When Rabbits Bite: How to Handle Aggressive Rabbits


aggressive rabbits bite

A calm rabbit that’s been well socialized will rarely, if ever, bite. But no matter how friendly your rabbit is, there might be circumstances that cause them to go on the attack. If this happens, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad bunny parent, or that your rabbit has all of a sudden turned vicious. Instead we can see this as an opportunity. You can learn about your rabbit’s personality and teach them how to have better behavior.

Why do rabbits bite? The two most common reasons a rabbit might attack and bite you: they are scared, or they are protecting their territory. It is also possible for rabbits to act out if they are stressed, bored, or over-excited about food.

Since rabbits can’t directly communicate with us, we have to do some close observation. We need to figure out what is causing our rabbits to tick so that we can teach them to correct their behavior.

Should you be worried about a rabbit bite?

Rabbits have very strong jaws and teeth. They can do a surprising amount of damage for a small prey animal by making deep puncture wounds. In the wild, these strong jaws can even help them fight off some predators when they are cornered. 

Luckily for humans, rabbit bites don’t usually cause any lasting damage. They can bite hard enough to draw blood, and it will definitely hurt, but rabbit bites rarely carry any disease. Their chiseled incisor teeth can make deep puncture wounds, but they will make clean cuts that and are unlikely to get infected. Unless you are living with a compromised immune system, you have little reason to worry about a rabbit bite.

 If you have been bitten by a rabbit, practicing basic first aid is more than enough. Just clean and disinfect the wound and cover it with a bandaid. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the puncture just to be sure it doesn’t get infected, but it should behave like any other minor cut and heal pretty quickly.

Nipping vs. Biting

I light nip from a rabbit is very different from a bite. Nipping is a light pinch a rabbit will give you with their teeth. While a hard nip might occasionally leave a red mark on your skin, it should never break the skin. Most rabbits will nip you at some point, but it’s not an aggressive behavior.

A rabbit might nip you when:

  • They are annoyed and want you to go away. If you are petting your rabbit, but they want to move away and explore, they may nip you as a way of letting you know. This happens most often if you are holding your rabbit and they want to be let down.
  • You are blocking a place they want to explore. If your rabbit is determined to go somewhere but you are blocking the way, they may nip you to tell you to move. The polite rabbits will give you a hard nudge with their nose instead of using their teeth.
  • They are trying to groom you. When rabbits groom each other, they will sometimes give little nips to help remove tangles or mats in their fur. Your rabbit might do the same thing with you, thinking they are helping you out. This is especially common if they are grooming your clothing and come across a seam.

How to teach your rabbit not to nip

Even though it’s not aggressive behavior, most of us don’t want our rabbits to nip us. To do this, you need to teach your rabbit that what they’re doing is hurting you. Giving a loud “Ouch” or “Eek” can help your rabbit understand their behavior was bad. If they are nipping you to tell you to move or go away, you can continue to hang around a little longer so the rabbit will learn that the behavior won’t get them what they want.

You also might need to teach your rabbit that you are the Top Bun and you make the rules. Rabbits have ways of showing hierarchy among themselves, and one of these behaviors is sitting on top of each other. You’re obviously not going to sit on top of your rabbit, but to mimic this behavior you can place you hand on top of their head. Then gently press down when they are acting up to show that you make the rules here.

Aggressive rabbit body language to look out for

When a rabbit starts to get aggressive, you will see some changes in their body language. Their ears will lay back at a 45º angle and their tail will go up. Their nose will also usually be going very fast. If your rabbit is getting aggressive because they are scared, they might be leaning away from you, but if they are territorial, they may be leaning toward you.

Boxing

This is an aggressive rabbit behavior when a rabbit stands up on their hind legs and raises their front paws to swat at anyone who comes close. Their ears will be up and they will have most of their weight on their toes instead of their heels. The rabbit might growl too.

This is a behavior you’ll see when rabbits are trying to protect their territory. So you might notice it if you step inside your rabbit’s enclosure or if you are trying to introduce your pet rabbit to your dog. It might look like the rabbit is being cute, but in reality they are very upset and ready to fight.

