rabbit grooming behavior
Care Guides

Grooming Behavior in Rabbits (Hierarchy, Dominance, and Barbering)

Rabbits are clean pets. A hutch will start to smell a little after a few days, but not your rabbit. This is because rabbits spend significant parts of their day grooming. This could be a self-clean, they could groom another rabbit, or they may even groom you. It’s all equally important to a rabbit.

Your pet should groom herself thoroughly, multiple times a day. If you keep two bonded rabbits, they’ll also groom each other. Just ensure this does not turn to ‘barbering.’ If rabbits over-groom, they tear chunks of their own fur out. This is as harmful as it is painful.

In your rabbit’s mind, grooming is not just about staying clean. It’s a way to stay safe, and to calm herself down. It’s also a sign of status. In a bonded pairing, the submissive rabbit will constantly groom a dominant partner. This helps your rabbits to know, and understand, their role.

Why Rabbits Groom

If you have a pet rabbit, you will have noticed that she is a meticulous groomer. What’s more, bonded rabbits also groom each other. There are three types of grooming prevalent in rabbits.

  • Autogrooming is when a rabbit grooms herself.
  • Allogrooming is when two or more rabbits groom each other.
  • Social Grooming is when a rabbit grooms an owner.

But why do rabbits take grooming so seriously? There is a range of reasons:

  • Safety. As prey animals, rabbits like to stay incognito. Grooming neutralizes a rabbit’s scent. It’s considerably tougher for a predator to detect a clean rabbit than a dirty one.
  • Temperature Control. Rabbits do not sweat. This means that, in hot conditions, rabbits groom to cool off. In addition, grooming helps a rabbit to shed excess fur.
  • Entertainment. Rabbits often groom as a way of passing the time. You’ll need to keep an eye on this, though. Aggressive grooming in rabbits is a symptom of boredom. Your pet may need more stimulation in her hutch.
  • Self-Soothing. Rabbits groom when feeling stressed or anxious. Rabbits are easily spooked, so be mindful of this behavior. Something seemingly mundane may be making your pet afraid.
  • Friendship and Subservience. Grooming is the rabbit equivalent of a hug. It’s also how rabbits establish power hierarchies. A dominant rabbit will except and receive grooming on demand from a subordinate.

Grooming is one of the most crucial parts of a rabbit’s routine. While your rabbit will groom herself, you should also join in. This will keep your pet happy and healthy, while strengthening your bond.

Can a Rabbit Take Care of Her Own Grooming Needs?

Your rabbit will take care of most of her own basic grooming needs. Just like we take a shower when we get up, your rabbit will groom upon waking. She’ll repeat the behavior throughout the day.

Do not rely on your rabbit to take care of her own grooming exclusively, though. Part of taking care of these animals is helping out with hygiene.

You should brush your rabbit’s fur at least every other day. Increase this to daily if your pet is a longhaired breed, such as a lionhead rabbit. You’ll need to brush even more during heavy shedding periods.

Also, ensure that your rabbit can reach every inch of her body for self-grooming. If your pet is overweight, she’ll struggle to clean her legs and bottom. Older rabbits that live with arthritis can also find this challenging. Inspect your rabbit regularly, and compile a mental checklist.

  • Is your rabbit’s fur shiny and unmatted?
  • Can your rabbit see clearly, without fur growing into, and irritating, her eyes?
  • Are your rabbit’s legs and tummy clean? Check for any warning signs of urine scalding (wet tail). This can be painful and dangerous.
  • Is your rabbit’s tail dry?
  • Does your rabbit have a clean bum? This is important. A rabbit that cannot clean her own behind is at risk of flystrike.

Build time for grooming your rabbit into your daily schedule. It’s every bit as important as exercise and play. What’s more, your rabbit will enjoy the experience. Rabbits consider grooming to be a pivotal element of bonding.

You will also find that your rabbit requests grooming from you. The Language of Lagomorphs explains that this will involve nudging and bowing of the head.

It’s in your best interests to acquiesce to these expectations. If you don’t, your rabbit will grow frustrated, and will often take offense. If your rabbit is unhappy with you, you’ll know about it.

aggressive grooming in rabbits

How to Groom Your Rabbit

Grooming is different from petting. You will need to invest in some particular tools to groom your rabbit. Make a trip to the pet store and pharmacy, and pick up the following.

  • A rabbit-friendly hairbrush. Pick up a brush that is designed for your pet’s unique type of fur. Bristles are generally better than teeth.
  • A wide-toothed comb. This is for untangling any matted fur. Ensure the comb is made of plastic. Metal will be too harsh for your rabbit’s delicate skin.
  • A small pair of scissors. You may need to cut out any particularly stubborn tangles. Trying to brush these out will be too painful for your pet.
  • Nail clippers. Ensure these are sturdy enough to withstand rabbit claws.
  • A styptic pencil, just in case you accidentally cut your rabbit’s skin while grooming.
  • Q-Tips and cotton pads.

