Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Question from the Audience: Cage Aggression

A question from Hayley I. in Seattle, WA:
Q: I currently own four rabbits, and I have one female named Luna and one male named Oliver who are cage aggressive. Oliver was neutered but it doesn't seem to have helped, Luna is not spayed. They are both five months old and out of the same litter. So, my question is how do I cope with it, how do I change their behavior?

A: Rabbits can be very possessive of their personal space and, of course, they have a right to be. As prey animals, bunnies need to know they have a safe place to escape to when they feel scared or threatened. To encourage confidence in the safety of Oliver and Luna's territory, make it a point to clean their cages only when they've hopped out on their own accord. Never forcibly remove the rabbits from their cages; doing so could weaken their view of their safe places. Don't even reach in the cage when they're inside, even for feedings, at least for a few weeks. You have to give them time to learn that your presence has positive connotations. If they do happen to get a nibble in, yell out a high-pitched "ow!," so they fully understand that this action hurts you. Or wear gardening gloves. Time, patience, space, a calm approach, and understanding can transform a cage aggressive bunny into a easy-going, sweet pet.

Also remember that spaying and neutering reduces territorial aggression. Getting Luna spayed may help greatly, and Oliver may still need time until all of the testosterone has filtered out of his system (it can take 4-6 weeks). The good news is that at five months, they're still very young. This is a good time to alter their aggressive behaviors-- be patient and don't give up!


Bill Havice said...

The Rabbit Advocate mentions some excellent advice in avoiding confrontations with your rabbit; particularly with the most common situations of cleaning their cage while they are inside it or trying to get them out of their cage.

At the same time, try to reinforce some positive associations for whenever you are near or in the cage with your rabbits. Periodically throughout the day, open the cage door and give your rabbit a very small treat. Do not reach in, but rather try to have the rabbit come to you. Do not force the issue if your rabbit does not come to you or gets agitated; just leave the treat for your rabbit to get after you leave. (By the way, when I say small treats, this can be their daily amount of greens/vegetables, but rationed out into small treat-sized portions that you give out periodically rather than giving all at once.)

It also helps to work on getting your rabbit better used to having your presence in or around their cage. One good way to do this is to every now and then open the cage door, rest your arm in the doorway, and then ignore your rabbit but leave your arm resting in the doorway for at least a five to ten minutes span of time (and wear a long sleeved shirt if your rabbit is inclined to nip at you). If your rabbit is not quite ready for having your arm rest in the doorway (i.e., they keep attacking your arm), you might just sit by the cage door and read a book while very close by. This helps your rabbit get used to your presence in or near their cage in a non-confrontational manner.

With any of this, keep in mind that you are trying to take baby steps towards curing your rabbit of their cage aggression, rather than to change their behavior overnight. For instance, you might find that your rabbit is not ready to get treats from you directly via an open cage door, so you might need to start by giving the small treats through a closed cage door for several weeks. After a few weeks, you can then try opening the door and see if they will accept treats via an open door; and maybe a few weeks later perhaps you can try reaching into the cage and hand the treat to the rabbit while he is deep inside his cage; and so on.

And you also will probably find that isn’t just one thing that is causing the cage aggression, but a number of contributing factors. As the Rabbit Advocate mentioned, getting your rabbits altered is definitely one of the things that helps the most. Age is also an important factor, since rabbits mellow out as they become adults. And it is also extremely important to give your rabbits lots and lots of out-of-cage exercise - and this is especially true for young rabbits who are just brimming with energy. The more cooped up your rabbits are, the more pent-up energy they will have, and they usually manifest their frustration and pent-up energy in negative/destructive ways. You also might give some thought about where their cage is located - rabbits will often become cage aggressive if they are kept in a remote location where they don’t get much socialization (e.g., basement, garage, outdoors). Fear often causes rabbits to become cage protective, so you might want to think how you can reduce the stress on your rabbit if there are dogs/cats/children in the house.


Elizabeth J. Neal said...

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