Rabbits are little creatures living in a big world. There are a lot of scary sounds, sights and smells that make rabbits want to hide away. No matter how amazing and safe your rabbit’s environment is, there will always be occasions when they get scared. But some rabbits are more prone to fear than others, making them very anxious bunnies.
Can rabbits have anxiety? Anxiety can be a common problem among pet rabbits. Their ancestors in the wild they had to constantly be on the alert for predators and dangerous situations. Pet rabbits still have these wild instincts and can become chronically anxious even when they live in a safe environment.
Luckily, there is a lot you can do to help your rabbit calm down and become a more confident and happy bunny. But you can’t force it. You’ll need to work with your rabbit’s unique personality to help them overcome their fears over time. By making your rabbit feel safe in their surroundings and slowly teaching them self confidence skills, you can help your rabbit overcome their anxiety.
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Signs of chronic anxiety in rabbits
It’s common for all rabbits to be scared sometimes. While it’s definitely important to comfort rabbits during these moments of fear, it’s not a large problem unless they are living in a more constant state of anxiety. Rabbits that live in this high-alert state of fear are more likely to develop health problems. They are also less likely to trust people and bond with their caretakers.
To know if your rabbit has anxiety, it’s important to learn about their body language and behaviors. Some signs of chronic anxiety in rabbits are subtle, so it can take some careful observation of a rabbit’s behavior. Once you are in tune with your rabbit’s emotions, you’ll be able to work with them to help them recover from anxiety and become happy and confident bunnies.
This is when a rabbit is hyper-focused on their surroundings because they are afraid of a potential threat. They’ll have their ears pointed forward or focused on an unfamiliar sound. Their eyes will be wide, and their body posture will be rigid. They’ll also usually look like they are on their toes, and ready to make a run for it at any second.
Seeing this behavior occasionally is normal and nothing to be too worried about. However, a rabbit who is almost constantly on the alert is likely very stressed out by their environment. You may notice that even when they appear relaxed, your rabbit is quick to go back on the alert if there is any movement or sound in the vicinity.
Rabbits will often thump when they are scared. The sound of a dog barking outside or the vacuum running in the other room could set any rabbit off on a fit of thumping. Your rabbit will thump their strong hind legs against the ground to make a very loud sound, like a textbook that’s fallen flat on the floor. If your rabbit feels the danger is ongoing, they will continue to thump occasionally for the next few minutes.
You do want to learn how to comfort your rabbit when they get into one of these thumping fits. However, with most rabbits they don’t happen very often. If your rabbit has frequent thumping fits, that can mean that they are often scared. They don’t feel safe in their environment. There are other reasons that rabbits thump (for example, if they are angry or are seeking attention), but if your rabbit’s thumping is accompanied by alert behavior, that’s an indication that they are scared and anxious.
Rabbits who are constantly hiding away could be suffering from anxiety. Hiding is normal behavior for a rabbit who is brought to a new environment. Don’t feel worried if the new bunny you brought home doesn’t want to come out and play right away. However, if your rabbit is still hiding away after weeks and months, they are likely experiencing some anxiety.
Some rabbits channel their anxiety through more aggressive behavior. They might be afraid of humans approaching them and learn that lashing out aggressively will make people go away. Over time this becomes a habit and defensive mechanism to cover up the fear and anxiety that they feel.
Aggressive behavior is also more common in rabbits who have not been spayed or neutered (learn more about why it’s important to get your rabbit fixed). Aggressive behavior can also be a symptom of other health concerns. For example if your rabbit has an undiagnosed underlying health condition, they may become more aggressive because they are in pain. So if your rabbit seemed to suddenly become more aggressive toward you, consider making an appointment with your regular rabbit vet.
Some anxious rabbits will comfort themselves with excessive grooming. Rabbits are generally clean animals and will lick themselves to stay clean. However, they should not groom themselves to the point where they are thinning out their fur or causing bald spots. Similarly, anxious rabbits might scratch themselves more often. They may start to have bald spots or scratch marks in the area behind their ears from the constant scratching.
Overeating or anorexia
Just like people, rabbits can take comfort from their food. Anxious rabbits are more likely to overeat, causing obesity and potential health problems (learn how to prevent overeating in rabbits). The more dangerous alternative is actually under eating or anorexia in rabbits. This is when rabbits are so stressed and anxious that they hardly eat. If you notice your rabbit is not eating at all, this is an emergency situation.
