What is the behaviour?
Rabbits rear up on their hind legs when they need a different viewpoint on something they are investigating or considering or when they are trying to reach something that is high off the ground. For example, a rabbit may rear up if it hears an unfamiliar noise or if it is trying to locate another rabbit in a large area, or if it is trying to reach a leaf on a higher branch. Rabbits may rear up with their feet flat on the floor (when they are looking around) or up on their toes (typically when they are trying to reach up – this position is less stable and so they can’t hold it for as long).
Why is it important?
This behaviour is important for both the rabbit’s physical and emotional health. Physically, this is a normal behaviour that puts important forces through the rabbit’s lower back and hind legs, increasing flexibility and strength to allow it to move normally. If a rabbit is unable to show rearing behaviour, its spine and joints will become weaker and more prone to injury. This can lead to deformities, pain on handling, and resultant behavioural problems. Emotionally, rabbits need to rear up when they feel uncertain so they can decide on the best action to relieve the stress.
Rearing up usually indicates that a rabbit is curious and exploratory but slightly uncertain. A rabbit that is overtly fearful will run and hide. Paralysis, pain, or muscle weakness may make a rabbit unable to show this behaviour, even if it wants to.
How can we enable rabbits to show this behaviour?
To enable rabbits to show this behaviour, they need to have the physical space to do so and they need to have motivation to do so.
Rabbits need to have enough vertical space to rear up. This is why we say that the absolute minimum height for an enclosure is three feet – which should give most rabbits enough space to rear up on their hind legs. However, rabbits like to find high places to sit on to watch their environment and often want to rear up on those places – three feet will not be enough for them to do this. The higher the top of the enclosure and the more variation in height of surfaces, the more normal behaviours the rabbits can show.
Rabbits also need to have the motivation to rear up. This means that they need to have an interesting and varying environment. Rabbits in large outdoor runs are much more likely to show rearing behaviours because their environment naturally varies a lot more – changing light conditions, changing seasons, changing noises, changing sights.
Indoor rabbits are less likely to rear because there is less variation in their environment and because slippery floors can make balance harder. Therefore, indoor rabbits need to have plenty of toys and puzzle feeders to provide interest, and areas of the floor which are grippy (such as carpets or mats) to allow them to rear easily.
Rearing indicates that rabbits feel curious and interested in their environment, and this is one indicator of good welfare.