You’re sitting quietly reading a book when you hear a dog barking outside. Your rabbit hears it too and immediately goes on the alert. Your little bunny has their ears forward and almost looks like they’re ready to run, when all of a sudden you hear a loud THUMP!
Rabbits will thump their hind legs most commonly when they are scared. This is an instinctual behavior that rabbits use to warn their family group of nearby danger. Rabbits will also thump when they are angry or irritated. In these cases the thump is used as a warning sign to tell unfamiliar rabbits and predators that they are ready for a fight.
Whatever the reason may be, a rabbit thump can be a very jarring sound. It’s like a big, fat book just got slammed onto the ground. All of a sudden your quiet little bunny is the noisiest one in the room. Sometimes a rabbit will thump just once and be done, but they can also thump continuously, causing a big disruption in your afternoon (or sometimes sleep). I will teach you what to do when your rabbit starts thumping up a storm so that they will be happy and you can go back to enjoying a quiet home.
Thumping as an evolutionary behavior
Like many other rabbit features, thumping developed as a way for rabbits to survive as a species. However, this is one of those features that is less about an individual rabbit’s ability to survive, and is more about the survival of rabbits as a whole. It’s a form of communication between members of a rabbit’s family warren.
A similar behavioral feature is actually found in many different mammals. For most of these species, foot stomping or drumming evolved alongside vocal calling as a form of communication. But for rabbits, who live underground, the sound a thumping foot can make is a more important warning than an audible call. This probably contributes to the fact that rabbits don’t make many loud vocal noises and are among the quietest mammals.
Alerting the group
Rabbits thump using their strong hind legs. Their body language is alert with their ears forward, and they are standing ready to run away or thump again. You may also notice your rabbit doesn’t stay in one place for very long. They’ll stop and listen intently, then move around to another place and listen again. Always listening for predators, always ready to warn their family warren of oncoming danger.
In the wild, the primary function of thumping is to communicate with their family warren and warn them of a possible threat. It’s a very useful adaptation for rabbits because the sound of the thump can be heard by other rabbits above ground, but the thump can also create seismic vibrations to warn the family burrowed underground.
Thumping is an interesting behavior because at the same time as it protects the family of rabbits, it also gives away the position of an individual rabbit. It seems counterintuitive for a rabbit to risk their own safety in this way, but this is where we learn about the second function of thumping. Rabbits use the sound of their thump to let predators know they are ready.
Predators will ideally want to use as little energy as they can to catch their meals. When a rabbit thumps, they tell the predator “I know you’re there, so I won’t be easy to catch.” It can actually be a deterrent that causes the predator to go after prey that is easier to catch.
Rabbits will also thump as an aggressive warning to any other rabbit who tries to enter their territory. As a general rule, rabbits are very territorial animals and will stick to their own family warrens. Their thump can tell a foreign rabbit to back off because this territory is already taken.
Rabbits thump when they are afraid
Our rabbits who live at home are no longer wild rabbits, but they still have those innate instincts that cause them to thump when they sense danger. Thumping in rabbits is the automatic fear response behavior. Something like “Fight or flight, or THUMP!”
When a rabbit thumps because of fear, they will usually continue to thump multiple times. Sometimes they will thump very frequently, stomping their feet every few seconds, and sometimes they will thump and then go on alert and make another thump a few minutes later if they still feel threatened. There are many possible reasons that a rabbit may start thumping, seemingly out of nowhere.
Rabbits have very good hearing, so a loud or unfamiliar sound can quickly put them on the alert. Sometimes it will be pretty easy to know what set the rabbit off. There could be a dog barking outside or someone is using the vacuum cleaner downstairs. However, sometimes it will seem like the rabbit is thumping at nothing at all. Sounds that seem completely normal to us, can be very scary to a rabbit.
For example, my rabbit gets very scared anytime the shower gets turned on. It’s a sound that I completely miss because of how normal it is, but for a rabbit who doesn’t even know what a shower is, this can be a very scary sound.
Rabbits can also get very scared of unusual scents. This is something I encounter when working with rabbits and the animal shelter. A rabbit who had previously been very friendly with me, was thumping and running away when I went to interact with him. After a moment of confusion, I realized that I had just been walking some of the dogs in the shelter and probably smelled like them. The scent of the predator was enough to scare the rabbit into thumping and running away.
Something in the room isn’t where it’s supposed to be
Sometimes, something as simple as rearranging the furniture in a room can be enough to scare a rabbit and cause them to thump. I once received a large package at night and left it in my room (which I share with my rabbit). Very quickly she went on alert and started thumping, refusing to go anywhere near the large box.
When they are injured or in pain
Rabbits might also thump sometimes when they are injured or in pain. As many of us know very well, injuries can be confusing and scary. It’s no wonder that they can cause a fear response in some rabbits. If your rabbit seems to be thumping for no reason, especially if they are showing other signs of sickness, you may want to consider bringing them to the vet for a checkup.
Rabbits thump when they are angry
The territorial instinct to thump is likely why our pet rabbits also thump at us when they are angry or annoyed. A rabbit will usually thump their hind legs just once to tell you they are annoyed. This behavior can be accompanied by growling, or you may find your rabbit giving you the cold shoulder for a while if they are very angry at you.
Thumping as a warning
Rabbits who are territorial will thump as a warning to let you know when you are entering their territory. They will pull their ears back and THUMP loudly to tell you “don’t come any closer!” Often times our rabbits will accept us as part of their family, but any new person (or animal) in the household will be given this warning.
Rabbits that are particularly brave or aggressive will even lash out if you ignore their warnings. They could lunge and swipe at you, or even bite you with their strong teeth. Most rabbits, however, will just keep thumping and running away, their bark being much worse than their bite.
