Back when I was in my college years, I was not allowed to have my pet rabbit on campus. I always had to leave my bunny, Tenshi, home with my family while I went away for the semester. When I first left home, I worried that my Tenshi wouldn’t remember me when I came home. I quickly learned that my fears were unfounded. Not only did my rabbit remember me, but she was so excited to see me!
Rabbits will remember the people that they spend a lot of time with, and this includes their owners and caretakers. As prey animals, they have neurologically developed with a strong long-term memory for places and routines. You can use these associations to help strengthen your rabbit’s memory of you.
If you spend a lot of time with your rabbit, they will automatically start to bond with you and remember you based on your interactions. Over time they will become more familiar with you, and you’ll become a part of their long term memory.
But if you’re worried that your rabbit won’t remember you, then there are ways you can interact with them to make sure you are a part of their long term memory. First we’ll look at how a rabbit’s memory works, then we’ll see how we can use this knowledge to take a place in our rabbit’s happy memories.
How rabbit memory works
A rabbit’s memory doesn’t work the same as human memory, but that doesn’t mean they are not intelligent or can’t remember anything. In fact, rabbits have a very strong Associative Memory instead of the Episodic Memory that is believed to be more uniquely human (though, that is also up for debate). This is not to say that humans don’t also have Associative Memory, but for rabbits, it’s the main way they remember things and learn from their experiences.
An Associative Memory means that instead of storing specific chronological events in their long term memory, rabbits will remember their association with these events. They’ll be able remember that a specific sound made them feel scared, or the smell of a treat will remind them how yummy it is. They’ll also be able to remember habits and routines that had strong positive or negative outcomes so that they can know in the future what should be avoided and what they need to do to get a reward.
This type of memory comes from the way wild rabbits needed to behave in their daily life. They did not need to remember a specific series of events, but they did need to be able to recognize when a dangerous predator was near, and they would benefit from remembering the place where they found some edible plants yesterday.
Let’s look at some of the practical ways that we can see these behaviors demonstrated by our pet rabbits.
Memory of routines
Routines are one of the main ways in which rabbits learn to understand and interact with their world. Through daily repetition, rabbits create habits based on what in their environment makes them feel happy or safe. You may notice this in the way your rabbit always knows when it’s time to be fed. They use routines to stay safe and know what to expect out of their day to day life.
This is why classical conditioning can be such a strong tool to use with shy or anxious rabbits. Classical conditioning is a technique that is used to passively train animals using repeated scenarios over and over again (much like a routine!). You are essentially conditioning your rabbit to have a positive reaction to a scenario so that they will form a desired habit.
Classical conditioning was first taught to me when I started volunteering at a rescue animal shelter many years ago. Our goal was to get the animals to be friendly and come out of hiding to greet potential adopters. To do this, all of us volunteers were taught to go and leave a treat for the rabbits (and other rescue animals) near the door of the enclosure, so they would come out to get the treat.
By repetition and routine, the rabbits would eventually make a positive association with anyone who approaches their enclosure because they have been conditioned to believe they will get a reward. Because of rabbits’ associative memory, this technique has been successfully used time and again to teach rabbits to be friendly with people at the animal rescues.
Memory of places
Rabbits also have strong memories for places. They’ll have associations with the places that make them feel safe, those that make them scared, and the different routes it takes to get everywhere. These types of associations are important to wild rabbits because they always need to know which places are safe, and what escape routes are available to them if a predator starts chasing.
Because of this, rabbits will have strong memories about specific places. I have heard stories, for example, of people who bring their rabbit back to a place they used to live (such as their parent’s house) to find that their rabbit remembers the layout of the house with no problem. They pick the same places to hide and sprawl out, and the same corners to mischievously dig into the carpet.
This is also why rabbits will often be very timid about exploring when you first bring them to a new place. They will feel that their carrier or enclosure is the only safe place, and they’ll need to make those positive associations with their new surroundings before the rabbit will start to explore more confidently. As they start to find new safe places, they’ll also learn the best escape routes to get back if they feel something dangerous is in the area.
