Rabbits are not unlike cats and dogs in their need to have a safe, clean environment stocked with appropriate toys, hiding places and high-quality food. Without these basic needs met, rabbits can easily become stressed, scared or panicked. The fear response in rabbits is not simply an emotional state; it extends to the physical.
A Little About Rabbits
While rabbits possess scent glands in the groin, cheek and chin areas, the scents the glands produce are for mating purposes, not discernible to the human nose. While their urine can elicit a strong ammonia smell, healthy rabbits are generally thought to have no pungent body odors. But fear can trigger physiological responses that influence behavior and subsequent odor.
The Fear Response
When a rabbit is fearful, chemicals such as adrenaline and epinephrine are released from the brain to elicit a “fight or flight" response. Blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate increase in preparation for battling or avoiding the danger. In addition, other neurotransmitters are released that cause gastrointestinal stasis, or a slowdown in the digestive tract. While this may be beneficial in the short term, as all energy is devoted to overcoming the danger, in the long term it can create quite a stinky and unhealthy problem.
What You're Smelling
When fear takes over, the rabbit's other biological processes go out the window. An upset gastrointestinal tract can lead to increased bacterial growth in the gut and stinky diarrhea, especially if fear persists. Meanwhile, a scared rabbit will not put much effort into hygiene and grooming, something he would otherwise be meticulous about. A combination of these factors makes for a smelly and serious situation.
Keeping Your Rabbit Healthy and Calm
Rabbits are low on the food chain -- prey to many larger critters. While domesticated rabbits don't generally encounter the same threats, they respond similarly when on high alert. This natural response is beneficial in short bursts when needed, but a rabbit in a constant state of fear is quite unhealthy. A veterinarian can help determine your rabbit's stress level and provide information on maintaining a healthy and safe environment.
Working with both small animals and exotics, Pamela Meadors has devoted more than 15 years to the veterinary field. She possesses a bachelor's degree in biological sciences and is the proud mom of a blind hedgehog.