Rabbits are pretty skittish animals. As prey animals, they have to constantly be on the alert for threats in the area. This means if you don’t help your rabbit feel completely safe in their home, they might become chronically stressed. Other factors that can cause stress in rabbits include not having enough space to live in and feeling lonely.
The most common signs of stress in rabbits are an alert posture with upright ears and unexplained aggressive behavior. However, there are plenty of more subtle signs you can look for to help you determine if your rabbit is stressed out or anxious.
Of course, different rabbits have different personalities. Some rabbits are quite confident and don’t need any special treatment to help them feel safe. Other rabbits have a strong tendency toward anxiety and will need a lot of time and attention before they feel safe. That’s why you’ll need to pay attention to your rabbit’s body language to try to figure out if they’re stressed so you can make changes when they’re needed.
Note: When going through this list, don’t assume that your rabbit is stressed out just because you see one of these behaviors a couple of times. What you’re looking for is a combination of these behaviors (at least 5 or 6) that your rabbit shows on a regular basis.
- Learn more about what you can do to reduce stress for your rabbit
1. Your rabbit’s ears are constantly up and alert
If your rabbit feels unsafe in their environment, they will constantly be on the alert for incoming dangers. While it’s normal for rabbits to be perceptive and go on the alert occasionally, it shouldn’t be how they always act. If it is, this is a sign that they are pretty stressed out.
One of the easiest ways to tell if your rabbit is alert and stressed all the time is by watching their ears. When rabbits sense danger, their ears will stand up straight and stiff. The ears may also be angled forward while your rabbit tries to listen and figure out where the danger is coming from.
2. Your rabbit’s posture is rigid
When a rabbit is stressed out, they will usually have more rigid body language. The more relaxed your rabbit looks the more relaxed they feel. If your rabbit is stressed, they will be stiff and look like they are ready to run away at any second. If you try to pet them, your rabbit will not relax and enjoy the massage. Instead, their muscles will remain tense under your hand.
Other signs in your rabbit’s posture and body language that they are stressed are wide eyes (with the whites showing) and a nose that’s twitching very fast. A relaxed nose twitch is about once per second (or a little faster if your rabbit was just exercising). So if your rabbit has a very fast nose all the time, that’s a sign that they are frequently stressed out.
3. Your rabbit is quick to run away or hide
Fear is one of the main reasons that rabbits are stressed out all the time. One way to spot a fearful rabbit is by looking at how quickly they will run away and hide, even from everyday noises and occurrences.
Your rabbit may also be stressed if you see them tip-toeing around everywhere (this can look a little like waddling). Again, it’s normal for rabbits to be cautious occasionally, especially if they are exploring a new area. The key is if your rabbit is doing this all the time, even after they’ve had time to get used to a place.
This can just be your rabbit’s personality. Some rabbits are more skittish than others, and they’ll be prone to getting scared and running away. It may take a lot more work on your end to gain the trust of this kind of rabbit and help them gain confidence and lower their overall stress levels.
4. Your rabbit thumps frequently
Contrary to what pop media portrays, rabbits thump when they are scared or angry, not when they are happy or relaxed. When a rabbit senses danger nearby, they will thump as a way to warn others in their warren (family group) of the incoming threat. The rabbit will repeat the thump every couple of minutes until they feel the danger has passed.
So, a rabbit who has thumping fits frequently is probably stressed out because of how often they feel they are in danger.
Now, rabbits are more intelligent than people give them credit for. Sometimes, rabbits learn that if they thump, they get some attention. So instead of thumping because they are afraid, they’ll thump whenever they want to get your attention.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to all the signs of stress on this list, not just one. If your rabbit is thumping a lot, but they don’t have a rigid posture or alert ears, they probably aren’t stressed out.
5. Your rabbit is overgrooming or not grooming at all
Rabbits who are highly stressed out may groom themselves as a way of comforting themselves. If this only happens every once in a while, it’s no big deal, but a rabbit who is constantly stressed out may start to develop bald patches due to overgrooming.
If you have a female rabbit, this behavior can also be a result of a pregnancy or false pregnancy. They will pluck fur from their chest and legs to help line a nest for their babies. This behavior should stop completely once you get your rabbit spayed.
On the other end of the spectrum, some rabbits who are stressed out will stop grooming themselves altogether. They’ll end up with dull and shaggy fur that is more likely to get dirty and matted spots. This happens more often when the rabbit is kept in an unclean environment.
Of course, rabbits also shed a lot and their fur can look pretty shaggy when they go through their heavy molting seasons. This is normal and is not an indication of a stressed or depressed rabbit.
6. Your rabbit is acting aggressive
One of the most common behaviors I see from rabbits who are chronically stressed out is inexplicable aggressive behavior. I see this frequently when I work with rescue rabbits who come from negligent backgrounds and were obviously kept in unsafe conditions. The rabbit will be so used to being stressed that they act out aggressively toward anyone who comes near.
