New rabbit owners learn pretty quickly that bunnies do not interact with humans in the same ways as common pets like dogs and cats. They have their way of showing affection, aggression, and everything in between.
One of the most expressive aspects of a rabbit’s body language is its ears. And knowing what it means when a rabbit’s ears are erect and up is crucial for every rabbit owner.
In this article, you will find out not just what standing ears mean in a rabbit but also what other ear positions can communicate regarding your bunny’s emotional state. You will also discover other body language cues that signal these emotions. But first, let’s tackle the main question.
What Does It Mean When a Rabbit’s Ears Are Up?
When a rabbit’s ears are up, it is alert. This might not be the same as being nervous or aggressive, but it can transition into an anxious state. Generally, rabbits become alert when things change or new stimuli are introduced to their environment.
After that, they get curious or end up nervous, depending on threat perception. Both aggression and curiosity are also signaled by ear positions, albeit different ones. Knowing more about the body language cues that accompany these states can help you find out the best course of action in each case.
Reading Rabbit Body Language
Rabbits’ faces are not as expressive as primates’ and canines’, and they don’t communicate with the signals used by predator mammals like dogs and cats. Fortunately, rabbits’ ears are very reliable in communicating their emotional state. Let’s look at what different ear positions signal in rabbits.
Sign 1 – Ears Are Forward – Curious
Rabbits are pretty curious about prey animals. They will generally explore their surroundings no matter where they are. While some animals stop exploring the moment they find food and water, rabbits stay curious about different nooks and corners. It is, therefore, common to find a pet rabbit with its ears facing forward.
This is most prominent in the Himalayas, Dutch rabbits, Rexes, and Polish rabbits because of their erect ears. Full lops don’t have the required rigidity to signal curiosity very obviously.
- Curiosity helps keep a rabbit engaged. Remember, bored rabbits bite. Curious rabbits should be engaged in exploratory play. The more a bunny plays and explores, the happier it is.
- Even in full-lop breeds, you can notice curiosity from other signals. Focus in the absence of twitchiness shows interest and curiosity. It might manifest in a slow approach. Rabbits never approach what they are afraid of. When a rabbit’s ears are not in their standard position, and it is slowly approaching an object or a space, it is curious.
- You can help your rabbit stay engaged by getting him play-and-chew toys. These toys can help the bunny deal with boredom not just through play but also through chewing. andwe Small Animals Play And Chew Toys are excellent for curious bunnies. They are made from rabbit-safe materials and can be chewed and rolled around.
Sign 2 – Ears Are Up – Alert
Alertness helps mammals survive. Predator animals are not as easily started as prey animals. Since rabbits are not predators, they can be alert even under seemingly casual circumstances. At least in adulthood, rabbits are fairly intelligent. When they notice new people, scents, or circumstances, they can perk up their ears.
With their ears standing exactly upright, rabbits start noticing changes in patterns they are familiar with. This is more prominent in the breeds that get easily started. It can also show the difference between socialized and isolated rabbits. Isolated rabbits can go into an anxious or aggressive state, signified by a different ear position, while socialized ones will first have their ears up, then proceed to go into the curious state (with ears poking forward).
Alertness is also visible with a lift in the rabbit’s posture. It is the precursor to the fight, flight, or approach. While nervous rabbits go into fight-or-flight, well-socialized domestic rabbits try to weigh the options between approaching the novelty (new person, place, or object) and seeing it as a threat.
If you know that a rabbit is well-socialized, avoiding an approach is the best way to manage an alert state. Rabbits can easily become curious about whatever eludes them. And by pulling back, you can use reverse psychology to get the bunny interested.
If you’re unsure if the rabbit is appropriately socialized, you should avoid approaching it. Disengaging is the best tactic unless you are trying to break a dominance pattern.
Sign 3 – Ears Are Backward At A Slight Angle – Relaxed
As a pet owner, you want your pet to be relaxed most of the time. A relaxed mammal isn’t overworking its internal systems, being nervous, excited, or aggressive. Relaxation is so crucial to animals’ health that nearly all animals engage in some form of sleep.
Despite not doing much except chewing hay all day, rabbits need to relax as well. They are very nervous animals, but their amygdala, which is responsible for fear response in mammals, is smaller when they are domesticated.
Therefore, it is not a rare sight to witness a rabbit looking relaxed. This is evident from a very specific eating placement. In erect-ear rabbits, the ears are positioned backward but at a slight angle. The ears are not at a sharp angle. It can be seen most easily among Himalayans and Jersey woolies, both of which are generally calm.
You can also notice a general slowdown in the body and motion of the rabbits. This, alongside an unsharp ear placement, shows that the rabbit is calm. It happens when the rabbit is in a very comfortable spot or is generally content. If you notice your rabbit in a state of perfect calm, avoid disturbing it. Let the bunny relax and keep the kids away. The worst thing you can do is to pick your rabbit up when it is in a relaxed state. This teaches the rabbit not to be calm around you.
Sign 4 – Ears Are Backward At A Sharp Angle – Nervous/Aggressive
Nervousness can be very helpful for survival, especially for prey animals like rabbits. We often use the idiom “being scared of shadows” to make light of the fear of an intangible thing. But for prey animals like rabbits, shadows are the biggest indicator of birds of prey. Not all rabbits can offset their instincts around human owners. Your presence, a series of loud noises, and other stimuli that make small mammals nervous can make a rabbit aggressive.
To de-escalate the situation, you should be able to point it out. Rabbits have their ears bent backward at a sharp angle with their nose slightly upward. The larger the rabbit, the more obvious this is. Nervousness and aggression are the easiest to spot in Flemish giants. These rabbits do kick in self-defense, which works as a fight tactic as well as a flight tactic.
You can spot a rabbit’s nervousness by its overall twitchiness. A nervous rabbit very rarely stands still. It can shake and shiver if it is in a corner, but in most cases, it keeps moving.
Either way, your main strategy should be to get the rabbit to calm down by removing whatever is making him nervous. If he acts out around a specific friend or because of a certain noise, try to reduce his exposure to said person or stimulus.
Sign 5 – Head Dipped and Ears At a Steep Backward Angle – Sleepy
Rabbits need sleep, like all mammals. If your rabbit is not well-rested, it might start losing weight. Sleep-deprived animals are more prone to falling ill. To make sure your rabbit’s immune system and organ health are in order, you need to give it a peaceful environment to sleep in. The rabbit might not sleep if it keeps getting interrupted, picked up, or patted on its head.
While actual sleep is telegraphed with shut eyes, the stage just before that is indicated by lax ears that almost lop downward. This is not as visible in lop rabbits, whose ears are already pointing downward. But the bunnies that have the classic “rabbit” look almost always lose their ear rigidity before they go to sleep.
This is also accompanied by a general lack of posture and erectness. The sleepier the rabbit, the looser it appears to be. Moreover, the rabbit brings its body close to the ground when it is sleepy. You can spot this in larger breeds. Whenever you’re sure that your rabbit is sleepy, you should simply let it be.
Shutting the lights could be one way to accommodate a rabbit. If you cannot do that, put a thick opaque cover over its cage. Rabbits need a clear contrast between night and day because they can get stressed being under light all the time.
When a rabbit’s ears are up, it is alert. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Alertness just shows that your rabbit is smart and in touch with its surroundings.
If the ears lean forward, then your rabbit is curious about a specific change. But if the erect ears go back at a sharp angle, it means that the bunny is feeling threatened and might get aggressive.