Rabbits really do the weirdest things, don’t they? One behavior that leaves many rabbit owners baffled is rabbit licking. Some bunnies can’t seem to keep their tongues away from any kind of fabric. Others lick the people or animal companions they love. Some rabbits constantly lick their cages.
So, why does my rabbit lick his cage? A bunny may lick his cage for the same reason he would touch or smell it—to learn things about it. He may like the flavor of something that was recently touching the cage. Finally, the behavior may be a result of boredom or past neglect.
In this article, we demystify the many reasons rabbits lick their cages—sometimes obsessively. We discuss whether this behavior is negative or neutral and explore your options for dealing with it.
Exploratory, Repetitive, and Affectionate Cage Licking
For rabbits, licking is a way to explore different tastes and textures. It can also be an indication of a rabbit’s emotional state or attachment to something or someone. These two foundational realities are behind most of the more specific reasons rabbits lick their cages.
You’re no doubt familiar with the fact that rabbits have excellent vision and hearing. Their most highly developed sense, however, is their sense of smell. In mammals, the senses of smell and taste are closely related. For this reason, a rabbit may explore something by not only touching and smelling it, but also by tasting it.
Your bunny may lick his cage because he is interested in the scent or material of the cage itself or because he’s interested in another scent that has become attached to it.
If a treat recently touched a certain area, he may still be able to smell it and is tasting for any particles left behind. If another rabbit, other animal, or a person has been touching or handling the cage, your rabbit will pick up the scent and may taste the area for more information.
Rabbits may also lick things to discover and enjoy their texture. Instead of feeling things with fingers as we do, they use their mouth, tongue, and whiskers. Individual rabbits may be particularly attracted to a certain type of texture. For your bunny, it may be the smooth or knobby texture of his cage.
Boredom, Anxiety, or Pain
Repetitive or obsessive licking may be a symptom that your rabbit is bored, anxious, or stressed. Repetitive behaviors springing from distress or boredom are called stereotypies, and they can affect all types of animals.
If your bunny was an obsessive licker when you got him, it may be connected to the stress of the transition, or it could be a habit he developed because of situations in his previous home. If he just recently picked up the behavior, try to pinpoint what has changed in his surroundings or routine. Figuring out what is causing the boredom, stress, or anxiety is the first step toward addressing it.
Repetitive licking can also be linked to pain. Rabbits may lick or chew on the bars of their cage or some other object as a misdirected reaction to nagging pain. If your rabbit is exhibiting any type of abnormal or obsessive behavior, it’s a good idea to check in with your vet.
Showing Affection or Dominance
A rabbit may lick his cage to emphasize that it is his and he likes it. Licking is such a part of the rabbit social order, he may even lick it if it smells strongly of someone or something else he is attracted to or considers his own.
Thirst-related or Habitual Cage Licking
Occasionally, a rabbit’s tendency to lick his cage may be thirst-related or a sign that he is lacking certain nutrients, especially if he is licking at the corner or bottom of the cage. For adopted bunnies, it could also be a holdover from a former situation in which they were neglected.
Lack of Water or Nutrient Deficiency
If your rabbit is licking the cage in the general vicinity of his water dish or water bottle, check to be sure that the dish or bottle is full and working properly. If a water dispenser is empty or dripping, the rabbit may be trying to drink the drops that have fallen.
A thirsty rabbit also may lick up his own urine if no water is available. If water is provided, but a rabbit has still started drinking his own urine, his diet may be lacking necessary nutrients that he’s trying to find in the urine.
It’s essential for a bunny’s health and digestion that they always have access to fresh, clean water. Also make sure you’re feeding a balanced diet of hay, fresh greens and vegetables, and pellets. Rabbits do not usually require any supplemented vitamins or mineral or salt licks, so you should always consult your vet before providing them.
Habit from a Former Situation
Unfortunately, not all rabbits are reared in ideal circumstances. If you have adopted a rabbit that frequently licks up his own urine, it could be that he was neglected in one of his former homes, although this should not necessarily be assumed. Once drinking urine becomes a habit, it may continue even though fresh water is always provided.
If your bunny is regularly licking urine from his cage, it would be wise to have him checked out by your vet, just to make sure he’s okay. It’s not the nicest habit, but if your rabbit is healthy, well-watered, and well-fed, drinking the urine won’t hurt him. You can try to discourage it with an absorbent litter that quickly soaks the moisture up.
Other Things Bunnies Lick and Why
Rabbits may lick other things for the same reasons they lick their cage. They’re exploring their world, touching, and tasting, and communicating how they feel about things. A certain amount of licking is perfectly natural for a rabbit. Most of the time, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
One of the most common reasons rabbits lick anything is that they like it. If your rabbit often licks you, he may be trying to groom you. This means he trusts you and considers you a friend. He may take this a step further and lick anything that smells like you—your clothes, blankets, or pillows.
Some rabbits may also get stuck on a certain texture that intrigues them, like the floor or carpet, and regularly entertain themselves licking it. Licking their own fur is also normal. Rabbits like to keep themselves tidy and clean.
When to Be Concerned
As we’ve seen, obsessive or repetitive licking of the cage or any other object is often the symptom of a deeper issue. For your bunny’s wellbeing, it’s important to at least consider whether he could be bored, stressed, anxious, or in pain.
If you suspect that a nutritional deficiency or lack of water is at fault, these are also issues that should be addressed as soon as possible. If in doubt, always consult an experienced veterinarian who can advise you as to your rabbit’s quality of health and dietary needs.
A rabbit that is grooming his own fur until it is thinning could be shedding, but he could also have mites, fleas, or be suffering from skin allergies or internal pain. Once again, see your vet if you’re unsure.
How to Stop Negative Licking
If you’re dealing with habitual or obsessive licking, changing the habit will take patience and consistency. The first step is to directly address whatever you have determined to be the root cause of the behavior.
If it’s boredom, try getting your rabbit out of his cage more often, interacting more with him, and providing additional enrichment, like toys and tunnels. If it’s anxiety, remove anything that is stressing or frightening your rabbit and work to build his trust.
If the licking seems to be a habit held over from a former home, these same activities can help distract your bunny from the habit. Let your rabbit out of its cage as often as possible and work on strengthening your relationship and introducing it to more entertaining and productive activities.
You’ve noticed your rabbit’s penchant for licking his cage, which could mean he’s doing a bit more than usual. Pay attention the next time he’s at it and you may be able to figure out what he’s after.
A casual lick or two is probably due to the first reason we mentioned—he’s just checking it out and possibly tasting the leftover molecules of some scent or another. Some rabbits are just more “licky” than others.
Licking that seems to be stereotypic or a habit leftover from a former situation may need to be given a bit more attention. While it’s not usually a problem in itself, it may indicate physical or psychological stresses which should be dealt with for your rabbit’s continued health and wellbeing.