In the world of rabbits, hierarchy determines everything. The dominant rabbit rules the roost while the submissive partner defers. But how exactly do rabbits establish this pecking order? Mounting, grooming, circling, footfall marking – rabbit society has many nuanced rituals for asserting authority. These rituals reduce conflict and reinforce social bonds between pairs and groups. Understanding the signals rabbits use to communicate allows us to support healthy relationships as rabbit owners. Let’s dive into the surprisingly complex ways rabbits establish rank and maintain harmony in their social spheres. Whether you have two bunnies or twenty, insight into lapine hierarchy helps build rabbit relationships that thrive.
Understanding rabbit hierarchy
Rabbits are highly social animals that live in groups and establish a clear hierarchy within those groups. This hierarchy determines which rabbits have priority access to resources like food, water, resting spots, and mates. Even bonded pairs of domestic rabbits will establish a dominant-submissive relationship. Understanding how rabbits communicate dominance and submission is key to nurturing a healthy bond between a pair. Here are some of the main ways rabbits establish hierarchy:
Mounting is one of the clearest demonstrations of dominance in rabbit society. The dominant rabbit will mount the submissive rabbit and may growl or bite the scruff of their neck while mounted. This behavior establishes the dominance of the mounter and communicates to the mounted rabbit that they are subordinate. Mounting typically occurs when a hierarchy is first being established between an unfamiliar pair or group of rabbits, or if dominance is being challenged. A rabbit that consistently mounts another has clearly established itself as dominant in the pair.
Mounting may occur fairly frequently when a bond is new, but will typically decrease in frequency once the hierarchy solidifies. However, the dominant rabbit may mount the submissive partner more frequently when stressed to re-establish the pecking order. Signs of excessive mounting can indicate an unstable bond or stressors in the rabbits' environment.
While mounting establishes hierarchy, it can sometimes escalate to dangerous levels of aggression between rabbits. Mounting should be supervised and interrupted if the submissive rabbit squeals in pain or protests loudly. Neutering rabbits is recommended to curb mounting behavior and aggression.
Social grooming is another way rabbits communicate their status in a group. The dominant rabbit will often groom submissive rabbits more than vice versa. The submissive rabbit may nibble gently at the dominant partner as a sign of obedience. Dominant rabbits may also request grooming by placing their head on the back of a submissive partner.
Grooming helps strengthen social bonds and reinforces the hierarchy through these unidirectional grooming sessions. The dominant rabbit essentially says “I am in charge, but I will care for you.” While the submissive rabbit says “I respect your authority and am happy to serve you.” This mutual grooming promotes affection and cooperation.
A rabbit bow is another signal of submission. The submissive rabbit will lower its head and stretch forward onto its forepaws. This displays deference to the dominant rabbit. It signals something like “I submit to you” or “please don’t hurt me.” Bowing is often seen when a dominant rabbit approaches or tries to mount a submissive partner.
A very low bow with the entire chest touching the ground shows total submission. A slight head bow is more tentative. Dominant rabbits may respond to bowing by mounting, nibbling, or circling the submissive partner. The submissive rabbit will often remain bowed until the dominant rabbit moves away.
When a rabbit flattens itself against the ground, it is demonstrating submission. Flattening shows the rabbit is trying to make itself small and non-threatening. It communicates “I am no challenge to your authority.” This often occurs if a dominant rabbit charges, mounts, or circles a submissive partner. The subordinate rabbit will instantly flatten itself in response.
Flattening can also be seen when a bonded pair first enters a new environment. The submissive rabbit may flatten until the dominant partner has explored and scent marked the area first. This signals the dominant rabbit's leadership role.
Dominant rabbits reinforce hierarchy by chasing submissive partners. If a submissive rabbit breaks a social code, like trying to eat first or mount the dominant partner, the dominant will usually give chase. This reprimands the submissive rabbit for the infraction and re-establishes the pecking order.
Chasing generally involves quick pursuit followed by mounting or circling. The submissive rabbit will typically express appeasement through flattening, bowing, or grooming after being chased. This helps cool tensions. Chasing ensures the subordinate rabbit knows its place.
Circling is a classic demonstration of dominance in rabbit society. The dominant rabbit will circle the submissive partner, often while making light nipping motions. This enforces the hierarchy by reminding the submissive they are under the authority of the dominant rabbit.
Circling also marks territory. The dominant rabbit claims ownership over the submissive rabbit by bounding around them. Circle chasing can look like play, but serves the serious purpose of maintaining structure in the relationship. It keeps the submissive rabbit in line.
7. Nipping and fur pulling
Dominant rabbits will lightly nip and pull fur on submissive rabbits as discipline. This enforces obedience and submission in the lower-ranking rabbit. The nips are typically not strong enough to break skin or cause pain. It is simply meant as a warning.
Fur pulling is similar to a human tapping a person on the head to say “hey, pay attention” or “stop that”. The dominant rabbit uses this to redirect unwanted behaviors from the submissive. Nipping and fur pulling increase if the submissive partner challenges authority or breaks the rules.
8. Following the leader
Rabbits have sharp sight and hearing. In the wild, following the lead of the dominant lookout rabbit helps the group survive threats. The dominant rabbit leads the way while submissive partners defer and follow.
