Destructive Behaviour in House Rabbits

destructive rebbitAfter litter-training queries, the second most common problem encountered by house-rabbit owners is chewing. Rabbits in the wild spend up to high percentage of their waking hours obtaining food but providing a bowl of concentrate food and hay will, at most, occupy your rabbit for a couple of hours.
There have been a large number of very informative articles on ‘rabbit proofing’ your home so I shall not cover these in this article. The new house rabbit should be allowed access to your home only under strict supervision. At times when you are unable to effectively monitor his behaviour he should be returned to his indoor cage. With time, the areas where supervised access is allowed and the period of time can be increased until the level of supervision is reduced.
Destructive behaviour generally reflects a level of boredom and an inability to satisfy a behavioural need. High levels of appropriate enrichment and stimulation meet these needs and reduce the thresholds for boredom.
As always prevention is better than cure. A rabbit living in an environment that offers high levels of enrichment is less likely to develop destructive behaviours. Enrichment can be applied to social interactions, the manner in which food is obtained and by play. Providing toys, particularly those that can be chewed or manipulated such as cardboard tubes or children’s teething rings provide a necessary level of stimulation. However, providing a rabbit with an acceptable form of an otherwise non-desirable item is short-sighted. For example giving a rabbit an old magazine to chew means that he/she will learn that it is acceptable to chew this month’s Marie Claire!
Stuffing fresh hay into a disused water bottle, creating ‘kebabs’ of vegetables on string or covered wire which are hung from the cage / hutch are all methods by which the time spent feeding can be increased. In addition the daily food allowance of a pet rabbit can be fed on a little and often basis throughout the day. For the rabbits with good ‘ball skills’, there are several activity balls on the market designed for dogs which can be filled with a handful of concentrated food so that as the ball is rolled, pieces fall out. A cheaper alternative is to glue the rims of two plastic cups, already containing food together, and then punch a few holes in the side.
Significant periods of social contact also act as enrichment - this can be with a conspecific (other rabbit another animal or ourselves) that the rabbit is accustomed to.
Items that are continually targeted for chewing can be treated with an aversive substance, such as lemon juice or eucalyptus oil, but do a patch test on furnishings prior to applying excessive amounts. In most cases it is sensible to deny access to these persistent areas whilst simultaneously increasing the level of enrichment.
Several articles suggest punishment as a means of dealing with destructive behaviour. If punishment - in the form of a short, sharp command or a stamp of the feet - has proved effective then always ensure that it is applied in absolute conjunction with the chewing. For those owners, like myself, who have seen not even the slightest flinch from their rabbits as we shout, clap and stamp our feet stronger tactics are required! In these cases, a form of aversion should be applied. Aversion training involves applying a startling stimulus as the inappropriate behaviour is being performed. The animal associates its behaviour - the chewing - with the stimulus and therefore after several repetitions, learns not to perform the behaviour.
All forms of aversion do not appear to the animal, to have originated from the owner - instead they appear to have come from the environment. Suitable methods include a squirt of water from a child’s water pistol, throwing an empty coke can containing pebbles or using a manual camera flash. Once the rabbit has stopped, praise and distraction must be given to help discourage the behaviour.
The danger of using commands, reprimands and direct distractions (such as offering a carrot or toy) is reinforcement of the chewing. Once this has happened, it can then become a learned attention seeking behaviour. The chewing will increase in frequency when there are visitors in the home, when you watch TV, talk on the telephone or are otherwise engaged.