Know your pet

Noisy at night

Rabbits are quiet by nature, which helps them to avoid arousing the attentions of predators, although they do sometimes make quiet throaty growls when contented, and have a unpleasant scream if in pain. This serves to warn wild rabbits of danger, so they can retreat back quickly to their underground burrows.

The thumping noise that can often be heard coming from a rabbit's hutch after dark allows them to attract the attention of others in the neighbourhood. This noise carries some distance when it is quiet at night, but there is nothing about the sound that makes it instantly identifiable as coming from a rabbit.

This helps to avoid alerting possible predators, while allowing rabbits to keep in touch with each other over some distance. They stamp their long and powerful hind legs down on to the floor to create this unusual sound. This also explains why Thumper is a popular name for a rabbit!

Tail talk

Rabbits also use their tails for communication purposes, although this may not be instantly apparent, unless they have dark fur. The underside of the tail, in contrast to the rest of the body, is then likely to be a much paler colour. Particularly when a male rabbit wants to attract the attention of a female who is nearby, he will lift his tail, showing the white underside to her. Such behaviour is known as tail flagging.

The long ears of rabbits help them to locate and trace the source of sounds with great accuracy. This is important in the wild, because otherwise, a predator could creep up on them unnoticed, with fatal consequences. By knowing where a sound originated, rabbits can look to escape in the opposite direction. This is helped by the fact that they can move their ears independently, swiveling one to locate a particular sound, pinpointing its location very accurately.

If they want to escape attention, especially when they do not feel that they can run off, rabbits will lie quietly with the ears down along their backs. They also rest in this way.

Scent and sight

All the defensive senses of rabbits are highly developed, to help them survive. They rely most heavily on scent, because of their lifestyle. Rabbits would normally spend much of the day underground in dark burrows, and may not emerge above ground until dusk, when vision is of less significance.

Scent marking is commonly used to highlight boundaries between rabbit territories. Urine may be used for this purpose, although rabbits also possess special scent glands underneath their chin, and tail. This is why pet rabbits may often choose to rub their chin on a prominent part of their hutch or furniture in the home - they are laying claim to this area of territory.

The rabbit's acute sense of smell also means that they can pick up air-borne scents easily as well. When you first move a rabbit to new quarters or outdoors into a run, it will usually hop around pausing at intervals to sniff for this reason.

Rabbits also have large, bulbous eyes. The size of the eye helps to ensure that it traps light effectively, even when it is becoming dark, while the positioning of the eyes on the head mean that it is difficult to creep up on a rabbit unseen. They have a much wider field of vision than we do, which again helps to alert them to possible danger at an early stage.

Young rabbits

They're actually born blind and helpless, being totally dependent on their mother. Amazingly though, the doe will only visit her offspring in their nest for perhaps five minutes every day, allowing them to suckle briefly. This is all that her young, called kittens, actually require however, in order to grow and develop at a relatively fast rate. Even so, they have well-advanced sensory powers at this early stage. Young rabbits are very sensitive in terms of detecting changes of temperature, huddling together to keep warm, and they locate their mother's nipples by scent at first, before their eyes are open.

Bucks disagree

Keeping two male rabbits together is not recommended because bullying is likely to become apparent as they mature. The dominant male will start to rub his chin on the subordinate individual, depositing his scent here on his rival's fur. He will also adopt a very distinctive raised body posture, while appearing to have stiff legs. This gesture is intended to intimidate its would-be rival, as it causes the rabbit to appear larger than is actually the case. Rabbits rarely fight, although they can inflict painful blows on an opponent with their strong hind legs, and also wrestle with their forelegs. Aggression of this type is most likely if two bucks are placed together, and can lead to serious injury.