How Do Rabbits Show Fear or Anxiety?


how to know your rabbit is afraid

We all want to know our rabbits feel safe and happy in our homes, but sometimes rabbit body language can be confusing. They don’t whine or whimper to show they are afraid. Sometimes they won’t even move at all. But that doesn’t mean rabbit’s never get scared. You just need to read their body language to know how your rabbit is feeling.

How do rabbits show fear? Rabbits can show you that they are afraid using their unique bunny body language. By paying attention to your rabbit’s ears and posture, you can learn how to tell when they are feeling anxious. Rabbits will also show fear with more obvious signs, such as thumping their back feet or running away and hiding.

Since rabbits have evolved as prey animals, they are often quick to be frightened. Your rabbit might be afraid of noises or objects in their environment without you even knowing about it. By learning how to tell when your rabbit is afraid or anxious, you can make changes to their environment. This will help reduce the overall stress in your rabbit’s life, making your bunny happy and content.  

How to know your rabbit is afraid or anxious

By watching your rabbit’s body language, you can learn how to tell when they are afraid and anxious. Some of these behaviors are a very clear indication of fear and anxiety in rabbits, while others can mean a rabbit is bored, depressed, or angry also. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to the context around your rabbit’s behaviors. 

If you see multiple of these behaviors in your rabbit, there is a higher chance that they are feeling anxious. Likewise, you can pay attention to any external stimuli that could be causing fear or anxiety in your rabbit. Things like a loud dog barking outside, or a burnt smell coming from the kitchen can be environmental factors that can clue you in to what your rabbit is feeling when paired with their body language.

When rabbits are on high alert, their ears will be facing forward while they try to figure out where the danger is coming from.

1. Alert Posture

One of the most obvious clues to tell you whether or not your rabbit is afraid is their posture. Confident rabbits will have a relaxed posture. When a rabbit goes on the alert, their body will tense up, making the rabbit look like they’re ready to make a dash for it at any minute. 

They might be standing up on their hind legs or on all fours. They are also often standing on their tip toes, putting more weight into the front of their feet. Their eyes get wide and their nose starts to race as the rabbit tries to detect a perceived danger and run away if necessary.

2. Alert ears

When rabbits are afraid, their ears will swivel around to try to find where the danger is coming from. Rabbit ears are shaped in a way that allows them to amplify the sound coming from the direction they are pointing. This helps rabbits pinpoint exactly where a suspicious sound is coming from, so they can run away from it.

Often this means the rabbits ears will be pointed forward over their head. You might also see them swivel as the rest of the rabbit’s posture freezes in place. The rabbit is instinctually moving as little as possible to avoid detection from potential predators while they figure out where danger might be coming from.

Rabbits don’t make many noises, but they will thump their hind legs if they are angry or scared.

3. Thumping

Thumping is one of the loudest sounds a rabbit can make. Generally rabbits will thump either because they are angry or because they are scared. It’s a way for a rabbit to warn their family group when they sense danger, or they can thump to warn an enemy to back off. 

When a rabbit is thumping because they are scared, it is usually accompanied by alert body language and posture. The rabbit may also be fidgety and less likely to stay in one place. They’ll thump and then run off to a new place for a different vantage point. Then the rabbit will thump again. Usually this behavior will continue until the rabbit feels the danger has passed.

Rabbits that feel scared will run away and hide. If they have long-term anxiety, they may stay hidden for long periods during the day.

4. Hiding

Understandably, rabbits who are scared and anxious will spend a lot of time hiding. If they are suddenly frightened by something in their environment, a rabbit will often run to a hiding house or common hiding spot. 

Rabbits that suffer from anxiety on a more consistent basis are likely to spend a lot of their time hiding. They may be wary about coming out at all, especially when there are people around. In some cases, they may even wait to come out and eat until the coast is completely clear. These anxious bunnies often need some extra incentive to learn how to trust people. They’ll need some extra time, but you can teach these shy bunnies to come out of their shell too.

aggressive rabbit
When rabbits are aggressive, they will raise their tail and pull back their ears with a raised head. Rabbits will growl and lunge forward as well.

5. Aggressive behavior

Some rabbits are fighters. Rather than running and hiding when they feel scared or anxious, they will exhibit more aggressive behavior. In addition to thumping, the rabbit may be more likely to lunge and swipe at anyone who comes near. They may even try to bite.