This extends to bonded domestic pairs as well. The dominant rabbit will lead when exploring, approaching food, exiting the nest box, or responding to noises. The submissive rabbit waits and follows the lead. This preserves the hierarchy while leveraging the dominant rabbit's alertness.
9. Waiting their turn
Waiting turns at resources reinforces social structures. In the wild, rabbits eat in unison after the watchful dominant rabbits signals safety. At home, dominant rabbits may lightly nip submissive partners that approach food or water before them. Or a simple stare from the dominant rabbit will halt the submissive in their tracks.
Submissive rabbits know their place and will wait until the dominant partner eats first. Then the submissive rabbit will approach once the dominant has had their fill. This maintains harmony and obedience in the pair.
10. Keeping guard
In the wild, dominant rabbits act as sentinels for the group's safety. They will thump warnings of potential threats. The dominant rabbit may also guard resources like nesting sites from intruders.
This protective behavior continues in bonded pairs. The dominant rabbit will keep watch and thump in response to perceived dangers in the home environment. They also guard preferred sleeping spots and food from the submissive rabbit. These protective actions cement the dominant rabbit's status.
11. Resource guarding
Resource guarding prevents conflict and promotes security. Dominant rabbits get first dibs on the best foods, resting spots, and mates. The dominant partner guards these resources and allows the submissive access once their needs are met.
Trying to access resources before the dominant rabbit can cause excessive chasing, mounting, and nipping. Waiting for the dominant rabbit's signal avoids conflict and reinforces the social tie. Guarding resources ensures the dominant rabbit's authority is respected.
12. Laying on top
Sometimes dominant rabbits will lay stretched out on top of their submissive partner. Usually the submissive rabbit will respond by freezing and flattening themselves against the ground. This behavior asserts the dominant rabbit's control and ownership over the submissive. It is less intense than mounting but has similar messaging.
Laying on top of head or neck areas can also resemble grooming. But the rabbit is saying "I'm in charge" by positioning themselves on top of their subordinate. It again establishes clear hierarchy in the pair.
When the dominant rabbit is challenged
While rabbit social structures are generally stable once formed, they can change over time. If the submissive rabbit consistently challenges the dominant partner's authority, the hierarchy may shift. Signs that dominance is being challenged include:
- Mounting or circling the dominant rabbit
- Approaching resources like food first
- Showing aggression like lunging, chasing, or biting
- Refusing to groom when solicited
- Lack of submission behaviors like bowing and flattening
If these behaviors persist, the former dominant rabbit may become submissive to avoid continued confrontation. Thus the previous submissive rabbit assumes the dominant position. Dominance challenges happen most often when rabbits are not neutered or spayed. This can intensify hormonal responses and aggression.
To reduce fighting, have both rabbits spayed or neutered. Reinforce the original dominant rabbit's status by petting them first, feeding them first, and putting their name first when referring to the pair. Make sure both rabbits have adequate space and resources to reduce tension. Signs of mounting, chasing, and circling past a few incidents may mean the bond is unstable and needs reworking with a professional rabbit behaviorist.
With patience and care, rabbits can maintain lifelong bonds and hierarchies. Understanding natural rabbit behavior helps us support their social structures properly. Respecting the dominance patterns in a rabbit pair allows them to communicate freely without conflict. This makes for happy rabbits and happy owners!
How you can hurt your rabbits' relationship
Rabbit pairs rely on clear social signals and responses to maintain harmony. Their dominance hierarchy provides stability and structure. But there are a few key ways humans can inadvertently undermine this hierarchy and hurt the bunnies' relationship:
Bonding too quickly – Rushing the bonding process can prevent a natural hierarchy from forming. Taking at least 1-2 weeks to fully bond allows mounting, grooming, following, and resource guarding behaviors to occur naturally.
Neutering later in life – Getting both rabbits neutered or spayed BEFORE 4-6 months of age prevents intense hormonal responses that can disrupt status and spark fighting.
Feeding together – Providing food simultaneously removes the dominant rabbit's priority access to resources. The dominant bunny needs to eat first.
Grooming the submissive first – Petting or grooming the submissive rabbit before the dominant one overrides the hierarchy. Always focus attention on the dominant rabbit first.
Disrupting footfalls – Discouraging the dominant rabbit from footfalling (spray marking) prevents them from cementing status through territorial cues.
Rearranging furniture – Changing furniture too frequently disrupts familiar territory markers. Let the dominant rabbit re-mark first before swapping things around.
Too small of space – Close quarters leave no room for chase sequences that reinforce the hierarchy. Provide ample room for rabbits to communicate dominance through circling, chasing, and exploring.
Too little stimulation – Bored rabbits are more likely to pick fights. Ensure adequate enrichment. The dominant rabbit may pull fur to redirect destructive chewing on cage bars or carpet.
Understanding rabbit social behavior helps identify actions that maintain harmony versus harm hierarchies. Supporting the dominant rabbit's status results in less aggression and reinforces your rabbit pair's lifelong bond. Respecting dominance cues cultivates healthy communication and coexistence.