Some people envision rabbits as these quintessentially quiet animals who sit silently and never make their feelings known. However, in the real world, rabbits are actually quite vocal and will let you know precisely how they feel about any given topic. Of course, as with people, some rabbits are more vocal than others are. A few rabbits actually are quite docile and you must coax their feelings from them, but they’re rare (as are quiet people).
If you listen, your rabbit will talk to you. For example, if you hear a growling type noise, it means that your rabbit is annoyed or feels threatened in some way. When threatened, the rabbit will back into a corner (or at least away from the threat). However, when the rabbit is annoyed, it follows the growl with a loud thump from those tremendous feet. (OK, they don’t look all that huge to you, but when you consider the rabbit’s overall size, those feet really are monsters.)
Females who are annoyed with the male in their cage really do growl quite loud and will sometimes charge the male. In fact, several females we’ve had were quite willing to take a chunk out of the poor guy’s back (and all he was doing was asking for a date). If the female is feeling territorial, the growl may become a shorter and louder bark. When you see this behavior, it means the female is bred and the male had better just leave as quickly and as quietly as possible. If you hear barking from two males, it means that they’re both alpha males and are about ready to get into a fight. You must move one of the two males to a different cage.
A change in cage can sometimes trigger an annoyance response. We moved one of our rabbits to a different (and we thought nicer) cage. The rabbit was obviously not impressed. She spent quite some time charging at us, thumping her feet, and growling quite loudly. In some cases, she preceded a lunge with a hiss, which showed a kind of extreme annoyance. Yes, we heard her loud and clear (unfortunately, there was little we could do to appease her and she finally decided the new cage would be just fine after all).
Sometimes thumping goes hand-in-hand with some sort of physical demonstration. One male seemed quite annoyed that another rabbit (a female and her kits) had received all the nice carrot shavings while he was offered the same dry rabbit pellets as normal. So he thumped quite loudly and then threw his dish across the cage. We decided that the extra carrot in the refrigerator would make a wonderful peace offering and the rabbit agreed. The chickens ate the food that fell through the bottom of his cage, so everyone seemed quite happy with the way things turned out.
Honking is another vocalization. Think of it as someone with a serious sinus condition and you get the idea. A rabbit will generally make this noise when happy or wanting attention. Some of our breeder rabbits will actually shovel their noses into us and then honk to demonstrate that we really do need to pay attention to them. Of course, if we show them some, but not enough attention, the rabbit will almost certainly thump when we close the cage (and possibly throw the food dish against the wall as well).
Some rabbits will also grind their teeth when they are happy and want attention. Teeth grinding is a good thing and you want to hear it. It’s important to note that the teeth grinding in this case is quiet and light, not the heavy grinding associated with eating something.
Along with honking and teeth grinding, seriously happy rabbits will sometimes coo. Depending on the kind of rabbit and the level of happiness, some people associate this sound with a sort of buzzing noise. The rabbit will usually be extremely relaxed, sometimes with its back legs splayed out, and normally with its eyes closed.
Finally, there is the sound no one wants to hear, the high pitched rabbit scream. You normally hear it when the rabbit is in pain or in fear of its life. If you hear this sound, you know the rabbit needs immediate help. We heard it when some feral dogs in the area decided they might like a rabbit for dinner. Fortunately, our cages are well-built and the dogs didn’t have their way, but the rabbits in those cages were screaming quite loud. In fact, at least one of them passed out from fright (it later recovered).
Facial activities can also alert you to a rabbit’s mood. For example, twitching whiskers often denote curiosity (normally for a food item, but also for attention). The faster those whiskers twitch, the more curious the rabbit. Ears held forward and at the alert tell you that the rabbit has heard an unexpected sound. We’ve noted that some rabbits will furrow their brow when upset or annoyed.
What sorts of sounds does your rabbit make? Have you noticed facial expressions, positions of back feet and ears, and other behaviors that help you understand what your rabbit is trying to say? Let me know what you’ve observed at [email protected].