5 Steps to Calm Down an Fearful Rabbit

5 steps to calm down a scared rabbit

Rabbits are just little animals in a big world. There is a lot to be afraid of for these prey animals. That means that rabbits can be easily spooked by sounds, smells, and fast movements. During these times, you might feel really powerless. Your rabbit is obviously stressed out and scared about something, but you don’t know how to help. When your pet rabbit gets scared, you can use these tips and learn how to calm them down.

If your rabbit got spooked and is showing signs of fear, you can comfort your rabbit to help them calm down. By gently talking to your rabbit and petting them, you can let them know there is nothing to be afraid of. If that doesn’t work, you can also use treats and toys to distract your rabbit.

Even the most anxious rabbit can be comforted when you give them time and patience. Pay attention to your rabbit’s body language and use these steps to help them understand that they are safe and nothing will hurt them. As your rabbit’s caretaker and protector, you can learn how to help your rabbit feel happy again, no matter how scared they’re feeling right now.

How to know your rabbit is afraid

Before you can know when you need to comfort your rabbit, you have to learn about rabbit body language so that you’ll know when your rabbit is afraid. Rabbit behavior is unique and subtle. It’s different from cats and dogs, so sometimes that means it’s difficult to tell what your rabbit is feeling. To really understand rabbit body language, you need to spend a lot of time with your rabbit observing them to figure out all the quirks of their personalities. 

fearful rabbit behaviors
When your rabbit is afraid they may thump the back legs, flatten to the ground, or have a rigid and alert posture.

Rabbit fearful behaviors

Use this list of behaviors to help you determine if your rabbit is feeling scared. However, many rabbit behaviors can mean  different feelings depending on the context of the situation. You’ll need to pay attention to your rabbit’s surroundings to determine what their behavior is really telling you.

  • Alert body language: Rabbits are alert and trying to find the source of a potential danger when they have their ears forward and a rigid body posture. They may also be standing on their tip toes, ready to run away at a moment’s notice.
  • Thumping: Rabbits thump their strong back legs when they are scared. It’s their way of warning those around them that they sense danger. However, thumping can also mean a rabbit is angry. If your rabbit continues to thump periodically and has alert body language, then they are likely telling you that they are afraid, but if they have a confident body posture, then they might be angry.
  • Hiding: A rabbit that refuses to come out of hiding is showing you that they are afraid. They feel that there is something dangerous waiting for them outside their safe space. The rabbit may poke their head out occasionally to get a different vantage point and see if the danger has passed.
  • Over-grooming: It’s normal for rabbits to do an excellent job keeping themselves clean, but excessive grooming is a stress related behavior. You may notice your rabbit seems to be cleaning themselves a lot more often than usual.
  • Not moving: Rabbits who are very scared may exhibit the classic deer-in-the-headlights behavior. Rather than running away to hide, they will freeze. Some rabbits may also flatten themselves onto the ground. In severe cases, this can lead to shock in rabbits and cause them to become non-responsive.
  • Aggressive: When they are scared, some rabbits will try to act tough. They’ll growl and swat at anyone who comes near them as a way of trying to protect themselves from a perceived threat.

Why it’s important to comfort your rabbit

Helping your rabbit feel calm and safe is actually important for their health. Not only does this help to reduce stress and anxiety along with the related health concerns, but it also helps to keep a rabbit from going into shock. Comforting your rabbit will also help them feel safe and happy at home, which we all want for our pets.

Excessive anxiety that lasts long term can potentially cause health problems in rabbits. This can include hair loss, from over-grooming, as well as digestive problems from overeating or sitting still all the time. Stressed out rabbits are also more likely to get sick from the bacteria that cause snuffles, an upper-respiratory illness

Shock is a serious condition in rabbits that causes them to rapidly deteriorate. A rabbit can get so scared that they suddenly go into shock. Their body temperature drops and their pulse weakens. Shock is also identified by an unresponsive rabbit and glazed over eyes. A rabbit in this condition can end up dying if they are not brought back to responsiveness. Comforting your rabbit whenever they are showing signs of extreme fear can help prevent them from going into shock.

rabbit hiding behind a wall
Make sure your rabbit can feel safe in their surroundings. This means giving them places where they can hide too.

