They may look all cute and innocent nibbling away at their hay, but behind those adorable twitchy noses and fluffy cotton tails, rabbits have a complex social structure rife with drama. Just like their wild cousins, domestic rabbits establish fierce dominance hierarchies that determine everything from who eats first to who gets the best nesting territory. While dominance behaviors help organize chaotic social groups, it can sometimes lead to aggressive power struggles. Read on to learn the tell-tale signs of dominance and submission in pet rabbits. You’ll uncover the fierce political structures hidden beneath all that cuteness. Whether you have a single free-range rabbit or a dynamic group, understanding rabbit psychology helps create a harmonious home for these often misunderstood animals.
What is Dominance in Rabbits?
Dominance in rabbits refers to behaviors that establish a social hierarchy within a group. Rabbits are social animals that naturally form complex social structures. Dominant rabbits hold higher status and have priority access to resources like food, nesting areas, and mates. Submissive rabbits defer to the dominant ones.
Dominance behaviors start emerging around puberty. Unneutered males and unspayed females are more likely to display dominance. Dominance establishes order and reduces conflict in rabbit groups. But excessive dominance can lead to aggression and fighting. Understanding natural rabbit social behavior helps owners provide a healthy environment.
Does Dominance Lead to Aggression in Rabbits?
Dominance itself does not directly cause aggression in rabbits. Establishing a social hierarchy helps reduce aggression between group members. But dominant rabbits may become aggressive in certain situations, such as:
Excessive hormone levels in unfixed rabbits make them more territorial and aggressive. Neutering reduces these hormones and curbs aggressive tendencies.
When hierarchies are destabilized, like introducing a new rabbit, aggressive fights can break out as rabbits re-establish order. Proper bonding techniques reduce fighting.
Dominant rabbits may attack subordinates who challenge their status or encroach on their resources. Limiting competition for resources can prevent this.
Maternal aggression – mother rabbits may attack others who approach their nest. This protects vulnerable newborn kits.
With proper spaying/neutering, space, socialization, and resources, dominance and aggression can be minimized in domestic rabbits.
How Do I Know if a Rabbit is Being Dominant?
Rabbits display certain behaviors to assert their dominance over other rabbits. Knowing what these behaviors are helps owners identify dominance issues and take steps to resolve them. Signs of a dominant rabbit include:
1) Demanding Grooming
Dominant rabbits may force subordinates to groom them by putting their head over the other's back. The dominant rabbit may bite or dig their claws into the subordinate to coerce grooming.
Mounting is not just sexual behavior. Neutered rabbits mount to show dominance. The dominant rabbit mounts the head or back of the subordinate rabbit to display their higher rank in the hierarchy.
Dominant rabbits chase subordinates to reinforce their higher social position. Usually the subordinate will run away to avoid confrontation. Chasing may escalate to fighting in unstable hierarchies.
Circling is aggressive behavior where the dominant rabbit forces the subordinate to move in circles. It establishes dominance and social control over the subordinate rabbit.
5) Nipping and Biting
Dominant rabbits may nip and bite subordinates around the hips, shoulders, or neck. Unlike grooming-induced bites, the bites are unilateral and meant to intimidate, not coerce grooming.
Barbering is when a dominant rabbit forcefully plucks out fur from a subordinate rabbit using their teeth. Sometimes no fur is removed, but the subordinate is held in place. This demonstrates the dominant rabbit's control.
In the wild, dominant rabbits eat first. Domestic dominant rabbits may exhibit food hoarding behaviors like aggressively guarding food, not letting other rabbits approach food, or hiding food from subordinates.
Is My Rabbit Trying to Dominate Me?
Rabbits do not actually try to dominate their human owners in the same way as they do with each other. But some normal rabbit behaviors may seem intrusive. For example, mounting objects or people is a territorial behavior and not a true dominance display over humans.
Aggression towards owners typically stems from fear, pain, territoriality, lack of handling, or hormone imbalances. Get your rabbit spayed/neutered. Proper training, exercise, rabbit-proofing, and establishing trust will curb unwanted behaviors. Seek help from an exotics vet or rabbit-savvy trainer/behaviorist if aggression persists.
Signs of Submission in Rabbits
Submissive rabbits display certain behaviors to appease dominant rabbits and avoid confrontation. Signs of a submissive rabbit include:
Grooming the dominant rabbit when demanded
Crouching low to the ground when chased/mounted
Running away or freezing when approached
Letting the dominant rabbit eat first
Not making direct eye contact
Lying down and exposing their belly/throat
Squealing or grunting when nipped by the dominant
Knowing submission signals helps identify social stress in rabbit groups. Separate overly dominant or submissive rabbits if aggression occurs. Proper bonding, desexing, space, and resources facilitate healthy hierarchy formation in rabbit social groups.