Strengthening Human-Rabbit Relationships
The practice of keeping rabbits as companion animals is relatively new, but growing in popularity. We know less about healthy human relationships with rabbits than we know about healthy human relationships with dogs or cats. In this study, researchers set out to better understand rabbit behavior with the goal of creating a roadmap to enhance the relationships between rabbits and humans.
As a base, they outlined three key dimensions of rabbit behavior:
- Amicability, or positive behaviors towards the guardian
- Aggression towards the guardian
- Aggression towards strangers
Several factors influenced all three dimensions: female rabbits and spayed or neutered rabbits tended to be less amicable and more aggressive both to guardians and to strangers. Furthermore, individuals who spent more time out of their cages or pens were often more amicable and less aggressive, presumably because their needs were better met, and they had more contact with humans.
Dwarf rabbits bred as pets were typically more amicable than other breeds. However, purebred dwarf rabbits tended to be more aggressive towards strangers than rabbits bred for meat production or hybrid rabbits. Possibly, dwarf rabbits have been bred to be more amicable than other rabbits. But it’s also possible that their guardians rated them as more amicable because they’re “cuter,” even though they don’t behave in a more amicable way.
In the study, rabbits adopted from shelters or bought through personal ads were also rated as less amicable than rabbits obtained some other way. These rabbits’ previous guardians perhaps gave them up because of their non-amicable behavior. The rabbits that were rated as least aggressive with strangers were born at their human’s home or purchased from a small-scale breeder. The most aggressive rabbits came from large-scale breeders, pet shops, or fairs.
Rabbits have a “sensitive period” early in their lives when they can be socialized to be around humans. When a rabbit’s guardian reported knowing a lot about the sensitive period, their rabbits were rated as more amicable. Counterintuitively, rabbits whose humans were the least knowledgeable about the sensitive period showed the least aggression towards strangers.
Rabbits fed with fresh greens were more amicable, while rabbits fed with muesli were more aggressive. Because muesli is calorie-dense, rabbits who eat it spend less time chewing, which can cause tooth pain, and more time inactive. The authors advise that a nutritious diet suitable to the rabbit’s needs can make their behavior more appealing to humans.
Rabbits who live alone were more amicable, perhaps because they relied on their guardian for more of their social needs. Rabbits kept with their mother even after weaning were more amicable than individuals separated from their mother before or during weaning. The relationship with the mother may provide essential socialization for rabbits.
As rabbits become increasingly popular as companion animals, it’s important for people to understand what influences a rabbit’s behavior. Advocates should encourage guardians to feed their rabbits a healthy diet and give them enough time outside of their pens or cages. Further research is needed to understand the complex factors that impact rabbit behavior and the human-rabbit bond.