Most rabbits will get into trouble at some point in their lives. It’s natural to want to find ways to stop the troublemaking behavior, but it can be tricky with bunnies. Rabbits are very stubborn when they’ve decided to do something, and it will seem like nothing you do can stop them.
It is never okay to hit, push, or otherwise hurt a rabbit if they are doing something you believe is bad behavior. This type of punishment doesn’t work and is more likely to result in your rabbit not trusting you, or even trying to attack you.
However, discipline does not necessarily mean the same thing as punishment. Simple acts like clapping your hands or placing your rabbit in a temporary time-out are acceptable depending on the circumstances.
That being said, the best way to stop a rabbit from troublemaking behavior is always to try to address the underlying reason for the behavior. Finding the cause and redirecting your rabbit’s attention or using positive reinforcement is more likely to change your rabbit’s behavior than any kind of discipline.
Is it okay to discipline a rabbit?
Physical punishment should never be used with rabbits. Not only is it cruel, but the rabbit is unlikely to understand why they are being punished. Instead, it will only lead to your rabbit having a negative association with you and other humans. The only thing you are teaching your rabbit is how to stop trusting you.
On the other hand, if you are talking about discipline as a way to tell your rabbit to stop what they’re doing (without hurting them), then there may be some limited occasions when it’s appropriate. However, it should never be the predominant way that you approach a rabbit’s unwanted behavior. Instead, it’s only a short-term solution while you learn to address the root of the problem.
In my opinion, forms of ‘discipline’ that rely on distraction or help an agitated rabbit calm down can be used to aid in keeping rabbits out of trouble and preventing some unwanted behavior (scroll to the next section for what I mean specifically). Most of what I’ll be talking about in this article is not what people traditionally think of as discipline, so I use quotations around the term. However, this is as close as I would get to actually ‘disciplining’ a rabbit.
A note about ‘bad’ behaviors
It’s also very important to look at whether your rabbit’s ‘bad’ behavior is really your rabbit being bad, or if it’s something you don’t want them to do. I’ll get more into this further down when I talk about alternatives to discipline, but when you get a bunny you need to understand that they will behave like a rabbit.
Rabbits dig, rabbits chew, rabbits are curious and like to explore, and, yes, rabbits will also pee to mark their territory. Rabbits are also timid and territorial by nature. They will bite if they’re scared or attack if they believe you’re invading their territory. If a rabbit is acting aggressively or being a little troublemaker, there is a reason for their behavior.
Instead of disciplining a rabbit for acting like a rabbit, it’s better to try to understand what their needs are and redirect their natural behavior to something less destructive. You can also use positive reinforcement, instead of punishment, for a much more effective way to teach your rabbit how to behave.
Types of ‘discipline’ that are (sometimes) acceptable
The type of ‘discipline’ that is acceptable will fulfill one of two purposes:
- It keeps your rabbit safe. For example, a loud sound to startle your rabbit and prevent them from chewing on something dangerous.
- It helps your rabbit calm down. For example, short time-outs can help an agitated rabbit relax.
It’s also important to remember that it’s only worth using any of these ‘discipline’ techniques if your rabbit is currently doing the bad or dangerous behavior. If you wait until after they’ve done it, it won’t mean anything (for example, if you come home to find your rabbit has already chewed through the carpet). In these cases, you’ll want to move on to the next section where I talk about constructive ways to help change your rabbit’s behavior.
- Loud noise (clapping, snapping, or shaking a pill bottle). This will immediately startle your rabbit, so they stop what they’re doing. It’s best reserved for scenarios that are actively unsafe for your rabbit. For example, they go into a blocked-off area with a bunch of wires, and you want to stop them fast.
