Why do rabbits lick things around their hutch and home?
Bunnies lick things to find out how they taste, practice social grooming behavior, and as an outlet for boredom.
Most licking behaviors are harmless, but it’s important to be able to recognize when they are abnormal.
And how to organize their environment to prevent abnormal licking behaviors developing.
Why Do Rabbits Lick Things?
Licking things can serve all kinds of purposes for rabbits.
- A way of exploring their environment
- Displaced social grooming behavior
- An outlet for boredom or anxiety
Why Do Bunnies Lick?
First of all, lots of rabbit owners report that their pets have a special fascination with licking unlikely things as they explore.
For example carpets, rugs, the legs of furniture, blankets and scatter cushions.
This serves as an effective way of exploring their environment, and collecting information about it.
How the world tastes to a rabbit
Rabbit’s tongues are organized differently to our own.
Taste buds can be arranged in three different structures: fungiform (mushroom-shaped), circumvallate (domed), and foliate (leaf-shaped).
Rabbits have a larger proportion of foliate taste bud regions on their tongues than us. These look like vertical ridges along the sides of the tongue.
Unfortunately, we can’t ask them about how this changes their sense of taste!
However, it does seem from observations of rabbit licking behavior that their sense of taste is an important way of gathering information.
For example, about what’s safe to eat, and what’s inedible, or toxic.
Rabbits can’t vomit, so it’s vital they can assess whether something is safe to eat before they try it.
So if you catch your bunny licking your baseboards, your sofa or your sweater, the chances are they’re just gathering information about it’s texture and taste.
Why Do Rabbits Lick Things – The Role of Social Grooming
Another reason why rabbits lick things is to mimic the action of social grooming.
Social grooming – also called allogrooming – is when bunnies clean each other’s coat by licking and nibbling them to lift off dirt and debris.
In the wild rabbits live in groups of up to 30 bunnies, and social grooming establishes and maintains a hierarchy within the group.
It’s also a way of showing affection between individuals.
Pet rabbits kept in pairs or groups are also likely to groom each other.
But rabbits kept alone might transfer their grooming instincts onto scatter cushions, blankets, plush toys, or even people instead.
Why Do Rabbits Lick Things When They’re Bored?
The final reason rabbits might lick unusual things is to alleviate boredom.
If their habitat is too small, or empty of physical and mental diversions, they become limited in how much of their natural behavior repertoire they can practise.
So they resort to repeating the ones they can do in surprising or unusual ways. Such as licking the walls or bars of their hutch.
Rabbits in boring or unsuitable habitats also show increased self-licking.
And whilst licking can be part of normal behavior, if it becomes “excessive, exceedingly intense, and performed without context or purpose”, then it is said to be compulsive.
In other words, the rabbit has formed an unhealthy relationship with it that they can’t properly control.
This is bad for their mental welfare by itself. But it can cause physical damage as well, such as damage to their tongue, or poisoning by licking things indiscriminately and ingesting something toxic.
If they start licking themselves obsessively, it can cause damage to the skin and lesions too.
How To Prevent Abnormal Licking Behavior In Rabbits
Nobody wants their pet bunny to develop abnormal behaviors which suggest their emotional welfare is suffering.
Most of us would rather they didn’t slobber over our furniture either.
Here are some ways to give healthy and appropriate outlet for your rabbit’s love of licking:
Give them company
Rabbits are very social animals.
They need the company of another rabbit, or contact with their human family several times a day.
Rabbit without any fellow rabbit companions might appreciate having some bunny-safe plush toys to lick and groom instead.
Look for purpose made toys in pet stores which are designed to withstand a bit of chewing, and don’t have plastic features like eyes which can break off and choke them.
You can raid the dog and cat aisles for suitable choices as well!
Fill their hutch with fun
Give your bunny several types of toys, a variety of foods to eat, and interact with them every day to provide mental and physical stimulation.
This will prevent them resorting to abnormal or compulsive behaviors.
Toys can include sticks to chew on, treat dispensing toys, balls, and toys with bells that make a noise.
The benefits of these things don’t stop at reduced licking either. Rabbits with enriched cages are also less likely to display aggressive behaviors.
Let them out to explore
Rabbits who are allowed free roam of the house for some time every day are less likely to display abnormal behaviors.
It’s a fun way to feel like they’re really part of the family and bond with them too!
Make sure safety hazards like electrical cords are securely out of reach.
If you can’t supervise them, think about creating a bunny-safe area using a playpen, or baby gates at the threshold of out-of-bounds rooms.
To keep your house clean, set up a litter box in one corner for them to use – rabbits take very well to house training!
Why Do Rabbits Lick Things – Summary
Rabbits lick things out of curiosity, to fulfil an instinctive social behavior, and to alleviate boredom.
Intense, compulsive licking is an abnormal behavior which indicates a shortfall in their welfare somewhere.
Does your rabbit love to lick?
What’s their target of choice?
Tell us about them in the comments box down below!
References and Further Reading
Hansen & Berthelsen. The effect of environmental enrichment on the behaviour of caged rabbits. Applied Animal Behavior Science. 2000.
Magnus. Behaviour of the pet rabbit: what is normal and why do problems develop? In Practice. 2005.
Normando & Gelli. Behavioral complaints and owners’ satisfaction in rabbits, mustelids, and rodents kept as pets. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2011.
Princz et al. Application of gnawing sticks in rabbit housing. World Rabbit Science. 2007.
Srivastava. Stress Induced Acral Lick Dermatitis in a Domestic Rabbit: A Case Report. Case Reports in Veterinary Medicine. 2014.