How to Solve Common Bunny Behavior Problems


how to solve rabbit bad behavior

Rabbits are all unique individuals and will all come to you with their own struggles. We all want to bring home a perfectly behaved and cuddly bunny, but inevitably find that they are a little more naughty and troublesome than we expect. As rabbit caretakers it’s important to pay attention to our own rabbit’s needs to help them overcome their behavioral problems. But of course, there are some behavior issues that are more common than others.

Many rabbit caretakers struggle with behavior problems that include destructive digging and chewing behaviors. Some rabbits also develop bad litter box habits. Other rabbit behavioral problems include fear and aggression toward humans and other animals.

We’ll go over each of these categories in detail, so feel free to scroll through until you find the areas your pet rabbit is struggling with. With some understanding of rabbit behavior and a lot of patience, you can successfully help your naughty rabbit overcome their behavior problems.

Digging behaviors

One of the most frustrating of rabbit bad behaviors to deal with is their digging habits. In the wild, rabbits are natural burrowers. This means that they dig tunnels for their homes. The behavior is especially common in female rabbits, who are often the one to dig nesting tunnels to care for their babies.

It’s important to take your rabbit’s nature into account and understand that this is a natural behavior for rabbits. You cannot expect them to completely stop their digging habits. Instead, the goal is to give them areas where they can use their habits constructively, and keep them away from the areas where their digging habits have a tendency to be destructive.

rabbit digging into the carpet
Bored rabbits are more likely to have destructive behaviors, such as digging and destroying the carpets.

Digging the carpet

The most common problem that comes from digging rabbits is when they dig into the carpet. Rabbits will also dig into other types of flooring, such as wood or tile, but they are rarely able to do any significant damage, especially if their nails are clipped regularly. Carpets, however, can be easily damaged or destroyed under a rabbit’s claws.

The reality is that it’s very difficult to get a rabbit to stop digging once they’ve decided on a place to tunnel into. They often have a single-minded determination, making it almost impossible to convince them to stop. There are really only two courses of action:

  • Distract your rabbit by convincing them to dig into something else. You can give them cardboard boxes, cat scratcher mats, or make a digging box for your rabbit
  • Cover the area where your rabbit has decided to tunnel. Cover the area with plastic mats, flattened cardboard boxes, or an area rug that’s okay for your rabbit to destroy.

The best plans for getting your rabbit to stop digging into the carpet combine both of these methods. While you cover up the corner that your rabbit has been digging into, you can also provide them with other ways of using their digging instincts.

You can even plan ahead for the possibility of your rabbit’s digging habits, by covering likely areas ahead of time. Rabbits are often prone to digging into the corners of the room or into areas underneath furniture. By covering up these areas before your rabbit even has a chance to find them, you can help to protect the carpet in your home.

Digging into the litter box

Digging into the litter box is most often a boredom activity for rabbits. If your rabbit is left in their enclosure all day, especially if it’s too small, they will often resort to digging into their litter box to vent their frustration. Usually if you can improve your rabbit’s living environment, they will stop digging into the litter box and making a mess all the time.

To do this you’ll want to try a number methods that will make your rabbit happy and limit the amount of boredom they feel on a daily basis:

  • Increase the size of your rabbit’s enclosure. Rabbits should have an enclosure that is at least 3 to 4 times their length.
  • Give your rabbit toys to play with, including cardboard or mats to dig into. The more variety of toys you can give the better, because this will allow your rabbit to choose their favorites.
  • Provide your rabbit with lots of time to exercise to release excess energy. Only an hour of time to exercise per day is not enough. Instead you should try to give them time out to exercise whenever you are home and able to supervise them.
  • Give your rabbit lots of attention on a daily basis. Rabbits are social animals and can easily get lonely and bored if they are left alone all day.

Sometimes you’ll have a naughty rabbit who just enjoys digging into the litter box. They’re not doing it out of boredom or frustration, so trying to entice them with other activities doesn’t work. In these cases, you’ll have to make some changes to the litter box itself. 