Memory of people
In the same way, rabbits can have strong memories of people. They won’t necessarily remember that specific time when you comforted them during a thunderstorm, but they’ll remember how safe you made them feel.
Rabbits can recognize and differentiate between different people. It’s likely that the main way that rabbits recognize their people is by smell, but the sound of your voice and the way you look also plays a role in their recognition.
There was a study done to test this assumption back in 2000. It showed that every single rabbit in the study had a more positive reaction toward the people they were familiar with. If rabbits can recognize individual people, then they also have the potential to make long term memories associated with individuals.
This means that, yes! Your rabbit can recognize you and know who you are. If you spend enough time to make strong positive or negative associations with them, then you’ll also be a part of their long term memory.
Memory of bad situations
Rabbits have a particularly strong memory for bad or scary situations. This is a protective ability that means rabbits are easily able to remember when it’s time to run away and hide. As pets, this means that rabbits will be much quicker to make the association between a negative feeling and an event.
You see this very easily with something like holding your rabbit. Most rabbits absolutely hate to be picked up and held. It makes them feel scared and trapped. While it may take weeks for you to slowly gain your rabbit’s trust with rewards and treats, they’ll remember that you were the one to pick them up and make them feel scared after just a few times and suddenly be quick to run away.
How to improve your rabbit’s memory of you
Once we have an understanding of the way rabbits remember people and events, it’s a lot easier to use this knowledge to strengthen our rabbit’s ability to remember us as part of their long term memory. We can also make sure that our rabbit associates us with those good and positive feelings and memories.
This way, we can ensure that our rabbits will remember us if we ever go away on a long vacation, to college for a semester, or another life event that takes you away from home for months at a time. Don’t get me wrong, your rabbit will be making associations and memories of you regardless of whether you purposefully encourage these memories. But you can still take steps to bond with your rabbit and help to solidify yourself in your rabbit’s long term memory.
Create strong routines together
Since rabbits have strong long term memory for routines, one way that you can ensure your rabbit remembers you is by making yourself an integral part of their daily routines.
For example, you can make a ritual around their daily mealtime. I always try to give my rabbit a small amount of her pellets from my hand before giving her the rest of the pellets. This makes me a part of the daily feeding routine that she looks forward to everyday. We also have a nighttime routine where I give my rabbit one of her favorite treats when she approaches me.
I also train my rabbit to do some fun tricks. We’ll have daily training sessions every evening where she learns how to give high fives, or hop through an obstacle course for rewards. By doing this I am becoming a part of the routines and habits that my rabbit knows, making it easier for her to remember who I am.
If you ever had to go away for a number of months, you can feel confident that going back to your daily routines would help your rabbit remember you.
Spend a lot of time with your rabbit
The best thing that you can do to solidify yourself in your rabbit’s long term memory is by spending a lot of social time with your rabbit. By spending time with your rabbit, they will be more able to recognize you and form a positive association with you and the way you smell and sound.
You can do this by making it a habit to sit with your rabbit every day. Spend time reading or scrolling through your phone on the floor where your rabbit can choose to come up to you and interact. If you ever spend time in the living room watching television, you can make sure your rabbit is free to roam around and hang out with you.
Treating your rabbit as a companion pet (like a cat or dog) rather than a cage pet will help them to become a more integral part of your life, and you an important part of theirs. They’ll learn to trust you and recognize you. Over time, you’ll even find that your rabbit is always hopping up and happy to welcome you home.
Meet your rabbit in familiar places
Since rabbits find it easy to recognize familiar places, you can also help make sure your rabbit remembers you by meeting them in a place you two used to hang out together. If the first time your rabbit sees you in a long time is in a new place, they may get confused and not recognize you at first.
