It is important that you observe your rabbit and learn to recognise his body language. This way you will know immediately when there’s something wrong or when your bunny’s not well.
Light nudging with the nose It’s your rabbit’s way of greeting you, for example first thing in the morning, and also a request to be petted.
Forceful pushing away of your hand/foot, etc. This means your bunny wants to be left alone. Some rabbits will even give you a nip if you don’t get out of their way pretty fast, so be warned (discourage this kind of behaviour by saying “No!” without shouting).
Standing on the back legs Rabbits stand on their back legs to get a better view of their surroundings or to reach tempting bits of food. My rabbit also does this to make herself more visible and to catch my attention when she feels neglected. If you see your rabbit standing upright near a door this is usually a sign that she wants to be let in or out.
Chinning Rabbits leave a scent (odourless to humans) by rubbing their chin onto just about anything they want to mark as theirs, including their food bowl, plants, pieces of furniture and even your feet. This makes rabbits feel safe both in their usual surroundings and, more importantly, in an unfamiliar place. Chances are that within seconds you have arrived home with a bag of shopping your rabbit will have noticed it and chinned it, as if to say: “I own this!”. My bunny regularly chins her possessions to make sure they weren’t claimed by another bunny while she wasn’t looking. She is very curious and observant and immediately marks anything new around the house or garden.
Grooming Rabbits keep their coat clean and shiny by grooming themselves very thoroughly several times a day. When my bunny was ill she stopped looking after her fur and only began doing so again when she was getting better.
Licking A friendly rabbit licks your hands and face to say “Thank you” and “I love you”, particularly while he’s being petted. Sometimes you’ll find that your bunny gets carried away and goes on licking the floor after you have taken your hand away. Rabbits also express their affection toward each other by mutual licking.
Moving jaws as if chewing This means your rabbit feels content and relaxed.
Rolling on the back with eyes half-closed Rolling is always a sign that your bunny feels safe and happy. My rabbit for instance does this after being cuddled or after eating something particularly tasty as a way of showing her appreciation for the good things in life.
Brief shaking of the ears Rabbits sometimes do this if they have had enough and want to get away (for instance when they have been petted or brushed for too long).
Tearing newspaper This means your rabbit is bored and wants something to do. Bear in mind that newspaper ink is harmful, so if your rabbit gets into the habit of swallowing bits of newspaper you should consider lining the litter tray with something else.
Chewing Your rabbit’s front teeth grow all the time so your rabbit constantly needs to keep them in trim. If you provide your rabbit with plenty of hay and straw, apple, pear, willow and hazelnut twigs and edible toys such as untreated seagrass mats he should become much less interested in your skirting boards, and with any luck he will even ignore them. If you have taught your bunny the “No” command this is a good time to use it. But if no amount of training or precautions can stop your rabbit from chewing telephone cables, handbags or your garden hosepipe, you’ll simply have to be one step ahead of him and keep these things out of reach at all times.
Scratching Rabbits often scratch and dig into the ground in order to keep their nails worn down. If your bunny gets to hop on hard surfaces (e.g. patio tiles) and spends enough time exercising, her nails will probably never need trimming. Rabbits who spend most of their lives indoors or confined to a hutch however usually have very long nails. Please do not cut your bunny’s nails unless you know how to do this properly and only clip a little bit off to avoid damage to the nail’s blood vessels and nerves. You will need some special nail clippers and also somebody else’s help (rabbits can be very fidgety in these situations). You can ask your vet or vet’s nurse to do this for you if you’re not sure. Scratching can also be a sign that a) your bunny is about to go to the toilet; b) she feels lonely and bored, as when your bunny stretches up your leg and paws at your clothes for attention.
Digging Female rabbits often dig around the garden, particularly when they are in heat or pregnant, in order to make a burrow. Spaying will reduce or eliminate this behaviour.
Circling Circling can be an expression of ownership: you will have noticed that your rabbit becomes very restless at first when you clean her living area or touch her possessions. Rabbits also run around your feet you when they want attention. My rabbit circles me in anticipation if I am near her food cupboard and she wants something to eat.
Eating droppings Do not scold your rabbit – this is perfectly natural and should not be discouraged. Rabbits need to digest some foods twice and normally take these droppings – which are softer than the others and kidney-shaped – directly from the anus.
Pushing bottom and tail out Your bunny is about to urinate – see Litter-training for more info.
Ignoring Your rabbit may turn his back on you, start grooming or pretend to be suddenly interested in something else if he’s annoyed about something, for example having been told off.
Staring with eyes wide open and (unless he’s a lop) perking up ears in order to catch the faintest sound This means that your rabbit has heard a sudden/loud/unfamiliar noise and he’s frightened. Stroking hour bunny and talking to him soothingly will have a calming effect.
Lying flat on the ground with ears folded back This is a natural reaction to a loud noise or a dangerous situation and it’s your bunny’s way of “hiding” and becoming inconspicuous when there’s no other shelter.
Squatting in a relaxed way with ears folded back or lying on the side with legs stretched out and eyes beginning to close Your bunny is resting or trying to get to sleep and should not be disturbed.
Pointing the head and ears forward and extending the tail This means your rabbit is curious and interested in something but cautious at the same time (for example when meeting another rabbit).
Pointing the head forward, folding back the ears and extending the tail Your rabbit is about to attack and may bite so stay well clear and don’t do anything that might upset her, e.g. chasing her, trying to pick her up, etc.
Racing around at high speed Bunnies need to let off steam from time to time, particularly after spending a long time sleeping. You will have probably seen your bunny suddenly zig-zag around the garden performing the most amazing twists and leaps. If your bunny races around the house he might jump over low tables or even bump into things occasionally. These high-speed sprints are your bunny’s way of enjoying his freedom and keeping fit and also a sign that he feels comfortable and at home with his surroundings. They are usually followed by a “flop” because bunnies get tired fairly quickly.
Spraying urine This is what male bunnies do in order to mark their territory. In the wild it is very common for a dominant male to spray his mate as well as subordinate males. A pet rabbit too will spray his surroundings, including his caregivers. Spraying can usually be prevented if you have your bunny neutered. It is not only male rabbits that spray, though: my female bunny used to do this a lot when she was growing up. She doesn’t do much spraying now that she’s an adult bunny and spayed, except when there is a guest rabbit in the house and she feels that her territory has been “invaded”.
Nuzzling head under another rabbit’s chin This is a submissive gesture: by pushing his head under the other rabbit’s chin the first rabbit indicates that he is in a subordinate position. This often happens when a rabbit feels insecure (for instance if he’s in another rabbit’s territory) as it’s a good way of avoiding confrontation with a stronger and more established bunny.
Rushing around with straw in the mouth Your female bunny is making a nest. If your rabbit isn’t pregnant she probably thinks she is (false pregnancies are fairly common in rabbits). Before being spayed my first rabbit went through 5 or 6 false pregnancies a year. She made nests under my bed, under the Christmas tree, and at my feet (which I took as a compliment!). Once she even made one under my pillow using straw and soft fur from her tummy. The nest was so neat (there were no bits of straw on the bed) that I didn’t notice it until the following morning! This was in the early 90s before spaying female rabbits was common practice.
Lying quietly and hardly moving or eating/Staring straight ahead with a dull look Your bunny is probably ill and in pain. Gently put her into her pet carrier and take her to the vet. Do not delay as your rabbit’s health could deteriorate very quickly without proper medical treatment.