyond the rabbit’s reach. Your new house rabbit cannot be expected to appreciate the sentimental value of your grand mother’s rocking chair. As far as he is concerned the wood fibers in the chair are a very natural thing to chew on. Hey, that is what rabbits do; they chew on stuff. To a rabbit, Lamp cords look like really neat things to chew on too. Electric cords will have to disappear unless they are replaced with gnaw proof cords. Books, magazines, and anything of paper will fall into your bunny’s idea of neat stuff to chew up, shred up, or otherwise reduce to pulp. Plaster board walls are not off limits either. Rabbits will chew cloth, plastic, leather, and just about anything else they come across. Extreme care needs to be taken with house plants. Many are poisons and your house bunny will not have learned to identify those plants that are okay to eat from those that he should stay clear of.
Your bunny is a meticulously clean animal and is easy to house break and train him in the use of a litter pan. He can be taught to come to his name, sit in your lap, and do simple tricks. He will love to play where there is room to stretch his legs and bound across the open spaces as nature intended him to do. His instinctive need to gnaw and chew can be satisfied with toys that are provided for that purpose. If other wood surfaces that could be damaged are protected or removed from the room there should be no further problems. If there are other pets in the house a slow and careful introduction period may prove successful. If not, then the other house pets must be kept away from the rabbit’s portion of the house or the decision made to keep the rabbit caged in a safe area of the home when not well supervised. Never assume that animals will continue to act friendly toward each other once they are left alone together. A rabbit and cat will often get along better than a dog and rabbit will, but always use care in making such assumptions with out exercising careful observation. When a dog is involved it is best if the dog is one of the smaller breeds. I had a Rex rabbit and a Chihuahua that played constantly but always under close supervision, but then the fun was in being there to watch them play together.
Many owners of house rabbits have found that neutering or spaying their pet will reduce or practically eliminate problems of spraying and marking and generally will make for a more content and healthy pet. This is especially true of female rabbits that are prone to cervical cancers as they grow older if they are not spayed. Sterilization is also beneficial in reducing unintentional breeding and the proliferation of unwanted and abandoned bunnies.
Diet can be an important consideration in dealing with bunny behavior. Sometimes when a rabbit is obsessed with chewing on paper and wood what he may actually be craving is fiber in his diet. The most commonly used feed for rabbits are commercially prepared pellets that are very convenient for use in feeders and tend to be less messy than natural foods. Rabbit pellets alone, however, may not always provide the dietary fiber that is critical for maintaining your rabbit’s good health. By adding timothy hey to its diet your bunnies need for fiber can often be met and a decline in paper chewing and wood gnawing may be noticed.
It will be hard but try not to bring any preconceived notions into the new relationship with your bunny; things can be hard enough without adding built in reasons for disappointment. Allow for the element of discovery. A rabbit can at times and for no apparent reason be very stand offish, and preoccupied with his own set of bunny concerns. At times he will have the personality of a Dr Jeckle and Mr. Hyde; loving you one minute and or no apparent reason acting aggressively the next. People have moods, why not rabbits?
Rabbits do not come by trust naturally. Instinct prepares rabbits to flee from surprise and ask question later. Be careful of making sudden moves or unnecessary noise. Never attempt to disciple your rabbit; instead make use of the reward method to encourage desired behaviors. Small bits of dried papaya are great treats to use in encouraging proper behavior. Remember that your rabbit is driven primarily by instinct; training must be directed at dulling instinctive reaction with gentle but constant behavior modification aimed at calming the rabbit’s natural fear and distrust. Your rabbit must be reassured that you mean it no harm and that only good things come from being in your presence.
If there is one thing to expect from a rabbit it will be the unexpected and that is what can make him such a basket full of entertainment. One moment he will be sitting quietly in what may appear to be a very passive mood when without warning he will jump into the air, make a mad dash about the room, hopping and leaping from one chair to the next in a blur of speed. Then in the next moment he will come to a total rest as though nothing at all had happened. A bunny’s mood is for the moment and is absolutely no indication of what it will be in the next five seconds. The moment you think you have you’re rabbit figured out; he will put you to shame with contradiction. Rabbits are fascinating animals and that is their chief attraction.
Rabbits by nature are very inquisitive creatures. They are always curious about the happenings in their environment. You may see them stand on there back feet with their head in the air looking about the room. This is their natural way of checking for possible danger. They are easily bored if there is not sufficient stimulus to keep their inquisitive minds actively occupied with things to do and play with. As important as a feeder and water bottle are to their cage, the presence of one or more toys is of equal importance. A rabbit will enjoy a hanging toy. Something he can bat at and chew on. Add a bell that will tinkle while he is playing and he will be in heaven and kept busy for several minutes at a time. Understand that your rabbit will probably chew the toy up in time, making replacement necessary. With this in mind, look for toys that are inexpensive and manufactured to be safe for your bunny to play with and gnaw on. Verlannahill makes and sells a line of inexpensive toys specially designed for rabbits that are safe and bunny tested. These toys are made from soft wood and stained with safe food coloring or with out stain and finished with vegetable oil. Use the navigation buttons on this web site to take you to the Verlannahill Creations toy department where you will find hanging toys and chew toys of several descriptions. I am sure your bunny will love his Verlannahill toy as much as our bunnies love theirs.