When you’re ready to groom your rabbit, start with brushing. Most rabbits will actively enjoy this, and not resist. As mentioned, do this at least every other day. There is no harm in daily brushing, though — the more frequent, the better.

If you are satisfied that your rabbit’s fur is in good condition, check her eyes. Some rabbits have stains beneath the eyes through tear production. Give her eyes a gentle wipe with a damp cotton pad if so.

Check your rabbit’s legs, belly, and bottom. If all these body parts and dry and clean, take no action. If you find traces of urine or feces, clean this up. A damp cotton pad will do.

Take a look at your rabbit’s feet and paws. Do her claws need to be clipped? Your rabbit may hurt herself, or a partner, by scratching with long claws. You should also ensure her paw pads are dry and intact. Open wounds must be dressed.

Perform a quick scent test. Rabbits are not smelly animals. If your pet seems sweaty, her scent glands will be blocked. These are found between the anus and genitals.

Take a damp Q-Tip, and gently clear out the scent glands. You’ll find that this releases a waxy substance. It’s not a fun job, but it’s necessary. The wax is causing the gland blockage. If left untreated, an infection becomes a possibility.

Do Rabbits Groom Each Other?

If you keep two bonded rabbits in the same hutch, they will definitely groom each other. In addition to helping each other out, grooming defines the rabbits’ roles in the hutch hierarchy.

Wild rabbit colonies are not a democracy, and domestic arrangements are no different. In every rabbit pairing, there is an alpha and a beta. The former can demand grooming from the latter at any time.

This means that one rabbit will be grooming the other rabbit far more frequently. This is a natural rabbit power balance. There is no need for you to worry about this.

When rabbits groom each other, fur is removed from hard-to-reach places. The rabbit will also be checking her friend for parasites. This is something that you’ll need to be mindful of, too.

If your rabbit finds a tick on her friend, she’ll try to tear it off. This is a health risk for both rabbits. Also, fleas and mites will leap between animals.

My Rabbits are Biting Each Other’s Fur

This is something that you must nip in the bud. When rabbits start to bite, it’s no longer grooming. The animals will likely progress to pulling each other’s fur out. This is known as ‘barbering.’

Oftentimes, you’ll find that a dominant rabbit barbers the submissive partner. Alternatively, a submissive rabbit may be making a play for dominance. There are other possible explanations, though. These include stress and boredom.

Barbering cannot be ignored. Do not leave the rabbits to sort this issue out by themselves. It can eventually lead to serious or permanent damage. If nothing else, it will make the recipient miserable.

Think about the cause of the behavior and seek to eradicate it. Move your pets into a bigger hutch. Provide more hay. Fill the hutch with toys, and offer more opportunities to exercise outside.

If none of this works, it suggests that your rabbits cannot live together. This is unfortunate, and comparatively rare, but it can happen. Even bonded rabbits fall out of love on occasion. This is especially likely if the power dynamic shifts.

If the barbering does not stop, no matter what you try, separate the rabbits. If you can, invest in two hutches. You may find that, when not living together, the animals get along just fine. You can eventually attempt to re-bond the rabbits.

If you do not have the space for this solution, one of the rabbits will need to be rehomed. It’s a tough decision, but it’s for the best. You cannot allow a rabbit to be continually barbered by a partner. That will not lead to a happy life.

rabbits over grooming each other

Difference Between Grooming and Barbering

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if your rabbit is being groomed or barbered. What looks aggressive to human eyes may just be a sign of play, or thorough attention.

Keep an eye on both of your pets. If one rabbit is missing large patches of fur, exposing skin, she is being barbered. This means that urgent action will be necessary.

Watch for the response to the activity, too. Grooming is supposed to be an enjoyable activity for rabbits. Sometimes, a submissive rabbit will accept barbering without complaint. She may run away and hide or fight back.

In fact, any kind of conflict is almost certainly a warning sign of barbering. No rabbit will reject grooming, regardless of their place in the hutch hierarchy. If the activity is resisted, it’s unwelcome.

Your rabbit’s gender may play a role in this, too. If you have a mixed-sex pairing, the female will often be the dominant partner. If she refuses to allow a male to groom her, it’s likely because he’s barbering her. This will be because the male is attempting to assert dominance.

You’ll be able to tell if your pets are happy with each other. Bonded rabbits are largely inseparable. If your rabbits only interact to groom, and that doesn’t last long, barbering is a likely explanation.

My Rabbit is Grooming Excessively

Barbering is not only something that rabbits inflict on each other. Your pet may also mutilate herself with excessive grooming. This, too, is a form of barbering.