Territorial

If a rabbit is displaying territorial aggressive behavior, they will pull their ears back and growl at you to warn you. It’s very rare for a rabbit to attack anyone out of the blue, so look for these signs when you are putting your hands inside your rabbit’s cage. Most of the time rabbits will only get aggressive toward other rabbits, but sometimes they’ll get defensive toward humans as well.

Growling

A growling rabbits means exactly what you would expect. Your rabbit is angry and giving you a warning. Rabbit growling doesn’t sound exactly the same as a dog, but it’s not too different (example). When a rabbit growls, they will usually also lunge or swat at whatever is annoying them to try to get it to go away.

Lunging and swatting

If a rabbit feels cornered with no way to escape, they may resort to lunging out at someone. The rabbit may also be very aggressive and lunge at people who enter their territory to try to get any intruders to go away. Often times with rabbits, lunging is a warning. They don’t want to hurt you, but they are letting you know they could if you don’t back off. This behavior is almost always accompanied by a growl.

Why your rabbit is attacking

Rabbits aren’t going to just start attacking you out of nowhere. There will always be a reason for their behavior, even if you don’t know what that reason is. Sometimes it will be obvious (when they feel cornered and want to escape), but other times you’ll need to do some detective work to figure out what’s triggering your rabbit.

1. Hormones

If you have not gotten your rabbit spayed or neutered yet, this is very likely the problem. Unaltered rabbits are known to be much more territorial and much quicker to use their teeth to resolve matters.

Both male and female rabbits can exhibit territorial behavior due to raging hormones, but female rabbits tend to be the more aggressive ones. In the wild, the females would have been the ones to protect their young kits. They have more of an instinct to keep others out of their territory. This is especially true if your rabbit is nesting, whether it be for a true pregnancy or a false pregnancy.

Rabbit owners that get their rabbits when they were young will sometimes describe the change in behavior as “flicking a switch.” One day the rabbit will be a nice friendly, cuddly bunny. The next day they are a moody teenager, attacking anyone who comes near. This switch will go off around 4-6 months, right when the rabbits hormones are kicking in.

2. Territorial

Rabbits are instinctually very territorial creatures. They will fight to protect their space. Fortunately for most rabbits, these aggressive behaviors are significantly curbed after you get them spayed or neutered. But there are still some rabbits where it’s just part of their personality. They will still display these territorial behaviors on some level.

Protecting their space

Territorial rabbits who feel that their space is being invaded will get aggressive. These are the rabbits that will attack your hand if you reach into their cage but will be perfectly happy with you petting them in a separate location.

While it’s significantly more uncommon, sometimes rabbits will claim a much bigger area as their own, such as the entire living room. They may think it’s their job to fight off anyone invading their space. 

You smell like other animals

Sometimes otherwise friendly rabbits will suddenly get very aggressive and territorial if you come home smelling like other animals. This is especially true if you come home smelling like other rabbits. 

If you’re like me and volunteer with other animals on a regular basis, you’ll want to change and shower before interacting with your rabbit. This will also help to prevent the spread of contagious diseases, so it’s best practice anyway.

cornered rabbit
A rabbit is more likely to lash out if they feel corned with no way to escape.

3. Scared and cornered

Sometimes rabbits will lash out because they are scared and trying to defend themselves. For most rabbits their first move when they are frightened will be to freeze or run away and hide. But when the perceived danger doesn’t go away and the rabbit feels cornered, they might attack as a final resort.

Some rabbit are afraid of being held. They might react this way toward people who pick them up every time. They also may bite and act aggressive after something very scary happens, such as when the vacuum cleaner is running.

Attacking makes people go away

If your rabbit gets scared and turns to lunge at you, causing you to get scared and back off, your rabbit might start to make a habit of this aggressive behavior.

A single instance of your rabbit getting scared and attacking is something both of you might be able to put in the past. But if it happens frequently your rabbit will learn to lash out as a reaction, instead of running away first. The rabbit will learn to attack people as soon as they approach so they will be left alone.

rabbit in a small cage
Rabbits can get bored and grumpy if they’re left in a small cage all day with nothing to do.

4. Bored rabbit

Sometimes rabbits will lash out because they are bored. This is especially common if a rabbit is living in an enclosure that’s too small.  A rabbit will get bored if they don’t have enough time or space to exercise. They can also get frustrated if they don’t have toys to play with.