Step 1: Bring your rabbit to a safe environment

When your rabbit gets spooked by something, the very first thing you need to do is get them to a safe environment. Many rabbits get spooked when they are exploring new places. They may be adventuring in a new room in the house, or even spending some time outside in the garden. The best way to help your rabbit calm down is to bring them somewhere that is familiar and safe.

If your rabbit is already inside in their familiar rabbit room, or near their enclosure, then you are already halfway there. In their safe room, make sure to turn off any loud sounds and shut the door to keep any other pets away (except other bonded rabbits, of course). Give your rabbit access to hiding houses so they can hide away if they want to.

During this time you will also want to stay with your rabbit. This is especially important if your rabbit has a close bond with you. A rabbit that spends a lot of time with their caretakers also develops a deep sense of trust. By staying with them, you can be a calming presence that is reassuring to your rabbit. Even if your rabbit is very fidgety and won’t stay in one place, just sit near them so they can come up to you if they want to.

You also might want to have a blanket or towel with you, in case your rabbit does not calm down over time. If your rabbit is sitting still and continues to cower in place, you can wrap the towel around them to help keep them warm and give them a comforting nest.

petting a rabbit
Be patient and slowly start petting your rabbit to help them calm down.

Step 2: Pet your rabbit and speak gently

Petting a rabbit can often be the best way to comfort them and help them to calm down. If your rabbit is on the alert, you can try giving them some scritches on their forehead and behind the ears. Watch your rabbit’s body language to see if they are still on the alert. If your rabbit likes it, you can also try giving them some strokes down their back to see if they calm down under your hand. Sometimes rabbits will be very fidgety to start, but after a few strokes they will begin to relax.

You can also try covering your rabbit’s eyes, by cupping your hands over their face. This reduces the amount of external stimuli your rabbit experiences, and can help them to calm down more quickly. 

hands covering rabbit eyes
You can help your rabbit calm down by covering their eyes with your hands.

During this time, you’ll want to speak gently to your rabbit. If your rabbit is familiar with you, then they’ll also know your voice. Speaking gently can help your rabbit to understand that there is no danger, and will help them to calm down. You’ll also want to make sure to avoid any sudden movements and avoid picking your rabbit up, since that can be really scary for rabbits. 

If your rabbit appears frightened of you, leave them alone. You can still sit in the room and keep an eye on your rabbit, but try to turn your back to them and pretend to ignore them. There may have been a sound you were making that was scaring your rabbit, and they need time to recover and remember that you are a friend.

If your rabbit calms down after this step and doesn’t seem to be afraid anymore, then you can skip to step 5.

rabbit clicker training
using a clicker, you can train your rabbit to do all kinds of complicated tricks, such as walking on their hind legs.

Step 3: Distract your rabbit

Sometimes your rabbit won’t calm down when you pet them. In these cases you’ll have to move on to the next step and try to distract your rabbit. The easiest way to do this is by enticing your rabbit with their favorite treats. This would not be the time to introduce new treats though, since rabbits can sometimes be wary of a new type of food. Instead make sure you offer them something that you know they’ll love. When a rabbit is fixated on getting the yummy piece of fruit in your hand, they’ll often forget that they were afraid and alert just a few moments earlier.

Giving your rabbit some of their favorite toys can also help to distract them. Most toys will be less effective than giving your rabbit a treat, but puzzle toys can really help distract your rabbit. These are the toys where you hide a small treat inside or underneath the pieces. Your rabbit will have to concentrate to figure out how to get the treat. This concentration will more effectively distract your rabbit from their fear.

