One Life: Rabbits

30 June 2021

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The Rabbit is any of 29 species of long-eared mammals belonging to the family Leporidae. They are ground dwellers that live in environments ranging from desert to tropical forest, grasslands and wetland.

Their natural geographic range encompasses the middle latitudes of the Western Hemisphere. In the Eastern Hemisphere rabbits are found in Europe, portions of Central and Southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Sumatra, Japan and Australia.  

The European rabbit is the best-known and most recognizable of all species, it has been introduced to many locations around the world, and all breeds of domestic rabbit originate from the European.

They are social animals and demonstrate a wide variety of emotional states including affection, jealousy, anger, happiness, sadness, fear, dominance, satisfaction, curiosity, cunning, restlessness, boredom, excitement, and amusement. 

Rabbits construct intricate homes

Wild rabbits construct a network of tunnels, dens and bolt holes known as a warren, these include chambers for nesting and sleeping. Tunneling is undertaken predominantly by the female. The depth of the burrows depends on the nature of the soil and the height of the water table. Large warrens usually imply a high population of rabbits. 

Individual personalities

Every rabbit has its own preferences, habits, and characteristics that make it unique. Some are intelligent, some are timid, nervous, others are bolder, some are friendly, some may be compassionate, others indifferent. 

Social lives

Rabbits are affectionate, social animals. They form long lasting bonds, and they will perform allo-grooming where two individuals will simultaneously groom each other.

Social groups vary from a single pair to up to 30 rabbits using the same warren. Within large groups there is a distinct social hierarchy, and the most dominant females (does) have access to the best nest sites, with lower ranking does raising their young in more exposed areas of the burrow.

Rabbit love is to be admired

Domestic rabbits are wild rabbits at heart. Rabbits are preyed upon by many other animals  and in the wild they rely on the company of family members, to keep warm in the winter, warn them if predators are around and to provide companionship. As a result, isolated rabbits spend much of their time feeling anxious, they have nobody to warn them of danger, meaning they cannot truly relax.

Rabbit friendship rivals that of all other species. Rabbits groom each other, eat together, exercise together, dig and roll in the sand together and sleep together. In fact, as soon as a rabbit meets its best friend they spend very little time apart.

Rabbits ‘talk’ to each other

Rabbits are always communicating with each other and like all social animals they need to be in the company of individuals that understand their “language”.

Expression takes many forms from rolling in the sand or soil to cowering when stressed or threatened. Having a friend at hand to provide comfort or a playmate to enjoy a run and a roll is essential to the happiness of all animals.

Although typically very quiet, rabbits communicate vocally, with varying types of vocalisations communicating different messages. Rabbits emit a low humming sound as a sign of affection towards another rabbit. They  make a purring noise by grinding their teeth. A quiet tooth purr means the rabbit is happy, whereas a louder, crunchy type of teeth grinding can indicate that the rabbit is in pain.

Rabbits look out for each other

Rabbits stand upright on their hind legs to give themselves a better vantage point to look for predators, and they alert other rabbits to the presence of danger by thumping their hind legs.

Communicate with smells

Scent plays a predominant role in the communication systems of most rabbits; they possess well-developed glands throughout their body and rub them on fixed objects to convey group identity, sex, age, social and reproductive status, and territory ownership. Urine is also used in chemical communication.

Rabbits communicate with facial expressions

We use our faces to express our emotions, from smiles to grimaces, we can tell how one another is feeling from their facial expressions. Rabbits are the same. Although their facial expressions may be too subtle for us to spot, other rabbits can read them and respond accordingly.

Rabbits will perform different facial expressions and change their body postures when they are in pain, stressed and worried. In fact, researchers have even developed a visual scale of rabbit expressions, so that we can understand when they are not feeling happy.

Rabbits binky when they are happy

It is easier to tell when a rabbit is feeling happy. Rabbits will binky when they feel joy, and it is easy to see that this behaviour is an expression of happiness. Binkying is when the rabbit hops into the air, twists their body, and kicks their feet out.

Rabbits’ ears are amazing 

Rabbits can rotate their ears up to 180 degrees. This helps them to pinpoint the exact location of a sound. Their ears are not just good for listening though. Rabbits’ ears help them to cool down in hot weather. Rabbits cannot sweat, and they do not pant like dogs do. Instead, the large surface area of their ears helps them to cool down. It is not perfect however, and sometimes rabbits need help cooling down in really hot weather, and they should always have access to a cool shady spot and lots of water. 