Not eating, even for a day, can be fatal for rabbits. You will need to address the underlying reason that your rabbit is not eating (whether it be anxiety or a health condition), but the more pressing concern is to get your rabbit to the vet and get them eating as soon as possible.
While less common, some rabbits who are anxious and stressed will start to drink an excessive amount of water. It’s normal for rabbits to drink around 1-2 cups of water a day. If you find they are consistently drinking a lot more than that, it may be cause for concern. This is another symptom that may be worth going to the vet for, since excessive drinking can also be a symptom of liver problems.
How to help your rabbit overcome anxiety
Okay, so you’re pretty sure your rabbit is an anxious little bunny. You want to know what you can do to help them overcome their anxiety and be a happy bunny. There are two ways that you want to approach this dilemma: by making changes to the environment your rabbit lives in and by teaching your rabbit to be brave. The goal is to make sure your rabbit feels safe in their surroundings and to encourage your rabbit to become more confident.
1. Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is a technique I learned volunteering at animal shelters. What you do is simply go over to your rabbit’s enclosure a few times a day, leave a treat for them and then go away. You want to make sure your rabbit sees you leave the treat (so they don’t think it just magically appears), and you should leave without bothering your rabbit. Let them come out in their own time.
The goal of this technique is to help your rabbit associate people with good things (like treats) rather than scary things (like unwanted attention). It will also teach rabbits who are hiding away that they can get a treat when they come out of hiding. Over time your rabbit will start to feel safer in their environment. They’ll be less scared of humans, and they’ll be gaining a little bit of confidence every time they choose to come out of hiding and are rewarded with a treat.
2. Slowly introduce sounds to your rabbit
One thing that can really scare a rabbit is loud or unusual sounds. These can often cause a rabbit to immediately go on the alert, especially if they are an anxious rabbit. You’ll want to make some changes to your rabbit’s environment so that it can be as quiet and calm as possible. Then introduce new sounds slowly to help desensitize your rabbit to normal daily noises.
This means when you first hang out with your anxious rabbit, you keep completely quiet and try not to make any sudden movements. Then as your rabbit gets more comfortable around you, start talking to them in a gentle voice. Then, as you notice your rabbit’s confidence improving, try to introduce other sounds, such as soft music or an audiobook in the background. This likely won’t happen all in one day, but instead is a slow progression over time. It will eventually allow your rabbit to feel safe in their surroundings, even when there is some noise in the background.
3. Increase the amount of space they have access to little by little
All rabbits should have access to a large enclosure. That’s always best for their physical health. However, when it comes to their larger exercise space, sometimes it’s best to start small. Too much unfamiliar space can make a rabbit feel scared. An anxious rabbit who suddenly has access to the entire floor plan of a house, can easily get overwhelmed and choose not to come out and explore at all.
Instead it’s best to start small. Give your rabbit time to familiarize themself with one room in the house first, before opening the door up to a wider area. This will help your rabbit start to feel safe in one room at a time, making them feel a little braver about visiting the next place.
4. Stick to a daily routine
Rabbits thrive with a daily routine. Anything unexpected can put a rabbit on the alert, making them feel scared and anxious. A routine makes their days predictable, which means they know what to expect, and they can feel safe in their day-to-day life. The more consistent the routine the better.
The best way to set up a daily routine is by giving your rabbit a consistent feeding schedule. So refresh your rabbits hay, leafy greens, and pellets at the same times every day, and even try to create a treat schedule so your rabbit knows when they’ll get a yummy treat. You’ll also want to make sure to give your rabbit their exercise time consistently every day. Even the times when you hang out with your rabbit should be about the same from day to day.
5. Give your rabbit places to hide, but encourage them to come out
You want to make sure your rabbit has multiple hiding houses, or places they can hide when they feel scared. I hiding house can be anything from a little wooden small animal house, to a cardboard box, or even a chair with a blanket draped over it. These help your rabbit to feel a little bit safer in their environment, because they’ll always have someplace to run to if they get scared.
You never want to force your rabbit out of hiding, but you do want them to choose to come out on their own. The difference is in your rabbit’s emotion. A rabbit who is forced out of hiding will be scared and distrustful, whereas a rabbit who chooses to come out on their own gains a little bit of confidence and learns that maybe the world isn’t as scary as they thought.
You can encourage your rabbit to come out by placing some small pieces of treats near the entrance of their enclosure. You can even make a little trail of treats leading up to where you are sitting to teach your rabbit to approach people.
