Recognizing Depression in Rabbits


depression in rabbits

Rabbits are usually very energetic and social animals. They will be happy to hop up to you and play, or toss around their favorite toys. However, sometimes when the needs of our beloved pet rabbits aren’t met, they fall into a depression. Your rabbit might be depressed without you even knowing it. By paying attention to your rabbits behavior, you’ll be able to learn if your rabbit is lonely, bored and depressed.

Rabbits that become depressed will usually sit around for most of the day. They will often lose interest in eating, grooming, or even socializing. Some rabbits who become depressed will even resort to aggressive behaviors, such as biting and swatting.

Unfortunately, many house rabbits are prone to depression because we caretakers don’t know the symptoms to look out for. You can learn the signs of a depressed rabbit and also learn what could be causing your rabbit to feel so sad. Then, once you understand the source of the problem, you can make changes for your rabbit to help them cheer up and become a happy bunny again!


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Signs of depression in rabbits

Rabbits can’t speak, so they are unable to tell us when they are unhappy or depressed. Instead we have to watch their body language to determine how our rabbits’ are feeling. While some signs of depression seem to be similar across species, others are more unique rabbit behaviors. We need to learn what behaviors to look out for so that we can understand our rabbits and help them feel better. 

It’s also important to understand that many of the behaviors listed can also be signs of other conditions in rabbits. Your rabbit could also just be in a bad mood for a day. So it’s important to consider the context around your rabbits behavior too. Consider how many of these signs they are showing, how long they’ve been behaving this way, and even the environmental conditions that are likely to cause depression in rabbits.

rabbit won't leave enclosure
A depressed rabbit might refuse to leave their enclosure even if the door is open for them.

1. Lack of energy and curiosity

While most rabbits are energetic and curious about their environment, a rabbit who gets depressed is likely to sit around all day. They won’t be interested in toys, socializing, or even in treats. Instead they’ll spend their day sitting in the same place, doing nothing. They won’t get much exercise, often choosing to stay put even when their enclosure door is open. In general, the rabbit will become more and more withdrawn and closed off from the world around them. 

This kind of behavior is worth looking into even if you don’t think your rabbit is depressed. A lack of energy can also be a subtle symptom of many different rabbit illnesses. It’s best to bring your rabbit in for a check-up to be sure there are no underlying health conditions causing your rabbit to be less energetic. 

2. Lack of appetite

Another common symptom of depression in rabbits is a lack of appetite. Most rabbits love to eat. They’ll be munching on hay all day long, or hopping all over you for a chance to get that yummy treat. But a depressed rabbit will begin to lose interest in these once-loved parts of their lives. They may only eat a small portion of their daily leafy greens, or not even finish their pellets for the day.

A lack of appetite is another symptom of depression that can also be a sign of other serious illnesses. If you notice your rabbit is not eating at all, then this is an emergency situation and you should seek immediate veterinary care.

3. Fur pulling 

Rabbits that are stressed or depressed may start pulling at their fur causing bald spots on areas of their body. This could be from overgrooming as your rabbit tries to keep themself calm. It is also a way for a bored rabbit to stay occupied.

Fur pulling is also a behavior of pregnant rabbits or rabbits having false pregnancy. If you have a female rabbit who has not been spayed, then they may be plucking fur from their dewlap (the flab on their chest that looks like a double chin), chest, and front paws to line their nest. Check with your veterinarian to know if your rabbit is pregnant, and in the future you’ll want to get your rabbit spayed to prevent this behavior and other reproductive illnesses.

4. Not grooming

Alternatively, a depressed rabbit may end up not grooming at all. Normally rabbits are diligent self-groomers, keeping their coat clean and shiny. However, a rabbit who has lost interest in their life may also lose interest in their cleanliness and upkeep. Their coat will become dull and shaggy, and they may also stop cleaning any poop or urine stains from their fur and bottom, even if their living environment remains clean.

rabbit digging into the carpet
Bored rabbits are more likely to have destructive behaviors, such as digging and destroying the carpets.

5. Persistent destructive behaviors

While all rabbits will dig and chew on objects to some extent, a depressed or bored rabbit is often much more persistent in their efforts. They’ll continue to go back and try to chew on the piece of furniture you shoo them away from, or even growl and snap at you when you try to stop them from digging into the sofa. This persistent behavior is one way that the rabbit shows their frustration and is the result of a bored or depressed rabbit.

6. Unexplained aggressive behavior

Most of the time rabbits are playful and gentle creatures. They rarely resort to aggression. However, a depressed rabbit is much more likely to become moody and grumpy. They will snap at anyone who tries to approach them, growling and biting to get people to go away.

Aggressive behavior in rabbits can also be as a result of fear or territorial instincts. Rabbits who have not been spayed or neutered are more likely to show aggressive behavior, especially around areas where they feel ownership, such as their enclosure. Rabbits who feel afraid or corned may also lash out to try to get you to go away. However, if your rabbit’s aggressive behavior doesn’t seem to fit into either of these two descriptions, it’s possible that they are feeling depressed, bored, and frustrated.

