Education guide for a cage-free bunny

FRI 12 MAY 2017

As a rabbit new parent, there are two missions you will need to conquer: toilet training your rabbit, and teaching it not to behave badly around the house. By mastering these two things, both rabbit and human will be able to live together in total happiness.

Rabbits are social little creatures that enjoy human contact and need a gentle education - one with patience, no yelling, no beating (ever!), and without being locked in a cage as a form of punishment.

Even if you want to let your rabbit run free around the house at all times (yes, that is possible!), you will still need a cage or a playpen in the beginning, to teach your rabbit the basic rules of the house.

It's also important to highlight that unlike cats and dogs, it is much easier to educate an adult rabbit than a young one. If you haven't bought or adopted your bunny yet, you might want to check a rescue centre where they might have the perfect adult bunny for you!

Step 1: Bunnify your home

In order to start educating your rabbit, you will first need to 'bunnify' your home. Rabbits have a natural tendency to gnaw, so if you want them to be free around the house, you will need to bunnify your home in the following ways:

  • Hide electrical cords: Electrical cords need to be hidden behind the furniture, so that your rabbit can't slip away and gnaw. Be aware that they can squeeze into some pretty tight spaces sometimes! When charging your phone or your laptop in the living room like we all may do sometimes, you should position the wire high enough that your bunny can't reach it.
  • Avoid toxic plants: Some plants can be toxic if ingested by rabbits, but that doesn't mean you have to throw out all the plants in the house: you will just need to put them high up out of reach, so your bunny can't eat them.
  • Hide your paper and fibre possessions: Any books, newspapers or magazines should be out of reach of your rabbit's teeth as these look like great gnawing objects to a bunny! Likewise, if you have any natural fibre baskets or rugs, be aware that your bunny might want to have a little nibble on these.
  • Escape-proofing: Rabbits are escape ninjas, so if you plan to let yours have access to your garden, just make sure it is secure and that your bunny won't be able to escape. If it is not, a wire playpen (high enough so your bunny can't jump up and out) can be a good alternative.
  • Always remember that rabbits can climb stairs, so if you thought about putting everything listed above upstairs, forget it!

Step 2: Toilet train your rabbit:

Bunnies will instinctively use one area as a toilet - you just need to provide them with a litter tray or corner toilet filled with litter or bedding. Within a few days, your rabbit should be fully toilet trained. You can refer to our article How to toilet train my rabbit for further information.

If you choose to keep your bunny in "semi-captivity" - that is to say, they will live in a cage only part time - the best thing to do is to put the litter tray or corner toilet in the cage and leave the cage open when you let your bunny run around, so they can go in and out as they please. This is the best option when you can't have your rabbit free all the time. Most people who choose this option will let their bunny roam around the house when they are home, and the rabbit will be in their cage at night and during the day when no one is home.

However, if you choose not to have a cage or a hutch at all, you can put the litter tray in a strategic spot in the room where your rabbit spends the most of their time and where they will always have access to the tray. It is better if the litter tray is placed in a corner.

Step 3: Behaviour education

It is possible to let a rabbit roam free around the house at all times without them causing any damage. But to reach this goal, you need to start from the very first moments your rabbit arrives in your home. Things can be a bit full-on in the beginning, because you are going to be spending a lot of time sitting on the floor or curled in a crawling position... but all your efforts will be worth it!

During the first few days, always stay with your rabbit when they are out of the cage. Stay behind them, at their height and talk to them. If your bunny smells or marks anything with their chin, don't say anything - but if it starts to gnaw, say "NO" firmly. If the rabbit insists, push their nose away from the object with your finger and give them something they are allowed to chew, like a toy or a piece of wood.

Some rabbits will act like they didn't hear you, so try to find a noise that will draw their attention every time like a snap of the fingers, a light whistle, or a "shhh".

You need to make this sound every time, even if it gets annoying - and with time, you will see your rabbit running around the house without destroying everything in their path. This is easier with adult rabbits, are they are a little bit less curious than young bunnies, which still have a world to discover (and taste... )

You can even walk your bunny on a harness, to increase their exercise time and keep them mentally stimulated!

