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Why Does My Rabbit . . . ?

Why Does My Rabbit . . . ?

by Anne McBride

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Rabbits are now the third most popular pet in Britain but few owners understand their behavioural problems. Many of the problems that rabbits demonstrate can be avoided if their living conditions are adapted to follow their natural instincts and Anne McBride explains how to do this. She describes how rabbits live and breed in the wild, and the instincts your pet


Rabbits are now the third most popular pet in Britain but few owners understand their behavioural problems. Many of the problems that rabbits demonstrate can be avoided if their living conditions are adapted to follow their natural instincts and Anne McBride explains how to do this. She describes how rabbits live and breed in the wild, and the instincts your pet rabbit has inherited, which makes it act as it does. With a range of problems, arranged alphabetically for easy-to-use accessibility, this book covers all types of rabbits, from hutch to house rabbits, and fully covers the specific problems that can affect them.

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Souvenir Press
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Why Does My Rabbit?

By Anne McBride

Souvenir Press

Copyright © 1998 Anne McBride
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-285-63951-5



Pet behaviour counselling, or clinical animal behaviour, is slowly but surely losing its image of an eccentric person talking to an animal lying on a couch, sharing its innermost thoughts of puppy- or kittenhood. Rather it is becoming a recognised component of the animal health service offered by the veterinary profession. The majority of behaviour counsellors are not themselves veterinary surgeons but act as a complement to the veterinary profession, much in the same way as osteopaths and physiotherapists complement human medicine as offered by the general practitioner. Areas of specialisation are becoming increasingly important as we discover more ways of maintaining our pets in good physical and psychological health.

It is important that behaviour counsellors, being complementary, work with veterinary surgeons and see animals only on referral. There may be an underlying physical disease or injury involved in the behaviour problem. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) requires that their members only see animals on referral. The APBC has an extensive network of members both in Britain and abroad. This means that if an individual counsellor (who may not be a rabbit specialist) cannot help you, he or she will be able to put you in contact with someone who can.

Pet behaviour counselling has, to date, been applied particularly to dogs and cats, and to some extent to horses. This is partly because problem behaviour in dogs, cats and horses can have quite an impact on the owner's life. For example, if the pet is an aggressive horse, a cat that urinates indoors or a dog that destroys the furniture when left alone, the owner–pet relationship will soon start to erode. Behaviour problems in other pet species tend not to be as intrusive to the owner and may not even be considered a problem; extensive bar gnawing in hamsters or rabbits, for example, may be seen as 'normal' behaviour rather than an issue of concern.

Traditionally, where a problem is damaging the owner–pet relationship, such as the biting bunny, the animal is just judged a 'bad one' for which there is no hope of change and the problem is swiftly 'resolved' by rehoming or euthanasia. Yet rabbits and all other species we keep as pets can and do show problem behaviours which can be resolved. What is required is a good grounding in the relevant areas of science and a practical application of this to the individual animal's situation. It sounds simple, but animals are complex creatures and we are gradually extending our knowledge of them, us and our mutual relationships. How behaviour problems in animals develop and how they can be resolved is a specialist and rapidly developing subject of study. I find it both fascinating and rewarding that every day I can learn something new and have the opportunity to apply what I know to good effect.

Clinical animal behaviour draws on a variety of disciplines including veterinary science, biology, zoology and psychology. Psychologists study human and animal behaviour. Many psychologists have dedicated their lives to understanding how animals learn and think, and their contribution to both the field of animal training and to the resolution of behaviour problems is invaluable. Much of the work of these investigators, known as comparative psychologists, has involved the co-operation of many species of animal we keep as pets: cats, dogs, rabbits, as well as the psychologist's ubiquitous friend, the domestic rat. Rats are intelligent, friendly creatures and some of them taught me as a student (several decades ago) how to apply the principles of learning theory (training) without the help of check chain, lead or any other device we use on dogs. What I learnt from the rats can be and has been applied to training all sorts of animals including goldfish, dogs, cats and, of course, rabbits.

The rabbit is not the 'Dumb Wabbit' as Elmer of Bugs Bunny fame used to think. Psychologists have shown that it is capable of learning all sorts of things. Ethologists, comparative psychologists and biologists have studied intensively both wild and domestic rabbit behaviour. They have shown the rabbit to be a species with a complex social life and an extensive range of communication signals. It can rabbit on for hours!

The rabbit, its biology and behaviour, is poorly understood by the majority of owners and this can lead to all sorts of problems. Some, such as overgrown teeth, are physically based, others are purely behavioural. The rabbit who turns aggressive is more likely to be deemed to have gone 'mad and bad' than to be seen as fearful or territorial or even sexually aroused.

