How Do Rabbits Establish Dominance in a Bonded Pair?

who is the dominant rabbit?

Rabbits are a very social species. Like many other animals, rabbits depend on having a social hierarchy to keep the peace among the group members. This means, when any two rabbits meet, they will instinctively size each other up and try to determine if the other rabbit is higher or lower ranking than them. They will attempt to establish dominance in the relationship until, eventually, one comes out the winner.

In general, rabbits establish dominance using elaborate behavioral cues that include mounting, chasing, bowing, and grooming. Once bonded, some pairs of rabbits have a visibly established hierarchy, while other pairs will only show subtle signs of their hierarchical relationship.

Understanding the dominance relationship between rabbits can help in the way you interact with your rabbits. You can pet and feed your rabbits in a way that won’t cause tension in the relationship, and you will know which behaviors are aggressive and which are normal.

Understanding rabbit hierarchy

In almost all species of animals that work cooperatively in groups, there is some form of a pecking order. This reduces aggression within the group by causing the rabbits to take turns instead of all the members attempting to attain the available resources at the same time. In times of limited resources, this practice also ensures the survival of the species over the individual. 

Because of this, rabbits will instinctively try to size each other up when they first meet. They’ll try to determine if the rabbit they are looking at is of a higher or lower rank and then treat them accordingly. They will go through a process where each will try to claim dominance in the relationship. You will observe many behaviors that are part of the dominance dance, and you’ll know which rabbit is the leader by paying close attention.

1. Mounting

While mounting can, of course, be a sexual behavior when rabbits want to procreate, it is also a dominance behavior. During bonding, the top rabbit will try to claim their spot by mounting and humping the other rabbit. This is a phenomenon that occurs between pairs of rabbits that are the same gender as well as opposite genders. Sometimes the male rabbit is on top, and sometimes it’s the female mounting a male.

This mounting behavior will happen frequently during the bonding process, as the top bun asserts their position. However, it’s usually not as common once the pair are living happily together. Occasionally you might notice the dominant rabbit mounting just to remind the other bunny that they are the boss.

If you are currently bonding your rabbits and notice a lot of mounting, that’s completely normal, and there is no need to break up the rabbits. The only times you should stop one rabbit from humping the other is if the bottom rabbit seems uncomfortable or if the dominant rabbit tries to hump the other’s face. Otherwise, trying to break them up can keep your rabbits from fully bonding with each other since this act helps them determine their relationship.

Interestingly, the two rabbits that I have right now have never tried to hump each other. Even though mounting is a widespread behavior, it’s not going to be a part of every rabbit relationship.

rabbits grooming each other
When rabbits groom each other, they will often focus around the forehead and ears.

2. Grooming

Usually, one of the easiest ways to figure out which rabbit is dominant is by watching the rabbits groom each other. In most relationships, the dominant rabbit will receive much more grooming than the other rabbit. The lower-ranking rabbit will be expected to lick and groom the top bun, especially on places like the ears, eyes, and forehead. The boss rabbit doesn’t have the same expectation.

The dominant bunny can still choose to groom the other rabbit if they want to. However, the lower-ranking rabbit won’t get offended if their requests for grooming are ignored, while the top bunny will often be more demanding.

It’s important to remember that all situations are different. For example, my Ellie is the dominant rabbit in the relationship, but she also loves to lick everything. She is undoubtedly groomed a lot by her partner Teddy Bear, but Ellie also grooms him because she cares about him and because she enjoys licking and grooming everything. So It’s always important to pay attention to all of the dominance behaviors in a rabbit relationship and not just depend on one aspect to figure out who is the top bunny.

rabbit bowing head to other rabbit
When rabbits put their head down in front of another rabbit, they are asking to be groomed. It is usually the more dominant rabbit that gets groomed first.

3. Bowing

A rabbit is bowing when they place their head down in front of the other rabbit to ask to be groomed. Typically they will approach the other rabbit from the front, nose-to-nose, and then put their head down with their ears up. Sometimes they will stick their head directly under the other rabbit’s chin. 