  • Finding a high-sided litter box can keep the litter from escaping and making a mess. 
  • You can also see if your rabbit would be okay with using a litter box that is completely covered. Many rabbits will not take well to this, but others adjust quickly.
  • You can also have a double litter box area where you place your rabbit’s litter box into a larger plastic bin. This way when your rabbit digs, the mess will be mostly contained in the larger bin.

Chewing behaviors

Rabbits are also avid chewers. They usually won’t bite or nip people very often, but household objects and furniture can be easily destroyed by your rabbit’s teeth. Like with digging, this is a normal behavior for rabbits that stems from their natural instincts. Rabbits need to chew on objects to help keep their ever-growing teeth healthy and trim. Their chewing behavior is also useful when digging tunnels for getting twigs and roots out of the way.

Because chewing is another one of their natural instincts, it’s not a behavior you can stop. Instead you’ll need to give your rabbit ways that they can use their chewing that will keep their teeth healthy and won’t be destructive to your house.

cat scratcher and plastic mat
Rabbits prefer to dig and chew at corners. Use a flexible cat scratcher to cover the baseboards and a plastic mat to cover the rugs.

Chewing baseboards

Baseboard chewers tend to be the most common and difficult to deal with. Since wooden baseboards are a good texture for rabbit teeth and they are at exactly the right height for a bunny, many rabbits will use them as chew toys. This can be an incredibly destructive behavior and should be discouraged, especially in old homes that may have lead in the paint on the walls.

Like with digging into carpets, you’ll want to take a twofold approach to prevent your rabbit from chewing on the baseboards. You’ll need to both block the baseboards as much as possible, and provide your rabbit with a variety of fun chew toys to distract them. Keeping your rabbit from chewing on the baseboards is not always easy. Try these techniques to find the ways that you can get your naughty rabbit to behave:

  1. Block as much of the baseboards as possible with furniture. Large pieces of furniture can keep the baseboards safe by making them completely inaccessible to your rabbit. Just make sure your rabbit can’t fit underneath the sofa.
  2. Cover remaining baseboards with wired gates or hanging cat scratcher mats. Wired gates, such as those used for DIY storage cubes, can be lined up against the wall to prevent your rabbit from accessing the baseboards. Cat scratcher mats are more flexible and are a good option for the corners of rooms.
  3. Cover the top of the baseboards with masking tape. Since the texture of baseboards is often what causes rabbits to chew on them, using masking tape over top can cause some rabbits to lose interest.
  4. Use a bitter apple spray on the baseboards. A bitter apple spray can be used to make the baseboards taste bad to rabbits. It can be purchased from pet stores, or you can make it by combining equal parts white vinegar with apple cider vinegar.
  5. Provide your rabbit with a wide variety of chew toys. The more toys rabbits have to use their chewing instincts, the more likely they are to be satisfied and stop going after the baseboards. Give them a wide variety, including natural toys, wooden toys, hanging toys, and hay-based toys.

Chewing on furniture

Rabbits will also often have the tendancy to chew on furniture. This can be wooden furniture, or even material furniture, such as a sofa. Just like with baseboards, you won’t be able to completely stop your rabbit from chewing, so the only option is to make the destructive chewing opportunities unavailable to your rabbit.

Use flexible cat scratcher mats to wrap around the legs of wooden furniture and put tape or plastic coverings over material furniture. You can also attach sticky, double sided mats to furniture, to prevent rabbits from chewing on them.

The other option is, of course, to purchase furniture that is not easy for a rabbit to chew on. Plastic and metal furniture are good options for this. You can also get furniture that has curved edges. Rabbit’s will usually gravitate toward the sharp edges of furniture when choosing areas to chew, so purchasing pieces that don’t have any hard edges can discourage a rabbit from chewing on them.

Bad litter box habits

There are a number of problems that can be lumped into the category of bad litter box habits. Most of these problems tend to stem from completely different causes. Some of which are health related, and some of which are hormone related. To help your rabbit improve their behavior and their litter box habits, you’ll need to understand what is causing the behavior to begin with.

Rabbits will spray urine as a territorial behavior.