Rabbits have amazing eyes

Rabbits have nearly 360° panoramic vision, allowing them to detect predators from all directions. They can see everything behind them and only have a small blind-spot in front of their nose.

Rabbits have incredible speed

To escape predator’s rabbits will run in a zigzag pattern to confuse a predator. The Cottontail rabbit can reach speeds of up to 18 miles an hour.

Rabbits are crepuscular

Rabbits generally snooze during the day and are most active in the early morning and in the evening.

Rabbits are excellent jumpers

A rabbit can jump up to 36"(90cm) in height and up to 10 feet (3 metres) in length.

Rabbits sleep with their eyes open

Rabbits often sleep with their eyes open so it’s hard to tell when they are sleeping. However, a giveaway is that when they are sleeping rabbits often twitch, and their noses stop wiggling

Rabbits can solve problems 

The wild is full of problems that need solving, and domestic rabbits have not lost the ability to figure out solutions to problems. In this video, the rabbit is learning how to manipulate a toy to get to the treats underneath. He even learned when to push a piece with his head, or to dig at it to move it away, depending on the direction in which the piece could slide. 

Rabbits really are amazing animals

To find out more about rabbits please visit the Rabbit Welfare Association website

Rabbits can make wonderful companion animals, but they need lots of expert care

Rabbits are a popular companion and sharing our lives with a rabbit brings with it a large responsibility to ensure that their needs are being met.

While many live enriching lives, which brings them joy and happiness, others suffer due to a lack of understanding of their basic needs.

Rabbits need to be provided with plenty of space for them to run, jump and play safely away from predators such as dogs and foxes. Domestic rabbits are wild animals at heart, and in the wild they would spend much of their time exercising in their search for companionship, food and fun. Rabbits in our homes and gardens need to be provided with the same opportunities.

They need space to run, to chase each other and to ‘binky’ in the air. A ‘binkying’ bunny is a happy bunny.

Rabbits need a rabbit friend to provide companionship and to help keep them clean. As they spend time grooming each other, they also reaffirm their friendship and bond. Rabbit friendship rivals that of all other species. Rabbits groom each other, eat together, exercise together, dig and roll in the sand together and sleep together. In fact, as soon as a rabbit meets their best friend, they spend very little time apart.

It’s not always easy to get two unfamiliar rabbits to bond, but once they do they never look back. Isolated rabbits spend much of their time feeling anxious, they have nobody to warn them of danger, meaning they cannot truly relax..

In Rabbit Awareness Week, please take some time to think of the rabbits in your life and ensure that they have all they need to live a healthy and a happy life. 

And for anyone thinking of getting a domestic rabbit, please take time to read through the following rabbit care advice and ask if you are ready to provide an appropriate home for a rabbit, and to meet these needs for the next 11 years.

Rabbit care and advice

Rabbits are specialised companion animals and owners require detailed knowledge to meet their physical and behavioural needs. Rabbits are social animals, requiring the company of other rabbits. They require large amounts of space, mental stimulation, and access to specific foods to ensure they live a healthy lifestyle. 

It is not acceptable to keep rabbits permanently confined inside a cage or hutch while being fed a diet of vegetables and fruits.

If you are thinking of having rabbits in your life, please contact your local animal rescue centre to provide a home for rabbits that do not currently have one.

Rabbits need:

  • space, food, water, safe hiding places, companion rabbits, toilet areas and toys.
  • Safe toys to play with/chew and regular opportunities to play with other friendly rabbits and/or people. 
  • Constant access to safe hiding places so they can escape if they feel afraid.
  • Opportunities to exercise daily to stay fit and healthy. They need access to a large area during their most active periods (early morning, late afternoon and overnight) when they like to graze, forage and be sociable.
  • Constant access to good quality hay is important for emotional wellbeing as well as dental and digestive health.
  • Suitable materials that allow digging and areas to mark territory with chin secretions, urine and droppings. Scents are important communication methods for rabbits.

