Probably the single most frequent question we get about rabbits as companions is, "Is a rabbit more like a cat or a dog?" The answer: neither. Dogs and cats have been bred for centuries to not be afraid of humans. Rabbits have been bred primarily for meat, fur and physical characteristics. That means that when you adopt a bunny, you adopt a lovely, domestic animal with the heart and spirit of a wild animal. It is much more challenging to win the trust of this sensitive, intelligent creature than it is to win the heart of a puppy or kitten, who has been bred to trust you from birth.
If we had to compare a rabbit to any other animal, we might say they have a temperament more like that of a parrot. Rabbits are highly intelligent, social and affectionate. They can also be bratty, willful, destructive and vengeful. They are very...rabbit. And it takes a special type of person to be able to live happily with such a complex, intelligent, demanding little soul!
One of the most common misconceptions people have about rabbits is that they like to be held and cuddled. This is probably because they look like plush toys. Unfortunately, many people buy rabbits without realizing the true nature of rabbits, and that's one of the main reason these lovely, intelligent creatures are "dumped" shortly after they reach sexual maturity and begin to assert their strong personalities.
Here's the best way to win your rabbit's trust.
- Imagine what the world looks like to this bunny. She's surrounded by a new environment, and there's a big, strange-smelling animal that's always looming over her. She has no idea you're trying to be friendly. Her "hard wiring" says: "AAAAAAAA!!! It's going to EAT MEEEE!!!!" Imagine yourself in her bunny slippers: No one speaks her language, she has been taken from her family and maybe the only home she has ever known, and she has no idea whether you plan to love her, cage her forever, or eat her! You must gradually and patiently earn her trust. It can take an hour, a day or even weeks or months. It depends on the personality of the individual rabbit, and on your willingness to be patient and loving.
- You and bunny should be together in a private, quiet room. No other pets. No distractions.
- Have a little treat, such as a carrot or piece of apple, banana or a little pinch of oats in your hand.
- Lie on your tummy on the floor and let the bunny out of her hutch. (This should be at ground level, so that the bunny can come out and go into the hutch as she pleases. Having to grab the bunny every time you want her to come in or out can undo hours of patient trust-building!)
- Don't expect her to approach you right away. Remain quiet and patient, even if it takes an hour or more. Rabbits are naturally curious, and eventually, she will come over to sniff you.
- Resist the temptation to reach out and pet the bunny. Instead, let her sniff you, hop on you and just get to know your smell. This will teach her that you are not a threat.
- If the bunny finds the treat you have, hold it while she nibbles. Resist the urge to pet, if she's shy!
- Do this every day. Gradually, you can start to pet the bunny by giving her a gentle "scratch" on the forehead (bunnies love this!). Never force anything, and never chase the bunny. This, too, will only undo all the patient sitting you have done to gain her trust.
- Once the bunny learns that you are a friend, she will bond very strongly to you. It's important to have him neutered/ her spayed once s/he reaches sexual maturity, because otherwise s/he'll want to make love to everything. (See our other handouts for more information!)
Some people are disappointed that the rabbit is "not turning out to be the sort of pet we wanted for our kids." Rather than being disappointed that the rabbit is not what you expected (most rabbits never learn to like to be held and handled extensively), take this opportunity to teach children respect for a new kind of animal. If they really want something to carry around, they need a stuffed toy--not a live rabbit.
And of course, an adult should always be the primary caretaker of the rabbit. Young children don't have the sense of responsibility necessary to properly care for a rabbit, and the parents should be ready to take over the duties of the teenager who goes off to college, leaving Fluffy in their care.
Why Rabbits Are Not Like Dogs (in learning also):
Let's compare a rabbit to a dog, that quintessential model of (potential) obedience. The ancestral dog was a cooperative pack animal. He was utterly submissive to his alpha dog: the chief of the pack. Humans took that characteristic and bred domestic dogs to have a very strong desire to please their *new* alpha, the Human Master. Most dogs have a puppy-like desire to please their perceived alpha, and this is what makes them so easy to train (at least in the hands of an experienced dog trainer who understands the way a dog's mind works).
Unlike dogs, rabbits have no innate desire to please an alpha. If the human caregiver becomes so frustrated with the apparent disobedience of the rabbit that s/he becomes physically abusive, the rabbit will begin to consider the human as an enemy, and never forget the physical punishment. Hitting a rabbit is not only dangerous to the animal (the skeleton is extremely fragile), but unproductive. The rabbit subjected to physical punishment may become extremely aggressive, hopelessly fearful or--believe it or not--vindictive. With love and patience, the human caregiver can teach the bunny what is acceptable and what is not. The only effective way to train a rabbit away from undesirable behaviors is with positive reinforcement and very gentle negative reinforcement, such as a squirt with a water bottle and a firm "No!" when the bunny is being naughty.
Naughty is as Naughty Does
...Which brings us to the question, "What is "naughty" for a rabbit?"
The human caregiver must accept that certain behaviors we might consider objectionable (e.g., chewing furniture, digging carpet, marking with urine in a corner) are not naughty to the bunny, and are, in fact, extensions of the rabbits natural behavior. If the bunny is chewing furniture, you can dab some nail biting remedy on the problem areas--but don't forget to provide the bunny with chew toys (untreated wicker baskets, clean, tape and staple-free cardboard boxes, untreated pine molding, macaw-safe chew toys, etc.) as a substitute. If the bunny is digging carpet, and you don't have access to a safe, fenced area where the bunny can have some supervised digging time, cover the problem areas with 100% cotton bath mats and provide a large litterbox full of organic litter and shredded paper or a paper grocery bag filled with fresh grass hay. If the bunny is insistent about using a particular corner for urination, even after repeated warnings and white vinegar deodorizing, give in and put a color-coordinated litterbox in that corner.
Living with a rabbit can mean learning to compromise, but it tends to make us better, more tolerant people in the long run. We highly recommend it!