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Rabbit Decision-Making

Look into a rabbit's mind to see how rabbits decide rank and how this affects interactions.

By Dr. Anne McBride
Posted: August 13, 2012, 9:40 p.m. EDT

two rabbits sit beside each other
Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio
Rabbits assess based on characteristics, including size, strength, fitness and confidence.

Excerpt from the annual magazine Rabbits USA, 2008 issue, with permission from its publisher, Fancy Publications, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase the current Rabbits USA annual, click here>>

The qualities that decide status are known technically as an animal’s resource holding potential (RHP). Characteristics that increase RHP include size, strength, fitness and confidence. Individuals assess each other’s RHP through ritual signaling, which reduces the need to fight. 

For example, the rabbit’s tail-flagging, stiff-legged strut shows off its size and strong muscles, and parallel running displays its speed. Rabbits also assess each other through play, such as with chasing or boxing games. 

Rabbits resort to fighting only if signaling tactics fail to make the discrepancy between them clear. Such assessments are made in a variety of situations and throughout the animal’s life. An animal’s RHP may reduce in later life, through aging, illness, injury or if something happens to reduce its confidence.

This formula fails to explain why a rabbit gives way on certain things but not others. For example, why would a rabbit attack when pellets are put in its bowl but not when hay is placed in its rack? How does this fit with RHP? 

Actually, RHP deals with more than just resources; it also deals with value and cost. For every animal each resource has a value (V), which is variable. The value depends on the scarcity of the resource and how much the animal wants or needs it at any particular time. When a resource has a higher value to an animal, the animal expends more energy or exposes itself to greater risk, by showing aggression, to gain or keep that resource. Whatever the animal is prepared to spend becomes the cost (C).

Buy the current Rabbits USA

Game Theory
RHP allows group members to assess their chances of winning a resource, while minimizing any risk to themselves. Signaling, play and mock fights convey information about each other’s ability to win a resource should a fight develop. If an animal concludes it is unlikely to win a resource, it withdraws/submits, thereby avoiding the need for a fight. 

However, the value of the resource may mean an animal is prepared to risk more cost to get it. Thus simple differences in RHP are not always going to decide the outcome of any individual competition. Then what happens? It’s time for a comparison. 

A process known as “game theory” uses an equation to predict the outcome of any encounter. Human strategists use this tool when assessing the likely outcome of decisions, such as imposing economic sanctions on other countries, or even when contemplating war. The equation is:

RHP (of individual 1) + Value (to individual 1)
       divided by Cost(to individual 1)  

Compared To  

RHP (of individual 2) + Value (to individual 2)
         divided by Cost(to individual 2)  

This math is all well and good, but perhaps not very helpful in explaining our day-to-day interactions with our rabbit. But, look again. 

A rabbit values its food pellets far more than its hay. As a consequence, it is prepared to take more risk to get them. So even though you are bigger and stronger (have greater RHP), the rabbit is prepared to “roll up its sleeves” and challenge you, by showing aggression for this valued resource.

Does it have to be this way? No. If we understand our rabbit and how hierarchies work, we can set up a relationship that results in peaceful interactions. 

Undeniable Instincts
In the wild, rabbits live in groups of two to eight individuals, and several groups may live in close proximity in a warren. Risks associated with group living include the possibility of disease and being more obvious to predators. But, where resources are patchy and unevenly distributed in the environment, animals need to congregate around them. For rabbits, one such resource is easily dug soil. In hard to dig areas, such as on chalk downland, rabbits live in larger groups. Where many places exist that are suitable for digging a burrow, the preferred group size is two — a mated pair.

Larger groups tend to have more females than males. A strict linear hierarchy exists among males, with male A being dominant over B, and B dominant over C. Among females, they live peacefully together with a single dominant female — at least out of the breeding season. 

For both sexes, the breeding season is a time of re-establishing positions and re-assessing the RHP of others. When resources are scarce and thus valuable, greater risks are taken, and fierce and bloody fighting can ensue.

Like this article? Check out:
Understanding Dominance In Rabbits, click here>> 
How To Establish Boundaries To Improve Rabbit Behavior, click here>>

Anne McBride BSc., Ph.D., Cert.Cons., FRSA, has been a practicing pet behaviorist since 1986 and a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (UK) since 1990.

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