Rabbits are like Dogs, but Not

So much to learn, so little time! I recently did a guest appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio and didn’t do a very good job answering a question about a rabbit who pottied on the couch instead of its litter box. Thanks to an alert listener and member of the Wisconsin House Rabbit Society, I’ve learned a lot since. And I have to admit I find it fascinating. You all know I’m an animal behavior addict, whether it’s dogs or donkeys or doodle bugs, and I even had rabbits for a time, so I’m gratified to learn more about them.

I’m not proud of my own efforts at rabbit husbandry. It was a very, very long time ago, before I knew much at all about animals and animal behavior, and the rabbits lived outside in a cage in a building. Granted, it was warm and safe, but one of the most important things I now know about rabbits is that rabbits are like dogs in that they are highly social and inquisitive. Keeping a rabbit in a cage outside with little social interaction  is no life for a rabbit.  (Thank heavens we at least had 2 of them together, and they  got along well.) They need physical and mental exercise just like dogs, and they need relationships with others that are friendly and fun.

On the other hand, rabbits are nothing like dogs. And there’s where I messed up on my radio answer to the rabbit who wasn’t using its litter box. I had cat and dog behavior too much on my mind when I answered, and I didn’t say that rabbits, unlike dogs but exactly like my sheep, potty where they eat. Like dogs, they use urine and feces  to mark territory, but unlike dogs, they take this territory stuff inside the house very, very seriously. So seriously that the national House Rabbit Society (a marvelous resource by the way, as is the Wisconsin chapter) advises you to avoid even putting your hand in their cage. Their cage (with litter box within it) is their territory, and rabbits do better when what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is yours.

The House Rabbit Society advises never putting your hand in the rabbit’s cage for any reason if the rabbit is inside. Don’t reach in to pull him or her out (they are prey animals after all), and don’t pick them up and put them back. Herd them back, Border Collie like, so that they make the choice themselves to go inside.

There’s a lesson for all of us here, one I find myself learning over and over again: Every animal has its own ethology, its own umwelt or reality that it lives within, and it is critical for us to understand and respect that. The sheep taught me that the first year I had them, when I spent hours trying to close up and insulate the barn so that they wouldn’t suffer during the brutal Wisconsin winters. . .  and ended up giving them pneumonia because sheep need fresh air to be healthy. I sometimes find them on the coldest of mornings lying in comfortably outside on icy snow, instead of the warm, comfy straw I’ve put in the sheltered barn.

What about you? I’d love to read about what your experiences with any species has taught you. Horses and sheep taught me to think more like a prey animal, my cats have taught me about the need to pause before going outside so that one can look and smell for other cats or danger. What about you: Lessons from gerbils? Here’s what my pet rat taught me?

And oh yeah: One last thing: Rabbit fanciers call rabbit poop “pills.” If that’s not cute I don’t know what is. (I should note that rabbits also have two kinds of poop. Check it out here.)

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It’s gorgeous and sunny but cool with puffy clouds and blue sky and blooming poppies by the front door. I can’t savor much of it now because it’s crunch time at the University, lots of exams to grade and lots of work too on our new website (coming to a computer near you this summer). Here’s some of what I’m soaking up:





  1. says

    Right now I am socializing and clicker training a young poicephalus parrot and it has been a steep learning curve. Many years ago I had cockatiels and a cockatoo which are sweet, cuddly birds. My Meyer’s parrot is more wary, skittish and a little temperamental. I have to break everything down into baby steps and everything that I do has to be very predictable and almost like a ritual. Last night I wore my Betty Boop pajamas and my parrot started screaming and freaking out. So the bird is not scared of the dogs, the cat, the vacuum cleaner, mops, brooms, hats or sunglasses but Betty Boop threw her over the edge, go figure. So I had to take things very slowly and with lots of treats, she eventually sat on my PJ’s. Because parrots are essentially undomesticated and a prey animal, you have to be careful and diligent with socializing them to new experiences, including funny looking clothes.

    I had a house rabbits over a decade ago and I found that they were fairly easy to potty train. I did not use a litter box just used the cage itself and left the door open. But they are very playful and like to play tag and chasing games so they are very fun, sweet pets.

  2. Amanda O. says

    It also bears mentioning that desexing reduces territorial behaviour vastly and changes litter training from an exercise in frustration to along the lines of “rabbit meet litterbox, litterbox meet rabbit – all done!”