7. Pacing

While less common, a pacing behavior in rabbits can be a sign of anxiety and depression. This is when a rabbit seems to restlessly move back and forth for a period of time, usually over a small area. This kind of body language is most often found in rabbits who are bored and live in an enclosure that is too small for them to meet their needs.

8. Avoids social interactions

Rabbits that completely avoid social interaction and refuse to come out and play may also be suffering from depression. Sometimes this behavior is simply the result of fear and you need to give your rabbit time to trust you. However,  sometimes this is because the rabbit has been left alone so long that they’ve become depressed and no longer seek to satisfy their social needs.

hunched rabbit position
A rabbit in a hunched position will use their front paws to keep from pressing their belly against the ground. This is a sign of GI Stasis in rabbits.

9. Hunched posture

A hunched rabbit is similar to a loaf, but your rabbit will look very uncomfortable. They will be up on their front paws a little bit to try to avoid pressing their belly into the ground. Their eyes might also be squinted, rather than the typical wide bunny eyes. This kind of hunched posture is generally associated with a sick bunny, and it’s one of those very subtle signs that your rabbit might need medical attention.

This posture is also associated with depression because of the behavioral changes that rabbits go through. A rabbit who is eating less and moving around less is more likely to have digestive problems as well, causing them to feel more comfortable in a hunched posture than a normal rabbit loaf.

10. Smaller fecal droppings

Rabbits who are stressed or depressed will often start to have smaller fecal droppings. Normal rabbit poops can be anywhere from the size of a sweet pea to the size of a chickpea. So you really have to compare the size of your rabbit’s current droppings to the size they used to be from the same rabbit. A decrease in size can indicate illness or stress.

A rabbit who’s droppings are only temporarily smaller is likely fine. They may have been stressed out by something for a short period of time. You want to look out for a consistent decrease in the size of the rabbit poops. This indicates long term stress in your rabbit’s daily life, which can easily result in depression.

misting rabbits ears
Misting your rabbit’s ears with a spritz of water can help keep them cool in the summer, but be careful not to get any water inside the rabbit’s ears.

Is your rabbit depressed or are they just hot?

An interesting seasonal phenomenon that I’ve observed in rabbits is that they tend to be much less active during summer months. Temperatures above 80º can be dangerous for rabbits, potentially causing heat stroke. However, even when temperatures are safe for rabbits in the mid seventies, they will often spend a larger portion of their day sleeping or sitting around.

Their behavior may change causing them to sit around more, but this is only natural and is not something to be concerned about. When the weather finally starts to cool off in the fall, your rabbit will start to be more active again.

If you are worried in the meantime, you can pay attention to your rabbit’s behavior in the morning and evening. Your rabbit will more naturally be active during these times of day. So even if they lack energy and curiosity during the afternoon, they’ll still have some of their curious energy during these cooler times of day.

Why rabbits get depressed

Generally rabbits will get depressed because they are either lonely or bored. Rabbits are social animals, which means they need a lot of attention on a daily basis. In the wild, they would have lived with a group of other rabbits where they would have almost constant interaction with each other. This means that if your rabbit lives alone with you, they will need lots of attention on a daily basis. Like people, if rabbits don’t get enough social interaction, they are likely to become depressed and withdrawn. 

Boredom can also lead to depression. Rabbits are very curious creatures that like to interact with objects in their environment. They have natural instincts to run, chew, dig, and forage in their surroundings. So if they don’t have a way to use these abilities, the rabbit is likely to become bored. This, in turn, causes rabbits to become more aggressive, withdrawn, and depressed.

Based on these two factors, we have been able to discover some of the main causes of depression in rabbits. While reading through these common scenarios, consider if they apply to your rabbit and their situation. This way, you’ll know where to start making changes that will help improve your rabbit’s mental health.

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.

Their enclosure is too small

Rabbits need space to happily hop around and explore. Unfortunately, many cages that are sold and marketed for rabbits are actually too small for them. This is a common scenario that is inevitably going to cause a rabbit to feel bored, and frustrated. After an extended period of time living like this, the rabbit is likely to become depressed.

To fix this, you’ll want to increase the amount of space your rabbit has in their enclosure. Since rabbits come in many different shapes and sizes, it’s difficult to give an exact measurement that will be good for all rabbits. You’ll have to use the size of your own rabbit as a guideline.

Make your rabbit’s enclosure at least 3-4 times the full length of your rabbit, with a width of about 2 lengths of your rabbit. Your rabbit should also be able to stand up fully on their hind legs without bonking their head on the enclosure.

I recommend using a rabbit exercise pen (such as this one) as their main enclosure. This gives your rabbit a lot more space, and I have found that they are much easier to clean as well. If you already have a cage that’s too small for your rabbit, you could also get on of these exercise pens to attach outside the cage and easily increase the amount of space your rabbit has access too.

