Rabbit communication can be bafflingly subtle at times. Is your rabbit happily relaxed or deeply depressed? Does he like the way you pet him or is he wishing you’d just stay away? These are questions plenty of rabbit owners find themselves asking.
So, why does my rabbit go flat when I pet him? Usually this means your rabbit is thoroughly enjoying the petting and wants you to continue. It can also be an indication that your rabbit is frightened, submissive, or considers himself the dominant one in your relationship.
This article will give you a few tips for deciphering whether your rabbit is comfortable and enjoying your petting or not. We’ll also cover the way this behavior plays into rabbit society and how to deal with a rabbit that is being too dominant.
Your Rabbit is Comfortable and Relaxed
In their natural environment, rabbits are prey animals that must be ready to flee at any moment. You can often tell how relaxed your rabbit is by how long it would take him to jump up and run. A rabbit that has flattened itself on the ground to be pet, is a comfortable, relaxed rabbit.
Please Keep Petting
Rabbits may indicate that they want to be pet by lowering their head. If you are already petting your bunny when he does this, he is letting you know that he enjoys it and wants you to keep going. A rabbit that is enjoying being pet may also squint or close its eyes and make soft “purring” sounds by clicking its teeth together.
Stages of the Bunny Pancake
Some rabbit lovers have labeled a bunny’s comfortable flattening of itself the “bunny pancake.” A sleepy rabbit may relax or doze in a somewhat upright position, with all four feet gathered under it. An even more relaxed bunny may flop on his side or back, with his front feet stretched out in front of him and his back feet kicked out behind or to the side.
He may even lower his chin all the way to the ground, flattening himself into a complete pancake. A bunny flopped out on the ground like this may look uncomfortable or even sad, but in reality, he’s completely relaxed and happy. If your bunny does this while you are petting him, he trusts you and is enjoying the interaction.
If you’re still not sure that your bunny is going flat because he’s enjoying the petting, look for other indications. When you stop petting him, does he immediately hop away, or does he wait a moment to see if you’ll continue?
Some rabbits will even nudge your hand, urging you to start petting them again. The nudge can be a tricky indicator, however. If your rabbit does it while you are petting, he may be pushing you away and saying he’s had enough. If he does it when you stop, he’s likely telling you to keep it up.
A bunny that approaches you and nudges your hand, leg, or foot is either telling you to move or trying to get your attention. If you reach down and he lowers his head or goes flat, you’ve guessed correctly that he wants to be pet.
Do Rabbits Ever Go Flat Because They’re Upset?
Bunnies can be a bit picky about exactly how they want to be pet. The places they most enjoy being pet are their heads, faces, and backs. Some bunnies like to have their cheeks stroked. Others enjoy a gentle ear massage. Most do not appreciate being pet on their sides or bellies.
If your rabbit turns into a bunny pancake when you pet him, you’re probably doing it right. However, emotional cues can be subtle with rabbits, so it’s always best to double check.
Is My Rabbit Scared?
Rabbits are easily frightened, and flattening can be a sign that they are anxious. A scared rabbit may flatten itself on the ground and freeze if it feels trapped or exposed. This is its way of trying to hide or draw as little attention to itself as possible.
So how can you tell if your rabbit is relaxed or frightened in this position? A frightened rabbit will be tense and will keep both eyes wide open. Also take context into consideration. Is your rabbit usually comfortable with you petting him? Is there any reason why he may be startled or feeling trapped?
You can also look for other fear behaviors, like thumping, alert ears, and growling sounds or aggression.
If your rabbit continues to be frightened when you pet him, you may need to build up to it more gradually. Spend a lot of time just sitting with your rabbit and let him approach you rather than reaching for him.
Try petting him when he is out and can move away from you rather than reaching into the cage if this seems to make him anxious.
Does My Rabbit Dislike Being Pet?
Most rabbits who prefer not to be pet will be pretty clear about it. They may push your hand away or hop away to sit by themselves. Unless it is frightened or very insecure (such as with a new or baby bunny), a rabbit that flattens when you pet it is enjoying the sensation.
Almost all rabbits do dislike being picked up. A rabbit that flattens when you start to pick him up may be anxious about it. This initial response is usually followed by the rabbit trying to jump away from you, so be sure you have a firm, though gentle, grip and are fully supporting your rabbit’s body before lifting him.
Grooming and Rabbit Society
Grooming is an important ritual in rabbit society. In one group of rabbits, there is generally a single dominant rabbit, usually a female. A dominant rabbit may lower its head against the ground when approaching another rabbit. While this may look like a submissive gesture, the opposite is actually true.
The dominant rabbit is asking to be groomed, and if the subordinate rabbit does not comply, the dominant rabbit may be offended.
Who’s the Boss Here?
If your rabbit approaches you this way and flattens itself to be pet, it’s possible that it considers itself to be dominant in your relationship, especially if the rabbit is a female. If it is not showing any other dominant behaviors, there’s no need to worry too much about it. However, it is possible that your rabbit will be offended if you don’t comply with its request for grooming.
An offended rabbit may hop away from you with a flourish of heels and turn its side or back. It may also lunge or grunt at you if you reach for it too soon after giving offense.
Dealing with Too Much Dominance
A rabbit that has dominance issues may behave aggressively if you don’t give him what he wants. Besides demanding petting, he may also mount your leg, mark territory, and try to chase you or other family members and pets.
After you have made sure your rabbit is not suffering from any pain or health issues that may be making him grumpy, the first step you should take in dealing with an aggressively dominant rabbit is to have it neutered or spayed. While this won’t immediately stop the aggressive behavior, it should disappear over time.
Try to keep spending time with and petting your rabbit in non-threatening situations. Hold him gently in your lap or sit next to him while he’s in his cage or enclosure.
Flattening as a Submissive Gesture
As further proof that rabbit behavior can be tricky to read, some experts argue that a rabbit flattening itself before you or another rabbit is actually a submissive behavior. This makes sense, as dominant rabbits may jump on top of subordinate rabbits to show their dominance. Context is key in determining what this behavior means for your individual rabbit.
A submissive or bonded rabbit may try to groom you in return by licking your hand or sleeve. You should take this as quite a compliment as it shows that your rabbit trusts you and enjoys your company.
Context is everything when it comes to figuring out exactly why your rabbit is behaving as he is. If you’ve determined that he is flattening when you pet him because he is completely comfortable and enjoys it, way to go! Keep on doing what you’ve been doing.
Similarly, a rabbit that is flattening because he is submissive or slightly anxious will usually outgrow this behavior as he becomes comfortable with you. Continuing to be gently consistent will build his trust and strengthen your bond.
If you’ve realized your rabbit may be displaying this behavior because he’s really, truly frightened, on the other hand, try stepping back from your interactions and attempt to see them from the bunny’s point of view. Then try again, altering your behavior or the situation to keep him from feeling trapped or overwhelmed.