Flights of Fancy

This was an exciting week in the life of Duke, a little black and white rex with a big dog name. He was introduced to stairs. He also became part of a long-time hypothesis I’ve been working on concerning rabbits and stair steps. After living nearly 20 years with house rabbits in two-story homes, my theory is that rabbits don’t generally go down stairs they haven’t been up first.

First of all I have to share my observation that rabbits like climbing things, because for ground-dwelling animals they certainly have a knack for getting on top of stuff, be it coffee tables, beds, or dining room tables that lead to tall bookshelves. Whether they jump to get to the next level or stair-step their way from box to chair to desktop, bunnies seem to love to go up. But put a rabbit on a tall table for the first time and see how long it takes bunny to decide it’s okay to hop down.

I come to this theory because of the number of times the staircase in our home has been a natural barrier to the rabbits. We’ve lived in California houses with the primary residence usually on the second floor. For years I didn’t have to put up a baby-gate to keep my six bunnies from going downstairs because they’d come to the edge of the top step then scuffle backwards, as if afraid of falling off. This worked great when I wanted to confine the babies to the top floor. When I decided to expand the running space to include the downstairs, each bunny was carried to the base of the stairs. In no time they figured out how to go up the stairs to the second floor. After that they mastered going downstairs to play (which meant I then needed a baby gate to contain the little dudes when I didn’t want them to go down).

Over the years I’ve witnessed this occurrence with some ten bunnies. (The exception was Bugsy, who was around four years old when adopted so may have already encountered stairs in his life. Or maybe he was just one of those intrepid exceptions.) Many other people I’ve talked to have confirmed this general observation, that the first time, if there’s more than one or two steps, bunnies don’t know how to go down. Once they learn the downstairs trick though, they seem able to transcend other steps and staircases.

The one place this doesn’t seem to hold up is if you first put a bunny on the second floor of a two-story cage with a ramp. Bunnies seem to figure out how to go down. It could be ramps are easier for bunnies to maneuver than steps or maybe it has to do with being able to see the bottom floor in order to make the leap of faith down to the first floor.

So along comes Duke. To test my theory I set him in the middle of the staircase. He sniffed the stair above him and the stair under his feet. Next thing I knew he was carefully picking his way up the stairs. When he got to the top stair, he sat, not knowing what to do next. After about five minutes of looking lost on the top stair, he carefully stepped down, first one stair, then the next. The next day I again set him in the middle of the stairs, and this time he gleefully hopped down then up the stairs, as if proud of the new skill he’d conquered.

Beth Woolbright

House Rabbit Journal Fall 2005/Winter 2006: Volume IV, Number 12