The Causes and Symptoms of Stress in Rabbits

Rabbits are not only adorable to look at but have their own extremely cute individual personalities, making them a great addition to any family. However, when you noticed your rabbit’s behaviour change it can naturally cause concern.

In general pet rabbit behaviour is not dissimilar to their wild ancestors. As prey animals they are naturally predisposed to be cautious and on high alert, this can make them easily susceptible to experiencing stress. How confident a rabbit becomes, however, is likely to be heavily influenced by its early life experiences.

Signs of stress in rabbits

To be sure your rabbit is in fact suffering from stress, look out for the following signs. However, it’s important to note that many of these symptoms could be related to other health issues and so it’s always important to take your rabbit to your vet to ensure they are properly assessed and rule out any other possible health concerns or diseases.

  • Excessively nervous and jumpy
  • Restlessness
  • Unusually aggressive and difficult to handle
  • Lethargy
  • Lack on interest in food
  • Rapid breathing
  • Easily agitated
  • Excessive grooming
  • Grunting or screeching
  • Panting
  • Bulging (scared) eyes
  • Ears held back tight against the head
  • Thumping or stomping the ground
  • Hair pulling which would result in visible bald patches or coat thinning
  • Repetitive or stereotypical behaviours such as head bobby, circling, biting bars etc

What causes stressed rabbit?

As explained early, due to their natural tendency to be anxious animals, rabbits can easily become stressed by their environment. As a result, there are quite a few situations which may trigger a stress response. Taking steps to avoid these can do wonders for alleviating unnecessary stress in your rabbit, helping its overall wellbeing.

Sudden Changes

Any change to a rabbit’s environment such as a new cage, new location, new rabbit, travelling in car, visiting the vets etc can potentially prompt feelings of stress. Rabbits are creatures of habit and become accustomed to their surroundings, therefore, to avoid this being a problem ensure any changes are introduced gradually. For example, introduce your rabbit to a new cage over a few days, leaving the cage open so it can explore it in its own time. Put some of your rabbits used bedding in the new cage to further help them to acclimatise.

Confinement and Boredom

Keeping your rabbit in its cage, even if it is a large one, has the potential to cause severe stress. Exercise and activity are vital to the health and wellbeing of any pet animal. Without regular activity and stimulation rabbits will become bored and this will cause undue stress which can, of course, lead to other health issues.

If you’re unable to exercise your rabbit regularly, do consider a larger hutch and preferably one that comes with an attached run. Providing suitable hides, toys and ‘digging’ opportunities will also help relieve boredom and ensure your rabbit is able to exhibit natural behaviours.

Furthermore, rabbits are naturally grazing animals so ensuring they can undertake this instinctual behaviour, by providing access to fresh grass, will further enrich their wellbeing. If this isn’t possible fresh hay is a great alternative or scattering food for them to forage.

Over Stimulated Senses

Rabbits have sensitive hearing and they’re alert to the sounds going on around them. Because of this, loud noises like building work, loud music, traffic noise etc can all cause stress.

Rabbits also have a heightened sense of smell so olfactory changes can stimulate stress, this might be petrol fumes, nearby predators, strong perfume, smoke from a nearby fire etc.

And of course, they have sharp eyesight, so sudden movements or gestures can easily cause fear and alarm.

To avoid these being problems, locate your rabbit in a quiet and sheltered area with plenty of ventilation. When approaching or handing, do so with slow and calm movements.

Other potential causes include:

  • Underlying illnesses or disease
  • Social stress i.e. too many animals in one space
  • Exposure to extreme environmental stimuli such as heat waves, lighting, storms etc
  • Lack of ventilation
  • Insufficient access to food or water
  • Over handling or ‘rough’ handling