From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Do rabbits really use “language”?
Well, scientifically speaking, no. One of the primary characteristics
of language is syntax. Syntax means that words are put together into
phrases using ordering rules that affect meaning. It’s part of
grammar. The scientific term for how rabbits communicate is
“signaling.” Signals don’t necessarily have to be presented in a
particular order. They can change meaning under different contexts,
though, and that certainly is important in rabbit communication.
Nonscientifically speaking, though, a language can be any system of
signs, signals and utterances that are used to communicate. Under that
definition, anyone would agree that rabbits have a very sophisticated
language for a non-human species.
We all know how frustrating it is when we’re unable to understand and
be understood by others. It’s especially important to be able to
communicate with those who share our living space, and for many of us
that means being able to fluently speak and understand Rabbit.
Unfortunately, too few who share their lives with a rabbit know what
their rabbit is trying to tell them, or how to express themselves in
terms their rabbit will understand. This guide was written to help
remedy this situation by explaining some of the signals rabbits use to
communicate, and answer the common question, “What did my rabbit mean
Being able to speak and understand Rabbit requires that you learn to
think at least a little like a rabbit. Your rabbit will never learn to
understand many of the mysterious things you do (“Why the heck did she
just change into three different outfits before leaving for work?”),
but you can certainly understand why rabbits do what they do. You’ll
be pretty close to the truth if you think of rabbits as being from a
society very different from your own, with different priorities,
goals, important lessons, and gestures. Learning Rabbit is in some
ways like human cultural studies, but of course the subject
individuals have much longer ears.
People who expect rabbits to be like dogs often find the most
important difference in the relationships they form with humans is
that dogs may give unconditional love and trust, but rabbits don’t.
Please repeat after me… rabbits are not like dogs, rabbits are not
like cats, rabbits are like rabbits. This is why it’s so important to
know how they think and what they want! As it turns out, what all
rabbits want more than anything is respect and affection, and when you
learn to give these properly (i.e. like a rabbit) you’ll freely get
them in return.
A great deal of the signaling described here involves the use of uppy
ears, which not all domestic rabbit breeds have. Lop-eared rabbits
will move their ears in a manner consistent with what uppy eared
rabbits will do, but the results are usually much less obvious.
Different lops will vary in how they are capable of moving their ears,
and may therefore be able to use only certain of the ear signals
described here. Still, with close attention you may be able to draw
almost as much information from the behavior of a lop as an uppy eared
rabbit. You can consider Lop as the language Rabbit, but spoken with
Some signals’ descriptions might be superficially similar and yet have
very different meanings. For instance, an angry rabbit, one that’s
scared, and one asking to be groomed will all have their ears back.
Accompanying signals will almost always indicate the real meaning, but
the situation’s context (i.e. recent events) will also help to make
Rabbits use a lot of special postures to signal others, but just
because some particular action or pose is a signal in one context
doesn’t mean that every time a rabbit does it a meaningful signal is
intentionally being given. As Sigmund Freud once said, sometimes a
cigar is just a cigar. Don’t worry if some of the material here seems
a bit complicated or hard to master. Humans are excellent at
recognizing nonverbal communication, including context and
accompanying signals. We do it all the time with each other, and it
comes quite naturally.
This guide runs a bit long for the sake of completeness, and you
probably won’t remember everything you’ve read after one time through.
However, if you come away with a good idea of what is important to
rabbits, and a general feel for how they express themselves, you’ll do
just fine. You can always come back to the guide later and easily find
confirmation and clarification for what you’ve seen.
It’s worth noting that the rabbits whose pictures appear here are
neutered, as should always be the case if breeding is not a
requirement. For brevity, this guide doesn’t include signals used
exclusively or almost only by unneutered rabbits. Unneutered rabbits
are often significantly more aggressive, and may be less interested in
conversing with you about anything but hierarchy and territoriality.
Perhaps you can remember when you were irresistibly hormone driven
(last weekend at the neighborhood barbecue?) and will understand. We
can only hope that you didn’t mark your territory by spraying urine
The stars of this site are two rabbits who patiently provided the
poses I’ve used to illustrate the text: Betsy (a black Dutch) and
Marvin (a tricolored, broken-patterned mix). They’re supermodels of
the rabbit world. My wife provided insightful suggestions and kindly
editing, as well as Betsy and Marvin’s biographies. And of course, my
thanks also go to all the folks who’ve responded to my request for
comments about this guide, and continue to make suggestions using the
Guest Book. You’re all great!
