Betsy Vanderbun

The Language of Lagomorphs

Marvin Underfoot


Yeah Baby, I Like It Like That

Social grooming focuses on the rabbit's head, and humans can perform this task by stroking or massaging the forehead (backward only), massaging the base of the ears and the side of the rear jaw (not the bottom or back!), and tugging the ears gently (unless the rabbit is ticklish there). Many people and rabbits enjoy grooming that includes plucking out loose fur, which can actually be more effective than brushing. Rabbits also like getting their eyes cleaned, and wiping the corners where stuff accumulates will be appreciated. Some rabbits rest their chin on the head of the rabbit being groomed during these sessions to show affection, and you might like doing this too.

Putting your hand under a rabbit's head, however, is a statement that you insist on being groomed yourself in turn. Some rabbits will give you a lick to show their appreciation, but many will get insulted or angered by your presumption. Also, few rabbits are comfortable being touched on their bellies or lower sides (a ticklish place), or their hindquarters (where aggressive rabbits bite). If you're using a brush, though, long strokes from head to hind are often acceptable. Just don't poke!

Rabbits often indicate their appreciation of your grooming by gently grinding their teeth, which you can often hear and sometimes feel through their skull. Some people call this a "tooth purr." If you're grooming or otherwise petting your rabbit and it purrs like this, do it more like that. Ahhhhhh.... Some rabbits will also mumble to indicate enjoyment while you groom them, with a sort of deep, grumbly, muttering noise.

Some rabbits will help you learn to groom them just exactly how they like it. They may lean into your hand to indicate they want a harder rub. A rabbit may also turn or rearrange itself to present different places for massage. If the rabbit you are grooming seems to be trying to tell you something, but doesn't simply hop away, you should experiment a bit to figure out what is being requested. If what you are doing is actually disliked then the rabbit won't stick around, so any behavior less than leaving probably indicates a request for something a little different from what you're doing.

You can offer grooming to your rabbit, even when you haven't been invited, by offering your hand. You should do so by putting your hand on the ground from six inches to a couple of feet in front of the rabbit. Scratching the ground there a bit can help. If your invitation is accepted, the rabbit will move a bit forward toward your hand, lower its head and front body, and fold its ears back. If the rabbit rears up, or gives you a skeptical turned-sideways pose, your invitation hasn't been accepted.

Remember that from the big boss's point of view, being allowed to groom a rabbit is a privilege and honor, and such grace may not always be bestowed on you. Then again, some rabbits are a bit more, uh, loose with their affections. Bonus fact: If you haven't learned this already, you can look forward to exactly the same sorts of people and situations when you begin dating.

Note that some rabbits, particularly if they aren't yet familiar with you, will charge at a hand placed before them, and maybe even bite it. Nervous or aggressive rabbits may do this a lot even after they know you. The best thing to do is just stay mellow, and try to get in a few forehead rubs anyway. Eventually the rabbit should get the picture: that a hand placed in this way is not a threat but an offer. Learning good communication can be hard and a little painful, but it's always worthwhile.

Betsy washes her foot

"No thanks, I'll clean this myself."


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