    Likewise, rather than herding the rabbit back to it’s cage which loosely mimics hunting actions of a predator to a prey animal it is far better to simply teach them a ‘return to station’ cue the same as dog owners and zoo keepers world wide do. Rabbits don’t react to stress of space pressure the exact same way sheep do and aren’t herd animals that group up – they freeze and can have heart attacks or bolt which risks breaking necks, legs or backs. In less extreme reactions they are still experiencing stress which isn’t ideal for trust-based relationships. Plus rabbits take to clicker like ducks to water. I have four free-range house-rabbits who share the place with five dogs, three cats, poultry, sheep and young kids. Husbandry behaviours are a popular thing here to keep it running smooth – or as smooth as organized chaos can be. 😉

  3. margieh says

    I tried herding a wild rabbit out of my fenced-in back yard before I let my dogs out the other day. I grew up on a farm, herding cows. I was at least 20 ft away from him/her the whole time. I’d not fenced around the deck so creatures like him have a way out. I started herding him that way and he zipped across the yard and never went near the deck, of course. Maybe she had babies under the deck. We know not.
    I opened two gates and he ran past the openings, ran into the corner where the gate was hinged to the fence, ran across the yard, threw himself against the fence. That’s when I opened the second gate and he/she still didn’t go out. He/she figured it out eventually. But at least no carnage.
    My dogs, standing at the patio door the whole 20 minutes watching, had a riot when I let them out. They would have gone right out the gate after that rabbit, but it was closed, of course…
    A reader’s digest bird book said that wrens are like terriers so I started watching the wrens in my yard. They’re right!

    I watch the chipmunks. One is called Speedy. They climb bushes. They eat rose leaves, bounce away (thorns, I’d guess) and come back for more so all those high value rose leaves are missing 6 inches from the ground.


  4. says

    During college, I got a pet rabbit. I guess I expected it to be like the guinea pigs I’d had, but it of course was completely different. I subsequently purchased & read a copy of “The House Rabbit Handbook” and learned that if I’d read that book *before* I’d gotten the rabbit, well, I’d never have gotten it. I had her for two years before rehoming her to a more appropriate situation, but I did succeed in getting her to stop biting and enjoy petting (she came from a pet store and had been grabbed a lot) and she always used her litter box. Downsides were that she really enjoyed chewing my wood furniture, cords (yikes!), and also liked to dig in her litter box. Since I lived in an apartment at the time, I wasn’t able to provide her any kind of outlet for burrowing. Very high mess-to-weight-ratio with that animal, and I’ve stuck to cats and dogs since!

  5. Ravana says

    My only experience with a rabbit was in college. A dorm neighbor had one which roamed our floor at will. You had to be careful to keep your door shut if you didn’t want to turn around and find a rabbit eating your text books or anything else that was within rabbit reach. This post made me think of the book While We Were Out by Ho Baek Lee. Worth a trip to a children’s library near you.

  6. Janna says

    Gotta love those bunnies! I have one myself and her name is Vegan. She has bitten me several times until I figured out that “what is her’s is her’s and what is mine is mine.” Litter box training I found easy; put hay in the LB and there you have it- a litter box trained rabbit! I love clicker training her too, and would like to play around with some miniature sized agility equipment. Any ways times are changing and I am glad you have brought about the awareness that rabbits should be a house pet!

  7. Alison says

    All this talk of rabbits, sheep, and border collies reminds me of this video of Champis, a Swedish rabbit who ‘herds’ sheep (being territorial perhaps?): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeuL5IGimCQ

    I’ve had many teachers, from cats and dogs, to rats, hamsters, gerbils, and chinchillas, and most recently a cockatiel. They’ve all taught me patience and also not to try to force things. With most any animal (or human), if you wait and let them decide to do whatever it is you want, things go much smoother for both of you.

  8. says

    This line sums it up perfectly: “Every animal has its own ethology, its own umwelt or reality that it lives within, and it is critical for us to understand and respect that.” I often refer to this concept as “-ness.” Cowness, bunnyness, robinness, etc. Every species also has its own communication style, and that’s where we see a lot of folks do wrong by rabbits, trying to interact with them in ways that do not respect their instincts as prey animals. The free-range house rabbit (litter box trained and never caged, living in a large, bunny-proofed area) who joined our family via adoption, has taught me a LOT. Rabbits are curious, smart, silly, sometimes stubborn (in the *most* adorable way any creature can be) and they want to feel safe. Only when you have earned a rabbit’s trust will you see its personality shine :) Bunnyness is happiness! As an HRS member, big thanks to you, Patricia, for blogging about bunnies!!! Despite our efforts, many myths and misconceptions persist about rabbits as pets.

