My rabbit's turned vicious - help

"Help! My female bunny has suddenly turned vicious and won't be picked up....... "

The RWA National Helpline takes dozens of calls like this every week, especially in spring and summer.

More often than not, the problem turns out to be a previously friendly female rabbit who, having reached the age of 4-5 months, has turned into a fiend, defending her cage/hutch with bites and scratches; growling; attacking the hand that feeds; and sometimes plucking herself every few weeks and spraying urine!

Each year, hundreds if not thousands of female rabbits are wrongly labelled as "vicious" when this behaviour begins. Some end up being ignored more and more by their owners, especially those owned by children and living outside. Others are put down, or handed to rescue centres. The lucky ones belong to rabbit owners who realise that their pet has simply reached sexual maturity and it is time to make an appointment to have the rabbit spayed.

• Female rabbits who pluck themselves every few weeks, or spray urine over other rabbits or people, are "on heat". Rabbits don’t have a regular oestrous cycle, but do have receptive periods during which time they will behave in this overtly sexual manner.

• Grunting, growling and attempts to bite may or may not be related to the sexual behaviour. Rabbits, being ground creatures, often resent being picked up (after all, the only thing that picks up a wild rabbit is a fox or some other predator!) and some make their dislike of being held very clear. Others are happy to be picked up and cuddled. Rabbits who have previously been carelessly handled or mistreated have an extra reason for resenting being picked up.

• Reaching into a rabbits’ cage or hutch is quite naturally resisted by many rabbits. This can be a particular problem in houserabbits, because you have to reinforce to them that their cage is their territory and theirs alone in order to facilitate housetraining, as they then only mark their territory with droppings, so there is real trouble if you venture in!

What to do about it

Have your female rabbit spayed. Not only will this reduce the aggression and territorial behaviour, but will protect your pet from uterine cancer which is otherwise very likely to shorten her life by several years. (incidentally, male rabbits will also tend to become less aggressive after being neutered) It's important to use a vet who is experienced with rabbits and who routinely neuters rabbits of both sexes.

If your rabbit hates being picked up, you must look at the causes for this behaviour and work out a strategy to tackle it.

What you need to break at all costs is a vicious circle that can occur when handling a bunny who hates it, as the whole thing becomes a struggle and both parties ended up getting flustered and tense!

This information is brought to you by the Rabbit Welfare Fund - the charitable wing of the Rabbit Welfare Association. If you love rabbits, please consider supporting the Rabbit Welfare Fund. You can make a donation, or you may like to join the RWA. The £17.50 adult subscription includes a subscription to "Rabbiting On", a fabulous quarterly magazine packed with health, behaviour and care advice to help you build a wonderful relationship with your bunny - whether s/he lives indoors or out.

© Rabbit Welfare Association 2002