Finally, this guide isn’t about training your rabbit, or about how to
bond two rabbits, which are also important aspects of behavior. You
can learn more about these activities elsewhere, in resources given in
the bibliography. Learning to speak Rabbit, though, will help with
every other aspect of living with a rabbit. Oh, it’s also kind of fun.
see also: Hierarchy; Grooming; Gazing; Nose Wiggling; Offendedness;
Territoriality; Anger; Sadness & Fear; Curiosity; Begging; Play;
Most rabbits at rest will be wiggling their noses. Rabbits don’t need
to do this to smell things, and they don’t necessarily do it in time
with their breathing, and they sometimes stop completely. So why do
they do it at all? A rabbit’s nose is like a thermometer for how
interested it is in what’s being observed. The faster the wiggling,
the more attentive or agitated the rabbit is. Nose wiggle signaling is
generally only used by rabbits that are already moderately relaxed.
A fast wiggle doesn’t necessarily mean a rabbit is upset. It may just
signal interest in something being witnessed, or some passing thought.
A slowly wiggling nose indicates a calm rabbit. Rabbits usually use
nose wiggling to indicate fine gradations in their mood. If you start
moving around or doing something odd, that nose will start moving
faster, and the rabbit may also turn its ears to focus more upon you.
If a rabbit is considering fleeing, though, it will usually stop
wiggling its nose completely.
One way to help calm a rabbit is to do the equivalent of whispering
“there, there, it’s all right” using slow nose wiggling. Of course,
humans can’t really wiggle their noses properly (OK, maybe you can),
but rabbits will understand if you just use your upper lip. If you
roll your upper lip under your top teeth and back again, this looks
much like a rabbit nose wiggle. It’s especially effective if you
happen to have a mustache. On the other hand, some folks can actually
wiggle their noses enough for the rabbit to recognize it. Experiment
to see what your rabbit responds to.
You may also notice a rabbit will suddently stop wiggling its nose,
and this is a signal too. It seems to mean either that the interest
level has gone beyond the highest wiggle rate, or that what is being
observed is somehow confusing (either or both, depending on the
You might have fun with this rabbit conversational technique, which is
also a good way to test if your nose wiggling is being done properly.
(Warning: Doing this can make your family fear for your sanity.) Lie
on the floor facing your rabbit while it’s sitting or lying a few feet
away. Your rabbit, who will be curious about what you’re doing, will
probably indicate its attention by speeding up its nose wiggling. Do
your own wiggling, but a little more slowly than the rabbit. The
rabbit’s nose will probably slow. As its nose slows, keep slowing
yours until you are both wiggling at a sedate pace. Then start
speeding up your wiggling without doing anything else. You’ll probably
see the rabbit start going faster too! Then you can both slow down to
a calm, life-is-good rate of wiggling again. Personally, I only do
this when no one else is watching.
You’ve probably heard that Eskimos have many words for different types
of snow, it being so important to their daily lives. Well, rabbits
have many expressions that mean, “You’ve offended me,” which indicates
how important respect and insults are to rabbits. Disagreements don’t
usually require a brawl, but they do typically require that someone
get insulted and someone apologize. Since the apology usually just
requires some forehead stroking, and maybe a conciliatory raisin, it’s
worth trying to get back on your bunny’s good side. If the rabbit is
really pissed off, though, you may have to just suffer the humiliation
of being shunned. After a while, you’ll be allowed to apologize. An
offended rabbit who is not apologized to can hold a grudge or maintain
a sulk for many, many days.
There is an escalating set of moves that a rabbit will use to indicate
everything from “I don’t care about you anyway,” to “You are the scum
of the earth,” as exemplified in The Offendedness Scale given below.
To some extent, a rabbit’s body position and the direction its ears
are facing are like coarse and fine dials for mood, which when pointed
at you are good and when pointed away are bad. When a rabbit is facing
you directly, with its ear openings facing you, you are being accorded
respect and appreciation. When the ears and/or body start being turned
to face away from you, you’re being told that your behavior has been
questionable. (Note: Some rabbits like to have their backs scratched
or to be groomed with their backs turned, in which case they will
remain in easy reach or even pressed against you. Insulted rabbits
will typically step away, at least slightly beyond easy reach.) If a
rabbit turns away completely, and folds its ears down onto its back,
you are definitely in the doghouse. You can confirm this by offering a
raisin, which will probably be rebuffed (“I don’t want any of your
lousy raisins.”) Only the passage of time will allow you to be given
the opportunity to redeem yourself.
If these moves are performed while sitting, then a conversation is in
progress, and you can act to improve your status with a suitable
apology. But if the rabbit is lying down, then a conclusion has been
reached, and you will have to work harder to make amends, maybe not
even until later after you’ve learned your lesson.