Spraying

Spraying is when a rabbit urinates in different areas of the house to mark their scent. They may spray onto vertical surfaces or just in the many corners of the room to spread out and claim their territory. This is a result of hormonal behaviors that cause the rabbit to be territorial. Spraying is more often seen in male rabbits, but female rabbits will also spray urine sometimes.

Because spraying is caused by hormones, the best and most effective way to stop and prevent spraying is by getting your rabbit neutered. Neutering a rabbit can also prevent other unwanted and aggressive behaviors in rabbits that are also caused by hormones.

Peeing on the bed/couch

Beds and couches are places where people tend to hang out a lot. That means they are usually coved in the scent of people. So when a rabbit climbs up onto your bed or your couch, and realizes how much it smells like you, they may decide to pee to add their scent to the mix and try to claim the area.

This urinating behavior is incredibly frustrating, because it can mean constantly changing the sheets and spot cleaning the couch. It is even common among rabbits that have been spayed and neutered. Unfortunately, this is one problem where there is no clear solution. While some rabbits will grow out of this habit as they get older, many continue to urinate on these surfaces no matter how you try to stop them. 

The best way to deal with a bunny who pees on the bed or couch is by keeping them off of these surfaces. You can try lifting the bed to a higher setting so the rabbit can jump on it, or placing gates around the bed and couch to keep your rabbit from having access to the area.

The other option is to work with your rabbit’s urinating behavior. You can place puppy pee pads on the surfaces where your rabbit tends to urinate, so at the very least it will be easy to clean up after your rabbit. 

rabbit pees outside the litter box
A rabbit who is litter trained may pee outside the litter box if they are protesting an unclean litter box.

Peeing next to the litter box

There are actually a number a reasons a rabbit might choose to urinate directly outside a litter box, rather than inside of it. This behavior is separate from spraying behavior because your rabbit is clearly trying to keep their scent in the same place. Depending on the context surrounding your rabbit’s behavior, the may be urinating outside the litter box because:

  • They are protesting a dirty litter box. If you haven’t cleaned your rabbit’s litter box in a while, it can get so dirty that your rabbit doesn’t want to use it anymore. They’ll still be trying to keep their living area clean by keeping their urine near the litter box. 
    • The obvious solution to this is to make sure you clean out your rabbit’s litter box regularly.
  • They are having trouble getting into the litter box. This is a possibility with elderly or obese rabbits. As they get older they might develop arthritis and have trouble hopping over the edge of of the litter box. Similarly obese rabbits, might have some trouble carrying their extra weight over the edge of a litter box.
    • In these cases you’ll want to find a litter box that has an opening that’s close to the ground. You can also cut a hole into the side of their current litter box. It’s also a good idea to bring your rabbit to the vet for a checkup if you believe they have developed arthritis or are suffering from obesity.
  • They are peeing in the litter box but their butt hangs over the edge. Sometimes you might find pee next to the litter box because your rabbit manages to miss the box. To know if this is the cause, you should try to watch your rabbit during the day to catch them in the act. My bunny, Elusive, would sometimes urinate with her butt over the edge of her litter box, even though she had good litter box habits.
    • To solve this problem you can switch to a litter box with higher edges, so they keep their butt inside. You can also place a mat underneath the litter box to soak up any stray urine that makes it over the edge.

Dribbling pee

Dribbling pee is when rabbits urinate little bits at a time while they are walking around, sometimes leaving a trail of pee behind them. This is a rabbit who seems to be unable to control their bladder. While sometimes this is done by a young rabbit who simply hasn’t learned proper toilet training yet, more often it’s the result of a urinary infection or bladder sludge.

If your rabbit is dribbling pee, than you’ll really want to make an appointment with your rabbit savvy veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help you diagnose the problem and give your rabbit medicine to feel better and regain control of their bladder.

Rabbits scatter their poop around to claim territory. It is most common the first time they explore a new area.

Pooping outside the litter box

Scattering poops around, even when a rabbit is litter box trained, is a common behavior in rabbits. This is another behavior that rabbits use to claim their territory. In many rabbits this is stopped by getting them spayed or neutered, but some rabbits will continue to spread their poop even after their surgery.