- Squirt bottle (I only use a squirt bottle when bonding rabbits, because there is a higher chance of injury if an aggressive behavior is not stopped immediately)
- Placing your hand over your rabbit’s head (this can help your rabbit calm down if they are showing aggressive behaviors)
- Picking your rabbit up to remove them from an unsafe spot (since most rabbits hate being picked up, I count this as a type of discipline)
- Short time-outs are sometimes appropriate (but remember, rabbits are social creatures, so you shouldn’t withhold affection for long)
I also want to note that it’s very important to follow up any kind of discipline that scares or startles your rabbit with love. If you startle your rabbit by clapping, make sure to go and pet them or give them a treat after they’ve stopped their bad behavior. This way, your rabbit will know you still love them.
What to do instead of disciplining a rabbit
In my experience, it’s much more effective to try to understand why your rabbit is misbehaving instead of trying to blindly tell them no and discipline them. In many cases, a rabbit who bites a lot is actually an anxious rabbit. A rabbit who digs out the litter box is often just a bored rabbit.
Once you take the time to investigate the behavior and look beyond it, you can address the problem more constructively. Sometimes you will be able to actively train your rabbit to not do certain things. But sometimes you also need to accept that it’s a natural rabbit behavior and the only thing you can do is try to redirect the behavior and make the environment more rabbit-friendly.
Instead of punishing a rabbit, try some of the following tips to help encourage better behavior.
1. Figure out why your rabbit did something bad
Rabbits are usually not naturally aggressive animals. If they lash out and try to bite you, there is usually a reason for it. Maybe they are extremely scared, or maybe it’s hormonal territorial behavior.
The same goes for other troublemaking behaviors. Sometimes your rabbit is bored and frustrated, and that’s why they’re acting out. If you first figure out why your rabbit is behaving badly, you can take steps to either fix the behavior or change the environment so it’s not as destructive.
Some questions you can ask to try to find the root of the problem include:
- Is your rabbit hormonal? As rabbits reach maturity, they will sometimes start getting more aggressive and destructive. Getting your rabbit fixed is the first step to solving this kind of behavior problem.
- Are they bored? Rabbits are curious creatures who need lots of space to explore and mental stimulation. Without enough of either of these, a rabbit is much more likely to get frustrated and act out.
- Are they scared? Timid rabbits may try to bite or attack people if they feel scared. This is often the root cause of many aggressive rabbit behaviors.
- Are they just doing normal bunny behaviors? You can’t stop a rabbit from digging or chewing, instead, you have to work around these behaviors and find ways for your rabbit to do them in less destructive ways.
2. Does your rabbit have safe places where they can use their natural behaviors
Rabbits are diggers and chewers. These are normal behaviors that your rabbit is going to continue doing no matter how many times you try to tell them not to. However, you can give your rabbit better ways of using their natural instincts that are not dangerous to your rabbit or destructive to your property.
- If your rabbit’s bad behavior includes biting baseboards and furniture legs, think about what kind of toys they have available. Cardboard boxes, apple sticks, and willow balls can be great for rabbits who like to chew.
- If your rabbit is digging at the carpet or digging out their litter box, do they have anything that it’s okay for them to dig and destroy? Again, cardboard boxes are excellent for this, you can also get cheap area rugs or create a DIY digging box for your rabbit (tutorial here).
- If your rabbit is loud and rattling the bars of their enclosure, do they have enough space? Most cages that are marketed and sold for rabbits are too small, leading them to be frustrated and bored because they can’t be as energetic as a bunny should be. Increasing the amount of space a rabbit has can solve a surprising number of behavior issues. (see why I recommend an exercise pen instead of a cage)
- How much attention are you giving your rabbit? Bunnies have social needs, and they are more likely to act up to try to get your attention if those needs are not being met.
3. Can you redirect the behavior?
Some rabbits will be little troublemakers regardless of how many toys they have and how much attention they get. Actually, scratch that, all rabbits will be little troublemakers sometimes, no matter how good you are at providing for the little bunny’s needs.
