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Kingdoms Large and Small

by Marinell Harriman

He bit me!" The voice on the phone complained. I was just standing in the doorway, when he came over and bit my ankle."

Did he growl as he attacked you?" I asked.

"It wasn't really an attack," the caller said. He nipped my ankle then ran out the door."

Once again, it became apparent how little is generally known about rabbits' social behavior. Not much has been learned from rabbits in solitary backyard hutches. Our free-running house rabbits, on the other hand, have much in common with the wild rabbits studied by R.M. Lockley in his Private Life of the Rabbit (reviewed in last month's HRJ).

In operating rabbit foster homes, which house 15-20 rabbits at a time, we watch with fascination as rabbits develop their social patterns.


Just as "born leaders" exist in the human world, so it is with rabbits. It's not their size or breed that sets them apart, but rather confidence and a psychological advantage. The other rabbits recognize them. Some are kindly rulers, bestowing generous shows of affection on their subjects, while others are little tyrants. Sometimes a chief rabbit will chase his subjects into corners (in what looks like a simple exercise in discipline), where they must sit until he allows them to ease out of their corners and sit nearby. Usually a single female emerges as his favorite, and even a despot will be polite for his "queen."


A queen rabbit expects the best of everything. She gets first choice at the treats while the other rabbits wait until she has made her selection. They defer to her and move aside when she wants to pass. If they don't she will nip them as a reminder.

Queens sometimes treat their human "subjects" in the same way. If your rabbit reminds you to get out of her path, it's advisable to step aside. Chances are you have a queen.

Hopefully, you have only one queen. Two females can be housed together if one is dominant and one is subordinate, or both are subordinate, but never if both are dominant.


A king will seldom tolerate the presence of another male in his "palace," unless the subordinate male never challenges his authority. The subordinate male in this case is often rather pitiful and appears to have low self-esteem. A subordinate male can make an excellent pet, but his ego may need some additional bolstering.

Understanding the rabbit hierarchical system may help you to understand your king rabbit's behavior in the "palace" that you share. He obviously can't chase you into a corner to control you, but he can find other ways of exerting his authority. It's natural for king and queen rabbits to have affection lavished on them by their subjects. The treats and petting you give them are expected. They come with the territory.

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