AGGRESSIVE Rabbits, how to cope

Rabbits are not what they seem. Under that cute, furry exterior can lurk a determined, self-motivated little devil that has the potential to be aggressive and sometimes downright horrid! Unlike dogs, rabbits have never learnt that their well-being depends on their owner providing them with food and shelter.  As a result, they give the accurate appearance of being selfish – some don’t care a bit if they attack the hand that feeds; their only aim is to get what they want at that particular time.

Surprisingly, a rabbit’s nature is not entirely dependent upon how much it is handled as a baby, nor is it safe to assume that because a rabbit is nasty, it must have had a bad experience in the past. Below is a short film of a baby Netherland dwarf rabbit with attitude!  This individual has inherited some rather unpleasant characteristics from his very territorial and short-tempered mother. Still, by handling gently daily, this baby may start to be socialised gradually, although may never be a particularly friendly bunny with people.  The other three babies in the litter behave normally.

The nature of a rabbit appears to be “set” very early on via hereditary genes.  Although external experiences may “bend” a personality somewhat, the basic nature of the rabbit will become apparent at between 4 and 6 months of age, for good or bad. Rabbits often calm down as they get older, becoming more placid at about 3-4 years, and if neutered this helps considerably too. However, severe aggression in rabbits must not be taken lightly. I have personally seen the wounds on an owner’s face inflicted by a vicious house rabbit that leapt off a chair and attacked her – she needed five stitches in her face and required cosmetic surgery to hide the scars.

Some rabbits show aggression due to fear, although more defensive than out-and-out nastiness.  Such rabbits can be turned around with appropriate action such as: neutering to remove any hormonal component; using appropriate accommodation like a large hutch with a run permanently attached so that the rabbit does not have to be handled; matching up with an opposite sexed compatible neutered rabbit.  Together, these steps can transform a rabbit ultimately into a relaxed and content creature.

However, there is a small minority of rabbits for which nothing seems to work, and even basic cleaning and feeding of an aggressive rabbit can be problematic. Such rabbits will often lunge at the brush, dustpan, hand or whatever is used to lift the soiled bedding out of the cage. What can be even trickier is trying to retrieve the food dish to put fresh food in, and sleight of hand is required to replace the filled bowl in the hutch.  I made a short film illustrating how to go about managing a “food-anxious” rabbit:

Another technique that may work with a food-anxious rabbit is not to put the food in a bowl but to scatter the day’s allocation all over the area the rabbit is allowed to be in.  This removes any associations with food bowls and hands and means the rabbit has to forage for its food rather than getting it handed out on a plate. You must be sure, however, that you do not use this as an excuse to overfeed! Below is an interesting account of an aggressive house bunny and the steps the owners took to manage the situation.  However, not many people would be willing to take the time and effort to make it work, but it certainly seemed to help in this particular case:

Let’s look closer and try to understand what is happening with a grumpy or aggressive rabbit, starting with the boys.


Aggression in male rabbits is usually an inherited condition, a predisposition to this behaviour being passed on from parent to offspring. By aggression, I mean severe open mouth biting in and out of the hutch, rearing up in an attempt to bite one’s hand, often accompanied by lunging with the forefeet. Growling and grunting are often heard during these episodes.

This pattern of behaviour should not be confused with frustrated sexual “courtship” whereby a male rabbit will circle an object, whether it is your hand, your feet, or whatever, often accompanied by gentle grunting noises, followed by “nipping” (not biting), mounting, and possible spraying of urine. This latter behaviour is usually rectified by castration, a very straightforward veterinary procedure now considered routine.  See a separate article on neutering.

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Unfortunately, the first type of behaviour, i.e. inherited, is not usually helped by castration, which leaves the owner with a dilemma. However, there are various viable options for coping with such a rabbit. Only handling a grumpy rabbit, if necessary, is often enough to calm things down and let him gain trust and confidence that he will not be hauled out of the hutch or pen every time someone approaches. This is reasonable, as most rabbits do not like being handled much anyway and would rather be running around on the floor.

Bear in mind that it is instinctive for a rabbit to associate being held by a person with being in the jaws of a fox and about to die.  When you look at the situation that way, it becomes obvious why most rabbits do not like to be handled. Another alternative with a highly aggressive male is to have him castrated anyway and match him up with a neutered female. This sharing of the territory often improves an aggressive male’s behaviour. However, take advice from someone experienced in bunny match-ups, as this process is not as straightforward as one may think.

Although a stimulating environment should be provided for all rabbits by giving them toys, cardboard boxes and other suitable items, this rarely improves the temperament of an aggressive rabbit, indicating that the problem is more than just about boredom. Take preventive measures such as wearing a thick jumper or coat if you have to handle the rabbit, and in severe cases, it may be necessary to wear gardening gloves when cleaning out.

