Historically, rabbits have been a widely hunted species. Humans and other predators have used rabbits as a main food source for as far back as recorded history. But that doesn’t mean that rabbits have no way of defending themselves. Just like predators have evolved to chase rabbits, rabbits have many features that give them a fighting chance against their hunters.
How do rabbits defend themselves from predators? A rabbit’s main defense is their ability to run away and hide as quickly as possible. However, cornered rabbits are also able to use their claws, teeth, and strong hind legs to attempt to fight off predators and defend themselves.
Domestic rabbits have been bred to be more friendly and docile than their wild counterparts. For this reason, many people who are familiar with pet rabbits do not see the side of rabbit behavior that can viciously attack intruders. Rabbits may not have been built as attackers, but when push comes to shove, they will use tooth and nail to try to defend themselves.
Rabbits are prey animals
It’s important to remember that rabbits are prey animals. Their first instinct will never be to attack right off the bat. Evading predators is a strategy that has a much higher rate of success.
However, rabbits are also very territorial animals. When an unfamiliar rabbit tries to enter another’s territory, the intruder will be attacked viciously. These territorial instincts can also cause rabbits to attack other unfamiliar animals who enter their territory, and their instinct to fight gives rabbits a last defense when a predator has them cornered.
When cornered, rabbits can fight!
When rabbits are cornered and resort to fighting, they typically don’t stand much of a chance against large predators. Other animals, such as wolves, are just too much of a challenge. Rabbits are sometimes able to fight off smaller predators, like some species of cats, by using their hind legs, claws and teeth.
If a rabbit is attacking another animal, their goal is generally not to kill the predator. Instead, their goal will be to:
- Confuse the other animal and try to escape.
- Wound the other animal enough that they won’t be able to keep up the chase, giving the rabbit time to escape.
- Convince the other animal to back off and stop trying to attack the rabbit.
Powerful hind legs
Rabbits have very strong hind legs. Normally these legs are used to help rabbits take off and accelerate at break-neck speed. But if there is nowhere to run, rabbits can use their legs to kick their attackers. These kicks can cause bruising or cause the predator to become unbalanced, giving the rabbit a chance to attack with their teeth and nails, or make a run for it.
Kicks from a rabbit’s powerful hind legs can potentially cause broken bones as well. However, it is more often a warning attack that rabbits can use to try to convince the predator to go away or confuse them. Rabbits can change direction with their back legs very quickly. They can attempt to thump a predator and then use that attack to change direction quickly and try to escape.
While domestic rabbits have claws that are periodically trimmed and dulled, wild rabbit claws are naturally trimmed and sharpened using resistance from the ground they walk on. Rabbit claws can’t do as much damage as other animals, such as cat claws, but they are still able to cause bleeding cuts on the skin. Depending on the animal they are facing, this could be enough to convince them to leave the rabbit alone.
When rabbits are ready to fight, they will sometimes exhibit a boxing behavior. This is when they stand up on their hind legs and swipe with their front claws. This can be used as a warning to tell other animals not to get any closer.
Rabbits have teeth that are made to cut into tough vegetation, meaning they have very strong jaws. Their teeth can make serious puncture wounds when rabbits attack. If a predator isn’t careful, they may even find that a rabbit bite punctured all the way to the bone.
A rabbit’s strong jaws also make them able to bite and latch onto a predator. This can cause even more damage by creating a more serious puncture wound. Any movement the predator makes as they try to unlatch the rabbit will exacerbate the wound, causing even more damage.
The Survival Species: Rabbit Anatomy From Nose to Tail
The best defense: Escape!
While fighting can be used as a last resort, rabbits have evolved to make escaping predators and evading their detection the main forms of defense. Everything about a rabbit, from their ears to their tail, helps them to detect predators, and run away or hide as quickly as possible.
Detecting predators early
A rabbits best chance at survival comes when they can detect a predator early. This will help a rabbit get away before the other animal even notices them. That’s why rabbit eyes and ears have developed to expand a rabbit’s field of vision and pinpoint exactly where sounds are coming from.
Rabbit eyes are one of their most interesting features. They have an almost 360º field of vision, meaning they can see what’s behind them and even above them at all times. Rabbits are also farsighted, helping them to see predators when they are still in the distance.
In addition, rabbits have a transparent membrane covering their eyes that limits their need to blink. They can be aware at all times. Even when rabbits are asleep, they can sense changes in the light of their surrounding environment, helping them wake up and react faster.
Rabbit ears are also essential for helping them detect predators early. While their hearing is only slightly better than the average human, rabbits have the ability to swivel both of their ears 270º. This combined with the cupped shape of their ears, allows rabbits to pinpoint exactly what direction a sound is coming from.
A rabbit will be able to hear the sound of an approaching predator and dash away quickly. They know exactly where the predator is coming from, and will therefore be able to choose the right direction to run away.
If a rabbit is faced with danger they may instinctually freeze to evade detection. This is that “deer-in-the-headlights” defense that many prey animals exhibit. Many predators, including humans, have vision that is attracted to movement. If nothing moves, they are more likely to pass over a scene without seeing a prey animal. Rabbits use this technique, along with their camouflage coat to help them evade detection.
Rabbits also have a defense mechanism called tonic immobility that causes them to “play dead.” Their body will go limp, and the rabbit will be unable to move. In the wild, this only happens once a rabbit has already been caught by a predator as a last resort chance at survival. The idea is that the predator will believe the rabbit is dead and be more likely to put the rabbit down. At that point the rabbit can jump up and make an escape.
Some rabbit caretakers know how to induce this condition in their pet rabbits to make grooming easier. However, rabbits who are held in this state have heightened levels of fear and stress. Therefore, it is not recommended that you use this technique to groom your rabbit or clip their nails.
Rabbits were made to run. If they are detected by a predator, they can make a dash for it and escape using their superior speed. The hind legs allow them to run in a zig-zag motion to confuse predators without losing much speed.
Wild rabbits can reach bursts of speed up to 30mph. Their hind legs also give them the ability to accelerate almost immediately from a stand-still position. A rabbit’s anatomy also allow them to continue running very quickly up inclines, giving them a chance to escape from fast predators who don’t have this tactical advantage.
The white cotton ball rabbit tail also aids them in escaping from predators. While it may seem counterintuitive, the bright white target that rabbits have on their butt can actually work to confuse other animals who are chasing them.
As a rabbit runs, predators will naturally follow the white of the rabbits tail. Then the rabbit can quickly change direction, taking the white tail out of view. Having been following the tail and not the rabbit as a whole, the predator will have to take a few seconds to look for the now-camouflaged rabbit. Those few seconds could be all the rabbit needs to escape.
Rabbits can’t run forever. As soon as they can, rabbits will be looking for a place to hide and take them completely out of a predator’s reach. A rabbit’s natural environment will provide them with opportunities to escape the clutches of the trailing predators.
Some species of rabbit live in networks of tunnels underground called burrows. Most of a rabbit’s natural predators are too large to chase them down into these tunnels. So if a rabbit can run and escape into one of the tunnel entrances, then they have usually managed to reach safety.
Rabbits can also use natural foliage and characteristics in the landscape to hide and stay out of reach of predators. Their small size help them to fit under brambles and bushes that predators cannot access, and their coats help to keep them camouflaged, in hopes that they’ll be able to remain hidden from their attackers.