If your rabbit is getting into something they shouldn’t, the best thing to do is try to distract them with a more constructive way to use their behavior. Some ways you can distract your rabbit include:
- Placing a cardboard box, toy, or something like that right in front of your rabbit
- Start a training session with your rabbit (learn more about training rabbits)
- Get on your hands and knees and start acting weird so your rabbit comes to check out what you’re doing
- Pet your rabbit
- Try to hug your rabbit (they’ll usually hop away from you)
You do want to avoid giving them treats to distract them because that will seem like a reward to them. Your rabbit will think they’re getting rewarded for their behavior and they’ll be more likely to do it again, not less.
4. What external changes can you make to block your rabbit’s undesired behavior?
After you’ve distracted your rabbit or gotten them to calm down, you can move to make changes to their environment and habitat that prevent them from being as destructive. This is part of bunny-proofing, and it’s something you will have to continually improve as your rabbit finds new things to get into, make a mess, and destroy.
This is where you have to understand that bunnies will be bunnies. They are not going to stop digging, so what can you do to reduce the mess and make the behavior less destructive? These are some common problems and possible solutions:
- Your rabbit is digging in the litter box and making a mess
- See if your rabbit will use a covered litter box (some rabbits don’t like these)
- Use a high-sided litter box
- Put the litter box inside of a bigger box to catch the mess
- Use less litter and more hay in the box
- Your rabbit is chewing on the baseboards
- Block the walls with fencing or flattened cardboard boxes
- Spray with a bitter apple spray (usually only works temporarily)
- Your rabbit is digging into the carpet
- Cover the carpet with a cheap area rug
- Use plastic desk mats in the corners of rooms
- Strategically place cardboard boxes in places your rabbit likes to dig
- Use fences to block areas that are particularly problematic
- Your rabbit is loud at night
- Give your rabbit more space
- Switch your rabbit’s toys for quieter toys (cardboard can be fairly loud)
- Clip a blanket over the side of the pen
- Wear headphones when you sleep
5. What types of positive reinforcement can you use instead?
Some types of unwanted behavior are better addressed with positive reinforcement training. This is going to be the best solution for rabbits who bite. Since this type of behavior is frequently motivated by fear, you want to approach it by teaching your rabbit to not be afraid anymore.
The idea is to teach your rabbit that when you approach, you are bringing treats or petting. You won’t hurt them or try to make them do anything they don’t want to do. Depending on how fearful your rabbit is, the process can be slow going, but you want to be as kind and patient as you can with your rabbit. Any type of punishment or discipline is likely to set the whole process back.
- I go into more detail about training rabbits not to bite in my other article specifically about aggressive rabbits. If this is something you’re struggling with, I recommend checking it out for more information.
6. Let your rabbit know if they hurt you
Sometimes, rabbits who nip or bite don’t want to hurt you. This is frequently the case for rabbits who bite your hand when they want a treat because they have bad aim. It’s also common for rabbits who nip you to tell you to move out of the way, or accidentally bite you when they are doing something else and not paying attention.
For example, I like to lay on the floor near my bunnies and read with a cozy blanket. My rabbit, Teddy Bear, loves to play underneath the blanket, chewing and digging on it, which is totally okay with me. However, he will occasionally nip my leg while he’s playing to try to get me to move.
In these cases, you want to let your rabbit know that they hurt you so that they know not to do it again. Generally, the way that I handle this is to immediately yell “OW!” and sit up away from the rabbit. Then I will turn my back to him so he knows I’m upset (this is something rabbits do when they are mad or holding a grudge).
Once my rabbit comes up to me as if to apologize, or calms down and lays down near me, I will relent and go give him some head scratches to let him know I love him.
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- Hay: Second Cutting Timothy Hay from Small Pet Select
- Pellets: Oxbow Garden Select Food for Rabbits
- Treats: Oxbow Simple Rewards
- Toys: Small Pet Select Natural Toys
- Enclosure/cage: A rabbit exercise pen
- Rabbit carrier: SleepyPod Mobile Pet Bed