Most of the time, rabbits will only continue to spread their poops around until they feel that they have ownership of the area. So the first time they explore a new area, they’ll leave little presents everywhere, but after a while they’ll stop. 

Luckily it’s very easy to sweep up rabbit poop. The only thing you can really do in this scenario is clean up the poop and place it back in the rabbits litter box. You can also try adding in a second litter box to the new area, to try to convince your rabbit to use it and stop spreading their poops around. But mostly you just have to wait for your rabbit to feel that they own the place so that they stop.

Aggressive behaviors

Most rabbits are very gentle creatures. They are not quick to bite or attack people. Sometimes, however, rabbits can become aggressive. This is usually a learned behavior related to fearful past experiences, but it can also be a result of hormones and protective, territorial instincts.

rabbit biting a person's leg
Rabbits who are bored will try to get your attention in any way they can. They may even resort to nipping on your legs.

Nipping

Nipping is not actually an aggressive behavior. A light nip from a rabbit is a pinch they will give you with their teeth, while a hard nip might leave a red mark on your skin. When a rabbits nips you, they are not trying to hurt you, instead it is a form of communication. A rabbit might nip you when:

  • They are annoyed and want you to go away. This happens most often if you are holding your rabbit and they want to be let down. If you are petting your rabbit, but they want to move away and explore, they may nip you as a way of letting you know. 
  • You are blocking a place they want to explore. If your rabbit is determined to go somewhere but you are blocking the way, they may nip you to tell you to move. The polite rabbits will give you a hard nudge with their nose instead of using their teeth.
  • They are trying to groom you. When rabbits groom each other, they will sometimes give little nips to help remove tangles or mats in their fur. Your rabbit might do the same thing with you, thinking they are helping you out. This is especially common if they are grooming your clothing and come across a seam.

To get your rabbit to stop nipping you, you need to let them know that what they’re doing is hurting you. Giving a loud “Ouch” or “Eek” can help your rabbit understand their behavior was bad. If they are nipping you to tell you to move or go away, you can continue to hang around a little longer so the rabbit will learn that the behavior won’t get them what they want.

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.

Biting, charging and growling

While true aggressive biting is uncommon in rabbits, there are many possible causes of this behavior. It will usually stem from either fear or territorial instincts. Some specific reasons that your rabbit may have attacked and bitten you include:

  • Your rabbit feels cornered.
  • You are invading your rabbit’s space.
  • You smell like other animals.
  • Your rabbit has raging hormones.
  • Your rabbit is bored.
  • Your rabbit is sick.
  • You startled your rabbit.
  • Your rabbit has experienced trauma in the past.

Since there are so many possible causes of your rabbit’s aggressive behavior, you’ll need to watch them closely to determine what is making your rabbit aggressive (for a more detailed explanation visit my article on how to handle aggressive rabbits). Based on the context surrounding your rabbit’s behavior you can choose how to respond to your rabbit to help them calm down and stop behaving aggressively toward you.

  1. Get your rabbit spayed or neutered. This is the best solution for rabbits that are angry and territorial, especially if there doesn’t seem to be any other explanaition for their behavior.
  2. Spend time with your rabbit. Rabbits who have had bad past experiences may lash out because they have a negative association with people. By spending time with them you can give your rabbit new, positive experiences that can help your rabbit be less afraid of you.
  3. Teach your rabbit that hands are a source of affection. Most rabbits are afraid of being held, so it’s best to avoid picking up your rabbit. As the two of you get closer, you can also start to give your rabbit treats and pets to teach them that hands won’t hurt them.
  4. Move slowly. Sometimes rabbit’s get startled easily. By paying attention to your movements and slowing down, you can avoid scaring your rabbit.
  5. Change your clothing after you’ve been out. If you spend any significant amount of time with other animals, then you’ll want to change your clothing and even shower before seeing your rabbit. This will avoid them smelling the other animal and getting aggressive toward you.
  6. Give your rabbit enough space. Rabbits can get bored and angry if they are kept in an enclosure that is too small for them. Make sure to give your rabbit enough space and time out to exercise.
  7. Clean your rabbit’s enclosure when they’re not inside. Rabbits that are territorial are likely to attack any hands that come to clean their enclosure or replenish their food. Open the door and give your rabbit time to get some exercise while you tackle these tasks.