Never make the mistake of underestimating your rabbit’s intelligence. To do so is to miss an important aspect of knowing and enjoying your bunny. No animal has survived over millions of years of evolution by being stupid. Animals alive today that we arrogant humans call stupid are simply animals we have not taken time to understand and appreciate. The greatest mistake we as humans make about animal behavior is attempting to evaluate their behavior by measuring it against our own perception of acceptable stimulus response systems. We assume that our superior intellect requires that our standard of correctness be the only one and therefore anything else must be inferior. That is a rather arrogant appraisal by a creature that has spent less time on this earth than any of the hundreds of other animals we call inferior. After all we are the only creature bent on collectively destroying the very planet we depend on for survival. It kind of makes you wonder where the finger of inferiority should really be pointing.
Your bunny has evolved the instinct to interact with and respond to the environment in which he is placed. The greater the intelligence an animal has, the greater are his collective chances, as a species, of surviving changes to an environment and adapting to new ones. There will always be the question of instinct verses intelligence and which is the most important to the survival of an animal. That Instinct weighs in heavily is not in question here, but what degree real intelligence plays is very much in question. The fossil record shows evidence that adaptability to changes in environment is the primary predictor between survival and extinction. The very fact that you have the bunny you do indicates its high adaptability to chance. If having intelligence is to posses the essential cerebral skills necessary for accomplishing a successful interface with the fundamentals of environmental change, then it would seem that your bunny must posses either a highly adaptable instinct or some degree of intelligence to allow learning to take place.
Animal behaviorists have traditionally held that animals at the level of rabbits possess little native intelligence and what behavior we do witness is actually instinct driven. I have been through graduate studies in psychology and behavior sciences and have been well exposed to this line of argument. I have also worked closely with animals in an environment outside the laboratory where I have personally witnessed animal behavior that defies explanation on the basis of instinct alone. To use a recent case as a minor example; I recently obtained several rabbits from a breeder who provides water to his animals in open water crocks. He mentioned this to me and indicated that he felt they might not adjust well to using a water bottle with nipple of the type I use in my rabbitry. After getting home I was placing the new rabbits into their new cages and following routine, installed a water bottle on all the cages. Once I had the rabbits settled in, I preceded with unloading the van and putting our travel things away. It was probably an hour later before I got back to check on my rabbits and remembered the words of caution from the breeder. When I entered my rabbitry I found my new boarders busily drinking from their water bottles with the same zeal as my old timers as though that behavior had been their habit all along. I really don’t believe instinct alone can explain the new rabbit’s ease of adapting to their new environment. Learning was involved in discovering and adapting to the new method of obtaining water. Learning by any definition is a product of intelligence. When you merge instinct and intelligence you have a very impressive animal. Stupidity has never been a positive predictor for survival of any species and I will always believe that rabbits enjoy a basic intelligence far greater than some animal behaviorists would lead us to believe.
To understand your bunny, you need to acquire an appreciation for him as the unusual and unique animal that he is. I may have overstated my enthusiasm over rabbits and their intelligence when first writing this article, but I will not over compensate now by misleading new owners into depreciating their rabbit’s intelligence.