They aren’t feeling well

Rabbits that aren’t feeling well or have an underlying health condition may also begin to feel depressed. Overweight or obese rabbits, for example, are more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal problems. This constant discomfort can cause the rabbit to become withdrawn or grumpy, and it can result in an unhappy and depressed rabbit.

This is why it’s important to bring your rabbit in for a checkup if you notice signs of depression. Even if you think you know the cause, there could be an underlying illness that is causing this behavior in your rabbit. It’s always best to get a professional medical opinion.

They don’t have enough toys to play with

Rabbits have lots of natural instincts that cause them to be curious and interact with the world around them. They like to have toys they can chew on and toss around. Many rabbits also love having something to dig into, such as a cardboard box.

Every rabbit will have their favorite toys, so if your rabbit doesn’t seem to be interested in the toys you’ve given them, try something new. Many rabbits will be really interested in playing with natural toys, such as willow balls and apple sticks. Other rabbit will prefer hanging toys that they can pull on.

My friends at Small Pet Select offer a sampler pack of toys for rabbits. I used this to get a variety of toys at once and figure out which ones my rabbit likes best. (If you use this link, you can get 15% off your first purchase at Small Pet Select)

give your rabbit a more confident friend
Introducing your depressed and withdrawn rabbit to a more confident friend can help your rabbit come out of their shell.

They are lonely

Because rabbits are social animals, they will often get depressed if they are left alone for too long. A rabbit who is treated like a cage animal and left alone inside their enclosure day in and day out is very likely to become lonely and depressed. Instead, it’s best to treat rabbits as companion animals. Give them a lot of time every day to spend with you. This way they can become an integral part of the family, similar to a dog or a cat. 

If you don’t have enough time to spend with your rabbit, you can instead get a second rabbit to bond with your bunny. This way the two rabbits will be able to keep each other company all day long. It is important to be careful when introducing new rabbits to each other though, since they can be very territorial. You’ll want to give your rabbits a number of “dates” in a neutral territory so that they can get used to each other before moving in together.

A rabbit who’s bonded partner has recently passed away is also at a high risk of becoming depressed. During this difficult time, you’ll want to spend as much time with your rabbit as possible to comfort them and give them socialization and attention.

Their routine or environment have suddenly changed

Rabbits are happiest when they have a routine to work within. They can get scared when life is unpredictable. When they have no routine or schedule in their daily life, then your rabbit never knows what to expect, making them upset and often depressed.

As much as possible, it’s best to keep your rabbit on a daily schedule. Feed them at the same time every day, socialize with them at the same time. Even giving them treats at the same time can be a good idea.

It’s important to note that bringing a rabbit home for the first time or even moving house with them can frighten rabbits because of all the sudden, confusing changes. During these times it’s more important than ever that you keep your rabbit on a schedule. It will help your rabbit settle into their new living area and prevent excess stress and depression.

Past trauma

When you adopt a rabbit, they will inevitably have an unknown past life that may have been traumatizing for them. When faced with a painful or frightening situation that they cannot escape from, many rabbits will shut down and become severely depressed.

It will take a long time for these rabbits to learn that life is different now, and they’ll need as much care and patience as you can give them. If you are gentle and kind with your new rescue rabbit, they will eventually learn to open up and become a happy bunny again.

Happy rabbit behaviors
A happy bunny is more likely to be energetic, zooming and binkying around the room. They are also more likely to feel safe and flop over when they sleep.

How to cheer up a bunny

After you have an idea of what’s causing your rabbit to be depressed, you can make changes that can help improve their daily life and cheer your rabbit up. Even if your rabbit isn’t showing signs of depression right now, it’s always encouraged to give them a lifestyle and environment that will allow your rabbit to be a happy bunny every day (find out more about how to know your rabbit is happy!).

  • Find a friend for your rabbit. A bonded rabbit partner can do wonders for improving their mood.
  • Get a larger enclosure. I recommend getting a rabbit exercise pen for your rabbit’s enclosure, rather than a cage.
  • Interact with your rabbit regularly. There are many ways to play and bond with your rabbit that can improve your relationship and keep your rabbit happy.
  • Give your rabbit ways to use their natural behaviors. Giving your rabbit, toys, digging boxes, and areas to forage for treats can keep your rabbit mentally engaged in their surroundings.
  • Give your rabbit a healthy diet with some yummy treats. A healthy diet is one of the most important parts of keeping your rabbit healthy and happy. 
  • Make sure your rabbit isn’t sick. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to bring your rabbit to the vet to make sure there are no underlying health conditions.
  • Keep your rabbit on a regular schedule. By making your rabbit’s life predictable, you can help them feel safe in your home.

Sources

  1. Interview with Suzanne Mayes. “Could Your Rabbit Be Depressed?” YouTube. Uploaded by This Morning. 14 October 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XedUQAtjdfg.

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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