Aggression toward other rabbits

It is common for rabbits to be aggressive toward other rabbits. This is especially true if they are meeting on territory that your rabbit feels belongs to them. They will see any new rabbit as an invader that needs to be attacked.

That being said, it is very good for rabbit mental health and happiness to have another rabbit partner. But this tendency toward aggressive behavior means you need to be very careful about introducing the two rabbits to each other.

They should be introduced on neutral territory, a place that neither rabbit has been to or claimed before (a bathtub is a good option). Then the two rabbits should still be kept separately, going on supervised ‘dates’ occasionally, until the two buns start to accept each other as friends.

Loud rabbit behaviors

Generally rabbits are very quiet creatures. They don’t bark loudly like dogs, or even have a high pitched meow like cats. But that doesn’t keep some rabbits from making a lot of noise. Rabbits can learn that making loud noises gets them attention, so they find ways make a racket.

alert vs confident rabbit
Watch a rabbit’s body language to know if they are thumping because they are scared or because they want attention.

Constant thumping

Thumping is a behavior that rabbits do when they slam their strong hind legs into the ground. They can make a surprisingly loud sound, almost like a large textbook falling flat on the floor. Usually thumping is an indication of fear in rabbits, but some rabbits learn that if they thump they can get attention. They start to use their loud thump as an attention seeking behavior.

To discourage this behavior, you’ll need to learn how to distinguish between when your rabbit is thumping because they are scared and when your rabbit is thumping because they want attention.

When a rabbit is scared, you do want to comfort them and help them to feel better. On the other hand, when a rabbit is thumping because they are attention seeking, you should ignore them until they stop throwing a tantrum. Then reward their behavior after they have calmed down a little.

Rabbits who are thumping out of fear will:

  • Have wide eyes, and ears forward
  • Have a rigid body posture and look ready to run away
  • Ignore you while they move from place to place trying to locate the danger
  • Thump multiple times, not stopping when you come close

Rabbits who are thumping for attention will:

  • Have ears back at an angle or up looking confident
  • Have a relaxed body posture
  • Usually thump only once to see if you react, then thump again if you don’t respond
  • Stop thumping once they get what they want (a treat, attention)
rabbit biting on cage
Rabbits will let you know it’s time to come out and exercise. If you don’t stick to their schedule, they make a lot of noise in their enclosure.

Rattling the enclosure bars

Rabbits that are left alone inside their enclosure are likely to start making a lot of noise by rattling the cage or enclosure bars. This is a way for them to protest boredom from being locked up, and also to get some attention. 

The best way to get rabbits to stop making a lot of noise in their enclosure is to give them what they want. Give your rabbit a lot more time to exercise, give them more attention on a daily basis to keep them happy, and give your rabbit a lot of fun toys that they can play with inside their enclosure.

If your rabbit has a tendency to make a lot of noise in the middle of the night, then the best way to prevent this is by keeping them on a daily schedule. Wake up and feed your rabbit at the same time every day, and give them attention and exercise at the same time. This will help your rabbit know what to expect. They’ll start to get excited and make noise in the enclosure when it’s time for you to get up and feed them anyway.

Sources

  1. Crowell-Davis, Sharon DVM. “Behavior Problems in Pet Rabbits.” Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, ScienceDirect, January 2007, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1557506306001807#:~:text=There%20are%20several%20major%20categories,rabbits%3B%20destructiveness%3B%20and%20infanticide.
  2. Crowell-Davis, Sharon DVM. “Understanding Rabbit Behavior and Preventing and Treating Behavior Problems.” DVM 360. February 2007, https://www.dvm360.com/view/understanding-rabbit-behavior-and-preventing-and-treating-behavior-problems
  3. Karr-Lilienthal, Lisa Ph.D. “Rabbit Behavior Problems: Biting.” Companion Animals, August 21, 2019. https://companion-animals.extension.org/rabbit-behavioral-problems-biting.

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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