As a new owner, I encourage you to take the time to carefully observe and play with your new pet. Watch how he responds to the things you do that affect his environment. Notice how quickly he learns to anticipate your movements. Always remember that you must meet your rabbit on his ground and not on yours. Your rabbit’s instinct is designed to prepare him for survival in an environment where he is the prey of countless highly aggressive meat eating predators. These instincts direct his intellectual powers so that they compliment each other. This means that a rabbit's intelligence is never wasted on studying his navel. Instead it will be geared to perceiving his environment in the most effective way possible, learning to understand and anticipate subtle changes, remembering the lay of the land in the environment where he lives, where to hide, where safety lies, and what to avoid. Every action your rabbit makes will be a product of the cooperative workings of both his powerful instinct and of his intelligence. The longer and the more times you spend observing your rabbit, the greater appreciation you will gain for how your bunny combines intelligence with instinct. I think you will soon observe that he is interacting with you and with his environment in ways similar to the way you interact within your environment. You must learn to observe closely and try to think like a rabbit. Don’t laugh at that statement, please. What I am asking of you is to use a degree of empathy. I am asking you to stop measuring your bunny’s behavior based on human logic, but to instead try using rabbit logic. Try to measure your observations based on how your rabbit might interpret your behavior. Always remembering that concepts like “good” and “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, “love” or “hate” are all human concepts and have no meaning in your rabbit’s world. Your bunny only understands one concept, “survival” and “non-survival.” He lives for three basic needs, food, reproduction and survival. These are the three basic needs of every living organism on earth and there is little else that your bunny really needs to think about. His level on the food chain makes any other concerns immaterial, especially when considering that in the wild his life expectancy is only 4 to 6 months! Allow your bunny to become a window for education through which you can observe and learn. You will be surprised by how much you can learn from a rabbit
Letter from psychologist, Franky
Do rabbits show affection? Of course they do; but maybe not in the same way that your dog might show affection. Rabbits will demonstrate that they like you and have bonded with you. As an example, if when you open your bunny’s cage, your bunny makes the effort to approach you and make physical contact with your hands, he is telling you that he genuinely trusts you and feels comfortable in your presence. Does your Bunny “love” you? In asking this question we have made that jump back into human concepts and left behind the concepts that your bunny can respond to. “Love” is a purely human emotion, but it does not mean that there is not a corollary in the bunny world. Bonding takes place when two individuals, regardless of species, group or class distinction, build a relationship on trust and respect for each other. Bonded individuals feel comfortable and safe in each others presence. Now, if you want to call that love, you certainly may, however I think people sometimes carelessly toss the word “love” around without much understanding. I personally like to use the word bonding to describe the affection between an animal and a human. It is a term that can more easily be identified, described and defined without carrying all the messy presumptions and assumptions that the word “love” does...
Bonding is a two way street and it is important that you invest time with your rabbit. By time, I mean that you need to do more than just be the care giver. I talk to my rabbits as I tend to their needs and make sure I pay attention to each rabbit in turn. It is important to check over every inch of your rabbit’s body for telltale signs of trouble. Sore hocks, lumps under the skin, ear mites, possible infections around the vent and genital area, runny eyes and possible injuries. During this time you should be talking to your rabbit, not that he is going to understand your words but he will pickup on the tone and emotion of your voice and the gentle touch of your hand. These are the signs your bunny interprets to mean that you are someone who can be trusted and someone to look forward to being with. These actions are what build bonds between you and your rabbit until one day you become a very important life force in your rabbit’s world. Don’t ask how long it will take to build such a relationship. It will take as long as it needs to take and will happen without you noticing any sudden or profound change in behavior. At some point along the way you will just realize a change has occurred without knowing when it happened. That is the way bonding takes place; in tiny little insignificant steps that together measure the distance between owning a bunny and knowing one. In a broad sense, I suppose this could be a kind of love. But I don’t think this is the venue for a discussion on the broader sense of love.
Once you have determined the manner in which you and your rabbit will function together in your home it will be time to turn your attention to doing all the things that will help you and your rabbit to form the bond we have discussed. Bonding takes time and patience but once achieved it is well worth the effort. Always keeping in mind that your expectations must remain open like the blank pages of a book, to be written upon as you and your rabbit learn to enjoy experiencing each others company. Everyday will be filed with something new and something special and occasionally something unexpected. Like every relationship there will be some ups followed with some downs and like every relationship there will be opportunities for learning and for correcting mistakes.
It will be important to always remember that bonding is a delicate and fragile thing. It will be up to you to keep the bonded relationship intact. As we discussed before, your bunny is largely a product of his instinct and his learning will tend to be short lived. If you happen to abandon the process that went into building the relationship between you and your bunny he will slowly regress back into behavior state more closely resembling that of his wild beginning. Bonding to a human is not at all natural for a rabbit; in fact rabbits by nature are rather reclusive animals even among their own kind, other than with siblings that have lived together all their lives. Fighting between rabbits is not all that uncommon. It will be important that on a daily bases you continue with constant gentle and careful handling of your bunny. Pick him up in your arms and hold him to you gently petting and caressing him. This is called grooming and is similar to the way rabbits care for each other in a bonded relationship. Take time to groom his fur and brush out the loose hair. Use a damp pet wipe to keep his fur clean. Carefully clip his nails to length. Hugs and kisses go a long way too; I am sure that my bunnies interpret this as my show of affection them. Your bunny may not understand your spoken words, but he most certainly will understand your gentle touches and soft murmurs.
Watch how rabbits relate to each other. Do you think it is just an accident that rabbits in adjacent cages will often sit facing each other for long periods of time, their eyes lock on each other? I spend much time observing my rabbits and looking for clues in their behavior that might give me some indication as to the meaning behind their actions. All I will say for now is that rabbits are much more complicated creatures than one might first believe. A day seldom passes that I do not learn something new and something wonderful. A rabbit will always be a wild thing.
*Website created by Connie Jones Larson