Skip to content

The empathy of bunnies


I’ve now been caring for rabbits constantly for almost eight years, but am still regularly amazed by the sophistication of their communication attempts, both with each other and with humans.

Rabbits are very social. Much more than cats and in many ways more so than dogs. They are constantly trying to interact. Not as slaves or masters but as equals (well, OK, male rabbits like to let you know whose boss, but most of their interactions are still on a ‘man-to-man’ basis).Bunny - April 2008

It was a disabled female Netherlands Dwarf rabbit named simply ‘Bunny’ that my flatmate inherited from her sister who first blew my mind regarding rabbit communication. She’d had no interactions with other rabbits since she was a kit but was constantly trying to find a ‘language’ to express subtle and sophisticated concepts to us. I’ve had a lot of pets in my life but none who put anywhere near the kind of effort into telling or asking me things as did Bunny. It was the obvious need for almost constant interaction and communication demonstrated by Bunny that convinced me I should never keep just one rabbit in future. Neither I nor any other human would ever have been able to satisfy her social needs.

Clover, my current female rabbit, displays amazing levels of empathy and bravery in sticking by those she cares about. I have already written of how she will try to intervene whenever we are doing something that distresses her partner (previously the now deceased Willow, now Ananda) despite literally quaking with fear as she does so. Bunny too was ridiculously brave when she thought I was under threat. Although terrified of cats and not much bigger than a rat herself she once charged a cat that was approaching me as I snoozed in the garden. Her disability meant she could not ‘thump’ a warning to alert me so she immediately went into battle on my behalf instead.Willow and Clover

When I have to hold Clover against her will to administer medicine or clean her when her digestive system is out of whack she becomes very distressed and sometimes scratches or bites me. But when I react with pain or distress to her attacks she immediately stops and begins grooming me to try to calm me down.

More recently Ananda has become ill again (I hope it’s not a recurrence of his earlier problems with e.cuniculi, but it looks pretty ominous) and Clover has become even more attentive of him. As well as watching him closely and grooming him more often she has become more protective and tries her best to dissuade us from upsetting him by administering medication.

But tonight I definitely saw something I only thought I had noticed before.Ananda and Clover

When rabbits are very relaxed and happy they grind their teeth. It’s their equivalent to purring. They also grind their teeth when they’re in pain but in a distinctly different manner. Recently when I have been stroking Ananda to try to calm him down (and because I like patting my bunnies) Clover has been watching like a hawk to make sure I’m not going to pull any swifties. But when it becomes clear that my intentions are ‘honorable’ she not only relaxes but adopts the same kind of eyes-half-closed semi-liquid-bunny posture she does when she is being groomed. Tonight I clearly heard what I’d only thought I heard before. When I stroke Ananda she grinds her teeth.

It’s very special to earn the love and trust of a prey animal as naturally paranoid and flighty as a rabbit. But equally special is learning how complex they are.

In one of her books, neurologist Susan Greenfield uses rabbits as an example of an animal that clearly lacks an inner life¹. The lights may be on but she believes there is no-one at home. The Baroness of Neurobabble has clearly never shared her life with a bunny.


¹ As far as I can tell Baroness Greenfield has based her conclusions neither on research nor her own observations but rather is propagating a common belief held by research scientists that has never been seriously examined. I suspect it is comforting for them to believe the lab rabbits they use and kill on a regular basis have no inner life for the same reason many fishermen believe fish cannot experience pain.

  1. fahaad humayun permalink

    the only significant thing about rabbits is that how horny they are. I guess they multiply real quick. and I hope that this blog of mine will stay for a while.


    • These ones are desexed, otherwise I wouldn’t have two bunnies I’d have two thousand. Desexed rabbits don’t fuck, though they still bond to each other and demonstrate constant affection.


  2. Of possible interest…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly it looks like I will be keeping just one rabbit fairly soon.

      At 9 years Ananda is already past the life expectancy for a lop and has an incurable middle ear infection that will doubtless finish him before he gets much older. Luna – not a lop, so with a longer potential life-span – has 8-10 years left with luck.

      I’ve had a ‘chain’ of rabbits for about a decade now, replacing dead partners to ensure they have company (also because rabbits can die of grief induced malnutrition when they lose a partner and finding them a new one can prevent that). But my financial and health situation has been deteriorating for years and I can no longer afford them. The vet bills for Ananda on top of my own increasing medical expenses have blown my budget and trashed my savings.

      So when Ananda goes Luna is going to have to adapt to being a lone bunny. When she goes I’ll have to adapt to a life without rabbits.


Over to you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: