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Understanding Dominance In Rabbits

When you understand the definition of dominance, you can better understand dominant behavior in rabbits.

By Dr. Anne McBride
Posted: September 29, 2010, 10:30 p.m. EDT

©Cioli & Hunnicutt/BowTie Studio
Whether a rabbit is dominant or subordinate could vary depending on the other animals it interacts with.

Excerpt from the annual magazinne 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>>

Dominance is often used to explain aggressive behavior. People frequently describe a dog or rabbit as a dominant individual, suggesting that dominance is an integral part of its personality. This basic misunderstanding can increase a rabbit’s aggression if the owner believes they need to show their pet who is the boss.

Dominance is not a personality trait. Rabbits, people and dogs are not born dominant, though they may have characteristics that enable them to acquire a high ranking or dominant status in their social group.

Dominance is a description of the relationship between two animals, one with higher ranking, the dominant animal, and one with lower ranking, the subordinate. For example, I consider myself to be dominant over my dog, rabbit and goddaughter. I also consider myself to be subordinate to my mother and my boss at work. Does this mean I am a dominant or a subordinate animal? Actually I am both, depending on the relationship under discussion.

A rabbit or other animals are not born with status but acquire it when others in the group recognize that animal’s greater qualities and give way to it. Dominance status is given by others, so relationships can change depending on an animal’s physical and mental health, and the environment in which it finds itself. 

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Being the dominant animal in any relationship has benefits, but is not necessarily a permanent position. Dominance status grants priority access to the good things in life, namely resources, such as food, a mate and the best places to live. 

The definition of a dominant rabbit or other animal is the one that can consistently gain access to a resource, without having to fight, when competing with an individual. The subordinate individual in the relationship is the animal that consistently allows the other animal access to the resource, without fighting.

The whole point about dominant and subordinate relationships (known as hierarchy) is to reduce aggression within the group.

Like this article? Check out:
Rabbit Decision-Making, 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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Reader Comments
Help!!! I have a 3 year old Rex female rabbit that is not very friendly and seems frightended most of the time. It takes a lot of effort for me to get to hold her. We let her roam free in our home and she spends most of the time under one of our boys beds. We just got a new giant flemish girl and our other rabbit is now extremely aggressive and biting and growling. She even attacked the new flemish. Any help in making our Rex more comfortable and loving would be greatly appreciated
Mary, Chicago, IL
Posted: 1/6/2013 9:46:43 PM
I recently introduce a 4-month-old Flemish Giant female to a group. The group consists of a 6-year-old male and 4 month-old-female mixed breeds. The Flemish Giant, even at 4 months, is about 3 times larger than the male, who used to be dominant. She will not allow him to mount her, and makes it absolutely clear that she will not tolerate any physical intimidation. Nevertheless, both of the other rabbits present their heads to her for grooming...and receive it!...without grooming her in return. Very confusing.
Steve, Los Angeles, CA
Posted: 10/12/2012 7:04:23 AM
Four of my bunnies are a group. The one bunny is the boss & the other ones always give way to her. Thank you for your help.
Tanya, McAlisterville, PA
Posted: 1/23/2012 8:34:11 AM
I'm sure glad my rabbit isn't dominant! he is the outgoing type. very social, and loves to make friends!
Aiyanna, Eugene, OR
Posted: 9/29/2010 7:44:22 PM
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