Rabbits are not the kind of pet that you can ignore and keep out of sight all day. If they are not given enough attention, rabbits can exhibit destructive behaviors or become severely depressed. They are social animals that need the company of others in order to be happy. If you take the time to give your rabbit lots of attention every day, you’ll be rewarded with a lovable and happy companion.
How much attention do rabbits need? Rabbits need to spend many hours interacting with others on a daily basis. While there are no specific guidelines for the number of hours rabbits need to be in contact with others, I advise you make them as much a part of your daily life as possible. Let your rabbit spend time with you or other members of the family whenever you are home and awake.
If there is a single rabbit in the household, this means you need to take the time to make the rabbit a part of your daily life, similar to the way dogs are treated in families. Rabbits should be allowed to exercise and hang out with the family when people are home. They should have the chance to interact with people so they can continue to be happy and healthy rabbits.
Why do rabbits need attention?
In the wild, rabbits live in groups with a very complex social system and hierarchy. Interacting with other rabbits is a necessary part of their daily lives and it has been built into their biology. Today, our pet rabbits still have the same needs as their social ancestors. They form very close friendships with other rabbits that will help them show off their adorable personalities.
Social needs of a rabbit
Because of a rabbit’s intensive social needs, many people advise that the only way to meet their needs is to get another rabbit. However, if you are unable to get another rabbit at the moment, or your rabbit is proving difficult to bond with other rabbits, the best that you can do is give them as much human interaction as possible.
We are humans and not fellow rabbits, so we are automatically not the ideal partners for our little fluffy friends. But we can still do our best to spend time with our rabbits and meet their social needs as much as we are able. To do this we have to include our rabbits in our daily lives. Really make your bunny a part of the family.
This means keeping your rabbit inside, and rabbit proofing your home so that they can roam around without getting into danger. It also means spending time daily to bond with your rabbit and give them a lot of attention. You’ll also need to learn all about rabbit body language so that you can know a little bit about what your rabbit feels and what they are trying to tell you.
Bonded pairs and groups
If you are afraid that you will not have enough time to spend with your rabbit, you can get them a partner bunny. This is a better way of meeting your rabbit’s needs and takes the pressure off of you to make sure your rabbit is getting enough attention. Your rabbits will be together all day long and they will be able to meet each other’s needs.
The catch is that it can be very difficult to bond rabbits. Rabbits are social animals, but they are also territorial. Until they see the new rabbit as a friend instead of an enemy, your rabbit is more likely to attack than socialize with a new bunny. It can take many months of careful work for rabbits to bond with each other and is rarely going to be as simple as bringing a new bunny home.
How to know if your rabbit is lonely
Rabbits that don’t get enough attention will get lonely. It is in our best interest to keep our rabbits happy by interacting with them. If not, they’ll engage in attention seeking behaviors, many of which can be annoying or destructive to our human environments. Alternatively, rabbits that are chronically lonely could end up getting depressed and losing all of their adorable happy energy.
Attention seeking behaviors
Rabbits that want attention will find ways of asking for it. Some rabbits will be polite about it and others will be more forceful. If you don’t pay attention to them, you may end up finding that your rabbit vents their frustration in other ways, such as digging up the carpet or chewing on things they shouldn’t. With positive reinforcement of attention and treats, you’ll want to teach your rabbit which attention seeking behaviors are appropriate and which are not.
Begging is one of the cutest and easiest of the attention seeking behaviors to understand. This is when your rabbit comes up to you and stands on their hind legs, looking at you with those big bunny eyes. If they get impatient, your rabbit might even box at you a little bit, by making digging motions on your legs. They want to make sure you’re paying attention and see them down there.
Rabbits will commonly use these adorable and effective tactics to beg for treats, but they can also employ their skills to beg for attention. Petting is often almost as good a reward for rabbits as treats are. You can start to pet your rabbit when they beg like this to reward them and give them the attention they need. This can teach your rabbit to come up to you when they want attention and may prevent them from relying on less desirable behaviors.
Persistent nudging and nipping
Rabbits will also come up to people and nudge or nip them for attention. A rabbit gently nudging someone’s hand or arm is a common way for them to ask to be pet. They may also come up to you and nudge your leg to let you know they are ready for attention.
If a rabbit gets impatient, however, they may resort to nipping instead. While rabbits generally don’t bite hard unless they are feeling cornered or territorial, they may nip sometimes to let you know they are annoyed. Even if you rabbit doesn’t intend to hurt you, rabbit nips can be painful.
To teach your rabbit to nudge you and not resort to nipping, you’ll have to act fast. As soon as they nudge you, give them some scritches on their forehead. Then if they nip you, that’s when you stop petting them, so that you stop rewarding them for the bad behavior. You then start petting your rabbit again when they nudge you instead of nipping.
If they don’t get enough attention, rabbits will get bored and find other ways to entertain themselves. Rabbits who are bored and frustrated because are more likely to exhibit destructive behaviors. They’ll be more likely to obsessively dig into the carpet, or they’ll be little troublemakers that figure out how to explore areas that are blocked off, potentially putting themselves at risk.