In a relationship where neither rabbit has established their dominance yet, the second rabbit may reciprocate by putting their own head down instead of grooming the rabbit. They will be a standoff with both rabbits asking to be groomed with their heads down. This is because, in most rabbit relationships, the first rabbit to give in and groom the other is accepting the position as the lower ranking bunny. If this goes on long enough, it can end in a fight when one rabbit gets offended that the other won’t groom them. It’s also why seeing one rabbit groom the other during bonding is a huge step in the relationship. It’s a clear sign that the two rabbits are starting to determine the hierarchy between them.

After your rabbits are bonded, you will still see this behavior a lot. Typically, the dominant rabbit will bow to ask for grooming all the time. However, the lower-ranking rabbits will still do this occasionally. They will not get offended if the boss ignores them, though.

And again, I have to mention that while most of the time the rabbit who grooms the other first ends up being the subservient rabbit, this is not always the case. Since Ellie likes to lick everything, she was ready to groom Teddy Bear right away. However, she would still get offended if Ellie didn’t groom her when she asked him to.

Rabbits who flatten their bodies against the ground may be scared or exhibiting a submissive behavior to a more dominant rabbit.

4. Flattening

Flattening looks very similar to bowing, but it has the complete opposite meaning. This is when one rabbit pushes themself against the ground and lays their ears down their back. This is submissive behavior. The lower-ranking rabbit will assume this posture if they believe the dominant rabbit is upset and don’t want to challenge the higher-ranking bunny.

Sometimes, the boss bunny will see this behavior and give the lower rabbit a couple of licks on their forehead to acknowledge it, making it look a lot like bowing. However, you will typically see this behavior in different scenarios. For example, if the dominant rabbit races toward the other bunny, the lower ranking rabbit might get scared and flatten themself to the ground as a way to say they are not a threat.

5. Chasing 

Chasing is a standard behavior that you will see during bonding and occasionally after your rabbits are a happy bonded pair too. It’s a behavior that looks a little bit scary to watch if you are new to bonding. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as one rabbit is chasing and the other is running away, this is simply a dominance ritual where the boss bunny claims their position by chasing the other rabbit. By running away instead of turning to fight, the other rabbit accepts their lower-ranking position.

This chasing behavior should not be accompanied by any truly aggressive behavior. While you might see the occasional nipping or tuft of fur being pulled, the rabbits are not actually trying to harm each other but instead remind the other rabbit who is the boss.

Once the rabbits have been fully bonded, you might not see any chasing at all. Since the rabbits know their place in the relationship, there is no need to continue the chasing ritual. However, you still might see this behavior every once in a while if the dominant bunny gets upset at something the other rabbit is doing or if they want to reassert their dominance.

6. Circling

Circling is not as common among rabbits who have been spayed or neutered (and you should make sure your rabbit has been spayed/neutered before attempting to bond them). However, you may notice this behavior occasionally. Circling is when the dominant rabbit runs wide circles around the other rabbit as an intimidation technique. It’s often followed by mounting and humping as the top bunny asserts their position.

7. Nipping and fur pulling

While it can be difficult to watch during the bonding process, a small amount of nipping and fur pulling is nothing to be worried about. These are signs that the rabbits are learning how to communicate with each other. 

The dominant rabbit will nip or pull a small tuft of fur when they are annoyed at the other rabbit or want them to move out of the way. They will also show these behaviors if they are chasing the other rabbit away from food or a toy that the dominant rabbit wants to access first.

Typically, the rabbits will learn nicer ways of talking with each other, and they learn to speak the same language. In time, simply hopping over or nudging the other rabbit can communicate enough information without the need of nipping or fur pulling.

8. Following the leader

Another behavior that you will notice once your rabbits have started to feel more secure in their relationship is a kind of follow-the-leader behavior. You’ll see when the boss bunny wanders around exploring, the lower ranking rabbit will follow a few steps behind them. It’s a way of both staying out of the dominant rabbit’s way and taking comfort in know that the leader already went through the area and deemed it safe.