  9. Lisa W says

    I have no personal experience with rabbits. I have lived with dogs, parrots, and a Greek tortoise named Lindzer — talk about umwelt. Lindzer learned how to open the screen door that was held closed by a spring latch. He would crawl out to the mudroom, stand up on his hind legs, and slowly let himself down and that would open the door. You don’t really spend too much time worrying about where a tortoise is until you realize he has made his great escape, and then you follow the grass that has been flattened down by a slow moving shell. Happy ending, we found him in a culvert.

    My friend who lives in New York City found a rabbit on the subway. She brought him home to her tiny, tiny apartment, named him Mr. Bunny, and he lived many years in a rent-controlled apartment in Little Italy.

  10. says

    What a lovely blog and post – makes me wish I could be running around on the farm today.
    Sadly I’ve never owned a rabbit, but what beautiful creatures they are.

    My dog has taught me that playing is still important no matter how old you are!
    Great post x

  11. says

    We have about 30 rabbits at our small sanctuary in Prunedale, California. Our bunnies rotate run times, and we schedule mealtimes to coincide so that the rabbits going back to their cages know there is a yummy treat of fresh greens or pellets waiting for them. They either happily run back into their cages by themselves, or jump into their litterbox to be carried back and receive their treat – it’s all very positive. Herding rabbits can be necessary at times, but we avoid it whenever possible and opt for reward based training instead.

  12. Jennifer Hamilton says

    How timely! After working exclusively with thousands of dogs for the last 15 years, I just aquired a horse. I struggle every day about what knowledge to carry with me (i.e. universal laws of learning) and what to leave behind (i.e. a defenseless prey animal behaves very different to certain stimuli and techniques than a predator). I think my brain is nearly mush. Most of my positive reinforcement techniques (giving rewards) are being surplanted by negative reinforcement techniques (removing pressure). Although I am doing some clicker training where appropriate, the fundamentals of even the gentle-ist horsemanship still revolve around negative reinforcement (removing pressure) as the reward. Rethinking the notion of controlling movement, controlling non-movement, and the roll of flooding in the natural environment…it all just seems counter intuitive after spending so much intense time with dogs. (Just to make sure I’m clear, I am not using punishment or any of the harsh horsemanship techniques of the past…I am following the techniques of today’s “positive, gentle” horse trainers and behaviorists…it’s just so different from what I’m used to with dogs.)

  13. says

    I am so happy to see this post! I work at private non-profit animal shelter, and volunteer with the RI chapter of the House Rabbit Society, which I have done for nearly 10 years. I have worked with dogs, and had rabbits all that time, and find rabbits to be fun, silly, intelligent, misunderstood and challenging animals. They are rarely what people expect. We recently had a booth at the 2012 IAABC conference in Warwick, RI and brought live rabbits (my own included) for a clicker training exercise on the last day. It was a great experience, and wonderful seeing people getting what was, in many cases, a first glimpse into the potential of rabbits (we also had a great discussion with the Premier folks about how many of their dog/cat products we use as rabbits, and I’m hopeful some product design down the pipeline takes buns into consideration). I myself have a bonded pair of free-range house rabbits, and we use enrichment toys (the Magic Mushroom from Premier is a favorite, as well as stationary puzzle toys – we have video, it’s great!) and clicker training. I must say, our rabbit picked up targeting faster than the dog! I have had a rabbit build a staircase from found boxes to access the table, witnessed first hand the grief process and understanding of death that comes with the loss of a bondmate, and been privy to the exceptional sense of humor rabbits have (check out a Binky sometime!). I love seeing this consideration of rabbits as something other than a cute accessory, kids toy or pocket pet, especially from someone I respect so much! It seems to me, and I hope it’s true, that there is a trend gaining momentum to acknowledging that rabbits are an animal unto themselves – they have some of the best bits of cat, dog, horse and natural disaster, but are first and foremost lagamorphs – worthy of consideration and the time it takes to train and cultivate a bond with. Rabbits are currently the 3rd most surrendered animal nationwide, and so are certainly out there! Great reads are the above-mentioned House Rabbit Handbook (awesome), Watership Down (great read many people took for granted) and Stories Rabbits Tell (great cultural history of the rabbit). Kudos on a great piece, and I hope it encourages more people to consider rabbits as, well, rabbits!

  14. says

    Also, in regards to the Rabbit Herding Sheep video … I’d love to see a discussion on what is really happening there. It’s definitely not learned herding behavior! Watch closely, and you will see the rabbit actually bite a sheep at least twice. Very aggressive body posture, to, as evidenced by the hold of the head and height of the tail … a very interesting video to see, and a great conversation starter!