A rabbit carer needs to be ever-observant. If a rabbit’s behaviour changes or shows signs of stress or fear, they must seek advice from a vet or qualified animal behaviourist. Your companion could be distressed, bored, ill or injured. 

Signs of stress

  • hiding, 
  • chewing cage bars, 
  • over-grooming, 
  • altered feeding or toileting habits, 
  • over-drinking, playing with the water bottle, 
  • sitting hunched, 
  • reluctance to move or repeatedly circling the enclosure.

Domestic rabbits should be neutered; this not only prevents unwanted litters but also reduces the risk of uterine cancer in females, reduces aggression in both sexes and enables pairs or groups to live harmoniously. 

It is inappropriate to give a rabbit as a pet to children. Rabbits are highly sensitive animals, requiring very careful and experienced handling.


A rabbit’s diet should consist of 70% hay, 20% greens and fresh vegetables and 10% specialised rabbit pellets.

  • Hay or forage is the most important part of your rabbit's diet. Good quality forage has lots of health benefits, including:
    • Maintaining healthy teeth. Rabbits' teeth grow 2-3 mm a week, so chewing forage keeps them ground down. Three in four rabbits seen by vets are diagnosed with dental problems, which arise when the teeth grow too long.
    • Keeping the gut healthy. The high levels of fibre found in forage are vital for a healthy digestive system.
    • Preventing boredom. Foraging in hay will help keep your rabbit entertained.
  • As well as forage, feed your rabbit an extruded food such as Burgess Excel, which comes recommended by vets and contains the optimum balance of nutrients in every nugget.
  • Don't feed a muesli mix, as your rabbit will simply pick out the bits it likes and leave the rest, missing out on vital nutrients. 
  • Make sure your rabbit has access to fresh, clean water always.
  • Rabbits have 7,000 more taste buds than humans so give them some variety in their diet. Stick to healthy treats such as spinach or kale but feed them in moderation.
  • Never feed your rabbit human food. Some human food is poisonous to rabbits, so don't take the risk.



As domestic rabbits still have most of their natural instincts, it’s very important that we understand and consider their natural habitat and behaviour, so we can make sure they’re as happy as they would be in the wild.

In their natural habitat, rabbits have plenty to keep them occupied, from foraging to reproduction to territorial defence. Captive rabbits, on the other hand, often lack stimulation, which can lead to behavioural problems and poor health. Much like humans, they need to be kept physically and mentally active. 

Replicating the natural environment:

  • Tunnels
  • Tree stumps
  • Twigs (which can be hung in their runs)
  • Suitable toys
  • Planter filled with potting compost for digging
  • Large tubes and platforms for climbing
  • Places to hide (because rabbits are naturally wary)
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Games, such as food items in brown paper which they must unwrap

Early socialisation

It’s incredibly beneficial for rabbits to start interacting with people, other rabbits and other animals, such as cats and dogs, from an early age. Familiarity with other species will help your rabbits develop into friendly and confident adults. Exposing them to normal everyday sights and sounds is also important, so they’re relaxed and happy in their environments.


Like every responsible companion animal guardian, if you want your rabbits to live a healthy and happy life, you must have them vaccinated against Myxomatosis and two strains of Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD). Your rabbit will need two vaccinations every year. The most common are Nobivac (protects against Myxi and RVHD1) and Filivac (protects against RVDD 1 & 2) or Eravac (protects against RVHD2). Please consult your vet for advice.

Understanding Your Rabbit : Behavioral and Vocal Communication

Rabbits have a complex language all their own. They talk to each other and to humans using a wide variety of body positions and a few vocalizations. Your own rabbit’s personality and dialect can best be learned through patient observation. Learning to “read” your rabbit and understanding how they communicate is one of the joys of sharing your home with a rabbit. Watch closely to learn the fascinating intricacies of “rabbit-talk.”


Ears are like a rabbit’s radar. They are used for tuning in to what’s going on around them. Their ears are both expressive and inquisitive. Watch to see if you can figure out just what both ears forward, both ears back, or one ear forward and one ear back means. Hint: “Something has caught my attention.” “I’m giving my radar a rest.” “Something is going on which doesn’t yet warrant my full attention.”