After being picked up
Most rabbits hate being held. They get scared when their feet leave the ground and despise being handled. That’s why, when you put a rabbit back on the ground they will usually flick you off and thump in your direction. The rabbit wants you to know just how annoyed and uncomfortable they were with that whole situation.
Usually that’s the worst of it. Your rabbit will probably thump once to get their point across, but then quickly forgive you when they can get a treat out of it. Of course, if you pick your rabbit up all the time, they might understand the pattern and start thumping at you every time you approach, so it’s best to only handle your rabbit occasionally.
When you’re not sticking to the schedule
Rabbits like to have a schedule in their lives. They like to know when they’ll be fed in the morning and when to expect to have time out to exercise. But when you don’t adhere to your rabbit’s schedule, they’ll let you know. Your rabbit will know when it’s time for feeding, so if you’re still in bed or busy with something else, the rabbit might just thump at you in irritation and look at you expectantly.
When they want to play but they’re locked in their cage
Many rabbits, especially young rabbits, are very playful and energetic. They want, and need, time out to exercise, so if rabbits are left in their cage they will get bored and start thumping out of irritation. This is especially true if rabbits are kept in an enclosure that is too small for them or aren’t given enough chew toys to play with.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the time of day you let your rabbit out to exercise. Rabbits are crepuscular animals, so they are more likely to be energetic around dawn and dusk. This means that they’re also more likely to get frustrated and start thumping if they are locked up during these parts of the day.
When they have raging hormones
Rabbits who have not been spayed or neutered are much more likely to become irritable and start thumping. These rabbits still have all their teenage hormones and are much more likely to exhibit territorial or aggressive behavior. If your young bun has reached maturity and is starting to thump at you all the time, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet about getting your rabbit fixed.
Thumping for attention
Thumping for attention is not necessarily an instinctual behavior, but rabbits are smart creatures. They are able to learn pretty quickly that when they thump, they get attention. This means that if you give your rabbit treats and petting every single time they thump, you’re conditioning your rabbit to continue this behavior more often. They’ll start giving a loud THUMP every time they want a treat or every time they want to be pet and adored. It can end up being pretty disruptive in the long run.
To discourage this behavior, you’ll need to learn how to distinguish between when rabbits are thumping because they are scared and when they are 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.
So how do you tell the difference? It’s all in the body language. Over time you’ll have a better idea of rabbit body language and be able to know the difference just by looking at your rabbit. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you figure it out.
Rabbits who are thumping out of fear will:
- Have wide eyes
- Have ears forward and alert
- Have an alert body posture, posing on their toes 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 confident 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, petting)
How do I comfort my rabbit when they won’t stop thumping?
If a rabbit starts thumping and wakes you up in the middle of the night because they are afraid of something, you’ll want to comfort your rabbit. While not super common, a rabbit can potentially go into shock from fear, so it’s important to do what you can to help your rabbit calm down.
Sit with your rabbit
One way to help comfort your rabbit is to just sit on the floor with them. If you and your rabbit spend a lot of time together and trust each other, then just your presence is sometimes enough to comfort your little fluffy friend. They’ll know that when you’re with them, nothing can hurt them.
Try petting your rabbit and giving them a massage to help them calm down. Speak softly to them so they can be comforted by your voice. Do what you can to stay calm in the situation so your calm energy can help your rabbit relax a little too.
Distract your rabbit
If your rabbit still won’t calm down, you may need to switch tactics and try distracting your rabbit. This is a good time to bring out the treats. You can see if the excitement of getting a yummy treat will make your rabbit forget about whatever it was that was scaring them.
In this scenario, I take the time to reinforce some tricks with my rabbit. I’ll have her go in circles, give me high fives, and give me kisses to distract her. Having an impromptu training session like this gives a rabbit’s brain something else to focus on, so they can forget about being scared and get excited instead.
Find the root of the problem
If your rabbit is still alert and thumping occasionally, or they just won’t focus on what you’re trying to distract them with, you need to try to find the source of the problem. Try to look at the world from your rabbit’s perspective, to investigate and figure out what’s scaring them:
- Look for any new, unfamiliar objects in the room.
- Are there new light fixtures that are throwing weird shadows?
- Listen for any sounds, even very soft sounds, that might be scaring your rabbit.
- What about movement? Maybe the rabbit is scared of the rotating space heater or ceiling fan.
Once you’ve done a little investigation, see what you can do to remove or stop whatever it is that’s scaring your rabbit. If it’s not something you can move, you can try putting a blanket over the top of your rabbits enclosure or giving them an extra hidey house so they can have more places to hide and feel safe.
Believe it or not, rabbits can make a number of sounds. Rabbits can make a soft honking noise when they are happy, and they can growl and grunt when they are mad. Rabbits can hiss, snore, sneeze, purr, and even scream in extreme circumstances.
The rabbit nose twitch helps them smell better, breathe more easily, and regulate their body temperature. Like many other features of the rabbit anatomy, bunnies wiggle their nose as a defense mechanism to increase their chances of survival in the wild.
- Randall, Jan. “Evolution and Function of Drumming as Communication in Mammals.” American Zoologist. Oxford Academic. October 2001. Accessed: https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/41/5/1143/343335.
- Stephen L. Black and C.H. Vanderwolf. “Thumping Behavior In The Rabbit.” Physiology & Behavior. Science Direct. September 1968. Accessed: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0031938469901346.
- Woodnutt, Joanna BVM BVS MRCVS. “Why Is My Rabbit Thumping?” VetHelpDirect. June 6, 2019. https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2019/06/06/why-is-my-rabbit-thumping.
- Zarbock, Marylou. “Why Do Rabbits Thump?” Lafeber Company. February 3, 2017. https://lafeber.com/mammals/why-do-rabbits-thump.