How To Tell if Rabbits are Playing or Fighting

How To Tell if Rabbits are Playing or Fighting
How To Tell if Rabbits are Playing or Fighting


How can you differentiate between playing and fighting?

Playing and fighting are common behaviors rabbits participate in, and the indicators can look very similar. Fighting usually looks like an instant, purposeful, and vicious attack, which is often aimed at the face, underside, or genitals. Little nips followed by a startled little jump back is one-way rabbits play. The differences can be confusing, which is why extra special attention needs to be given to these cues!

What behavior should you expect if your rabbits are playing or fighting?

Whether fighting or playing, your rabbits will exhibit certain behaviors, or cues, which will let you know the act they are participating in. We can tell how this might differ at a glance, but as a pet owner that may not be enough. Some question to consider are; why are they demonstrating this behavior, and how should we, as pet owners, interact?

What are they doing? – Playful cues –

Why are they doing it?

There are many ways rabbits choose to play with each other. As we discussed before, they may initiate small little “nips,” as a way to get the attention of the other rabbit. This is their way of communicating. They may be trying to initiate a play sequence or gain the attention of the other rabbit. Since they initiate little nips, this may be followed by little bounce backs out of being startled.

Another cue which is common for rabbits to engage in play is by racing around and jumping together. Ripping up newspaper, or digging holes is another common activity rabbits enjoy doing together. If a rabbit enjoys playing in one way by themselves, they will likely enjoy it with a well-bonded partner.

How to approach it?

While these are activities the rabbit is doing out of pleasure, they can easily be confused with an aggressive act at a glance. Also, rabbits are by nature territorial, so they may get frustrated with their friend quickly. This may cause the situation to go south very quickly as well. This should be combated with careful monitoring when rabbits are playing together. If one is getting a little bit temperamental, simply give them a little time-out until you feel things have cooled off. Sometimes one rabbit just needs space, so creating a small barrier (in which they can still see or smell each other) in their play area for them to play independently for a while would be beneficial.

What are they doing? – Fighting behaviors –

Why are they doing it?

There are plenty of reasons rabbits may be fighting. One common reason is having rabbits which are the same sex. Rabbits which are the opposite sex tend to get along the best. However, with this comes the need for sterilization. Another reason rabbits may fight is because they are trying to assert dominance over each other. This piggybacks off of needing to be sterilized, however it is also a factor of a new pairing. This is something that can go on for days, weeks, or months, as rabbits are learning to coexist in a healthy way.

How to approach it?

It should come as no surprise that the first recommendation is spaying and/or neutering your rabbits. It is near impossible to have a successful matching if this factor is not solved. Once this is taken care of other solutions can be explored.

Give your rabbits time to adjust to each other. It is not recommended to keep them in the same cage until they are pretty well bonded and have been getting along for at least several days. Let them play in a fairly small neutral space for about a week. Gradual breaks or time-outs are encouraged as well. Remember, rabbits have been known to take as little as a couple hours, to as long as a couple months, so be patient!

What else should you know about playing and fighting patterns of a rabbit?

  • Once rabbits are bonded, they should not be separated unless they are fighting, otherwise you may need to begin the entire process again.
  • Almost all rabbits are able to enjoy the companionship of another rabbit, it just may take time and persistence.
  • If two rabbits are persistently acting aggressive towards each other, sometimes taking them out of their neutral area and somewhere like a car ride may help so you can try bonding again (make sure they can see or smell each other).
  • If a fight breaks out in a cage it can be very difficult to separate them, which is why it is crucial to wait for sharing a cage until a bond has already happened.
  • Once a rabbit is sterilized you should wait 6 months before introducing them to the rabbit they will be living with. It takes the hormones this long to leave the body.

Although differentiating when a rabbit is playing or fighting can be a difficult task, it is a very important one when it comes to ensuring a healthy relationship between your rabbits. Being an observant pet owner is crucial in this area not only for your rabbits’ physical safety, but for their happiness. Since creating an environment in which your rabbits can thrive is so important, we found some in-depth explanations for removing hostility and aggression which may lead to fighting.

When rabbits fight: What should you know?

First and foremost, you must keep calm. Although it is easy to get frustrated if your rabbits are not having the instant connection you are seeking, this is not always the reality. Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits are not conditioned by evolution to be a pack animal. Dogs come from wolves who can cohabit with other dogs with ease. Cats come from a similar background, with lions living in packs and being raised by their mothers for a pretty good amount of time.

Rabbits are not pack animals, and their mothers do not raise them, with exception of checking on them every so often in the wild. Rabbits may live with their mate in the wild which is why they are capable of coexisting with another rabbit; however, they are not by nature an animal who lives in a group. For this reason, this is a much more lengthy and tedious process. It is imperative to stay calm and relaxed; the rabbits can sense your frustration.

Now that you are calm, you are ready to continue. We have some background information about the beginning stages of introducing these animals, however, what comes after introduction? One characteristic to keep an eye out for is chasing. While this can be confused as a way of playing in bonded rabbits, if rabbits are beginning to know each other this may be an aggressive way to assert dominance. A certain level of asserting dominance can be acceptable but chasing can often times lead to behavior that will escalate. This may lead to aggressive mounting, which may lead to a potentially harmful confrontation or fight.

If your rabbits are chasing each other there are several ways to respond to this action. One way is by placing them side-by-side and feeding them treats. If it is happening excessively where it is becoming a concern, more extreme measures like taking them out of the neutral zone and for a car ride like we suggested earlier may be necessary. Placing a little dab of peanut butter on each other’s head may instigate grooming rather than chasing, which will initiate the bonding process rather than an act of aggression. Other forms of appropriate punishment for a rabbit are clapping loudly and saying “NO!”

