Though small, naughty rabbits can create a lot of problems for you and their rabbit companions. If you’re concerned about your rabbit’s behaviour, how do you find a behaviourist? When do you need a behaviourist? What do rabbit behaviourists do?
Why You Might Need a Behaviourist
Just like dogs and cats, rabbits are complicated intelligent mammals with lots of specific needs, habits and their own personalities. If any of these aren’t met, rabbits can start to have behavioural issues. Common behavioural problems in rabbits include jumpiness, aggression or nervousness, hair biting and hair loss, seclusion, weight loss, urinary and faecal incontinence, not getting on with other socialised rabbits, resenting handling, and more.
Some of these behaviours may just make them difficult to handle, or not as cuddly pets. But behaviours can result in chronic stress, disease or even death if not corrected. If any of these changes occur, it may be worth speaking to a behaviourist.
Where You Can Find a Behaviourist
We always recommend starting with your vet. This is mainly because many behavioural issues are related to husbandry or disease which your vet can diagnose (more on this later). But also because the veterinary industry is small. Many vets will know animal behaviourists and can recommend one, or may even have behavioural qualifications themselves.
Finding a specific behaviourist can be done the same way you look for any other skilled person – using the internet, forums, newspapers, word of mouth and so on. However, unlike veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, a person does not necessarily need to have any formal qualifications to claim they are an animal behaviourist. Anyone could create a website and start offering their services. The issue with this is that some of their advice may be out of date, incorrect or even dangerous.
To avoid non-qualified behaviourists, I recommend you ensure you look for someone registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC). ABTC is “a regulatory body that represents animal trainers, training instructors and animal behaviour therapists to both the public and to legislative bodies”. This means all behaviourists and similar must adhere to humane, effective, science-focussed training. So each behaviourist should be relatively consistent. (Though of course every individual will have their own way of working). And you can be more confident they can deliver results without harming your pet. ABTC also ensures that members remain up to date with training via CPD (continued professional development), like vets and vet nurses, so their methods will always be in date. Most members will be involved in dog or cat behaviour, so you may have to take some time to find a nearby behaviourist who can help your rabbit.
The Fellowship of Animal Behavioural Clinicians is the other major “umbrella” body that accredits clinical behaviourists including ABTC members, but also vets with behavioural qualifications. In the UK, ABTC membership is the key body to check for accredited behaviourists who are not vets.
What Behaviourists Do
As we discussed above, the first step with a naughty rabbit is to ensure they are healthy and do not have disease. This should be done by a veterinary surgeon, who is fully qualified to do so. Examinations involve checking your rabbit’s weight, joints, teeth, heart, lungs, back end, and so on. Common problems causing behavioural issues in rabbits include dental disease, obesity, flystrike, arthritis, and urine scald. All of these can be corrected or reduced by adjusting husbandry. More subtle diseases may require further testing to diagnose, such as blood, urine or faeces testing, x-rays, ultrasound or even investigations under general anaesthetic.
Once disease has been fully ruled out by a vet, then the next step is to assess husbandry
This could involve a discussion over the phone, a video consult or even an in-person visit. The behaviourist will look at where your rabbit lives, what is nearby, what they eat and how much, their companion rabbits, the general environment, enrichment and toys, and more. As before, many behavioural issues are linked to husbandry problems, so identifying and addressing these is important.
The behaviourist will then likely want to observe your rabbit, both during normal times and when they are demonstrating the unwanted behaviour. Filming behavioural issues on your phone can be useful here; your rabbit might show subtle changes that could indicate to the behaviourist where the problem may lie.
If a true behavioural problem is identified, behavioural training can begin
This may involve sessions with the behaviourist or techniques you can learn at home to try and break their bad habits. Though not as “intelligent” (in other words, trainable!) as dogs or cats, rabbits can learn via training. Bad behaviour should be ignored and good behaviour rewarded, as this is proven to be the most effective way for animals to learn.
Fearful rabbits can benefit from desensitisation therapy, where they are slowly exposed to small amounts of their fear until they are confident. For example, a rabbit afraid of loud noises may be exposed to gradually louder and louder sounds until they do not jump, or one afraid of dogs can be trained by exposing them to dog smells, then hair, then a dog from a distance, and so on. Techniques will vary depending on the rabbit, the behaviourist and the owner. The training may be a quick fix or take constant work to keep your rabbit happy.
How to Avoid Needing a Behaviourist
As with all things animal health, prevention is usually better than cure. This means preventing disease with regular vet checks, vaccinations, and monitoring at home. Ensuring your husbandry is perfect will go a long way to preventing serious behavioural problems too.
If you have a young rabbit, prevention now will have the biggest impact as your rabbit is still learning. Plenty of good experiences, exposure to many stimuli, socialisation with other rabbits, and getting used to humans and handling can prevent issues with these in later life. Don’t forget that rabbits can learn to be fearful via new experiences too. So continue to make sure their experiences are positive, and minimise stress and disruption in their lives.