Few things are more characteristic of rabbit behavior than their noses twitching away. On the one hand, it’s adorable, and not just because it makes them look as if they’re ready to cast a spell on Bewitched. Rabbits can seem to be little furry balls of activity and that nose twitching is no exception.
On the other hand, however, the question remains: what is that activity all about, particularly in the case of nose twitching? Like rabbits, our noses provide us with an invaluable sense of smell but they are nowhere near as acute as or constantly twitching the way that rabbits’ noses are.
The truth is that there isn’t just one reason why rabbits may be twitching their noses at any given moment but several, each of which can say something important about what your rabbit is doing and how they are feeling.
1. Sense of Smell
First and most obviously, a rabbit’s nose may be twitching simply because they are using it to smell something. As mentioned, rabbits’ noses are far more sensitive than ours. While the human nose has between five or six million scent receptors, rabbits can have as many as a hundred million scent receptors, meaning that their sense of smell can be as much as twenty times stronger than ours.
That has a whole range of implications, not the least of which being that rabbits experience the world in a much different way than us given their greater sensory acuity in this regard. Just as it can be hard to imagine seeing only in black and white the way some animals do while we enjoy, perceive, and indeed have so much of our lives shaped by our ability to see in color, it can be hard to appreciate the nuances and impact that their heightened sense of smell has on rabbits’ lives.
In addition, rabbits have what is known as a Jacobson’s organ, which further enhances their ability to detect different scents. A rabbit twitching its nose, therefore, may simply be smelling something that you can’t.
2. Survival Technique
In the wild, rabbits have to be on constant lookout for danger and their keen sense of smell is one of their best defenses against winding up as someone else’s meal, providing them with sensory warnings of possible approaching predators. In this context, they can sometimes twitch their noses in order to open their nasal passages further, which in turn allows more air to more directly hit their olfactory passages, making their sense of smell that much keener. This can also stimulate the mucous membranes inside their nose, which in turn creates more moisture and makes it easier for rabbits to smell things given that scents can be even stronger when they are received in moist rather than dry air.
Rabbits learn to depend on their sense of smell for survival from the second they are born, when they are blind and deaf and thus need to smell their way around right away. Before their sight and hearing develop, their sense of smell is what allows them to find their mother and suckle her teat. Just as babies recognize their mother by her scent, she does the same with them.
Toxic plants in the wild also give off scents which, at least for rabbits, are relatively strong warning signs. As such, their sense of smell prevents them from eating these plants and getting sick. Rabbits are also highly territorial creatures and so can smell around constantly to see if they are in their own or another rabbit’s territory, nose twitching all the while.
3. A Nasal Thermometer
In addition to everything mentioned above, rabbits also use their noses to detect and respond to temperature. Their noses can twitch if they are too hot or stressed. In the former case, rabbits tend to need to seek out shade to cool and calm themselves down. If you have a pet rabbit, providing them with a cool dark place in which to take refuge can help put them at ease. You may also want to provide them with some water.
4. Contentment and Communication
That said, rabbits can also twitch their noses as a sign that they are content and relaxed. How can you tell the difference between relaxed and stressed twitching? The speed of the nose twitching can be a strong indication. Rabbits can twitch their nose as fast as 120 times per minute, while at other times they can slow down to just 20 times per minute or even stop altogether.
The faster a rabbit twitches their nose, the more likely they are that they are sensing or signaling danger. This is due to their aforementioned strong sense of smell and the fact that other rabbits can typically recognize fast nose twitching in another rabbit as a sign that they may be sensing danger. On the flip side, a rabbit’s nose can also twitch quickly if it is curious about something, such as food or a mate.
As such, a rabbit’s nose-twitching speed can be used to measure how worried or excited it is about its surroundings, with faster nose twitching indicating heightened concern or interest and slower nose twitching generally meaning calm.
Sometimes, rabbits will stop twitching their noses altogether. For example, some rabbits twitch their noses while they sleep but others may not. If a rabbit is confused by something, it may pause to try to sort out the confusion and that means stopping their nose twitching as well. In some cases, a sudden sign of danger can actually shock a rabbit so much that they temporarily stop twitching their nose, the same way that we may sometimes freeze with fear when confronted with an unexpected instance of terror.
If you feed your rabbits new food, their noses may twitch faster as they become accustomed to and start to sniff it. The same holds true when they meet new rabbits and other creatures, including people. As with dogs, you typically want to let rabbits smell your hand so they can become accustomed to your scent. This can be essential for allowing your rabbit to bond with you. They need to know that this big, strange, larger creature in front of them isn’t a threat and one of the best tools they have for detecting and remembering impending threats is their sense of smell. This makes petting your rabbit and allowing them to smell your hand over and over again especially important for the bonding process between owner and pet.
Likewise, if you have company over or introduce a new rabbit to your old rabbit’s living quarters, you will want to do so gradually and while letting your rabbit smell them. Introducing them too suddenly could cause your rabbit to lash out or simply curl up in the corner into a furry little ball of stress. Instead, simply let your rabbit become accustomed to the new scent, their nose twitching all the while.
There are many reasons why a rabbit’s nose may twitch, most of which have to do with the hugely important role their sense of smell plays in their life. Identifying the reason behind a given nose twitch can thus give you key insight into how your rabbit is feeling.