You can go even further to distract your rabbit by giving them an impromptu training session. Don’t try this if you’ve never trained your rabbit before, since it will likely only confuse and frustrate them when they are already stressed. But if your rabbit is already practicing a couple tricks, you can distract them this way. 

Training takes a lot more of a rabbit’s concentration, which means they’ll be paying less attention to whatever frightened them. Training also promotes self confidence in rabbits, so a training session is more likely to make your rabbit forget they were afraid than just giving them a treat would.

If your rabbit calms down after this point and becomes their regular, happy self at this point, you can skip to step 5.

rabbit hears a loud sound
Loud or unfamiliar sounds can startle a rabbit and cause them to start thumping.

Step 4: Figure what is scaring your rabbit

Sometimes your rabbit is just too scared and will not calm down even after you pet them and try to distract them. In these cases, the best plan of action is to try to figure out what it is that’s scaring your rabbit. Investigate the surroundings and try to look at the world from a rabbit’s perspective. Try to think about common things that could be very scary for a rabbit.

  • Unfamiliar sounds: Even if it’s not loud, an unfamiliar sound can be scary for a rabbit. This can be anything from the sound of movement in the next room to a loud dog barking outside.
  • New objects: If you just got a package in the mail and put the box on the floor, your rabbit might be scared of it. This is something new to your rabbit, and they’re not sure if it’s safe or not.
  • Movement: Fast movements can also startle a rabbit. Something like a rotating space heater or a ceiling fan being turned on can end up spooking a rabbit.
  • Unfamiliar scents: While uncommon, some rabbits can actually get scared of some cooking smells. They also will likely smell any new pet that’s brought into the house, even if they are kept completely separate.

Once you’ve figured out what is scaring your rabbit, you’ll be able to either get rid of whatever is causing the fear, or get your rabbit away from the situation. In some cases, you may not be able to do either, such as a dog barking outside, and you can only stay with your rabbit and comfort them until the scary moment passes.

alert rabbit
Rabbits that go on the alert could be standing on their hind legs or on all fours.

Step 5: Keep an eye on your rabbit’s behavior

Even after your rabbit has calmed down, you’ll want to keep an eye on your rabbit’s behavior to make sure they are really okay. For the next few hours, continue to check in on your rabbit and give them a few pets for comfort. You’ll want to check for signs that they are recovering and behaving as normal, and not getting scared again.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on their eating and litter box habits over the next few hours. Fear and anxiety can end up disrupting a rabbits digestion a little. If they have ongoing anxiety, they may not want to eat or be able to poop, which can be dangerous for rabbits.

If they don’t seem to be eating their hay, you can try to entice them with leafy greens to make sure they have an appetite. Don’t be too worried if you see small poops in their litter box at first, since stress can do that. However, the size should return to normal after a few hours.

You should try to return to whatever your normal tasks would be during this time. If you’d normally be working on your computer, then do that. This will help your rabbit return to a state of normalcy. As life gets back to the regular routine, your rabbit will continue to calm down and regain their confidence.

When do you need to get help?

As long as your rabbit remains alert, and they are eating and pooping then the situation is not very dangerous. Your rabbit will be able to recover with time and some comfort from you. However, if your rabbit becomes unresponsive or refuses to eat, then you will need to seek emergency attention.

If your rabbit has not eaten for more than 10 hours they need to be taken to your vet right away. You can try to entice them to eat a piece of their favorite treats, or some yummy leafy greens to test them. Sometimes it might seem like a rabbit isn’t eating, when really you just didn’t notice the munching. However, if they don’t eat their favorites, you can be sure that there is something wrong.

If your rabbit becomes unresponsive and does not react at all when you touch them, then they may be going into shock. Wrap your rabbit in a towel to keep them warm, then call your vet. It’s very important that you call your vet before getting into the car to bring your rabbit. The stress of the car ride can cause the rabbit’s condition to get worse, so you’ll want advice from your vet before you go.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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