When rabbits live together, they are constantly communicating with each other. Whether it be through the twitch of their tail or the wiggle of their nose, rabbits have behaviors that allow them to express affection, frustration, and even their social hierarchy among the bonded pair.
Rabbits communicate with each other using a combination of body language signals and vocalizations. In a bonded relationship, this communication allows the rabbits to develop a hierarchy among themselves. They will also use these behaviors to exhibit affection and displeasure at the actions of the other rabbit.
There are many behaviors between rabbits that seem confusing or even alarming to us humans. However, as you watch your rabbits communicate, you will see that all of those little quirks have meaning. Whether you’ve just bonded your rabbits or you’ve had multiple rabbits for a long time, there’s always something new you can learn from their behavior together.
1. General body language
The number one way that rabbits talk with each other is through their body language. They can make some sounds to communicate (which we’ll get to in a bit), but it’s far more common for rabbits to express themselves through their behavior.
A rabbit will talk to another rabbit with their body posture. They’ll know if the other rabbit is relaxed and approachable, anxious, sick, or angry based on how the other rabbit is sitting or standing. Even the speed of a rabbit’s nose wiggle can communicate a lot to another rabbit. The nose tells other rabbits that they are hot, stressed, relaxed, or even when they are asleep.
The ear positions can also be a major form of talking between rabbits. They can form questions or flick in different directions to warn about a perceived danger. A rabbit approaching another with ears forward may be curious and cautious, while a rabbit who throws their ears back at a 45º angle is giving the other rabbit an aggressive warning.
Rabbits are also a social species that instinctually have hierarchies built into their communication. There will be rules about who gets the first bite of a treat and who gets to sleep in the most comfortable spot. A lot of the way rabbits talk to each other has to do with sussing out this hierarchical communication style.
2. Grooming behaviors
Rabbits show affection for each other by grooming. Typically they will groom the forehead or ears of the other rabbit, but they will also groom other parts of the body sometimes. Grooming is a way that rabbits show that they care for the other’s cleanliness and well-being. It’s a common behavior among bonded pairs and a sign of a close friendship.
Pairs and groups of rabbits usually have a hierarchy in place. They are a social species that instinctually have rules about who is the boss in the relationship. In rabbit relationships, the more dominant rabbit will receive more grooming from their underlings. Grooming is a way of showing deference to the more dominant rabbit and acknowledging them as boss. Of course, the boss bunny will groom other rabbits sometimes too. However, it’s typically less frequent.
Do rabbits apologize by bumping heads?
Recently, I’ve been getting this question about how rabbits apologize. At first, I was confused since I had never heard of bumping heads as a common form of rabbit communication. Then I learned that this was a plot point in the 2018 Peter Rabbit movie and understood why people were suddenly curious about this aspect of rabbit behavior.
Rabbits do not apologize by bumping foreheads. However, when bonded pairs of rabbits have a disagreement, they will often groom each other’s forehead or ears afterward to indicate they are not mad at each other anymore. This is as close as rabbits get to apologizing and may have been where the idea originated.
Thumping is an instinct among rabbits where they slam their strong hind legs into the ground. It’s one of the loudest sounds that rabbits are capable of making and is a way of communicating fear or anger among rabbits.
In the wild, thumping works as a warning when there is a predator approaching. If a rabbit senses the danger, they will thump their back legs to warn their family. This loud sound will communicate with other rabbits above ground to get away from danger, and the vibration that the thump makes also communicates with underground family members. It tells them to stay underground and out of danger.
Thumping also has a second purpose. This is how a rabbit will warn unfamiliar rabbits, who are not from the family group, to stay away. The thump communicates that this territory is already claimed, and if the new rabbit doesn’t leave, they will be attacked.
4. Sleeping together
When rabbits feel relaxed around each other, they will start to sleep next to each other. Among large groups of rabbits, it is normal for them to sleep huddled together. This gives the entire group protection, warmth, and comfort from their surrounding friends.
By sleeping next to each other, the rabbits are communicating their trust. They trust each other enough to believe they won’t be attacked in their sleep, and they provide comfort and protection when sleeping in pairs.
Even if rabbits simply lay down next to each other, they are already showing a high amount of trust. When bonding rabbits, this is one of the best behaviors to look for because it means the two rabbits are finally becoming friends.
5. Tail signals
Though less noticeable than ear signals, rabbits will also communicate with each other through their tail. Rabbits actually have a lot of control over their little tail and are capable of wagging it and moving it in all different directions.
When a rabbit has their tail down, it shows deference to another rabbit or hesitancy toward their environment. When their tail goes up, the rabbit is communicating confidence or aggression, in some cases. A tail wag from a rabbit is a way for them to communicate ‘not right now’ or ‘leave me alone.’ It is a playful and non-aggressive way of saying ‘no’ to the other rabbit.
6. Rabbit vocalizations
As I mentioned earlier, rabbits are capable of communicating using sounds. Often these sounds are too quiet for humans to hear unless we listen very closely. They are ways that rabbits can put more emphasis on their body language.
A happy rabbit will show confident body language, but they will also make a buzzing noise (sometimes called honking) to communicate exactly how happy they are. Similarly, an angry rabbit will have aggressive body language, and they might growl at the other rabbit to tell them to back off. A relaxed rabbit might grind their teeth together to purr and communicate how calm they are.