You will notice that the more your bunny can be free and exercise, the less frustrated they will be - and far less likely to behave badly around the house.

Step 4: Teach your rabbit to go back to their cage

It is one thing to let your rabbit roam free around the house, it is another to make them go back to their cage when you need them to! You will quickly notice that bunnies are stubborn little creatures who love running around and let you chase them when you are in a hurry.

If you don't want to end up chasing your bunny around, you should know that you can teach them to go back to their cage. They will always need a little help, but you won't need to run and you won't need to catch and carry them.

The first few days, as explained in our article How to toilet train my rabbit, you will need to regularly put them back to their cage so they can use their toilet. Do not carry them to the cage, but direct them toward the cage. You can walk behind them and use your arms as a barrier so they don't run in another direction. Pronounce at the same time the sentence "go back to your cage" or "in your cage" with a firm voice. You can also lightly clap your hands.

You will need to use the same little ritual every time: same sentence, same tone of voice, same gesture. Once your bunny jumps back to their cage on their own, reward them with a stroke and/or a little treat.

At first, try this when your bunny is close to the cage, and then try again when your rabbit is a little further from the cage. At the beginning, you will need to walk behind them, direct them with your arms. After a few days, try it without using your arms, but still pronouncing the same sentence and clapping your hands.

Like everything else, it will take some time, but eventually your bunny will get it. And I am talking from experience here: educating your furry friend to do this will definitely avoid some waste of time and some irritation.

Step 5: Dealing with aggression and biting

How do you deal with a rabbit that shows aggression or bites?

Just like kittens or puppies, young rabbits bite sometimes. They can do this when you carry them, or sometimes just because your hand or your arm is in front of their nose, in which case the nip just means "Move, you're in the way!". This isn't overly aggressive, but is a bad habit nonetheless.

Rabbits might also bite if feeling territorial. You will notice that rabbits can growl - and usually they will do this before they bite. This situation usually occur if you put your hand in the cage when your rabbit is inside. In this case, your rabbit is defending their territory, which is a natural instinct. You should avoid touching anything in the cage if your rabbit is 'home'.

However, if this behaviour happens outside of the context above, they may be developing dominance over you. Being herd creatures, rabbits do instinctively form a 'hierarchy' within their herd.

Aggressive or dominant behaviour happens when your bunny thinks that they are boss of the house, and that you are inferior to them. You must "put them back in their place", and show them that they need to respect some rules, too.

Every time your rabbit shows a sign of aggressiveness, reprimand them with a firm voice and don't let them have the last word. You need to immobilise them and gently flatten their head on the floor to submit them. The fact that your rabbit then cannot move makes them understand that they are not stronger than you. If you do this every time aggressiveness happens, your bunny will quickly understand.

But be careful - you are not looking to scare or hurt them. You just need to make your bunny experience something unpleasant to get the message across. You should only use this action when your rabbit does something out of the ordinary - it is not meant to be an insignificant gesture.

Side note: How to carry a bunny in your arms

While on the topic of 'educating', it's worth discussing the correct way to carry your bunny.

The first thing you should know is to never, ever carry your rabbit by the ears or by the skin of the neck: this is extremely painful for them and could also cause them harm. It could even lead to a backbone fracture.

Something else to be aware of is that rabbits suffer from vertigo. If you get bitten when you carry your rabbit, it may be because they are afraid or in pain.

It's generally suggested that you avoid carrying your bunny when you can, but when you must, here is the right way to do it:

  • Put your carrying arm (the arm with which you want to support your rabbit's weight) horizontally against your body.
  • Scoop up your rabbit and place them on your supporting arm, with their head towards your elbow, securing their back paws with your hand.
  • If your bunny is agitated, tuck their head deep into the crook of your elbow (they will sometimes do this themselves) - this will prevent your bunny from seeing the floor and experiencing vertigo.
  • Then, secure the bunny by putting your other hand on its front shoulder. Now you're good to go!

See our Beginner's Guide to Rabbit Care for more information about rabbit care and setting up your home for a bunny!

Posted by Nolwenn Le Tinnier

Nolwenn is Pet Circle's small pet category manager. She loves all things 'bunny' and is a proud rabbit owner and lover herself!

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