If you want to improve the chances that your rabbit will come running to see you after you’ve been away on a long vacation, you can meet them back home in the rabbit room. This means that you might want to get a pet sitter or a house sitter while you’re away, so you won’t have to board your rabbit away from home.
Make sure your rabbit doesn’t see you as a threat
If you want your rabbit to have happy and positive memories of you, you’ll need to make sure they do not see you as a threat. They may have stronger memories of you if they are afraid, but they will be memories that cause your rabbit to run away.
The best way to create positive memories with your rabbit is by letting them call the shots. Let your rabbit come up to you whenever they want to. Don’t force an interaction. You can encourage your rabbit with treats and petting, but make sure to always move at your rabbit’s pace to avoid scaring them.
If you do have to do something that scares your rabbit, such as picking them up, try to end on a positive note. For example you can give your rabbit a treat as soon as you put them back down, or give them a nice massage. This will soften the fear the rabbit feels, so they won’t have a purely negative association with the experience.
Other actions that scare rabbits and cause fear include:
- Chasing. Try not to make your rabbit feel cornered or chase them back into their enclosure.
- Loud talking and noises. Watch how loud you are talking and use headphones for loud music when you are around your rabbit.
- Scents of other animals on you. If you spend time around other animals, such as a cat or dog, you may want to change clothes before visiting your rabbit.
Does your rabbit miss you?
Many people wonder if their rabbit will miss them when they’re gone. You may worry that your rabbit will be lonely. If you spend a lot of time with your rabbit, they will undoubtedly miss you when you’re away, the same way you miss them. The two of you have developed a bond and friendship that your pet rabbit also understands.
Rabbits are social animals, and they gain a lot from their social interaction, and that includes the way they interact with you and other members of the family. Unfortunately, this does mean that rabbits will get lonely when they are left alone for long periods of time.
The best way to make sure your rabbit doesn’t get lonely if you are away from home a lot is to find another bunny partner to bond with them. This way the two rabbits will be able to keep each other’s company while they wait for you to come back.
If that’s not possible for your situation, then you’ll want to consider getting a house sitter to come and spend time with your rabbit every day. This way even though your rabbit will still miss you, they’ll have someone they can socialize with.
What if you’re gone for a long time?
Some people worry that if they are gone for a very long period of time, their rabbit will forget them. If you are only gone for a few months, like the way I went to college but came home after every semester, then in my experience it’s unlikely that your rabbit will forget you. This is especially true if you’ve spent a lot of time with your rabbit and developed some routines that can help jog your rabbit’s memory.
If you go away for a very long time (a year or longer) then it’s not as clear whether or not your rabbit will still remember you. It is my belief (based on anecdotal evidence) that if you are very close with your rabbit and develop a lot of positive associations in their memory, then your rabbit will remember you for a very long time, even longer than a year. But I have never been able to test this theory, since I have never been away from my rabbits for such a long span of time.
Do rabbits know their names?
While we’re on the topic of rabbit memory, we may as well discuss another common question: do rabbits know their own names? While it’s possible that rabbits can passively learn to have an auditory recognition of their names, most of the time rabbits will not learn their names unless you specifically teach it to them. But if you are willing to take the time to train them, rabbits are absolutely capable of learning their names.
I like to train my rabbits to come to me when I call their names. This makes it easier to call them back to me if they’re getting into trouble. While there are a number of techniques you can use, I train my rabbits to come when I call their name by teaching them to associate the sound of their name with the reward of getting a treat. If you’re interested in learning the technique I use, check out my step-by-step guide.
- Hank Davis, Jennifer A. Gibson. “Can rabbits tell humans apart?: Discrimination of individual humans and its implications for animal research.” American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. November 2000. Accessed: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12229071_Can_rabbits_tell_humans_apart_Discrimination_of_individual_humans_and_its_implications_for_animal_research.
- Victoria L. Templer, Robert R. Hampton. “Episodic Memory in Nonhuman Animals.” Current Biology Vol. 23, Iss. 17. September 2013. Accessed: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213008397.