Left ear nearly facing forward (see the pink inside?), with right ear
facing and tilted backwards. Aggressive stance.
Translation: “Are you trying to annoy me? Because it’s working.”
THE OFFENDEDNESS SCALE
What They Do / What It Means
1. Rabbit moves into your vicinity, faces you a moment, then examines
the ground around its feet as if there is something there much more
interesting than you are. = “Not everything is about you, ya
know.” (may be used just to show you who’s boss)
2. Rabbit sitting in your vicinity turns sideways, or a little turned
away, ears up, and looks at you with one eye. = “Hmm, what’s your
problem?” or “Just what do you mean by that, buddy?” (not always
3. Rabbit’s ears are sloping back instead of held upright, but still
turned to face forward or sideways. = “You’re not a nice person.”
4. Rabbit steps away a bit (out of easy grooming range) and turns its
back to you, but looks over its shoulder to make sure you’re
noticing. = “You’re in some trouble now, mister.”
5. Rabbit turns and hops away, flicking its feet quickly backward and
to the sides in an exaggerated way, often making a sort of whooshing
noise (a “foot-flick,” or being “flipped off”). = “I am shaking your
dust off my heels.”
6. Rabbit turns its back to you and sits or lies down, without even
looking back. = “You are behaving unacceptably.”
7. Rabbit turns its back to you, lies down, and folds its ears all the
way down, to shut out both the sight and sound of you. = “You are
the scum of the earth. I’ll have nothing to do with you.”
By the way, two can play the “I’m offended” game. If a rabbit is not
behaving properly (sitting upon inappropriate furniture, for example)
and you want to indicate this in a mild way using language it will
understand, go ahead and show that you’re insulted. You have to do
this right after the rabbit does something bad for it to work. Go
right up to the rabbit, take one step backwards, and turn your back
pointedly. You might watch by peeking over your shoulder a bit, to
indicate that you are willing to forgive. If your rabbit comes over to
sniff or poke you with its nose, you may choose to provide a small pat
on the forehead to indicate forgiveness. Rabbits are sensitive to
Of course, if the problem behavior is something really bad, you should
first shout “No” and make it stop before demonstrating that you are
offended. In this case, you may end up back to back, in an insult
contest. If so, try wiping your face and hair a bit (i.e. grooming
yourself), to show that you’re willing to stand there forever until an
apology is forthcoming. If none is given, walk away, flicking your
feet backwards. Make sure the rest of your family understands what
you’re doing so they don’t drag you to the psychiatrist. Warning: they
might do so anyway.
Rabbits use an ear wobble (or head wobble for lops) not as an insult,
but to politely say “no thank you” or “I’d rather not.” The ear wobble
is a gentle twist of the neck back and forth once or twice that makes
the ears move from side to side, and is usually done while standing
and facing you. Some situations that can evoke an ear wobble are when
you offer food that the rabbit isn’t interested in, or when you try to
slip your hand under its chin and it doesn’t want to groom you
(although some rabbits will find this outright insulting if you’re
assuming a privilege you are definitely not entitled to).
Incidentally, it is considered very insulting to hop quickly by right
in front of another rabbit or you without stopping for a moment to
offer the polite rabbit greeting of touching noses. Obviously, a
rabbit can’t ponder peacefully while someone rushes back and forth in
front of its face, and rabbits looking for trouble with other rabbits
will do exactly this. You may encounter one consequence of this
behavior yourself if you walk right past your rabbit quickly, in which
case the rabbit might even charge at you in outrage! You can avoid
this by giving an equivalent to touching noses when you walk by: a
quick pat on the forehead. Not all rabbits are so easily insulted,
Finally, there is the all-out nuclear weapon of insults, reserved only
for the most offensive, utterly unacceptable, good for nothing
individuals and behavior: urine. And if you’ve ever had to clean up a
pungent puddle of bunny pee, often bright yellow, orange, or even red,
and more than a little odorous, then you know just how powerful this
weapon really is. Note that urine used for marking territory and
ownership is another story entirely. But when your rabbit pees on your
pillow (yes, it happens), you have obviously qualified as the lowest
of the low. If you respond in kind, then you probably deserved it.
Occasionally, you will see a rabbit enraged. You might accidentally
make a social “faux paw,” which may result in anger, before leading to
the inevitable conclusion that you are guilty of insult. Or you might
have gotten yourself into real trouble, leading to sulking and
destructive behavior. It’s useful to be able to recognize the range
from uneasy to furious, since this can save you from a lot of
apologizing and making up later, as well as possibly saving your rugs.
