Note: If your bunny has behavioural issues that need to be addressed, please visit our Bunny Care page, where you will find general guidelines for care and a questionnaire that helps you identify triggers and solutions when your bunny misbehaves. You can also find some rehab tips in the bottom of this page. Please note that bunnies can also misbehave due to pain and medical issues, and that it is best to take your bunny for a vet consultation before giving up rehabilitating it yourself, and definitely before asking me to try rehabilitating it.
Through my rescue program, I have come across some bunny owners who are really struggling in one way or another with their bunny rabbits. Since I have noticed that most bunnies tend to become more balanced and calm after living in my rescue program for a while, I started taking some of these "problem" bunnies for a short term intensive rehabilitation program.
I am trained in human counselling-psychology. I don't really have any special tricks up my sleeve for bunnies, but I listen to their feedback and adjust my approach as necessary. Mostly I am just loving, firm and directive, clearly showing that I am in charge and they don't have to be. The rest is done by the bunny community they find here. I believe they have a way of communicating and teaching each other how to get unstuck and be happier. I don't really know who is doing most of the work: myself, the bunny community, or the problem bunny itself is just healing from inside out in the nurturing, stimulating and safe environment they find here. But I know that often it works, and I find a lot of meaning in seeing these little bunny souls and their owners have a better and more enjoyable life after my rehab program.
One example is a fuzzy lop from Richmond, whom I will call Lewis (not his real name). I met Lewis, while I was delivering a couple of bunnies for adoption. The family wanted to adopt healthy bunnies that would accept being pet, and could eventually bond with their existing bunny, Lewis. I accepted to deliver the newly adopted bunnies so I could help the owners plan for the bonding stage. However, when I met Lewis I realized he could not be trusted around the other bunnies. First he was HUGE, like a 10-12 lb bunny, so I was already concerned about size difference - which matters a lot in the animal world. Then he could not be touched, or he would attack as soon as you tried to approach him.
Very loving and caring family, yet terrorized and manipulated by a little angry bunny. He had long hair and needed regular grooming. But due to his consistently aggressive and antisocial behaviour, they could not brush Lewis as often as necessary. So he started getting matts, and it only got worse and worse over time. They took him to the vet several times to have the matts removed, but it could not be done. They even had him neutered, and no improvement in the bunny's behaviour. I knew SPCA would not accept such a bunny in their program, and if one like him got in by being found stray, they would consider him aggressive and would euthanize him.
The owners were very attached to Lewis, and asked if there was anything I could do to help him. So I agreed to take him home for a couple of weeks, and see if I can figure him out. But they could not lure him out of cage, no matter what treats they used. So finally I lifted the top of the cage and softly but firmly picked him up. Sure enough, he was a screamer. I know bunny babies sometimes scream like that, when you first start handling them. So I realized he had become wild, just like babies are in the beginning. But being an adult, Lewis screamed very loudly and very loooong (sounding just like a pig), to everyone's surprise and terror. When Lewis realized I was not intimidated, he stopped screaming and then tried attacking me while putting him in the carrier. When I got home and moved him into the cage, I used gloves, and sure enough he tried to bite me again. It was late so I just gave him food and water and I let him be for the night.
The next morning I took him out (again with gloves), and he did his whole attacking routine all over again. Then I realized that once in my arms he calmed down, and I did not need the gloves anymore. So I cut his nails, to reduce the damage he could do to me while grooming him. He was shockingly tame and well behaved. I was very surprised, since the owners told me the only way they could cut his nails was by putting him in a trance. So I though he was getting the message that I am firm and in charge, and he was starting to feel safer and was becoming increasingly cooperative. Then I started working on the matts. The vet had partially detached some of the matts, and then just left them hanging around him, pulling his skin to the point of irritation. Basically, he was covered with matts like he was in a body glove or a straight jacket. Even his legs did not have full motion because of the matts holding very tight, all over his body.
I discovered that removing the matts was a very hard job, and the scissors or my husband's blades were no good for such thick layers. Finally I found a new blade for my exacto knife, and that was the only thing that worked. It took three hours for a rough removal of the matts. After a bathroom break (which he needed) I worked for two more hours to finish his grooming. When the job was done I had a very small bunny on my lap, like a 3 lb Holland lop. He was extremely good through the difficult process of matt removal. I did not need to use any restraints nor a second person to hold him. It was just he and I, and at the end of the job he had attached to me so much, he was licking my hands, thanking me, and loving me.
I let him eat and rest, and several times during the day I would go pick him up. The first day he continued acting like attacking my hands, but although he was thumping his feet, jumping high and coming at me with his teeth and claws, he was not biting hard nor scratchin. So I realized it was all fake, just to scare me away. He wanted to look like a wolf in the skin of a lamb. But I knew he was just an affectionate bunny in the skin of a lamb, and he needed to learn that himself.
The second day, his attacks were more rare, and often I could touch him without any aggressive reactions. And he was such a sweet and tame bunny once he was picked up. So I contacted the owners, and started reprogramming them. I told them to consider Lewis dead, and to be ready to meet Romeo, a new and tame bunny, who is very affectionate and OK with grooming. We decided that I keep him to the end of the week, to consolidate the progress. The father and the daughter came to pick him up, and none could believe it was the same bunny. They kept looking at my car, thinking that I was playing a prank by giving them another bunny, and that their Lewis was still in my car.
I don't know if Lewis will ever become 100% non-aggressive, like a bunny I would usually recommend to a family with small kids. But I know he is a changed little bunny who is currently enjoying a happily ever after with his owners. And something like this makes me feel that what I do is meaningful, and keeps me going.
Bunny Rehab Tips
I thought of sharing this story to inspire some hope for any struggling bunny owners out there, and to make a few key points, that may help them rehabilitate their bunny.
1. You must believe that your bunny is OK, and will recover from problem behaviours with proper direction and boundaries
2. You must be calm and firm and you must win any struggle that starts between you and the bunny.
3. If you a long-hair bunny, you must groom your bunny regularly. After all, grooming is a bonding time, you and bunny can really use it. You must get through the resistance of the bunny and do what he/she needs to have done. If the bunny wins that battle, it will only make it harder for next time. If you win it, the bunny will feel safe and will bond deeper with you. He/she may even express gratitude and affection by licking your hands.
4. If you discover that you are too soft and can't provide the firm direction and boundaries, then find someone who can, and learn from that person how to do it. It always starts with your thoughts and beliefs about yourself and about the bunny.
5. You can not expect an improvement in the bunny as long as you think and do things the same way. You must change what you think and do, and the bunny will tell you if it is for better or for worse.
This list is a work in progress, I will add more tips as I discover them. I am not claiming to be a big bunny rehabilitator. I work intuitively, using my my human psychology training, and I expect there will be times when I don't get it. But I have faith and hope for every angry bunny out there, and I listen to the bunny's feedback regarding my approach, and adjust it until I find a window of connection that works.
If you are struggling with your bunny's behaviours, I encourage you to start a rehab program ASAP. Use the tips on this site, find more info on the internet, talk to friends, see a vet, etc. If nothing works, do not follow SPCA advice to euthanize your angry or misbehaving bunny. If you contact me, I will try to support you as much as I can. In some cases I may even take the bunny in my rescue for a while. I can not guarantee results, but I can guarantee faith, hope, and support - all of which are necessary for your bunny's recovery from inside out. I believe we can not save them, and we can not heal them. They need to heal themselves, we can only provide a safe and nurturing environment for them.
If you have any bunny rehab tips to share, please write a comment below, or send me an E-mail (see top right corner of this page for address), and I will add the info here.