Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Question from the Audience: A mean bunny?

A question from Emily V. in Portland, OR.

Q: I have a lop eared bunny that I can only classify as "mean." I'm sure there is something that I could be doing to improve her behavior, but for the life of me I can't figure it out. We bought Bella from a farm where she had been stuck in a cage in a barn in some extreme heat for a couple weeks. We took her home and set her up in our guest bedroom. After she got mostly potty trained and met our two dogs (whom she adores!) we moved her out to the main living area where she got to spend most of the day running around the house, playing with the dogs. But she has never been nice to us humans.

I've read everything I can find on bunny behavior, I clean her cage when she leaves it on her own free will, she has an endless supply of food and timothy hay and she gets to run around all day. She gets carrot tops, radishes and every once in awhile, apple bits. I've sat on the floor and let her come to me. I stay still and ignore her like all the books say. And then she bites me for no reason! I shriek to tell her that hurts and she'll lunge at me again. Then, I'll get up to remove myself and she actually chases me around the house trying to bite me. I've worked with her for months to improve this behavior and nothing seems to work. I finally figured that she just wanted nothing to do with us humans and we should leave her alone.

I didn't want her to be stuck in her cage all day, but I couldn't let her run around the house biting me all day either. We set her up with a bunny run area in the garage where she has access to her cage, all her toys and a lot of running room, but she seems to only be grumpier. When I enter the pen area to clean it, she charges me and my little hand broom. I'm getting to the point where I'm pretty scared of her. Do you have any suggestions for what I can try? I don't want Bella to be unhappy, but I don't know what to do anymore!

A: I commend you for being so patient, understanding and accommodating with your difficult bunny, and for researching ways to improve the situation. No bunny is born mean, but rabbits do have varying personalities. These personalities are further shaped by experiences. It sounds like Bella may have had some negative human encounters early on, so we can't blame her for her behavior. It also sounds like some of her originally positive traits, such as friendliness, confidence and assertiveness, have been shaped by her environment into their negative counterparts-- aggressiveness and other characteristics interpreted by you as "mean." We need to reprogram, or re-mold her behavior to extract the friendly-bold version of her instead of the aggressive-bold variety. We also need to reinstate your presence as a positive association.

Positive connotations
In the garage, Bella will never develop a trust of humans, as she is too isolated, so move her back into the living room. Set up an exercise pen that encompasses her cage and a sizable play area; this way, you don't have to worry about her chasing you around. Initially, practice coming near her play area (I suggest sitting on the outside of it) and giving her treats, like apple bits or a stalk of cilantro, through the gate. When you give her greens in the morning, sit by the gate and hand them to her one at a time. Make her associate only good things with you; we're reprogramming her brain to view you as a positive presence. Gradually, you can enter the gated area. Wear protective gear, such as gloves, for your safety, and so you won't be jerking away and only further scaring her. (If she attacks your feet, wear shoes, thick pants, etc.)

Squealing at her bites doesn't seem to be working. Some bunnies, who instead of "getting" that nipping hurts you, become offended at your squeals. This in turn provokes further aggression. Likewise, ignoring her isn't achieving the desired effect either. While many bunny behaviorists do recommend ignoring a bunny during initial interactions, this is most helpful for shy rabbits who might be threatened by your movements. Because Bella seems very outgoing and friendly (she loves playing with the dogs), she may actually be biting in an attempt to get attention from you. (Note that nibbling is an inoffensive way rabbits communicate with each other.) So shower her with head pats, ear scratches and cheek rubs whenever you're near her, and you may be surprised to find that that's all she's wanted. If she seems agitated at first, start petting the top of her head, in a confident way, using your entire palm and pressing down just a slight bit--this action has a calming effect on rabbits.

Working with a problem bunny might seem like a lot of work, but these difficulties can be overcome. Gaining the trust of such a fragile creature can be trying, but that's what makes it so rewarding. Once Bella begins to trust you, I think you'll notice a real change in your interactions. Like with humans, communication is the key to a happy and healthy human-bunny relationship!


