Wild European rabbits live in groups, have complicated social lives and use a range of communication methods, with thumping the back feet being one of the most obvious. Pet rabbits are descendants of this species, similar to how dogs are descendants of wolves. Rabbit domestication is more recent, though, so these animals have not had much time to adapt to communicate with humans. Instead, they are adapted for their ancestral lives, which involved a great deal of drama.
Predator and Prey
Wild rabbits form the favored lunch of a host of mammalian, avian and even reptilian carnivores. Foxes, stoats, birds of prey, wolves, cats and certain snakes all lurk around to snatch rabbits in the wild. Rabbits are very much prey animals, and as social prey animals, they have developed ways to warn each other of threats. Thumping the back feet makes a distinctive noise and even more distinctive vibrations, giving the entire rabbit community time to run below ground when one individual spies a potential predator.
A Sign of Alarm
If your rabbit thumps his feet, it’s usually because he’s been alarmed, but not necessarily to a high degree. True terror is indicated by screaming. Thumping means that he’s warning you or any other rabbits you have of potential dangers. Some rabbits, though, use the signal for other purposes. It generally indicates fear, but it also sometimes means little more than annoyance. A quick, light thump followed by the rabbit grooming himself is a token effort. Several thumps or one hard thump followed by the rabbit trying to hide indicate he’s been really scared. If a normally placid rabbit suddenly starts doing panicked thumps out of the blue, treat it as you would a dog barking in alarm -- there could genuinely be something wrong, such as a fire.
What to Do
If your rabbit thumps occasionally at loud noises outside or somebody screaming on a particularly lurid TV program, there’s nothing to worry about. It might be an idea to pet him gently and speak in a quiet, reassuring voice. If the thumping is associated with something you do, rethink how you handle your pet. For example, rabbits hate being picked up. Many tolerate it, especially if they know it will be followed by a treat, but it isn’t something they enjoy. If your rabbit thumps every time you set him down, it’s because he’s been frightened.
Handling a Thumper
If your rabbit becomes frightened when you handle him, take your time. Pick him up regularly, perhaps two to three times a week, to get him used to the experience, but don’t overdo it. At some point you may need to give him medication, not to mention cut his nails, so he has to become accustomed to being lifted. Keep each time short and quiet, and followed by his favorite treat. Do not pick him up to cuddle or let children do this – rabbits prefer being petted on their own level.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.