The term stress is usually used to describe a situation in which environmental conditions are having
an adverse effect on an individual. Stress is a state, the environmental factors that lead to stress are
stressors and the individuals under stress show stress responses.
There are many factors that influence the response of an individual to stress; these include previous
experience and/or familiarity of the stressor, genetic predisposition and individual vulnerability.
Stressful situations are usually associated with a lack of control and can be particularly severe if the
individual is unable to predict events. The most stressful situations are often those that would be
most diligently avoided in the wild.
Stressors can be categorised as emotional or physical.
Examples of stressors that may affect rabbits:
• Novelty – examples include the first trip in a car, the first visit to a show, handling by a
• Fear inducing stimuli – examples include sudden noises, other animals or poor handling.
• Social stress – examples include a lack of social contact or interactions with many individuals
in a limited space.
• Inability to perform normal behaviour patterns – examples include a lack of social contact,
exercise or an inability to retreat from a stressor.
• Pain, discomfort or illness
• Anticipation of pain or discomfort – examples include poor or excessive handling.
• Inability to control environmental factors – examples includes poor ventilation, temperatures
at shows, travelling in a car on a hot day, and poorly lit shed.
• Lack of space – examples include hutches and show pens.
• Withdrawal of food or water.
Behaviour pattern occurring in response to various stressors:
• Fear related behaviour – As a prey species, rabbits are likely to freeze when a fear-inducing
stimulus is encountered. This may be associated with a decrease in heart rate and an increase
in rapid breathing. If they have space, rabbits will also try to hide or flee from the stressor. If
there appears little option they will use aggression. Occasionally displacement activities are
used to deal with stress – for example chewing of novel items.
• Anxiety related behaviour – anxiety lasts longer than fear and is usually associated with
anticipation of an event or interaction. Behavioural signs include jumpiness, frequent urination
• Behaviour pattern due to frustration – barren environments are associated with abnormal
behaviour patterns such as excessive destruction, over-grooming and self directed aggression.
• Behaviour patterns due to position in social order – where rabbits are living in groups but have
limited space and reduced access to food and water certain animals may become the target of
aggression from other individuals.
• Separation behaviour – female rabbits and youngsters may display an increase in apathy and a
decrease in social behaviours associated with the suddenness of weaning.
• Apathy of depressed behaviour – rabbits in barren environments with no social contact can
appear relatively unresponsive or lethargic.