6. Spend time around your rabbit, but ignore them until they come to you
While it may be tempting to give a lot of attention to your adorable bunny right away, crowding them, and socializing them before they are ready can lead to anxiety. Instead you want to spend time in the same room with your rabbit, but ignore them until your rabbit initiates an interaction. You can try sitting on the floor in an area near your rabbit so they can come up to you if they want to. Even try placing some treats near you, to encourage your rabbit to be brave.
For the time being it’s best to avoid trying to pick up your rabbit, since that can be really scary for them. But they might be okay with you petting them a little. Try giving them some scritches on their forehead or behind the ears. These tend to be sweet spots for rabbits. If your rabbit flinches away, just withdraw your hand and give them more time to get used to you. (More information about befriending shy rabbits, so you can pet them without running away)
7. Reward your rabbit’s curiosity
The best way to build confidence in rabbits is to reward their natural curiosity. You can do this by leaving little treats for them in places they explore. This will give them a positive association with the new place they explored, and encourage them to be brave and find other new places too.
You can also use this technique when teaching your rabbit to approach you or other people. Whenever your rabbit decides to tentatively come up to you, give them a little treat to reward their curiosity. It builds trust between you and your rabbit, and it builds confidence in an anxious and shy rabbit.
8. Teach your rabbit some tricks
Training a rabbit is an adorable way to teach them some confidence. By learning some cool tricks (like how to give you a high five), your rabbit can learn that their own choices and behaviors can result in a yummy treat. It’s a way for your rabbit to feel in control of their own life.
Training is also a form of distraction. If your rabbit frequently gets scared of sounds from next door, for example, you can do an impromptu training session to distract your rabbit from whatever it is that’s scaring them.
9. Give your rabbit fun puzzle toys
Puzzle toys are another form of mental enrichment that can help rabbits to feel more confident. These are toys where you hide a treat inside or underneath the pieces. Your rabbit will have to roll the toy around, or move pieces aside to find the yummy treat that’s hiding.
My rabbit’s absolute favorite toy is a cat treat dispenser ball. I put her daily pellets inside and she has so much fun rolling the ball around figuring out how to the food out.
As your rabbit uses their brain to solve the puzzle and get the treat, they feel like they have more control, which helps them to feel more confident. This can backfire with puzzle toys that are too difficult though. If your rabbit can’t get the treat quick enough, they may get frustrated and give up. So watch your rabbit the first time they play with the toy and make it a little easier for your rabbit if they seem to be having trouble.
10. Gently interact with your rabbit
Handling your rabbit roughly is a surefire way to make them scared and anxious whenever there are people around. They’ll be constantly afraid that someone will approach them and possibly hurt them. This can often lead to defensive and aggressive behavior in rabbits.
To avoid this, you’ll want to make sure you are gentle with your rabbit. Pet them in whatever ways they like, but make sure to keep an eye on their body language. If your rabbit shies away from your hand, back off until your rabbit is ready for more. Also avoid picking your rabbit up when you can, and learn how to handle them correctly so you don’t accidentally hurt them.
11. Introduce your rabbit to new experiences slowly
Rabbits will need to be ready for new experiences. While we want to keep our rabbits on as much of a routine as possible, change is a part of life. In helping our rabbits overcome their anxiety, we can also help them be ready for changes and new experiences. You should wait to introduce your rabbit to these new scenarios until they have started to show some confidence in their home environment. As your rabbit is exposed to new situations, they’ll gain experience and confidence.
Start small. Maybe invite a friend or two over to meet your rabbit and give them a chance to get used to new people. Taking your rabbit to an unfamiliar part of your home can get them ready for a move, or taking them out for a short car ride can get them ready to go to the vet. Whatever you do, you want to take it slow and watch your rabbit’s body language to avoid overwhelming them.
12. Give your rabbit a more confident friend
Sometimes the best way to encourage confidence in rabbits is to have an example for them to follow. Many times shy rabbits will follow the lead of more confident rabbits, allowing them to slowly come out of their shell over time. Bonded rabbits are also able to comfort each other when they are feeling anxious to help each other out in a way that humans are not able to.
Before you go about getting a new rabbit, it’s important to understand that bonding rabbits is not an overnight affair. You will need to find a neutral area to introduce the new rabbits since they can be territorial, and it can take many weeks or even months of bunny dates over time. So you’ll need to be ready with two separate enclosures in the meantime, and you’ll need to supervise your rabbits very closely until they become friends.