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.
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!