This behavior is especially noticeable with anxious or shy rabbits. They might be too afraid to explore on their own, but they also don’t like to be left behind. In these scenarios, the lower-ranking rabbit will happily follow wherever their leader goes. They’ll sniff and chin the same objects after the boss moves on. Then they’ll follow the leader to the next place.

9. Waiting for their turn

Similarly, the lower-ranking rabbit knows they have to wait their turn to get a treat or play with the best toys. You’ll often see them sitting a few feet back when you’re getting the treats out for your rabbits. The subservient rabbit will only come up and beg for a treat after the dominant rabbit gets their piece.

With toys, the lower-ranking rabbit will wait until the dominant rabbit is done or loses interest to approach and play. This is even how it works with getting attention from people. Often the boss bunny will want to get the attention first before you dote on the other rabbit. Some will even get jealous and chase the other rabbit away if you pay too much attention to the lower ranking rabbit and not enough to the dominant rabbit.

rabbit sleeping positions
Rabbits mainly sleep on one of these three positions. They often sleep with their eyes open too.

10. Keeping guard

When a bonded pair of rabbits sleep, you will often notice the dominant rabbit is flopped over completely while the lower ranking rabbit sleeps in a loaf position. Because rabbits are more aware and able to react more quickly in a loaf position, this is how the subservient rabbit can ‘stand guard’ for the dominant rabbit. If anything happens, the rabbit can quickly jump to awareness and wake up the boss.

This is not an arrangement you’ll notice every time your rabbits sleep next to each other, but it happens frequently enough that you’ll probably be able to tell who is the top bun.

11. Resource guarding

Some dominant rabbits can get pretty nasty about food. They guard the best pieces even after they’ve finished, hardly letting the lower ranking rabbit eat any at all. This is more common with rabbits protecting pellets or leafy greens, and not likely that rabbits would guard hay this way.

This kind of situation can be pretty tricky to deal with because you want to make sure that both rabbits get enough to eat, but it’s hard to work against a rabbit’s natural instincts. In these cases, you will probably need to separate your rabbits when you feed them to prevent aggressive behavior or occasional fighting due to a resource guarding dominant rabbit.

rabbit sleeping on top of another rabbit
Sometimes a rabbit will show dominance by sleeping on top of their partner.

12. Laying on top

Sometimes a dominant rabbit will literally lay on top of the other rabbit. They’ll drape themselves overtop of the lower-ranking rabbits. Sometimes over their head, and sometimes over their torso. They sleep in positions that do no not look comfortable for either rabbit. This is another way the boss bunny will continue to establish dominance even after the two rabbits have been fully bonded and live together peacefully.

When the dominant rabbit is challenged

The problem comes when neither rabbit wants to accept the position as the subservient rabbit. In these cases, you’re bound to have stand-offs and fights while both rabbits try to claim the dominant position. If you don’t break up these fights quickly, the rabbits can get injured.

Most of the time, the two rabbits will eventually figure it out. However, some rabbits refuse to back down, and these rabbits will not end up being good partners for each other.

The dynamic between rabbits can also change with time. If the dominant rabbit becomes old or ill, for example, the other rabbit may see this as a chance to change their position. They’ll challenge the other rabbit and try to assert their dominance. In these situations, you may need to temporarily separate the rabbits and go through a re-bonding process to help the rabbits figure out the dynamics of their new relationship.

How you can hurt your rabbits’ relationship

You also need to pay attention to the hierarchy within your rabbits’ relationship. If you try to treat the lower ranking rabbit with preference, the dominant rabbit may get jealous and bully the other rabbit. To make sure you’re not getting in the way of your rabbit’s coexisting relationship: 

  • Pay attention to the pecking order. Give the dominant rabbit their treats first and give them their first choice of toys. You can provide equal treatment to the second rabbit, but you do want to pay attention to who gets stuff first.
  • Give the dominant rabbit enough attention. You can give equal attention to both rabbits, but make sure the dominant rabbit doesn’t feel left out.
  • Don’t prevent dominance rituals. There is no need to break up mounting, chasing, or be too worried about nipping. While they may appear concerning at first, these are behaviors that help rabbits figure out their relationship and bond in the long term.

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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