Using two food bowls can help; place the bowl with the fresh food into the hutch and remove the empty one while the rabbit is distracted by eating. Also, try the food scattering idea as discussed above.  If you have not already done so, place the hutch inside an enclosure or attach a large run to the hutch so that the rabbit does not need to be handled for exercise purposes, enabling one to clean out the hutch whilst they are out running around.



Female rabbits, by comparison, are more straightforward as most of their aggressive behaviour is hormone-driven and, as a result, usually respond well to spaying. The added advantage of neutering a female rabbit is that it protects her from uterine cancer and associated problems – responsible for up to 80% of deaths in older female rabbits. However, spaying on its own is sometimes insufficient to resolve the aggressive tendencies in females completely, and the same procedures as suggested for males should be attempted.

It is common to find that an ordinarily manageable female suddenly becomes grumpy and aggressive during the early part of the year.  This is a result of the lengthening daylight and possibly a general increase in temperature, which is a trigger in wild rabbits to mark the start of the breeding season.  Even spayed females can react this way, as the pineal gland in the brain reacts to the increase in day length to stimulate a behaviour change independently of whether they are neutered.  The good news is that this phase does not last very long, and usually, after a month or so, the rabbit will return to normal again.  Neutering will help, however, as although it will not prevent the mood change from happening entirely, it will make it less extreme.  Not all rabbits are affected, but enough of them are to justify the inclusion of this information here.

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The Last Resort If All Else Fails

Sadly, if everything has been tried unsuccessfully, sometimes one has to admit defeat and consider having the rabbit put to sleep. This may seem a heartless course of action and should only be contemplated with much thought and consultation with the vet.  Unfortunately, there is sometimes no real choice, as passing on such a rabbit to someone else is not an option. Strangely enough, those rather grumpy individuals can show the most affection in the right circumstances and environment, especially if allowed to come into the house. However, having a house rabbit does not suit everyone, nor does it solve all problems, but it may well be worth a try so long as it is feasible and there are no young children in the household who could be put in potential danger.

The case of Rumple, a very large neutered male, illustrates this point well.   He arrived extremely overweight and very dirty at the back end due to far too much dried food and no exercise.  Initially, he was passive and subdued, but as time went on he showed his true nature, which was grumpy and unpredictable!  He could be enjoying being stroked one minute and then be a raging charging bull the next, and because of this, I was starting to think he was not suitable for adoption.  Cue kind, experienced rabbit enthusiast to the rescue in the form of Maggie!  Maggie visited at the weekend with a pile of newspapers for us, and I happened to mention Rumple and his issues, and she bravely suggested that if I felt he was not rehomable she would take him on trial as a house bunny and see what she could do.  She was as good as her word, and that night, Rumple was unceremoniously herded into a carrier to start his “on trial” period.  Maggie sent her first update within a few days:

“Hi Mairwen, So far so good. Rumple is such a little character he’s only bitten me once, well twice actually but I’m learning to watch for triggers, which seem to be around his food bowl. Both times he has gone for me when putting dry food in his bowl, He gets very excited when he thinks food is coming, so I now distract him with a little green stuff, which strangely he will let me feed by hand. Then I put dry food in the bowl while he’s munching, thus avoiding losing my fingers! It’s only been a few days, and he has settled well considering, actually comes to me and I give him a little stroke/fuss which he appears to like.

I’ve not been brave enough to attempt picking him up yet, still hoping to gain his trust first with sitting with him, and his coming to me. I have a child-gate between my kitchen/lounge, which sometimes being lazy I step over instead of opening to walk through. Interestingly Rumple doesn’t like me stepping over it, but O.K. if I walk through, seems to re-enforce the dislike of ‘things’ above him, I also make a point of going ‘down’ to his level when feeding him greens and when he comes to me for attention, seems happy with that.  I will let you know of our progress, he gave me a little lick this morning on my hand – bless!  Yeah, the lunges and growls, one bite was a bit scary, but that was all on Thursday, Rumple has been fine since, with none of that at all, so just watching for ‘triggers’, which hopefully we can avoid, to prevent aggression.  Maggie, Rumple, Rufus and Lily. xx”

Maggie then sent another update around 3-4 weeks later:

“Hi Mairwen, Rumple is doing very well settling here has taken over my kitchen and made it his own, even found the food cupboard as you can see!  His behaviour is really good. I get the odd snort or growl, but only at food times. I’ve found if I distract him with a little something green I can put his dry food in his bowl without a lunge or any aggression at all.  I think being in the house not in a hutch means so far, he is not showing any territorial tendencies and accepts the kitchen is my space too, so we get along fine. He lets me stroke him, brush him (moulting like anything!) even give him kisses, though he’s not sure about the ‘slushy’ stuff, must be a man!  I’ve taken a few photos of him, I don’t believe he was the bunny you described to me unless he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing!     Love Maggie Rumple Rufus and Lily X”

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