The Language of Lagomorphs
Does the "Language of Lagomorphs" guide describe every signal rabbits use to communicate? Not by a
long shot! On this page I'll share my notes about behaviors that I don't understand and observations that others
have made that I either haven't seen or am not yet sure how to integrate with what I believe I already know. If
you want to contribute your own observations, please feel free to use the Guest
Book I've provided, so that other people can share in the thinking process. I am also very interested in hearing
alternative interpretations and possible corrections.
In order to help keep this guide down to a reasonable size, I have purposely omitted behaviors that are entirely or or almost entirely exhibited by unneutered rabbits. Such rabbits are typically much more focused on issues of territory and hierarchy as well as on matters of sex itself. Erik Abranson has written some extensive email letters to me describing just a few of the signals used by unneutered males and females (they use different ones!) and I must admit this is a pretty wide area of communication that I'm omitting. A very common signal in unneutered males, for instance, is scratching at the ground like a bull getting ready to charge, as a way to indicate aggression and threat. Although some people enjoy the aggressiveness and intensity that's common in unneutered rabbits, these aren't usually attributes that help a rabbit get along happily in a human household. Also, most female rabbits eventually die of ovarian cancer unless they've been neutered. I strongly recommend that all companion house rabbits be neutered.
Another area of behavior I've omitted are actions that are not signals, although they certainly can communicate a rabbit's state of mind. Rabbit behavior is a much wider topic than just the set of behaviors used as signals, for communication purposes. For instance, if you try to hold a rabbit that doesn't want to be restrained it may kick and even bite you. These aren't signals, since their purpose isn't to communicate but to facilitate escape. To learn more about other aspects of rabbit behavior you may want to visit some of the other Web sites that discuss rabbit behavior or read some books that include this broader topic. I've listed some favorites in this guide's bibliography.
Finally, I have no personal experience with lop-eared rabbits. Many people have written to me asking specifically about lops. Unfortunately, all I've written about lops (very little) is relayed from others. I'll be carefully reading what others say about lop communication and hope to add lop signals to the guide if I can get consistent reports from people familiar with these rabbits.
Our female rabbit Betsy will sometimes show a very subtle shivering of her lower jaw without making any sound (i.e. no tooth grinding). Whenever she does this she is lying apparently contentedly, with ears up and facing forward. I've seen her do this both in her cage and outside. I don't know if this is actually a communication signal.
Several people have reported loud sniffing, performed as one big inhalation through the nose, as a signal of anger or annoyance. I've usually observed it without any other indications of anger, though, when I suspect that it's just a rabbit clearing its nose. I'm still studying this behavior to better understand it, but I am pretty sure this is a real and significant signal.
This is an observation from Audry Pavia in her article "Actions Speak Louder Than Words." Flattening is described as the rabbit lowering itself to the ground with ears pressed tightly against the head and eyes bulging, and is a response to fear. In the guide I describe a fear response where the rabbit "lowers its head and ears, spreading its ears or tilting both ears to one side rather than keeping them pointed straight back." I perceive this more as "cowering" than flattening, but I suspect that we're taking about the same behavior. Diane calls this the "don't eat me!" pose. I'm mentioning it here just in case these two are different.
Susan R. posted to the guestbook about a "lateral tail wag." She wrote,
I've seen several of my rabbits do this (a side to side move of a relaxed tail) as they hop away from another bun. This is usually after Bun #1 (the wagger) sniffs Bun #2. Sometimes a slight head binkie from Bun #1 is involved. From the expressions of the wagging buns, it seems that wagging may be similar to a "foot flick" or may be a sign of mild annoyance.
I've seen it a few times now in our own rabbits (addressed to me!) and I'm pretty sure she's got the meaning exactly right. It's a milder put down than the foot flick, but definitely seems to have a related meaning. It's just amazing how one can totally miss some of these signals, but once you know to watch for them they become all but obvious.
Some folks on the alt.pets.rabbits newsgroup have reported that the tail wag is a happy signal. Reading Susan's description of the circumstances above certainly can lend itself to that interpretation too, but I admit it didn't appear that way the couple of times I've seen it. I think the closest human signal might be sticking your tongue out as a mild mocking gesture.
This one needs more study.
This is yet another observation from Audry Pavia in her article "Actions Speak Louder Than Words." She describes squatting as hunching down with ears folded softly against the head, expressing contentment. The closest I've ever seen to this is when a rabbit is sleeping, since they typically fold their ears back. Otherwise, I've seen contented rabbits only with their ears up, and only dismayed, angry, or insulted rabbits with their ears folded against their head. Rabbits can have very different personalities, though, and perhaps other folk's observations will help clarify things.