With chasing may come mounting, which on its own is a vital part of a new pairing in rabbits. Since rabbits are so territorial, they will want to assert their dominance regardless of their gender or state of fertility. While it is true that sterilization does help aggression in this area, this is one place that will be a struggle with your rabbits going back and forth while they become accustomed to each other’s presence. This is usually harmless, but if there is circling, chasing, or backwards mounting, this is when you should get involved. This is where escalated fights break out and injuries may happen. Set them next to each other with treats, similar to how we explained earlier if this is an issue.

So, we know what to look out for in a rabbit’s aggressive or fighting patterns. To ensure the best bonding experience and most enjoyable pairing, what else should we know about the patterns of a rabbit’s play?

How do rabbits relate to each other in play?

The way rabbits relate to each other in play is very complex and interesting. As we have learned, getting them to bond and warm up to each other can be an exhausting task. However, when that spark happens it is such a beautiful thing. When rabbits cohabit, they become partners in almost everything. They copy each other and learn off the other for feeding times, litter training, and even their relationship with their owner. So, while the process of creating that bond is not easy, it is such a strong bond that the hard work has definitely paid off.

While the rabbits share a bond, there is usually a “hierarchy” in the pair. This means one rabbit is more “in-charge” of the other in interactions. They expect to be groomed more, they consider themselves in charge of activities, and they even consider themselves of higher priority with the owner. This rabbit will have first dibs when it comes to food, and they may expect their subordinates to “keep guard” while they sleep. It is unclear where the human stands in this hierarchy. Some believe the human is seen as a subordinate, where some believe the human is seen as dominant. If you pay close attention, maybe you will be able to tell which of your rabbits is in-charge!

Bonded rabbits spend the majority of their time together, so almost all of their play is together. They share a space, so the toys they have they share to an extent. Whichever activities they choose to participate in they end up doing together. If a rabbit enjoys doing an activity by themselves, odds are they will enjoy doing that activity with the bonded rabbit. Much of the time rabbits with a shared environment who are bonded even cuddle when sleeping.

Another way rabbits bond is by grooming each other. It is one of the stepping stones in the bonding process, and one they will carry with them throughout their relationship. This is relaxing for them, and a way to show affection. This is a huge part of the hierarchy process, as the rabbit who is considered on top will request the most grooming not only from the rabbit it has bonded with, but also from the human. They will request this differently than they request it from the rabbit. They request it from the rabbit by laying their head on the ground in an almost subordinate position. To humans, they will initiate grooming by licking hands or feet, and may even deliver a soft nip to let you know they are ready for their turn.

While rabbits do enjoy spending much of their time with the bonded rabbit, whether it be running around the carpet, digging holes in the grass, or ripping up whatever they can sink their teeth into, sometimes they do choose to play independently. This may result in the rabbits choosing to “ignore” each other, which should not be a cause for concern. They are simply having their own time separately.

You have taken everything into account we have gone over. Despite your efforts to avoid having to separate your rabbits, you had to. A dispute got out of hand, and you had to put a pin in the bonding process in order to not risk a serious injury. Don’t worry, there is a plan to start the process over if this happens.

How should you re-bond your rabbits after a heated fight?

The bad news is that the bonding process will have to be started over. If a dispute was so severe that you felt the need to completely separate the rabbits, it is not safe to pick up where you left off. Simply placing two rabbits either in a neutral place for the same amount of time they once were allowed to have, or even worse, in the same cage, is just not a safe option. Frustrating, yes, but the safety of your animals is the top priority here.

Let’s try to evaluate what went wrong here. Did we move too fast? Did we put the rabbits in a cage together possibly too soon after seeing signs of bonding? Maybe there were cues going on which seemed playful, but escalated quickly? We sound like a broken record, but it is because it is true, playful cues and aggressive cues are so easy to mistake. Your animals may be showing you signs you are misinterpreting as something else. Or, maybe they are showing you all the correct signs, and you possibly moved a little bit too fast. There are many possibilities, which is why the only way to figure it out is to start over and pay closer attention.

Since there was an incident, when starting over we need to take the process especially slow. Give your rabbits plenty of breaks in which they can see and smell each other in-between playing in a neutral area. The average recommended time for this is one week, however, you may want to consider giving this a little bit of extra time if there was a dispute. Before even considering putting the rabbits in a cage together, ensure they are behaving perfectly together for a few days in a row, however, you may want to wait a week to be safe. Keeping a notebook or daily log of the behavior you are seeing may be a good idea as well. This way you can reflect back on how your bunnies are reacting to certain factors, which will help you understand the situation in its entirety.

While this process can be daunting and can take time, and at the same time most rabbits can be companions for each other, this is not always the case. Occasionally, a pairing is not right. If the above steps have been repeated many times and the pairing is simply not working, it may be time to think about finding a new pairing. While we should be persistent first, it is better to separate an incompatible pair of rabbits than to push a relationship and risk too much emotional or physical harm.

While playing and fighting in rabbits look very similar, they are completely different behaviors. It is important to know the cues in order to prevent injury to both rabbits. Not only does knowing the cues in a rabbit’s behavior help to prevent a potentially negative situation but preparing is an even better alternative. Creating an environment in which your rabbits will feel comfortable and safe is a great way to help your rabbits create a bond which will last.