Unlike most cats, but like dogs, domestic rabbits are very social animals. The domestic rabbit comes from Europe, where its wild relatives typically live in colonies of up to several dozen individuals. They share living space and food, warn each other about danger, and establish a hierarchy in which each rabbit knows his or her place. Unlike rabbits in the wild, rabbits who are neutered and living in human homes don’t necessarily form two separate hierarchies for males and females, and who is dominant may depend little upon their sex. Somewhat like chickens, where the hierarchy is evidenced by who pecks who (the infamous pecking order), rabbits demonstrate dominance by establishing who grooms who (the licking or grooming order). Don’t worry, though. You are permitted to groom with your hands rather than your tongue.
Although a royal (dominant) rabbit will sometimes groom one of his or her vassals, including licking you, it commonly goes only one way. The top rabbit in the group must be worshipped and obeyed by all, and may present him or herself for grooming to any other rabbit, who must comply. Although grooming does help keep those hard to reach places tidy, it’s very much a social activity, and a critical one for most rabbits’ happiness. Who would guess that getting a little forehead rub now and again could be the key to self-esteem, comfort and well-being? Oh…you might enjoy it too.
A rabbit will present itself for grooming by coming right up next to you, maybe nudging you a bit with its nose or poking its nose under your hand or foot, then lowering its chin and chest to the ground, and stretching its head forward while keeping its rear up a bit. While the ears may get laid back a little, this is quite different from the signal for fear (in which the head is never stretched forward) or anger (which is almost always indicated while standing).
This is not generally a request for grooming; most often it is more like an order. Disobeying this order can lead to unhappiness, chewing on your clothing, or even an annoyed nip. Repeatedly ignoring a rabbit’s invitation for grooming will lead to insult and frustration, which can in turn result in having your rugs shredded, your baseboards removed, and your pillow peed upon. It’s way easier to provide at least a few strokes on the forehead upon request to support your rabbit’s self-esteem.
As mentioned, an invitation to groom is not just a polite request, and refusing can have unpleasant consequences. Another way to get your attention for grooming, popular if you are sitting in a chair at a desk concentrating on work, for instance, is to “dig” on top of your foot by scratching hard. This makes for a real surprise if you don’t know the rabbit is down there and you aren’t wearing shoes or socks. An invitation to groom is serious business.
Some very aggressive rabbits may use biting even more than grooming to establish and demonstrate their dominance. A rabbit establishing dominance by biting typically won’t just nip, as rabbits may do to get your attention or even because they’re excited, but instead may bite down hard and even hold on tight. Obviously you will want to break the rabbit of this habit, and quickly! The bibliography at the end of this guide includes some references for dealing with overly aggressive bunnies.
Some lordly rabbits will lay across the necks of subordinate rabbits to confirm their dominance. This may be why holding down a rabbit with a firm (but not too firm!) hand over the neck and shoulders will often cause it to quiet if you need to settle it down for nail trimming or ear inspections.
Some rabbits are less tied to the necessities of hierarchy, and may equally come to you for grooming and lick you in turn. Other rabbits may not participate in establishing dominance with other rabbits, refusing to provide grooming but not demanding they be groomed. Every rabbit is an individual with its own personality that you’ll have to learn for yourself. All rabbits like being groomed, though, unless they’re scared, angry, or too insulted to have anything to do with you.
Some rabbits will lick objects around you, rather than your body or the clothes you’re wearing. This is used to indicate that they like you very much even though you’re a subordinate. It will be performed very clearly in your view and while watching you. They seem particularly to choose objects that have your scent, such as places where you sit or clothing you’re removed. I think it’s fair to interpret this as giving you the gift of being groomed, though indirectly.
You may wonder how you’re going to get your rabbit to obey you in anything (e.g. going back into her or his cage) if you aren’t the boss. The answer is that rabbits are perfectly capable of believing several things at once. As long as you demonstrate they’re the big boss by obeying the licking order, you get to be the little boss and be obeyed in everything else. That should give you some idea of a rabbit’s priorities. A rabbit can be completely secure in its high status and still obey your commands. It’s great that human and rabbit priorities are completely different, so that all of us can get what we want and need.