Rabbits could also get bored because they aren’t getting enough socialization. They are lashing out to seek attention. If you are unable to spend enough time with your rabbit to keep them happy, you should consider getting your rabbit a friend. This could relieve some of that bored, anxious energy and help keep your rabbit from biting you in frustration.

5. Past trauma

If you have adopted a rabbit, they are probably coming with some baggage. At the very least, the rabbit has been abandoned and had to deal with some scary new environments. Some rabbits come from situations where they have been neglected or had to put up with very scary environments.

If your rabbit attacks you, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious trigger, it might be caused by something from their past. These are some of the most difficult situations to figure out because you don’t know where they came from. To figure out what is causing your rabbit to lash out, you’ll need to watch them closely and look for the pattern. Something is causing your rabbit to feel threatened. It’s your job to figure out what it is, so you can help your rabbit feel safe again.

6. You startled your rabbit

Rabbits are farsighted and can be startled by anything that moves too quickly directly in front of them. They also have a blind spot directly in front of their nose. This means if you make any sudden movements right near your rabbits head, especially if it’s right in front of them, the rabbit might get suddenly startled and bite you.

A disabled rabbit who is blind or deaf might also be very easily startled and more likely to lash out. You’ll need to learn how to work with your rabbit so you can interact in a way that won’t scare them.

7. Stressed or in pain

Sometimes rabbits will appear grumpy or aggressive when they are actually stressed out or in pain. If you can’t figure out what is causing your rabbit to bite, you should consider bringing them into the vet for a health check. This is especially important if you notice other behaviors that could indicate your rabbit is sick, such as:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased energy
  • Smaller poops

Also look around their environment to see if anything has changed recently. There could be something loud or scary in the environment that’s stressing the rabbit out, so see what you can do to make your rabbit feel safe and comfortable again.

8. Enthusiastic about food

Sometimes the rabbit isn’t being aggressive at all. They’re just way too excited about food. This is likely the cause if your rabbit tends to bite your hand as you’re putting their food bowl down into their enclosure. 

The best way to handle this scenario is to put the food down right away so your rabbit doesn’t have to wait. You should also keep them on a schedule so they’ll know when to expect food. Never withhold food from your rabbit as punishment. Not only is that cruel but it can also lead to serious gastrointestinal issues since a rabbit’s health relies on the movement of their gut.

spoon feeding a rabbit
If your rabbit is overly enthusiastic about treats and tends you bite your finger, use a spoon to help them improve their aim.

9. Thinks your finger is a treat

If your rabbit goes to snatch a treat from your hand but instead chomps down on your finger, this is not aggressive behavior. It’s bad aim. Rabbit’s do not have good close-up eyesight, so some of them also don’t have very good aim when taking treats. Rabbits that enthusiastically snatch treats from your hand tend to be the worst offenders of this.

To teach the rabbit how to have better aim when taking treats, try giving the treats on a spoon for a while, instead of from your hand. As your rabbit gets better at taking treats, you can switch back to giving them food from you hand.

Techniques to get your rabbit to stop biting

Once you have an idea of why your rabbit is acting up, you can work toward helping them improve their behavior. Some rabbits are very stubborn. You’ll need to do some work to avoid the potential triggers, but no rabbit is beyond help. In most cases you just have to be patient with your rabbit as you help them feel safe and comfortable in your home.

1. Spay or neuter your rabbit

If your rabbit hasn’t been altered yet, that’s the first thing you want to try. Most aggressive behavior in rabbits will be fixed after they’ve had their surgery.  Learn more about why it’s so important to get your rabbit spayed or neutered.

Don’t expect their behavior to improve as soon as you take them home though. The raging hormones will still be present in your rabbit until about a month after the surgery. So your rabbit will slowly start to settle down in the weeks that follow.

person sitting with a rabbit
spend some time with your rabbit on the floor.

2. Interact with your rabbit so they will learn to trust you

Sometimes rabbits lash out because they are scared of you. So it’s your job to teach them to not be afraid. To do this, you’ll need to get down at their level and learn how to respect your rabbits autonomy and space.

