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Error-Free Rabbit Raising

by Rolan Tripp, DVM and Susan Tripp, MS/P

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Rabbit Fearfulness

What Causes It?

There are 3 basic factors that indicate the tendency toward anxiety and fear in a Pet.
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Early social experiences during the pet's critical socialization period
  • Environmental experiences during the remainder of life
Rabbits can generalize their learning which means they may show fear in situations that remind them of prior trauma or pain. Fears of toys and/or people are the most common fears.

There are many reasons why a rabbit may develop fears of people. For example, a bad experience with a small child could result in a rabbit that is fearful of all small children. Theses rabbits may run away if people get too close or hide when new people are in the home. They may also startle easily.

Some rabbits are afraid of new toys. This is usually a socialization issue. Try introducing toys outside of the cage while you interact with the toy and your bunny and incorporating some treats. Your rabbit will soon love the new toy.

Signs of fear

Your rabbit may show the whites of the eyes, stomp the feet, growl, grunt, squeak, grind the teeth, flatten ears back, shiver, or freeze. If you reach for your rabbit and it lowers its head and ears, spreads its ears or tilts both ears to one side rather than keeping them pointed straight back, it may be scared. Other signs that your bunny is scared include running away from people who get too close, running and hiding when someone new is in the room, and startling easy. Some rabbits do combinations of these behaviors. Watch for all these signs to determine if your Pet is frightened, then develop a plan to reduce the fear.

How can I reduce fear in my Pet and increase friendly behaviors?

Once your Pet has a negative experience, it can often be difficult to help them accept new experiences. All is not lost though! Through positive interactions, you can retrain your rabbit to accept new people and experiences.

Positive interactions must take place slowly and over time. By using treats BEFORE your pet's fear threshold is met, you can increase their confidence and acceptance of new people.

Step-by-step example for "rabbit fearful of people."
    1. Begin by having a high value treat readily available.
    2. Sit quietly with your rabbit and allow new person to enter the room, do not allow new person to approach your Pet, have them stand in the doorway.
    3. Offer treat to your rabbit.
    4. New person leaves.
Your rabbit has just learned that this new person is not going to harm him and he received something tasty!
    5. Allow new person to take 3 steps towards you, do not allow person to approach your rabbit, offer treat, new person leaves.
    6. Continue letting new person take additional steps towards you. This is a slow process, this is not a 1 day approach, so be patient.
    7. When new person is within 3-4 feet of your rabbit, have new person roll a treat gently to your rabbit, once treat is rolled, have them back away.
    8. Continue to have new person advance towards your rabbit until they are sitting next to you.
    9. Lay treats next to and on new person to coax rabbit to retrieve the treat from them. Have new person hold out hand with treat.
    10. Before the new person attempts to stroke your rabbit have them offer a fingertip for the rabbit to sniff.
Over time, with continued patience, you can desensitize your rabbit to no longer fear strangers but to accept them. Try to end your training sessions BEFORE your rabbit feels any fear or discomfort. If you rabbit shows fearful signs you have gone too fast. Back up a step and repeat it until your rabbit is relaxed. Keep sessions short and sweet and never let your rabbit have a negative experience with a new person. Now create your own plan based on this one for a Pet afraid of new toys or places.

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