Rabbits express anger using their ears, stance, and tail. Ears are
most important. A happy rabbit keeps its ears pointed up and turned
forward. Increasing anger is indicated by turning the ears to first
point sideways, then backward. A raised tail, held out from the body
instead of tight against the bum, shows excitement and agitation.
The greatest outrage is shown by lowering the backwards-pointing ears
down to the body. You won’t mistake this for an invitation to
grooming, because that is accompanied by lowering the chest all the
way to the ground too, which an angry rabbit never does. At the
extreme, a rabbit’s tail will be held out stiffly and it will look
ready for a leap forward. If you see this, then you’re facing one very
pissed off bunny.
Stance indicates what the rabbit is going to do about its anger. If
you’re being faced head-on, with front legs spread to give a firm
stance, then the rabbit is ready to take you on. You might get bit!
Front legs together is a less aggressive stance. A rabbit turned more
or less to one side is possibly more insulted or afraid than angry.
The actions of “The Anger Scale” below are all performed while facing
A very aggressive rabbit, or one who’s decided you are too dumb for
diplomacy, will charge at you and possibly bite whatever part of you
happens to be handy. An angry rabbit may also “growl” which usually
sounds more like an angry grunt. You’ll recognize it from the context,
and because it is always accompanied by the backwards and lowered
ears. If a rabbit growls, a bite may not be far off.
One way to defuse an angry encounter is to start grooming yourself,
wiping your face and running your fingers through your hair. This
indicates that the situation really should not be all that serious,
and that everyone should just chill out. Often the rabbit will respond
by doing the same, to indicate it agrees. Rabbits can be good
Some rabbits, generally those with a history of frightening
experiences and the resulting distrust, are simply extremely
aggressive. They may actually chase you around and clamp their teeth
onto you without any obvious provocation. This is very different from
the occasional nips of a rabbit trying to get your attention, prancing
around your feet happily, or telling you to buzz off. If you’re living
with such a dangerous creature, try reading some of the resources in
the bibliography that address aggressive rabbits.
APPARENTLY REALISTIC RABBIT ATTACK
SADNESS AND FEAR
An unhappy rabbit will usually lay its ears back with the openings
down, and turn itself either to the side or toward you nervously. The
farther back the ears fall, the more unhappiness is indicated. This
differs from other ear-back signals, which require that the rabbit
firmly face toward you (anger), crouch or turn sideways with ear
openings turned sideways (fear), or pointedly turn its back (insult).
A more mild signal of unhappiness (or even some anger) is having one
ear facing backward and one forward, or one ear down and one up. These
usually indicate a rabbit that is less than happy, but sometimes for
only vaguely defined reasons. A little grooming or a raisin gift can
often turn that frown upside down. A more serious sulk is indicated by
ears tilted far back, or (even worse) tilted back and facing down, all
done while lying facing you (or facing to the side; not directly away
from you, which is an outright insult) in a meatloaf position. This is
a seriously sad rabbit, and you should take some time to think about
what might be wrong. It might even be sick, so check the litterbox for
Note that rabbits often sleep lying with their ears laid back in a
fashion very similar to the “sulking” signal and with their eyes
narrowed but not closed. They always have particular places they
sleep, though, so you probably won’t confuse the two.
A nervous or frightened rabbit will face its ears backward and lower
them, but with the openings facing sideways rather than back, and
often will point its ears a bit out to the side rather than straight
back. If you reach for your rabbit and it lowers its head and ears,
spreading its ears or tilting both ears to one side rather than
keeping them pointed straight back, it is scared. This is usually
accompanied with a stance that leaves the rabbit ready to flee, and
may include ducking the head. Mild nervousness may be sometimes shown
by stance alone. A scared rabbit will not stand aggressively as if
it’s about to charge you, like an angry one will, although otherwise
the signals can be a bit related (as are fear and anger).
A rabbit that is dismayed, confused, or trying but not succeeding in
communicating with you will sometimes wince. In a wince, one eye gets
closed, and the whole forehead moves toward that eye. It’s over in
just a second. It looks something like a wink, but it’s a signal of
mild unhappiness. When you first try using some of the signals
described here, you may get winced at, generally because your body
language is not consistent with the signal you’re giving or something
about the context is just not right. If your rabbit winces when you
try to communicate, you probably need to work more on your
conversational skills. However, most rabbits should eventually learn
to understand you once they get used to your incredibly bad accent.