While the rabbit is often regarded as the ideal pet for children, it has been pretty low on the list of priorities in terms of veterinary care. Indeed, until recently there was little that a non-specialist veterinary surgeon could do for a rabbit. Rabbit medicine did not comprise much of the veterinary student's curriculum. This is beginning to change as the popularity of rabbits increases. Over 1.4 million are kept as pets in the UK.

The resolution of rabbit behaviour problems is still, however, a minority interest — rescue societies are inundated with unwanted pet rabbits. Records of the number of rabbits put to sleep because of behaviour problems are scarce, but a survey conducted in 1995 indicated that 16,000 rabbits were given up to UK rescue centres. In 1997 a survey of 200 UK rescue centres, conducted by Morwen Abbott of one known as 'Cottontails', showed that this number had increased to 24,000, a rise of 30 per cent in just two years. This is very depressing to us rabbit-lovers as, given the appropriate knowledge, most behaviour problems can be prevented or resolved. I hope this book contributes to the spreading of that knowledge and the engenderment of long and happy relations between rabbits and people.



The domestic rabbit is a direct descendant of the wild European rabbit. They are so closely related that they are still considered the same species. Both wild and domestic rabbits are officially known as Oryctolagus cuniculus, which literally means 'hare-like digger of underground passages'. That seems to me a pretty good description of the rabbits we know and love.

The natural homeland of the rabbit is the Iberian Peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal. When the Phoenicians discovered this area, and thus the rabbit, over 3,000 years ago, they were amazed by the number of rabbits they saw. So much so that they named the country I-shepham-im, meaning 'the land of the rabbit'. This translates in Latin to Hispania or what we call Spain.

Little else was recorded about rabbits for over a thousand years, until Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) first noted the extensive damage that rabbits can and do cause to arable crops. He wrote, 'There is also a species of hare, in Spain, which is called cuniculus; it is extremely prolific, and produces famine in the Balearic islands, by destroying the harvests.' Wild rabbits can still do enormous amounts of damage to crops, though this has been tackled with great effect by the introduction of pest controls such as Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease. Modern visitors to Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza are unlikely to see or suffer from famine because of the ravages of rabbit damage.

About 80 years before Pliny the Elder's advice to prospective tourists to the Balearics, Varro wrote a book on farming called De Re Rustica (36 BC). In this he states that Romans farmed rabbits for meat. They kept mem in warrens, often putting them in cages for fattening. Keeping, and probably breeding rabbits in cages, rather than just as captive populations in warrens, seems then to have begun some 2,000 years ago. This can be considered as the start of the process of domestication of the rabbit, a process which continues to this day with the development of new breeds.

We know that the Romans introduced the brown hare to Britain, but it is not known if they brought rabbits as well. If they did, then the rabbits did not survive for long. The rabbit was first successfully introduced to Britain by the invading Normans, the first written record of their presence dating from 1176. It is quite likely that these furry Norman invaders of the British countryside were in fact from domesticated stock. The rabbit had been spread throughout continental Europe by man, either for the ever popular sport of hunting or by medieval monks. A papal decree of around the fifth century had stated that unborn or newly born rabbits were not considered meat and thus could be eaten during Lent.

By the sixth century the monks were experimenting with breeding for size and colour. A painting by Titian (c. 1530) shows a pure white rabbit sitting with the Madonna. The popularity of rabbits for food and for sport also influenced the breeding of dogs. Elizabeth I used to enjoy hunting rabbits and did so with the assistance of miniature beagles called 'pocket' or 'rabbit' beagles.

Until the nineteenth century little further progress was made in the domestication of the rabbit, though many millions of rabbits were killed for their meat and fur. The spur for further domestication arose with the Industrial Revolution, when people migrated from the countryside to the rapidly expanding towns and cities with their rows of terraced houses and opportunities of employment in their dismal factories and mills.

In people's small backyards there was limited room to keep livestock other than rabbits and pigeons, both of which could be used for food. Soon friendly competitions started for the best, prettiest or other favoured characteristic. These were the beginnings of pigeon racing and pigeon and rabbit fancier clubs. Before 1850 fancy rabbits were usually patterned in some way, an early recognised breed being the English Butterfly, so called because of its butterfly-shaped smut of dark fur on its nose. However, the real stars of the shows were the Lop breeds with their elongated ears. A leading rabbit fancier, Delamer, wrote in 1854 that 'Flat Lops are the most unnatural, and therefore the most perfect and valuable rabbits in a fancier's estimation.' They remain just as unnatural looking and just as popular. Though I have to say that my personal preference is for a rabbit which looks like its wild cousins in all but colour.