This can be both a short term reaction to a fearful situation, or a behavior associated with more long-term anxiety in rabbits. Acting out aggressively is a defensive behavior that the rabbit uses to keep any perceived danger away. They are trying to protect themselves from danger.

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

6. Flattening

Sometimes when they are scared rabbits will flatten themselves onto the ground. If a rabbit is scared and feels that they cannot escape they may take on this posture. This is also a way of showing that they are submissive, so you may also see this behavior in pairs or groups of buns. 

When a rabbit flattens to the ground they will have a tense body and rigid posture. Their feet are all on the ground to allow the rabbit to get up and move away very quickly. This makes it different from the relaxed body language a rabbit shows when they are comfortable. Rabbits that are comfortable and confident won’t have a tense body, and they’ll often tuck their legs underneath them.

7. Freeze!

Rabbits that are scared can also have that classic deer-in-the-headlights reaction. They may freeze, wide eyed, and refuse to move at all. In most cases, this behavior will only last for a few moments while your rabbit tries to gather information from their senses about potential dangers in their surroundings.

If you notice this reaction in your rabbit, you want to comfort them and let them know there is nothing to be afraid of. A rabbit who is scared like this could be going into shock, so you’ll want to pet your rabbit and speak softly to them. Monitor their behavior, and if they don’t start to react to you then you should call your vet and seek medical advice.

Rabbits will spend a good portion of the day grooming themselves to stay clean, but excessive grooming can cause bald spots and fur loss.

8. Overgrooming

Another fear related behavior is when rabbits overgroom themselves. This is a way that rabbits can comfort themselves when they are feeling scared or a little anxious. This is also a stress related behavior, so you may also see excessive grooming in rabbits who are bored or not feeling well. 

In the short term, overgrooming is not something to be worried about, it’s simply a clue into your rabbit’s emotions. However, a rabbit who has more long-standing anxiety can overgroom themself to the point of causing bald spots and fur loss. 

changing eating habits in rabbits
If a rabbit’s eating habits change that is a sign of anxiety, illness, or overgrown teeth.

9. Over or under eating

Fearful or anxious rabbits can also show us how they are feeling with their eating habits. Some rabbits will take comfort from overeating their food, while others will show symptoms of anorexia. Both of these can be dangerous, but a rabbit that is not eating enough is in much more immediate danger than an overeating rabbit.

A change in eating habits can also be a symptom of many illnesses in rabbits and should always be taken seriously. Talk to your vet and make an appointment so you can figure out if the cause is related to an underlying illness, or excessive stress in your rabbit. A rabbit who is refusing to eat at all should be taken to the vet as soon as possible for an emergency appointment.

10. Excessive drinking

Some rabbits will show anxiety by drinking a lot more water than usual. Like with overeating, this can be a way for rabbits to comfort themselves. It is more a symptom of long term anxiety, than short term fear.

Rabbits do drink a lot on a daily basis, so it’s sometimes difficult to know what excessive drinking looks like. In general, 1-2 cups of water a day is a normal amount for rabbits (large rabbits may drink more). If your rabbit is drinking a lot more than that, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your vet. In addition to being a stress related behavior, excessive drinking can also be a symptom of liver-related illnesses.

What causes fear in rabbits?

Rabbits can show signs of fear for many reasons. They are usually more likely to be startled than other common household pets simply because they are prey animals. But of course, some rabbits are more prone to fear than others. Their living environment, past experiences, and even genetics can be factors that cause a rabbit to be more fearful.

  • Rabbit genetics: All rabbits have some built in tendency to go on the alert. This helped their wild ancestors sense predators and have a higher chance of survival. Pet rabbits have been bred over the years to be much less skittish, but some breeds are still more prone to fearful and anxious behavior than others. 
  • Past experiences: Rabbits that have had traumatic experiences in the past are more likely to be anxious and fearful rabbits. For some rabbits this can even include being held too much or handled inappropriately. 
  • Current situation: A rabbits current environment can play a large role in how fearful they are. Constant loud noises and unexpected situations can be stressful and cause anxiety in rabbits.
  • Social stress: Social stress for rabbits can include getting too much unwanted attention, or not getting enough attention (which is especially common for rabbits that do not have a bonded rabbit partner). To make sure you’re giving your rabbit enough attention but not scaring them by crowding them all the time, you can allow your rabbit to initiate interactions.

Sources:

  1. “Rabbits Should Show Normal Behavior Patterns.” NIdirect. https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/rabbits-should-show-normal-behaviour-patterns.

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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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