Grunts are often angry reactions to a human behavior or towards another rabbit and may be followed by scratching or biting. Rabbits grunt when they feel threatened, or to show their disapproval if they do not want to be handled – means “leave me alone” -or- “back off!” Some rabbits show their disapproval by grunting to protect what is theirs (cage, food, etc.) from a human hand or another rabbit and often, that is the extent of their anger.


Indicates great pleasure and contentment – means “I’m a happy rabbit.” Tooth-clicking, often described as like a cat’s purring, occurs while a rabbit is being petted/stroked or when they are completely relaxed and comfortable with their environment.


Indicates severe pain, discomfort, or stress. Often, body language accompanying tooth-grinding is that of a rabbit sitting hunched up in the corner of a room or cage. Your rabbit is sick and you need to seek veterinary care immediately.


Soft, almost inaudible sounds is a courting behavior. Honking is usually accompanied by circling.


Circling Also a courting behavior. Can be used to get attention from human companions.


Indicates a hormonal rabbit and time for spaying or neutering. (See honking and circling.) For altered rabbits, this behavior says “I’m the dominant rabbit and don’t you forget it.”


Another sign it's time for spaying or neutering. Males that are not neutered will mark their territory, including you, other pets, everything in range! One little hop really gets it flying! Females will also spray.

Territory droppings

Droppings that are not in a pile, but are scattered, are signs that this territory belongs to the rabbit. This will often occur upon entering a new environment. If another rabbit lives in the same house this may always be a nuisance.


Scent glands are located under a rabbit’s chin. Rubbing with the underside of the chin is your rabbit’s way of marking his/her territory – “this belongs to me” -or- “I’ve been here.”


Rabbits thump to get attention, to express displeasure, fear, or as a warning to others at something seen or heard.


Means several things in rabbit language: “Pet me now” -or- “Move out of the way” -or- “Pay attention to me.”


Indicates a totally relaxed, comfortable rabbit. Your rabbit appears to have an attack, suddenly falling or flipping over on his/her side exposing their belly. Means “life is wonderful.”


Believe it or not, your rabbit can, and will wag his/her tail. Indicates defiance – “No, I don’t want to go to my cage!” -or- “You can’t make me!” -or- “You’re not the boss of me!” Watch closely and you’ll see that your rabbit will occasionally “back-talk” – they just think you won’t notice!


Rabbits are particularly bad about begging, especially for sweets. Who can resist those eyes and that cute mouth? Beware of giving treats as overweight rabbits are not as healthy as trim rabbits.

REM sleep

Watch to see – your rabbit's eyelids twitch, his ears twitch, and his whiskers vibrate. His teeth click. He starts to fall to one side, then rights himself, then relaxes again. You have a comfortable, happy rabbit who is slipping off to bunny dreamland. 


Your rabbit is dashing about the room, kicking up her heels and making 180-degree turns in mid-air. The House Rabbit Handbook describes dancing as a “frolicking series of sideways kicks and midair leaps accompanied by a few head shakes and body gyrations.” This is a happy rabbit, content and in a great frame of mind. 


Rabbits like to push or toss objects around – even bowls and/or litter boxes. Give your rabbit some toys and watch the fun! 

Happy feet

Hind feet are stretched out fully behind your rabbit. Means “I’m relaxed and comfortable but ready to move at a moment's notice.”


Like a little pinch, nipping can also mean several different things in rabbit language. “I want your attention – NOW!” -or- “This is a warning.” Nipping can also be used in a grooming sense as in “I like that you pet me so, I will groom you.” 


Rabbits lick for affection, not for salt. Licking means “I love you, I trust you.” 


Lunging may occur when you reach into your rabbit’s cage to clean, give food, or to take your rabbit out – a sign of disapproval. Can usually be remedied by getting the rabbit accustomed to whatever is occurring. In the meantime, place your hand on your rabbit’s head to calm him/her while performing the task.

Don’t touch my stuff

Some rabbits rebel (and are none too concerned about showing you) when you rearrange or move items in their cage. As creatures of habit and when they get things just right, they like them to remain that way.

Tense body, upright tail, laid back ears

Means “watch out” – your rabbit is on the offensive and is prepared to lunge and possibly bite.

Third inner eyelid shows in corner of eye

Indicates fright or uneasiness, a sign of stress.


Indicates mortal terror or excruciating pain. 

Read moreOne Life: Animals used in research