A rabbit that is very scared or nervous may “thump” a hind leg,
slapping it hard against the ground. This isn’t just a warning to
other rabbits, but to you, too. Note that rabbits sometime also thump
to indicate anger, or even just to say “pay attention,” but it should
be pretty easy to distinguish these by the context.
A rabbit that is scared but can’t run, or one that is nervous, may
chatter its mouth (the way humans do when they’re cold). Chattering
teeth or loud tooth grinding (not the soft kind heard sometimes during
grooming) can also indicate a rabbit in pain, so you should do some
checking for indication that it’s sick.
Some rabbits will mutter nervously to themselves. This sound is
usually a little higher pitched than the happy mumbling of a rabbit
being groomed, and sounds very different from a rabbit grunting as it
eats or grunt-growling at you when it’s angry. I’ve been told, though,
that some rabbits just always are muttering to themselves, and in such
cases doesn’t necessarily indicate nervousness, but is probably just
comfortable social mumbling. In fact, female rabbits may “coo” while
nursing their pups. The context of the situation should make the
meaning pretty clear.
When a rabbit is frustrated with being locked in its cage it may
loudly toss things around or otherwise “rattle the bars.” This is
meant to get your attention, of course, and typically is a request to
be allowed out.
Finally, a rabbit in terror or in severe, acute pain may scream. I’m
told it is a terrible sound, but, fortunately, I’ve never heard this
vocalization. I sincerely hope you never hear it either.
Most rabbits of all ages like to play, at least at times. In fact,
rabbits exhibit some of the silliest antics and outright goofiness of
any companion animal. They can be mighty wacky beasts.
Rabbits have several ways to indicate playfulness, and there are lots
of things most rabbits like to do as play. Rabbits like dancing in
pairs and solo (more about the latter later). You may receive an
invitation to pair dance, as evidenced by your rabbit running in
circles around you. This means the rabbit is basically crazy about
you, and terribly happy to see you, and is a very common enthusiastic
greeting. A polite response is to wait patiently for a circle or
three, and then do some dancing yourself, with a little spinning,
walking back and forth in front of the rabbit, or circling around it.
As described later, a few hops or head-flicks are also acceptable.
Note that some rabbits don’t like being circled by a graceless hulk,
and will get nervous, in which case you should probably just accept
the dance as a gift. Dances should be concluded by offering a little
grooming to your partner.
Some rather aggressive rabbits will circle you with joy, and also bite
your ankles! It’s worth noting that these rabbits really think a
little nip is a sign of affection, and you need to train the rabbit
that it’s not acceptable by letting out a loud shriek and then saying
“No!” This is best followed by indicating you are insulted, in a form
the beast will understand (i.e. turn your back). In truth, a rabbit
that bites your ankles while circling to show happiness is no
different than the human dance partner who grabs your butt, thinking
it’s a sign of affection. Remarkably, the exact same approach works
well with both species.
THE FULL BINKY
Did You Say Binky?
The happiest rabbit expression is commonly called a “binky.” It’s
impossible to mistake for anything else, and the first time you see
one you will probably wonder if the poor thing is having a convulsion.
When a rabbit binkies, it jumps into the air and twists its head and
body in opposite directions (sometimes twice) before falling back to
the ground. This can be done while standing in one place, or while
running, which is really weird looking, and is sometimes called the
“happy bunny dance.” A rabbit can even turn 180o in midair. All this
is a rabbit’s way of telling you straight out that it is happy and
overall pleased with you and its life. Some rabbits binky a lot and
some hardly at all, even if they are being treated well. Everyone has
their own temperment.
A common variation, which you can easily do too, is the half-binky,
also called a head flick or ear flick. Instead of twisting the whole
body, just the head is quickly turned sideways and back. This is still
a pretty impressive sight in a creature with ears longer than its
head! A head flick can be performed while running, or when sitting in
place. A head flick is similar in meaning to a shudder, but is a
little more playful and silly. It differs in presentation from the
“I’d rather not” ear wobble, because it’s much faster and often
includes a slight rearing up by lifting the front feet.
You can do a head flick too, by quickly dropping your head sideways
and then back up, with a bit of a twist. If you have long hair that
gets flung, your rabbit is even more sure to get the message. Some
happy rabbits will head flick back at you to show that they share your
happiness. It’s always nice to answer a head flick in kind.
If you want to go for the full binky, your rabbit will understand if
you jump up a little in one place while doing a head flick. I
recommend you don’t try to twist your body in mid-air like a rabbit
will, especially if there is any furniture around, you have a history
of back problems, or are over 45 years old. Trust me on this one.