Domestic rabbits come in a bewildering variety of shapes, colours and sizes. The long-limbed, long-eared, rangy and aptly named Belgian Hare is in stark contrast to the Netherland Dwarf with its toy-like proportions and tiny ears. The trailing, almost immovable ears of the Lops, in some breeds dragging on the ground, are a caricature of the highly mobile ears of their wild cousins or upright-eared domestic counterparts. Fur length varies along a continuum from the short-coated Satins and the velvety texture of the Rexes to the powder-puff appearance of the Angora. Thankfully, unlike the dog world, no one has yet developed a hairless breed of rabbit. As for colour, almost anything that takes your fancy will be available in the rabbit fancy world. Coats of pure white, jet black, browns, greys, blues, silver, champagne, spotted, belted, multicoloured or even the natural-coloured, wild-type Agouti can all be found.

Apart from a few early types, bred for meat and fur, the majority of rabbit breeds are as much a statement of man's creative instincts as are paintings in the Tate. While this may have beneficial effects for the psyche of man, it may not always have been to the benefit of the rabbit. Unfortunately, unlike paintings, rabbits are living, sentient beings which require more care and consideration than inanimate works of art.

Ear and fur type can lead to problems in behaviour which are rooted in mistakes of husbandry. Lop breeds are more prone to canker, a condition caused by an infestation of ear mites. Their folded down ears provide a protected, warm moist environment in which these mites thrive. Sadly for many rabbits the infection is not detected until it is well established. Even before then the rabbit may have been given up, due to its becoming bad-tempered. I think I would tend to bad temper too, if I had sore, mite-infected ears. Another potential ear problem is sunburn, particularly for those animals with white ears.

Similar husbandry problems affect rabbits with long coats, the extremes being the Cashmeres and the Angoras. The coats on these animals require daily attention if they, and their temper, are not to suffer. The fur quickly becomes tangled and matted and grooming can be a painful experience. If left, the matted balls that develop can become so tangled that they pull on the animal's skin as it moves around. Tangles under the chin may even prevent the animal from eating or attempting to groom itself. Angoras and other long-haired breeds are extremely pretty; they embody the 'fluffy bunny toy'. But unless you really do plan to be the dedicated owner, every day for the many years your rabbit should live, please do not consider owning such breeds.

With respect to its physical characteristics, the rabbit has changed substantially through the process of domestication. This process continues as we develop new breeds such as the Miniature Rex, first recognised only in 1990. The behaviour of the rabbit, however, has not changed so radically from that of its wild forebears.



Behaviour is affected by two groups of factors, those we inherit and those which influence us during the course of our lifetime. The former have been classed under the heading 'nature' and the latter under 'nurture'. For many years the scientific community debated how much behaviour was purely attributable to an animal's nature and how much due to what had occurred during its lifetime. This was known as the 'nature-nurture debate'. Until quite recently animals' behaviour was thought to be driven purely by instinct; if it was undesirable then it was unlikely to be rectifiable. We now know, however, that behaviour is the result of both genetic make-up and experiences.

This interaction between genetic and environmental factors occurs naturally and is known as natural selection. It is the means by which species evolve and change. But the genetic make-up of animals can also be influenced by man. For thousands of years certain animals have been bred selectively in order to develop bloodlines which will breed true for particular characteristics. This is known as artificial selection and it is how we have developed all the different breeds we see in, for example, dogs, cattle and rabbits.

Twentieth-century technology has allowed us to be even more influential in choosing which animal's genetic material will be used to produce the next generation. The development of artificial insemination has overcome the problem of two animals not 'fancying' each other and refusing to mate and conceive. The rapid developments in the field of transgenics in the last decade and the birth of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997 open up ever more possible ways in which man can influence the genetics, for good or bad, of the animal and plant world.


Rabbits, like people, are individuals. Unless you happen to be an identical twin then you are genetically unique. All mammals (unless cloned) inherit half their genetic make-up from their mother and half from their father. If we continue with the human analogy for a moment, we are all of the same species Homo sapiens, though we also come in different 'types' such as Asian and Caucasian. Types also occur in other animals, such as the warm-blooded and cold-blooded types of horse referred to by Paul McGreevy in Why Does My Horse ...? Types are the result of natural selection pressures such as climate acting on the species to improve the chances of the survival and successful reproduction of the animals in the area.

The domestic rabbit is descended from a single species of the rabbit family, the European rabbit. This evolved in a restricted area of southern Europe and was not exposed to radically different environments. Thus only one type existed. This provided the raw material for man to domesticate and change to suit his requirements.


Excerpted from Why Does My Rabbit? by Anne McBride. Copyright © 1998 Anne McBride. Excerpted by permission of Souvenir Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anne McBride is an animal behaviorist at the University of Southampton. She has done extensive research on rabbits and lives in Southampton, England.

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