  15. Laura says

    Although I’ve never shared my home with a rabbit, except overnight with a wild baby which we placed with a knowledgeable neighbor the following day I now have a rabbit ‘neighbor.’ It is a very large rabbit that seems rather fearless, it sits a few feet from the parking lot or road and allows the dogs, one is 50lbs the other 90, to get within a couple of feet before hopping off into the bushes. I’m surprised at how calm and unafraid it is, we just moved so I’m guessing it learned that dogs here pose no threat since they’re leashed and cars don’t leave the road…I never thought rabbits could be so serene!

  16. says

    My experience with rabbit has not been very good. Over the years I’ve had a few cages with rabbits show up on the lawn or peoples porches after the lesson ‘ teach a kid responsibility’ failed and the poor things are relegated to the outside. The worst was the two adorable tiny rabbit purchased at Easter who ended up being enormous angora rabbits who needed brushing every day etc i remember how on the hottest days of Summer, me and the children’s nanny carried frozen water bottles in the cages to keep them cool. We finally convinced to put them for adoption and off they went.
    Side note: rabbit poop is great for the garden because it is very easy to handle, will not overwhelm the soil with too much nitrogen and doesn’t smell….(professional gardener speaking here)

  17. says

    I never owned rabbit before, I am not familiar with them. I like dogs, I learn to train and play with them , there are plenty of fun.

  18. Kerry M. says

    Great insights into rabbit-dom. I have to admit I’ve never had an interest in alternative pets – which is pretty much how I see everything that isn’t a dog or a cat. I like learning that I have misconceptions about rabbits probably based on my rude interactions with them.

  19. says

    Love your blog – FYI a terrific book “Animals Make Us Human” by Temple Grandin is a good read for anyone interested in animal welfare. It has influenced where I buy my food, for instance only eggs from free run chickens and my daily activities with my Golden to ensure he has a “Blue Ribbon” day.

  20. em says

    @ Laura- I’ve never kept a rabbit myself, though my next door neighbors had a semi-free- range bunny, Happy Rabbit, who would hop over for an occasional visit. True to his name, he was absolutely unflappable and derived evident pleasure from following a rowdy pack of kids around the neighborhood.

    Still, I was stunned last spring by the boldness of a wild cottontail caught in the act of decimating my vegetable garden. He (or she) was fairly small, probably a young adult, but serene is definitely the word for the look he gave me as I went out to shoo him away. Serenity did eventually give way to mild astonishment when I persisted in yelling, clapping, stamping my feet, etc. He hopped maybe ten feet away and regarded me with remarkable aplomb.

    I jokingly threatened him in my most menacing tone that he had better skedaddle lest I set the dogs after him, but in reality I wouldn’t have dared – I honestly don’t think that he would have started running soon enough and the last thing I want to deal with is the dogs actually CATCHING a rabbit. (They never get close to the properly skittish bunnies at the park). The deer in my neighborhood have gotten to be the same way, practically livestock. Natural selection clearly favors the bold herbivore in suburban settings, after all, all the really delicious flowers and vegetation are right up near the houses… :-)

    I ended up putting up a fence, and he moved on to easier pickings.

  21. Beatha says

    I got a blue and gold macaw as my first bird, a rescue (she picked me and “demanded” I bring her home). When I got her, she was abused by the pet store and couldn’t be handled. She did allow me to touch her through the bars and really did love me. When working with her, I would stand with my back to her for long periods, and she would grab my hair and throw it in the air. I also made a point of lying on the sofa in her room, sleeping or reading – predators don’t sleep if hunting. After 6 weeks, she flew and I ended up needing to pick her up. Well, how do you pick something up with a can opener on one end? I took one of her large wooden ladders she was already used to, and I asked her to step up on it – she didn’t know the command but she knew the ladder, so she stepped right up. I started carrying her on the ladder and then that progressed to her standing on my arm a couple of weeks later. We started with bruises all over my arms from macaw bites – I’d get 20-30 a day. Now it’s rare she bites, although she’ll do an excitement bite – something I’d never allow in a dog but with a bird, you have to accept it. She’s very “alpha” – everyone was sure she’s a male, she struts, challenges the dogs, etc but she’s DNAd female. Yet, even as “alpha” as she is, I can’t use the same methods I’ve used on dogs – and I’ve mostly worked with tough breeds, giant schnauzers and now a Black Russian Terrier (much softer than the giants). She’s more like working with my special dog, a shepherd/deerhound who hit the ground the first time I said no, he was shaking all over. Same deal – win trust, then ask for compliance. Then cheer when they willfully misbehave. That dog is no longer alive, but I’ve had Flynn, the macaw, for 11 years this month, and she’s the love of my life. I didn’t use any of the theory-based methods (I lose clickers or break them, don’t like them), just tried to get into her head and “read” her behavior. If anything, I used methods I’d read about using in horses. Oh, and detour training – if something is a block, figure out a way around it rather than get into a confrontation of wills or if it’s really that important. With dogs, you should really eventually get them to do it – with birds, that kind of backfires at times since they’re really not hierarchical, at least not parrots. So, figure out how important it is and if there’s a “sneaky” way to get the behavior.