This is less common for rabbits who are temporarily stressed out and is more a result of long-term stress. However, it is possible that a rabbit who is stressed from fear and feels cornered will lash out aggressively even if it’s not chronic.
If your rabbit is acting aggressively when they were previously sweet, it’s possible that they recently reached adulthood and need to be spayed or neutered to help their hormones settle. It can also be a subtle indication of illness, so it’s a good idea to get your rabbit checked by a small animal veterinarian if their behavior has changed and you don’t know why.
7. Your rabbit mostly sits in one spot
A rabbit who takes no interest in their surroundings and just sits around all day in one spot is likely stressed and depressed. This happens when a rabbit doesn’t get enough space (lives in a cage that’s too small) or does not have enough interaction with other humans or rabbits.
Healthy rabbits require plenty of socialization and plenty of exercise. Without both of these, rabbits will become stressed out or depressed because their needs are not being met.
Of course, that doesn’t mean all rabbits who sleep a lot are depressed. Remember to take the time of day into account when you watch your rabbit’s energy levels. Rabbits are naturally more active in the morning and evening and will sleep a lot in the middle of the afternoon and the middle of the night.
8. Restless activity or persistent destructive behavior
Restless activity (such as pacing around their cage or biting the bars) or persistent destructive behavior (such as digging into carpets or biting baseboards even after being shoo-ed away) can be an indication that your rabbit is stressed because they don’t get enough space or time to exercise. In short, it means they are stressed, frustrated, and bored.
The best solution to this kind of stress is to give your rabbit a larger enclosure (I always recommend using an ex-pen instead of a rabbit cage) and make sure they have plenty of time outside the cage to explore, exercise, and interact with people.
It’s also a good idea to consider bonding your rabbit with another rabbit to give them company when you’re not around (find out more). Keep in mind that bonding rabbits is not always easy since they tend to be territorial animals, but it’s great for rabbits to have a partner to help them stay happy and reduce stress.
I know I keep saying it, but I’ll mention it again: if you are only seeing this behavior and nothing else from this list, your rabbit is probably fine. They just have a more destructive personality and you’ll have to do your best to redirect their behaviors to something less destructive (try cardboard boxes).
9. A change in litter box habits
Rabbits who used to have good litter box habits, but are suddenly urinating in unexpected areas may be stressed out. This can be an indication of illness, such as a urinary tract infection. It can also be an indication that your rabbit feels their territory is being invaded. For example, if you brought a new pet home or had some guests over for a few days.
A change in litter box habits can also mean that your baby rabbit has reached maturity, and it’s time to get them spayed or neutered.
- Learn more about spay and neuter surgeries for rabbits
10. A change in eating habits
Many, many rabbits will lose their appetite as soon as they get a little stressed. This is actually very dangerous for rabbits because the rabbit digestive system is pretty sensitive and needs to keep moving throughout the day. If a rabbit stops eating, it can quickly lead to a condition known as GI stasis (learn more), which is very dangerous if not detected and treated right away.
Long-term, slow changes in eating habits can happen as your rabbit ages and aren’t an indicator of stress the way short-term appetite changes are. It’s fairly normal for rabbits to eat less as they reach 8 or 10 years, so at this point, you may want to talk to your vet about changing your rabbit to a higher-calorie type of pellet to keep them from losing weight.
11. Heavy or rapid breathing
A relaxed rabbit will typically take a breath every 1-2 seconds. You can watch their breathing rate by watching the twitch of their nose. If your rabbit is breathing a little faster than this it’s probably nothing to worry about, but breathing that’s 3 or 4 times as fast can mean your rabbit is stressed out due to illness or intense fear.
When a rabbit is breathing heavily, you’ll be able to see their side move up and down very visibly. Rapid breathing is also accompanied by a very quickly twitching nose. This kind of breathing is an indication that your rabbit is sick or overheating. So it’s worth looking into ways of keeping your rabbit cool or seeing if there are any other symptoms of illness that you may have missed.
It’s common for rabbits to breathe rapidly just after they’ve exercised and zoomed around the room, but it’s not normal for rabbits to breathe heavily all the time. Some smaller breeds of rabbits also tend to naturally have more rapid breathing too.
- Learn more about when heavy breathing is dangerous in rabbits
Steps you can take to help reduce stress for your rabbit
If you can check off several symptoms from this list and believe your rabbit is stressed out, it’s time to take some action to help your rabbit feel safe in their environment and live a healthier life. Try making some of these changes and check out my article about reducing stress in rabbits for more detailed information.
- Keep your rabbit in a quiet room with limited foot traffic
- Avoid holding your rabbit when you don’t have to
- Give your rabbit a large enclosure
- Give your rabbit boxes to hide in
- Make sure your rabbit has a consistent daily routine
- Keep the temperature cool
- Give your rabbit plenty of toys
- Make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet
- Keep your rabbit indoors
- Give your rabbit plenty of time for exercise
- Get a bunny partner for your rabbit
- Don’t overcrowd your rabbit
- Get your rabbit spayed or neutered