Among rabbits who are already bonded, a chase is typically a sign of a disagreement. When one rabbit is offended by the other’s behavior, they might lunge and chase the other rabbit away. I see this most commonly when one rabbit chases the other away from a treat or toy. Typically, it’s a short-lived disagreement, and the rabbits are friends again within a very short period of time.
For rabbits who are not yet bonded, chasing is also a way for rabbits to claim dominance. By chasing, the rabbit is saying, ‘I’m the boss!’ If the other bunny runs away instead of turning to confront them, then the second rabbit is accepting their position on a lower rung of the hierarchy.
Bowing is how rabbits ask another rabbit to groom them. They will approach the other rabbit and put their head down, waiting for the other rabbit to lick them. They may even put their head completely under the other rabbit’s head and nudge their chin. When the pair of rabbits are already bonded, this is usually an inoffensive gesture, even when it’s the subordinate rabbit asking to be groomed.
However, if the rabbits have not been fully bonded, this can lead to a fight. While bonding, whoever gets groomed first will usually claim dominance in the relationship. Because of this, a rabbit who sees themself as the boss could easily get offended if the other bows and asks to be groomed.
A standard behavior you will see among rabbits is something that looks like follow-the-leader. The more dominant rabbit will lead the way, exploring new places and finding treats and toys to play with. The other rabbit will follow and check everything out after the first rabbit moves on. The dominant bun takes responsibility for the safety of the other rabbit by visiting new places first, but they also get first dibs at anything they find. It’s a way the rabbit hierarchy shows in the rabbit relationship.
You will also see this type of behavior if you are ever giving your rabbit treats together. You’ll notice the subordinate rabbit hang back a little while they patiently wait for the boss bunny to get their treat first. Then they’ll come up to you for their turn.
Sometimes, rabbits will nip each other to show annoyance. If one of the rabbits gets in the way of the other, they’ll be nipped. The same can happen to a rabbit who tries to mount the other when it’s unwelcome. Sometimes, this nipping can end up with a little tuft of pulled fur, but it’s not a serious aggressive behavior. The rabbit is expressing annoyance and not actually trying to hurt the other rabbit.
Interestingly, nipping is sometimes a part of grooming. In these cases, the rabbit is trying to clean the other rabbit’s fur and remove any matted sections. This nipping may result in some pinching but is actually an act of affection and not annoyance.
Similarly, nudging is another way that rabbits can express a minor annoyance. Typically, this will happen when one rabbit is in a spot the other rabbit is trying to go. They’ll nudge the other rabbit to tell them to move a little. I often see this when the rabbits are eating hay together. They’ll take turns nudging each other out of the way so they can get at the best pieces of hay.
You will also see rabbits nudge each other when they want the other’s attention. If they want to play with, interact, or groom the other rabbit, they’ll give a light nudge as a subtle form of communication. This doesn’t mean the rabbit is upset or annoyed. It’s simply a way to get the attention of the other rabbit.
This is another behavior that is more commonly seen in dominant rabbits. The boss bun will nudge the other rabbit, who will quickly defer and move to a less ideal spot. However, it’s not necessarily offensive for the subordinate bunnies to nudge the boss either.
Circling is a behavior that rabbits do when they are happy. They will run wide circles around the other rabbit, often making a happy buzzing sound in the process. For rabbits who have not been spayed and neutered, this behavior is also part of a mating ritual. The male will circle the female as a way to assert himself before mounting.
Similarly, you may see this behavior while bonding rabbits as well. Although it’s not always part of mating, this is still a dominance dance where one rabbit asserts their position over the other.
This should not be confused with a rabbit tornado, however. A rabbit tornado is a fight. It’s when the rabbits attack each other, and fur starts to fly while the rabbits tightly circle each other. Circling involves one rabbit running in a wide circle around the other and should not include any biting or aggressive behavior.
Mounting is both a sexual and a dominance behavior when one rabbit mounts the other. This is not a behavior that is seen only among male and female rabbits. It also occurs among same sex male and female pairs. It’s also not uncommon for the female rabbit in a pair to be the top bun, and it’s also a behavior among pairs of rabbits who have been spayed and neutered.
This is because mounting is one of the main ways that rabbits claim dominance over each other. The top bun is letting the other know who the boss is, even if there is no sexual intent. It is most common to see this behavior during bonding, but you might also see it occasionally after the two rabbits are living happily together.
14. Territorial marking
Rabbits have an excellent sense of smell. That’s why one of the ways that they can communicate ownership with each other is through the use of territorial marking. Rabbits will rub the scent glands underneath their chin on objects in their environment to mark them as their property. Any other rabbit who comes by will smell the scent and know that this belongs to another rabbit.
Rabbits will do the same thing by spraying urine around the borders of their territory and scatter their poop around. You’ll notice this, especially when bonding rabbits because the two will spray around the edges of their enclosure to make sure the other knows what space belongs to who.
Once rabbits are bonded, you’ll likely see a lot less of these territorial markings. This is because the rabbits have accepted the other as a member of their family and are now okay with sharing space. There is not as much need to delineate which territory belongs to which rabbit.
Rabbits will also mirror the behaviors of the other to show that they are friendly. Similar to the way that humans will mimic each other and conform to societal norms, rabbits will try to make sure they fit in with each other by copying behaviors.
You’ll see this when one rabbit starts self-grooming and cleaning their face. The other will follow suit and start cleaning too. When one rabbit stretches out to lounge on the ground, the other will mimic the body posture. Over time, the two rabbits will have more and more similar body posture, and they learn to have a shared language and conform to each other’s behavior.