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Bunny Bites

By Suzanne Trayhan

One of the most common questions is whether or not rabbits bite. The honest answer is that all animals can bite under certain circumstances. Most people would call having teeth come into contact with the skin a bite, but this is not always a sign of aggression. Understanding your rabbit's behavior and what they’re doing will enable you to have a better relationship with your bunny.

Rabbits have both a bite and a nip. With a bite, you have teeth open wide and it can leave two marks that are about an inch apart. It will often break the skin and can draw blood. With a nip, it is really more of a pinch. It won't break the skin, but in a few cases can leave a tiny bruise that is smaller than an eraser. Rabbits will nip each other as a form of communication. Keep in mind that when rabbits nip each other, they are nipping through fur, so it really doesn't hurt them. When they nip us humans, we don't have fur, so it can feel like a pinch. When a rabbit nips, it can be a bit bossy - move out of the way, I want this spot! One of my first rabbits used to nip my hand when she wanted me to pet her. I had to retrain her to nudge my hand with her nose instead. Some rabbits will nip when you hold them. It’s their way of telling you they want to be put down. When they nip you, let out a loud "Ouch!" so they learn they’re hurting you. When a rabbit nips, they’re communicating something. It is up to you to figure out what that is.

Yikes! Is this a bite or a nip?

With bites, you need to analyze the behavior to understand what the intent was. One example is when rabbits mate/mount. When a rabbit mounts another rabbit to mate, they bite the loose fur on the back of the neck to hold on. The skin on the back of a rabbit’s neck is loose, with few nerve endings. When a rabbit bites to hold on, they are not hurting the other rabbit. It is simply a hold. When you have unneutered males, they will sometimes try to mount your arm or leg. While they’re doing this, they’ll bite – but this is not an aggressive bite. They’re biting to hold on while they mate. When you have bonding sessions between two rabbits, both males and females will mount each other, and not always in the right direction. When they mount, they will bite to hold on. Don't take this as aggressive, although the rabbit being mounted does sometimes get annoyed.

Another thing to understand is rabbits’ eyes and their vision. They are prey animals and for that reason their eyes are on the sides of their heads, giving them a wider range of vision than we have. One consequence of this is that they have a small blind spot right in front of their face. It means that they can’t see what they’re eating, so they rely on their sense of smell. If you place food on the ground, you will see them sniff around to find it before they eat it. If you happen to eat banana, raisins or another fragrant rabbit treat and then place your fingers in front of your bunny, don't be surprised if they bite your finger. Because they can’t see your finger, if it smells like banana, they’ll assume it is.

We all know people who are touchy-feely. They like to touch and feel everything around them. There are some rabbits who are this way too. The only difference is that rabbits feel things with their mouths. Touchy-feely rabbits tend to mouth everything. They gently bite down on something to get a sense of what it is. This isn't hard or forceful, and isn't meant to be aggressive. They will "taste" your shoes, tug on your pants and mouth many things in your house. They give a gentle little bite to most things they come into contact with.

Next, we have the nervous nibble. When a rabbit is nervous, they can nibble. This is most common when a rabbit is being held. They’re scared and will start to nibble on your clothing. They’re not trying to be mean - their behavior is fear-driven. Discipline will not help. You need to wear thick clothes and slowly work with your rabbit so they become used to being held. This behavior is strictly out of fear and not meant to be mean or hurtful.

Last, we need to discuss aggressive bites. Rabbits will bite when they’re fighting with another rabbit, scared, or being protective or possessive. The most common time that rabbits bite is when they are food-, litter box- or cage-protective. Some are very possessive and don't want their cage, box or food touched. Get them away from their trigger and many of them love attention and can be very sweet. This aggressive behavior is fairly easy for adults to deal with and often diminishes with patience and time. If the rabbit is cage-protective, clean the cage when they’re out playing. If food is the trigger, you can usually pet them on the head and while your hand is on top of their head, place food in their cage with the other hand.

Rabbit introductions and bonding are other times when you might have bites. Whether you are deliberately introducing rabbits or there is an accidental meeting, sometimes rabbits will fight with each other. When this happens, they bite viciously. It is important to break them apart as fast as possible, but when you do so, you risk getting hurt yourself. In fight mode, they bite first and ask questions later, so if you place your hand in the wrong spot, you will get bitten. This is nothing personal and shouldn’t be taken as an act of aggression against you. When bonding, people often wear heavy gloves, place old sneakers on their hands or keep a broom handy to help separate fighting buns. In a similar context, if you handle a foreign rabbit, there is a chance your rabbit might attack you. They’re not attacking you, the person, but rather they’re attacking the scent of the other rabbit, which happens to be on your clothes.

Understanding your rabbit's behavior is necessary for having a happy, healthy relationship with them. If you ever experience a bite or a nip, examine the reasons why. It will help you figure out why it happened and hopefully be better prepared in the future. There are many ways to deal with bites and nips that can lead to a better relationship with your bunny.

Copyright 2011 Suzanne Trayhan

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