The best way to curb this behavior is by increasing the amount of time you spend with your rabbit every day. Give them the chance to come up to you and interact, so that they won’t resort to tearing apart your carpet or chewing on your baseboards for entertainment.
You should also make sure they have access to safe toys and places where they can dig and chew on things without destroying the house. Chewing and digging are natural rabbit behaviors that won’t disappear completely. So make sure to give them a variety of toys to chew on and cardboard boxes to dig into.
Rattling cage bars
Many people will get annoyed with their rabbits because they will loudly rattle their cage bars for attention. Rabbits will often do this when they are bored and isolated in their enclosure. This is their way of letting you know that they want out.
It may be annoying, but in this case your rabbit has the right idea. They are very clearly letting you know what their needs are. The way to keep them from rattling the bars night and day is to let your rabbit out more often and give them a lot of attention.
It’s also a good idea to look at the size of your rabbit’s enclosure. Many cages that are sold for rabbits are actually too small, so increasing the size of their enclosure will help your rabbit be happier when you are away and less likely to make a lot of noise.
Some rabbits will learn that they can make a loud thumping noise to get your attention. They’ll learn that when they thump, you’ll come over and give them treats and attention to get them to stop. Eventually it will become a habit for the rabbit to thump every time they want attention.
To discourage this behavior you should ignore them until they stop throwing a tantrum. Then reward their behavior after they have calmed down a little. However, rabbits will also thump when they are very scared, so you’ll want to watch your rabbit’s body language so that you can comfort your rabbit when they’re scared while also not encouraging them to thump for attention.
Rabbits who are thumping for attention will:
- Have ears back at an angle or up looking confident
- Have a confident body posture
- Usually thump only once to see if you react, then thump again if you don’t respond
- Stop thumping once they get what they want (a treat, petting)
Depression in rabbits
Just like people, rabbit’s are not meant to live alone. Rabbits who never get enough attention and are left in isolation all day will end up becoming lonely and depressed. They’ll stop being curious and active, and instead they’ll sit around all day with no interest in the world around them.
Signs of depression in rabbits include:
- Lack of energy. As rabbits become sad they will have less energy and they’ll be sitting around more, even if they have the time and space to exercise.
- Limited interest in food. Sometimes when rabbits get depressed they no longer have much interest in eating. Even their favorite treats won’t lure them out anymore.
- Aggressive behavior. Rabbits that are left in isolation will often become moody and aggressive. They’ll be more likely to growl and lunge at anyone who approaches them or reaches toward them.
- Shaggy coat. If a rabbit is depressed, their coat might become dull and start to have more mats and tangles because they are not caring for it as well as they should. You usually won’t see as much self-grooming in their routine.
If you had a bonded pair, but one of them sadly passed on, the other rabbit may be more likely to fall into a depression. During this time, it is more important than ever that you give your rabbit as much attention and interaction as possible, and to watch for signs of depression.
How to spend time with your rabbit
You know you need to spend time bonding with your rabbit, but what does that look like in daily life? It doesn’t mean that you have to schedule hours in your day to focus solely on your rabbit. Instead the goal is to give your rabbit as much time as possible outside of their enclosure and give them the option to come up and interact with you when they want to.
Sit with your rabbit
Getting down on your rabbit’s level to give them the chance to come up to you is the easiest way to make sure your rabbit is getting enough interaction. This could be as simple as making sure your rabbit can hop up onto the couch so they can come sit next to you while you watch TV. You could also sit on the floor while you read a book or scroll through your phone. The idea is to make sure you are available to your rabbit while you are going about your normal activities.
Pet your rabbit
Most rabbits love to be pet. They’ll be happy to relax next to you while you give them a wonderful massage. However, rabbits don’t like being pet the same way cats or dogs do. Rabbits do not like being pet underneath their chins. They also don’t like when you touch their belly, their feet or their tail. Instead, they prefer to be pet on the tops of their heads and behind their ears. Many rabbits also enjoy long strokes down their back and scritches on their cheeks.
Train your rabbit
It can be really adorable to teach a rabbit some cute tricks, but the real value of training a bunny is in the bond it creates between you and your rabbit. By training your rabbit you are not only teaching them cool tricks, but you’re also teaching them to trust you. Your rabbit will be excited to spend time with you, knowing they’ll have fun exercising their brain and figuring out how to get treats.
Training also encourages a rabbit to readily approach you without expecting a treat right off the bat. It will teach them to slow down and earn their treats, while also keeping them from losing interest in you just because you don’t have any treats on hand.
Make your rabbit a part of the family
Overall, you want to include your rabbit in your daily life in a way that makes them a part of your family. They can have the same space in a family as a companion dog or cat would. This means letting your rabbit out to join you in the living areas, and not secluding them all day long away from people. It means letting your rabbit’s personality shine through as they become braver in their interactions with people, becoming an irreplaceable part of the family.
- Cotter, Mary Ed.D. “How to Meet a Rabbit’s Basic Needs.” Petfinder. 2002. https://www.petfinder.com/pet-care/rabbit-care/rabbits-basic-feeding.