Most often, a rabbit barbering herself is a result of boredom, stress, or loneliness. It cannot be overstated how important it is to provide rabbits with an enriching life. Always strive to provide everything your pet needs, and more. Things that cause stress and anxiety in rabbits include:

  • Changes to Routine. Rabbits do not like surprises. Get your pet into a strict schedule of food, sleep, and playtimes. She will be much happier this way.
  • Feeling Unsafe. Rabbits need to feel secure at all times. If she’s worried that predators could get into her hutch, your rabbit will be constantly anxious.
  • Loud Noises. Rabbits have sensitive hearing. This means that loud noises will regularly spook a rabbit. If you’re using power tools in the yard, move your pet’s hutch.
  • Excessive Heat. Rabbits loathe feeling too warm. Your pet will be much happier in cool temperatures. As she cannot sweat, your rabbit will grow distressed if she’s overheating.
  • Ill Health. Rabbits tend to hide signs of sickness. As a prey species, your pet will not want to display any weakness. She will be stressed and afraid of what is happening.
  • Poor Diet. If a rabbit is not getting enough fiber, she will not only barber a hutch mate. She’ll devour her own fur, too. Ensure that your rabbit has a steady supply of hay in her hutch.

A rabbit can still groom to excess when she feels otherwise contented, though. Additional potential causes of over-grooming in rabbits include parasites.

If your rabbit has a flea or mite infestation, she’ll be uncomfortable. She will itch continuously, and have no idea why. This means she’ll bite, scratch, and claw at her fur. Always resolve a flea or mite infestation at the first sign of danger.

You should also ensure your rabbit is not pregnant, or experiencing a phantom pregnancy. A pregnant rabbit will tug out her own fur to build a nest for her young. Even if the pregnancy is a false alarm, your rabbit will behave this way.

There is no such thing as a rabbit pregnancy test. It’s just a waiting game, unfortunately. If your pet has been spayed though, you can rest assured that it’s a pseudopregnancy. She’ll return to her old self after about three weeks.

rabbit grooming itself

My Rabbit has Stopped Grooming

At the opposite end of the spectrum, but no less concerning, is not grooming at all. This is not typical rabbit behavior as your pet will want to be clean.

If your rabbit stops grooming, the explanation will almost always be medical. Check your pet’s weight. Has she stopped grooming through choice, or is she simply unable to do it?

Overweight rabbits find grooming almost impossible. Not only is it exhausting, but such rabbits lack the physical dexterity required. You’ll need to groom your overweight rabbit for her, until she manages to shed some body mass.

If your rabbit is too old and arthritic for grooming, see if you can help. There is no cure for arthritis, sadly. As Disabled Rabbits explains, massage and supplements can improve the condition.

Check your rabbit’s teeth. If she is living with dental pain, any kind of oral activity will be uncomfortable. If your rabbit is also not eating or drinking, a toothache is the likeliest explanation.

If you can’t explain why your rabbit will not groom, ask a vet. Something is clearly wrong and must be addressed. Oftentimes though, you’ll find that one of the above provides the answer.

Will a Rabbit Get Hairballs from Grooming?

Yes, rabbits are prone to hairballs. As a rabbit grooms herself or a partner, she swallows fur. These hairballs are referred to as trichobezoars.

In theory, hairballs are nothing to worry about. Your rabbit should be able to pass this fur in her waste. In fact, you’ll often find rabbit poop bound together by hair. This means that she is passing the fur naturally.

In order for this to continue happening, your rabbit must eat plenty of hay. Rabbits need a high-fiber diet to aid digestion, and hay provides this. If a rabbit eats less hay and more vegetables or pellets, she may encounter problems.

If your rabbit does not get enough fiber, the fur will not pass through her digestion. This, in turn, leads to potential intestinal blockages. These are often fatal.

If your rabbit cannot digest her food, she will not survive. Warning signs that your rabbit is struggling with trichobezoars blocking her digestion include:

  • Swelling around the abdomen
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Refusing to eat
  • Physical symptoms of pain (hunching over, grinding teeth)
  • Small, sporadic release of fecal pellets. Constipation is also possible
  • Diarrhea

If you suspect that your rabbit is struggling to digest food, seek expert help. X-rays or ultrasounds will confirm a diagnosis. A vet can then take the appropriate action.

This may include medication or surgical intervention. It depends how severe the blockage has become. Either way, it must be treated as a matter of urgency. Rabbits rarely survive longer than 48 hours with an intestinal blockage.

Grooming behavior in rabbits can be fascinating to watch. Your pet will apply an almost ritualistic approach to grooming, as it’s crucial to her. Respect this, and pitch in wherever you can.

Remember, grooming isn’t just a way of keeping clean for rabbits. It’s how this species shows affection and builds relationships. This means that, by showing a willingness to help, you’ll improve your own human-pet bond.

Eventually, your rabbit will even start to groom you. If you receive a lick on the hand, treasure it. Rabbits do not express this level of affection easily. You have clearly earned your pet’s adoration.