  22. Jenny Haskins says

    Too late to reply?

    I’ve found that every animal I’ve ever owned has taught me something.

    Generally training any species needs patience and empathy.
    And when I really think about it, I have leared that OBSERVATIONof the individual’s response to whatever you are doing is of prime importance. Because every individual is dofferent.
    If you cannot even begin to get in under in anima’ls skin, any training will only be compulsion :-(

    Before I knew what I was doing I ‘trained’ a budgy and a guppy (litte fish) . I loved that litte fish — just a very plain guppy we netted from a local stream cum drain, but she was SO rewarding :-) Without knowing anything I had target trained her to follow my finger around, and she would come and talk to me through the side of her aquarium.

    Rabbits come in an enormous variety of temperaments and ‘trainability’ — but the ‘good ones’ train just for social rewards.

    Goats and cows seem to enjoy learning so the company and activity motivate them.

    Mice train easily, but nowhere near as well as rats who can become very loving pets. More than any other animal I found that for these two species any food reward must be tiny and immediately cosumable, Otherwise the animal disappears to either enjoy it in private or stash it. On the other hand I have had both mice andr ats who are completey untrainable because of ther aggression :-(

    Domestic cats require enormous patience — they are not given to snatching treats but seem to take more time deciding to take the proffered reward than they do to actually perform the behaviour that earned it!

    Then I’ve tried my hand at ‘training’ wild creatures. Magpies are easy, Willy WagTails and Peewees too. But the one that made me happiest was a lizard (species unidentifed) that over several weeks I ‘trained’ to come out across an open space to me :-)

  23. Lily says

    I think we must be some of the most lucky rabbit owners in the world. We have such a sweet bunny. Our Netherland Dwarf was two days away from being put down by his breeders.. He couldn’t be pedigreed because his coloring was a little bit off. Though I wasn’t allowed to have pets in my apartment, the breeders begged me to take him in. I finally agreed to take him on as a class pet in my 7th grade classroom. The poor thing had spent the first 10 months of his life in a cage barely three times his size. We’ve never litter box trained him. We never had to. In five years, he has never been neutered and has only had three “accidents”. The first two times were when he began acting out sexually. We planned to neuter him, but then we got him a stuffed rabbit to hump. This magically seemed to take care of all the “naughty” behavior. Our vet even advised against neutering when he was younger since he is a life-long bachelor with so few behavior problems. The third time was when we left him out of his cage way too long without a litter box. He’s usually so good about holding it, but every animal (or person, for that matter) will have their limits.

    This sweet little bunny gets along well with everyone. I was apprehensive about having him in my classroom at first, as I know rabbits can be shy, but this one has always been very active, curious, and he seems to thrive on attention. When my husband and I married and I moved out of state, I had to give up teaching full-time. Fortunately, we convinced our new landlord to allow the rabbit, but I think the bunny had a hard time adjusting to life without the kids around all the time. I honestly think he missed all the commotion of school. He rarely chews wood and has never chewed cords. We did have to train him not to chew carpet. Whenever he started to dig or chew the carpeting, we immediately put him back in his cage, and now he no longer does this at all.

    Our rabbit handles being on a harness well, though he’s only so-so when it comes to actually walking with us. That’s fine. At least it gives him time outside; that’s what’s important. He used to try to hide under bushes, but with gentle coaxing, he usually stays out in the open now. We’ve even trained him to do stupid tricks, like tossing a ball in return for a treat. He follows me around the house everywhere, always wanting to be within sight of my husband or me. He gives abundant bunny kisses. At night, he likes to jump up on the back of the sofa while we watch tv, or he will stretch out on the seat next to me, gently and persistently nudging my hand with his nose to let me know he wants to be petted. We are truly in love with this little guy. It breaks my heart to think that once nobody wanted him, and I am so thankful to have him in our lives.

  24. Lily says

    I’ve never seen rabbits heard other animals, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Rabbits establish strict social hierarchies amongst themselves by biting and “humping” each other to see who can come out on top, and most rabbits like to be socially dominant. Sometimes they even try to dominate their humans. Allowing your rabbit to think it is dominant is not good, as the rabbit then thinks it’s okay to behave badly.

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