I just adopted a rabbit and we seem to be having some communication problems. Although she’s using some very expressive body language, I just can’t understand what she is trying to say. Sometimes she thumps her foot at me. When I’m doing dishes, she runs circles around my feet. Her ears go up, her ears go down and I’m at a complete loss. I don’t want her to think I am ignoring her wants or needs, so I am hoping you may be able to help me out. Can you give me a few hints?
At a Loss for Words
Dear At a Loss,
Bunny language is so subtle and intricate; it is not surprising that you are having a hard time understanding what she is trying to communicate. And perfect timing for your question, as February is Adopt a Rabbit Month! The good news is rabbits are most forgiving of their human’s thick-headedness. They are also such natural comedians that learning bunny-speak is really a lot of fun. Rabbits use what is called “signaling” to communicate their wants and needs. Here are a few basics to get you started:
Posture: Rabbits have three body postures, lying down, sitting and standing. Each position can be used to convey a number of feelings, including repose, anxiety, fear or anger.
A lying down posture is a signal of relaxation and trust. A calm, alert rabbit will lie on his tummy with his rear legs and his elbows tucked snuggly underneath, his head up and his ears facing forward. In bunny circles, this is known as the “meatloaf” position. As he relaxes even more, he may extend his forelegs into a sphinx-like shape. Melting into an utter state of repose, he’ll stretch out one or both rear legs, rolling slightly to one side. This is sometimes called “the lamb chop.” If a rabbit stretches out both rear legs behind him in your presence, you can be sure that he trusts you completely. The more difficult it is to get up from a resting position (in order to run away), the more relaxed a rabbit is feeling. If he flops onto his side or rolls on his back, he is signaling, “I am utterly content.”
Sometimes a rabbit may signal disapproval using a posture of repose. If he turns his back on his companion and sits or lies down, eyeing him over a shoulder, he is saying very adamantly, “I’m not speaking to you again until you apologize.” Although rabbits are easily offended, they easily forgive. A gentle nose rub or a scritch between the ears usually makes things right again.
Ears: These are probably the most expressive part of a rabbit’s body. With them, bunnies signal curiosity, fear, anger, happiness and more.
A curious bunny will tilt his ears forward, openings in front like antennae, neck often stretched out. If nervous, he may turn his ears from side-to-side, taking in every sound. If very curious, he might stand on his hind legs in a “periscoping” position. Try not to giggle if he rolls over backwards.
Fear is signaled with a sideways stance, ears up or back and openings out to the side. The rabbit may spread his ears or lower his head. Thumping a rear leg also signals fear, as well as teeth chattering or even muttering. An agitated bunny will hold his ears up or slightly back, with the openings facing sideways. If he becomes angry, the openings will turn backward and he will press his ears down along his back. He may also do some serious thumping.
An ear wobble is a subtle head shake, wobbling the ears back and forth. It’s a bunny’s polite way of saying, “No thank you” to whatever is going on. It may be a piece of food or a toy that he’s been offered or a petting session.
The Binky: This is a rabbit’s way of saying, in the strongest terms possible, that he is ecstatically happy. It’s a combination leap into the air with a twist of the body in one direction and the head in the opposite direction, ears flapping. It can be done from a standing or a running position. If he’s particularly athletic, he may turn once or twice before even touching down. A half binky is a more conservative flick of the ears in one direction, while lifting the front paws off the ground. Either way, he is signaling, “Life is gooood!”
What rabbits want most from their humans is respect and affection. If you can give those to your bunny on a regular basis, the language barrier will quickly melt away.
For a complete “dictionary” of rabbit-speak, go to: www.language.rabbitspeak.com. For further information on understanding bunnies, visit The House Rabbit Society at: www.rabbit.org. And if you would like to practice your rabbit communication skills with a genuine bunny, the Potter League has several charming rabbits in residence, awaiting new homes. Come and visit our short-hairs, lops and dwarfs today!
Love & Tweets,
P.S. The LoveBash for Animals takes place Friday, March 24th at the Atlantic Resort Newport and tickets are officially on sale now! Hope to see many of you there!