Bill Havice said...

Here are a few more suggestions to compliment what the Rabbit Advocate had said:

1.) Moving Bella back into the house, as the Rabbit Advocate suggests, is absolutely critical. She will never become rehabilitated if she does not feel part of the family and her behavior will only worsen if she remains isolated.

2.) Has Bella been spayed? Young, unspayed female rabbits are often little terrors. They tend to be territorial and can often be quite nippy. Getting them spayed helps calm these behaviors significantly. Spaying might not be a silver bullet for aggressiveness, but it definitely helps. Also, more than half of unspayed female rabbits will develop cancer by age four, whereas spaying virtually eliminates this risk, so spaying is a vital, life saving surgery.

3.) You will need to establish dominance over Bella in a fair manner. You are doing absolutely the right thing in sitting with her in the room ignoring her, as this will help her realize you are not a threat. But if she approaches you and nips you unprovoked, then she needs to learn that this is unacceptable. The best way to do this is to make a flat palm out of your hand, quickly bring it vertically down from above onto her head, and lightly, but firmly (with about the same pressure as if you were taking a child's temperature) press down on top of her head for about five to ten seconds. Rabbits interpret this as a display of dominance. Your rabbit will probably hate this, so it sends a clear signal to her that her aggressive nips are not acceptable. By the way, I always recommend squealing whenever you get bit because that lets the rabbit know that they bit too hard.

4.) Give Bella the same amount of carrot tops, radishes and apple bits as you have in the past - but ration them out in a manner that works to your advantage. Give them out as rewards for good behavior so as to give her some positive reinforcement. You might have to go in baby steps, such as for the first week or two giving them to her simply when she approaches you, so that she associates getting treats from you. You then might divide them into smaller portions and give some when she approaches you and then some when she behaves well. If she isn't behaving well, you might simply reward her when she isn't misbehaving (e.g., perhaps when she is ignoring you). The hope is that over time you can start reshaping her behavior by rewarding her positive behaviors. Rabbits are much, much smarter than people give them credit for. You might take a look at the following video on YouTube to see some clicker trained rabbits to see just how well positive reinforcement can work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDocS5BfR0E.

5.) Finally, I would recommend patience and not giving up. Speaking from experience, it will take time. And you will likely feel resentful on many occasions - that your unconditional love is being returned with painful bites and rejection. But take some encouragement, "mean" rabbits are usually the smartest and most socially interactive rabbits. When you finally "win" them over, you will likely have a very interesting and loving companion who is very attuned to you. And you will find your relationship even more rewarding knowing that you were the reason a sweet little soul healed.

Best of luck!

Bill Havice said...

By the way, you might have noticed a couple of things which might seem inconsistent between what I just said and what the Rabbit Advocate had said, such as whether a flat hand on the head is reassuring or upsetting and whether you should squeal or not in response to biting. They are not really inconsistencies; it is just hard to elaborate some of the subtle differences without getting overly wordy.

For instance, a flat hand on the head is reassuring and comforting to rabbits who are willing to submit themselves to you and who interpret the gesture closer to petting/grooming/licking. But it will be upsetting to rabbits who are not willing to accept you as the dominant “rabbit” in their environment; primarily because they will interpret the gesture as a sign of dominance much like mounting (which is the ultimate sign of dominance in rabbit language). This is especially true if they are very territorial or if they have not been spayed or neutered yet.

As for squealing, you will have to see how your rabbit reacts to it. Personally, I find rabbits usually are alarmed the first couple of times you squeal in response to their biting; then they quickly learn what is going on; and it becomes a useful tool to help reduce the severity and hopefully the frequency of their bites. However for skittish rabbits, the squealing can heighten the amount of stress involved in the whole encounter and make them even more fearful, in which case it can be counterproductive. I tend to distinguish rabbits who come up to you and bite you unprovoked as being less skittish and more assertive, so my gut feeling is that squealing will likely be helpful in this situation. However, that is one of those subtle judgment calls that you will have to make depending upon your rabbit’s reactions to it.