Most people have a preconceived notion of rabbits as cute and cuddly creatures that crave their owner's affections. While this may be true with some rabbits, they do have a wide variety of personalities. In fact, some can be aggressive, exhibiting behaviors such as lunging, grunting and sometimes even biting people. Most owners will label these rabbits as mean or aggressive. With time and patience, these rabbits can be worked with and will overcome many of their bad behaviors. I am not going to state that all will become sweet lovable buns, but they can become nice members of your family.
First things first. If your rabbit has not already been spayed or neutered, then get him or her fixed. Many rabbits have raging hormones that can turn them into little demons. Remove the hormones (through altering your rabbit), give some gentle touches, and you can turn an aggressive or territorial rabbit into a love that seeks out attention. A prime example of this is a foster rabbit named Lucky. She came in as a rather grumpy bun who loved to growl and lunge at you. Lucky was immediately spayed. Every day I would go by her cage, ignore her grunts, and just start petting her. She quickly decided that she enjoyed being petted and would lower her head to receive pets. The funny part is that she learned to grunt in order to get me to pet her.
I am always in favor of petting an aggressive rabbit, ignoring their moods, sounds and lunges. However, there is a right and a wrong way to do this. You want to be safe and minimize any biting. Some people wear thick gloves when they are first approaching a tough bun. This will help protect you if you get bitten. Once your confidence is up, you can probably do without them. Since rabbits lunge and bite forward, the trick to petting an aggressive bun is to approach their head from above. I place my hand directly above their head and then move it straight down onto the ears. I gently press their head down, and will stroke the forehead with my thumb. If this works out well, I will stroke the forehead with several fingers and rub the base of their ears. Remember to always keep your hand behind the mouth. If the bun resists or tries to lunge up at you - don't act timid and back off. Firmly tell them "NO", and gently press their head to the floor. Do this several times each day. While you want to pet them, don't pet them for too long. You want them to start liking it, but leave them wanting more.
Now that you have mastered this, it is important to understand the behaviors that you are seeing. Some rabbits don't trust humans and will react to any action by a person. Others have a "trigger" which activates the behavior. They typically are just being protective. For example, some buns love their humans but they just don't want anyone to touch their food or litterbox. Others are fine outside a cage, but don't want anyone in their cage. If you can determine the "trigger", it is easier to work with the bun. When I have a rabbit that is possessive about their food, rather than fight them over the food dish, I distract them. With my left hand I start petting them, and then with my right hand I put food in their dish. If your rabbit doesn't like you touching the litter box, then clean the cage when he is outside playing. Some rabbits react to the scent of another bunny. If that happens, make sure you wash you hands and possibly change your shirt before approaching your rabbit's cage. Try to minimize acts which will trigger the aggressive behavior.
If your rabbit is just generally aggressive, you should try to get your rabbit used to you. Every time I walk by the cage I talk to the rabbit in a calm, soothing voice. You can even sit next to the cage and read a book out loud. This will enable your rabbit to listen to your voice for a period of time. Give them some treats in a safe manner (such as through the cage wires) so that they associate you with good things.
Sometimes we get phone calls from people complaining that their rabbit is biting. However, in some cases the owner does not understand what is happening. Rabbits have a bite and a nip. A bite is a hard chomp. The teeth are wide apart, and they often break the skin. A nip is really just a small pinch, although sometimes you can get a tiny bruise from it. When rabbits nip, it is often a way to communicate with each other, and rabbits will nip their owners in the same manner. Sometimes they want you to move, to put them down, or even just to pet them. The important thing to realize is that your bunny isn't being mean, they just don't understand that a nip, which doesn't hurt other rabbits with their fur coats, does hurt a human. If you receive a nip, cry out, "Ouch!". Your bunny will learn that it hurts you.
While there are rabbits that are aggressive, others we receive just haven't been socialized well. They won't lunge or growl, but they seem to quiver if you go to touch them. It is clear that they are afraid. With these rabbits I try to talk to them in a soft voice. I will slowly approach with my hand and often I will start out gently stroking with one finger. After several days with one finger, I will progress and stroke with two fingers, gradually increasing the amount of fingers, pressure, and time that I pet them. It is very important with these rabbits to always be gentle and to always use a calm, soothing voice.
Another alternative is to try a holistic approach such as TTouch or reiki. These practices can have a calming effect on your rabbit, allowing you to work with them and develop more of a relationship. You can get more information about these at www.ttouch.com and www.reiki.com.
Most important of all, love your rabbit. Be consistent, be patient, and be willing to work with your bunny. You will not notice improvements over days, but will see them over months and years. I have seen many rabbits transformed over time.
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