To start with, don’t pick up your rabbit. Being held can be very scary for rabbits. Until you’ve learned to gain your rabbit’s trust, you should avoid picking them up. To interact with your rabbit you’ll want to sit on the floor with some treats and allow them to come to you. They’ll get a reward for being a brave bunny and approaching you, and will slowly learn to associate you with yummy treats. I have a step-by-step guide for interacting with shy rabbits that can also be helpful in this situation.

petting a rabbit
be patient and slowly start petting your rabbit when they approach you.

3. Teach them that hands are a source of affection

Rabbits are not innately afraid of human hands. That is something that they have learned at some point in their lives. So we need to teach them that our hands are are only here to give them lots of love.

  1. Start by slowly moving your hand toward your rabbit and stopping when your hand is about 6-12 inches away. Check your rabbit’s body language for any signs of aggression.
  2. If your rabbit is not showing any aggression, try slowly moving your hand a little closer. Continue to look for any signs of aggression.
  3. If your rabbit is doing well and does not look ready to attack, give them one pat on their head and then move your hand away.
  4. Repeat this process until you can approach your rabbit with your hand without worry of an attack.
  5. Eventually you can also increase the number of pats you give your rabbit and see if they enjoy a good neck and back massage.

4. Move slower so you don’t startle your rabbit

If your rabbit lashes out and bites when they get startled, try moving a little slower so that you won’t surprise them. You also don’t want to approach your rabbit with your hand directly in front of them. Instead keep your hand to the side and above their head, so they will be able to see it coming and know exactly who you are. It can also be helpful for some rabbits, especially those that are partially blind, if you talk softly to them as you’re getting closer.

5. Wash your hands and change your clothes

If you’ve interacted with other animals and find that makes your rabbit aggressive, you should take steps to wash your hands and clean your clothes before you interact with your rabbit. Sometimes rabbits will continue to act up until you’ve completely taken a shower and put the clothes in a hamper where they can’t smell the other animals. Pay attention to your rabbit’s behavior and do what’s necessary to appease them.

large dog crate
Many rabbit owners use a large dog crate because it’s convenient and easy to clean. It’s also very easy for a rabbit to hop in and out on their own, without you picking them up.

6. Let your rabbit leave the enclosure on their own

If you’re in the habit of picking your rabbit up to lift them out of the enclosure for exercise time, you should instead allow your rabbit to leave the enclosure on their own. This could mean moving the enclosure so that it’s on floor level or adding a ramp so your rabbit can get out. If the cage only opens from the top, you should consider getting a new enclosure that has a large front opening.

7. Give your rabbit enough enclosure space

Rabbits will get bored or frustrated if their enclosure is too small, causing them to act grumpy and aggressive when people come try to interact. Most rabbit cages sold at pet stores are actually too small for rabbits, so this is a common issue.

A correctly sized rabbit enclosure will give your rabbit room for three to four hops along the length of their enclosure. The width should be at least one hop length, and the rabbit should be able to stand all the way up on their hind legs without bumping their head against the top.

In general you should get a cage or enclosure that is at least 2ft by 4ft for an average sized 5 pound rabbit. Keep in mind that if you have a larger rabbit you will need to give them more space. Learn more about how to make sure you have an appropriate enclosure and habitat for your rabbit.

8. Clean your rabbit’s enclosure when they are not inside

If your rabbit is very territorial about their cage, then you will need to let them out to exercise before you can clean it out. You probably also need to wait for their absence before replacing their food, water, or cleaning their litter box.

This is behavior that might decrease with time, as your rabbit stops seeing you as a threat. But for the time being you’ll have to work around the behavior as much as possible. Let your rabbit have their cage as a safe space, and avoid interacting with them unless they are out exercising.

9. Don’t act afraid

If you are afraid, your rabbit will sense that and continue to do what they can to scare you away. Wear gloves, pants, long sleeves, and boots so you can protect yourself and avoid flinching away from your rabbit. You should talk to them in a cheerful voice and just gently pat them on the head if they try to lunge at you.

Respond to your rabbit’s aggression with cheerfulness and affection so they will eventually learn that their behavior is both ineffective and unnecessary.

Sources:

  1. Davis, Susan. “Aggression.” House Rabbit Society, Apr. 2, 2013, rabbit.org/faq-aggression.

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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