The Language of Lagomorphs
On this page I will try to answer some of the questions about rabbit communication (and only rabbit communication) that people have posted to the Language of Lagomorphs Guest Book. I usually let posted questions sit a while before addressing them here in order to allow others to add their own comments. Please remember that although I am very confident in the interpretations of various signals described in the Language of Lagomorphs, I AM NOT A RABBIT. I am sure there will be times that I miss important subtleties and may even occasionally misinterpret what's going on. Feel free to let me know when you believe I've messed up. Also, you may want to use the excellent online forums for discussion about rabbits, such as the Housebun and other mailing lists, the Compuserve "Rabbits as Pets" forum, or the AOL (members only) "Rabbits as Pets" message board (keyword "Small Pets Talk"). You'll get much more rapid feedback, and on a far wider range of topics!
Q. My new rabbit - 3 month old male dwarf lop cross - licks me constantly. At first I thought it might be a bit of mutual grooming, but then I discovered that he likes to lick the carpet, cushions and sofa just as much... He's done this since the first week I got him and although it was cute at first I'm getting a bit sick of being covered in rabbit spit all the time!! If its a sign that he likes me (and the cushions!) maybe I can put up with it! Anyone have any ideas? - luan
A. I have to admit this is a behavior I just don't understand. We also have a rabbit who loves to lick fabric cushions and the sofa, although he never licks people. I am sure that when your rabbit licks you it is a very strong sign of affection, regardless of any other licking behavior. Rabbits consider licking each other to be a very serious matter, as grooming is the most critical marker of hierarchy and friendship. A suggestion from David P. that I find interesting is that rabbits might lick objects as a substitute for licking companions. It comes to mind that your rabbit might be licking things because he feels insecure, as willingness to groom others commonly indicates a rabbit accepts their dominance. Hmmm. Perhaps our pillow-linking rabbit who doesn't lick people is doing it to signal, "I'd be licking you just like this if you didn't taste so yucky."
Q. What does it mean when he's sat by the french doors watching the gate? He's
often sat there when I come home from school, then when I open the door he waits till I'm sat down, then runs over
to me and sort of sits by my feet. Why? - Claire Leanne Potts
A. Well, I think some bunny loves you. Rabbits are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for, and I'm sure your rabbit knows just when you're coming home. I've been told of rabbits that always wake people up 5 minutes before their alarm goes off, every morning. When your rabbit sits by your feet its because he considers you his best friend and wants to hang out with you. Sitting around together is something rabbit buddies love to do with each other.
Q. Can anybody explain the fact that our Rabbit footstamps and hides whenever we
fry food especially? - Dave and Julie Pascoe
A. Our rabbits both hate when we eat fish, and always end up in a foul temper when the odor fills our apartment. Footstamping is sometimes used to indicate anger or upset, as well as its more familiar use to signal fear. Of course, your rabbit may just be concerned for your health.
Q. Sometimes, when I get down on the floor to pet my rabbit he'll nudge my hand
up with his nose so I can't pet him, then he'll walk up to my arm and start chewing my shirt. What do you think
he's trying to tell me? - Lori Vanden Berk
A. Although he seems to be telling you not to pet him, if your rabbit really didn't want to be petted then he wouldn't stick around. In fact, chewing your shirt is very good evidence he's annoyed that you stopped giving him the attention he wanted. I've had our rabbit Betsy nudge my hand up when she wanted me to rub harder! It might also mean he wants you to move farther back on his head. Lots of rabbits like to be rubbed around the base of their ears, and some like the back of their head scratched. You're lucky that your rabbit is communicating like this, because it means that if you experiment a bit you probably will be able to figure out exactly what is being said.
Q. I wonder if there is a corresponding description of ear positions for "reading"
lop-eared rabbits. Alas, they start out with the ears down and do not swivel them or change positions like their
cousins. Or do they? - Joan
A. This is an important question, because there are lots of lops out there. Unfortunately, I just don't know. I've never lived with a lop, but I've been carefully reading what folks have been telling me and what I can find elsewhere (not much!). We've had a posting to the Guest Book from Susanne who wrote that her rabbit's lop ears "are interpretable if he says `Veeeeerrrrrry interesting' (facing forwards) or `what a lazy life' (lying beside him). In other occasions they seem to keep their position." I'm hoping to eventually learn more about lops so that I can improve the Language of Lagomorphs guide with this information.
Q. Oh no! I've had Joey for exactly a month, adopted from HRS, and more often that
not he displays the body language outlined in 'sadness and fear.' We are hardly able to pet him, a few strokes
on the head before backing or running away, forget about picking him up! I'm not at all overbearing, we've gone
VERY slow as to not make him more antisocial. I wanted a bunny that I could at least pet, he's so cute, but I'm
really bummed out. - Amy
A. One month is way too short a time to expect a new rabbit to trust you without reservations. In fact, if you are able to get in a few strokes on the head before he backs away that's fine. By allowing you to do that much, he's already indicated that he has very positive feelings for you and is anticipating a fine relationship. Rabbits don't give unconditional trust like dogs do, but generally only slowly build relationships over a few months. You have to give Joey at least four and maybe six months before you can really say you know what the relationship will be. Remember that Joey spent some time living in foster care, and who knows what kinds of stress he might have been through before he came to the HRS. That he already comes over to you for social grooming is very, very good.
I'd suggest you avoid picking Joey up, or otherwise restraining him, as much as possible to help build trust (once a week for brushing and a health check is fine). That's always going to set you back a bit in your progress with him, until he really does learn to trust you. If you haven't already, you might want to read the book "Hop to It" by Samantha Hunter & Samantha Fraser to learn how to train your rabbit to go back into his cage when you want him to. Although the training process takes 1-3 weeks, it saves you from having to pick him up every time you want him to go home.
If you ask on the popular online forums, you'll find that most people will report progress in developing a relationship with a new rabbit similar to what you've seen. But one of the reasons people with rabbits like them so much is because when you've gained their trust you know that you deserve credit as more than just a person who pets them (dogs) or the one with the food (cats). If you give respect and affection to a rabbit, you will get it back, and you'll have earned it.
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