One of the most important things to remember about animals is that they experience the world differently from us. That’s part of what makes studying or living with animals such a unique and potentially rewarding experience, but it can also make you wonder about how different their experiences really are.
Case in point, the way in which some pets tend to lick things everywhere. Lizards, dogs, cats and, yes, rabbits have a habit of licking things all around the space in which they live, to say nothing of how much they can lick when you take them out for walks or outdoor playtime.
So what does it mean when your rabbit licks something, why do they do it, and what, if anything, should you do about it?
Licking as Grooming
You might think that rabbits, with their propensity to pee and poop everywhere, might not care about cleanliness, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite is true – rabbits try to be very clean, and that includes them trying to wash up by licking themselves.
This is not unlike how a cat grooms itself. Just as cats like to lick themselves to remain clean, so too do rabbits do the same.
Rabbits will lick themselves for grooming purposes several times a day.
In addition, rabbits can lick other rabbits as part of social protocol. Rabbits are highly social animals, and one of their favorite social activities is grooming other rabbits by, yes, licking them.
In this context, not only is licking as grooming something that rabbits do to keep clean, but a social activity as well. Along with licking their partner, rabbits can also nuzzle and gently nibble at their body in the process.
Rabbits can only lick so much of their body, which is why they will sometimes lick their paw and then use that to clean hard to reach places.
In keeping with the social nature of grooming for rabbits, they may also seek out fellow rabbits with whom they are familiar to lick them as well. This provides them with an opportunity to clean themselves as well as to socialize and bond with other rabbits.
Human beings have spa days, and rabbits have grooming sessions.
Rabbits allowing others to lick them is thus not just a means of relaxation and grooming, but a huge vote of confidence. When a rabbit lets another rabbit lick them, it’s a sign of trust, and a sign that they have a very strong bond.
Just as we go to the salon regularly to have our hair done, rabbits engage in these grooming sessions with one another on a regular basis. It is also important for rabbits in terms of establishing a social hierarchy.
Licking Other Rabbits’ Eyes
Part of that social hierarchy, strange as it may seem, comes in the form of licking one another in certain places to show dominance or submissiveness. In this context, submissive rabbits will lay their head down on the ground before the dominant rabbit, who will then lick their eyes.
In turn, the rabbit who is dominant will receive more grooming offers from submissive rabbits in their warren.
Licking its Lips
In addition to licking others for grooming purposes and licking eyes to establish dominance in a social hierarchy, rabbits also sometimes lick their lips. They love to eat, and want to make sure they get every last bit of food from a meal.
Rabbits can also lick their lips as part of their grooming routine.
On the other hand, if your rabbit is licking its lips too much, it may be due to an oral or dental issue. If your rabbit is licking its lips excessively, take it to the vet.
While some licking is fine and part of a rabbit’s nature, excessive licking can be a sign of health problems such as a fungal infection, wound, or parasite. If your rabbit is excessively licking one particular part of its body, you may want to check and see if it has any cuts, bumps, bruises, or other signs of damage.
Some pregnant rabbits sometimes go from excessive licking to chewing themselves too much, which can lead to them hurting themselves. There are also lots of skin conditions that may potentially be the cause of your rabbit’s excessive licking.
Some of the most common causes of excessive licking in rabbits include:
- Lesions and abscesses
- Skin tumors
Licking its Cage
Now we get into the question of rabbits licking things other than themselves. Beyond grooming, there are many reasons why a rabbit may lick something, with one of the recurring themes being that it simply loves to taste things.
That is one of the likeliest explanations for why your rabbit may be licking its cage. This may seem odd, but remember that rabbits experience much of the world through their sense of taste.
A cage is not something that a rabbit naturally encounters in the wild, obviously, so it is a strange object to them. They may therefore try and taste it to get a better idea of what this strange object is and what it’s like.
They may also lick the cage to show “affection” for it. In addition, they could also like the feel or taste of cool metal on their tongue, or they may be licking the cage to try and obtain residue from treats.
If you have more than one rabbit, it may also smell their lingering scent on the cage, and thus lick it as it would the rabbit itself.
Licking the cage on its own should not be a problem. That said, if your rabbit goes from simply licking the cage to gnawing on it, you’ll want to stop it, as doing so can damage its teeth.
Make sure that the cage is safe to lick by using nontoxic cleaning materials.
Licking Clothing and You
Rabbits may lick your skin or clothes in an attempt to groom you. While skin and clothes obviously have very different textures, your clothes still smell like you, making the rabbit think it’s part of you.
They can also lick you to show affection, as they do with other rabbits. By licking your face, they are showing your dominance, just as if they were licking the eyes of the dominant rabbit in their warren.
On the other hand, if you are wearing makeup, you should avoid letting your rabbit lick your face.
Licking your hands and fingers may be a sign that your rabbit wants petting and attention. It may think that it is the dominant one in this instance, but chances are you won’t mind while you’re petting its fuzzy little head.
Licking Out of Boredom
If your rabbit feels bored, it may resort to excessively grooming itself to give itself something to do. While this may appear harmless, excessive grooming can fast move past licking to chewing, digging, biting, overeating, and pulling out its own fur.
What’s worse, rabbits can ingest fur while grooming themselves, and too much can cause intestinal blockages.
In addition, licking their fur too much can lead to too much moisture there, which in turn can cause their skin to become irritated and their fur to fall out. If this continues, it can even lead to bacterial infections.
Recognizing whether or not your rabbit is engaging in self-destructive licking out of boredom means knowing what rabbit boredom looks like.
For example, if your rabbit is rattling its cage and making a lot of noise, there is a good chance it is bored and trying to tell you that it wants to come out. If it is too large for its cage, it may be trying to show this as well.
Needless to say, if your rabbit is too large for its cage, it’ll experience boredom frequently. For this and other reasons, you should always make sure that your rabbit’s cage is big enough, and that it has plenty of hiding places, toys, and other amusements in there with it.
A lack of energy can also be a sign of rabbit boredom. At the opposite end of the rabbit behavioral spectrum, if your normally-docile rabbit has suddenly become more aggressive, this may also be a sign of pent up energy and boredom.
If your rabbit is constantly trying to get your attention via things such as thumping its foot, it may be bored and want to play.
No matter the cause, you want to make sure that your rabbit’s boredom is alleviated, and that it doesn’t turn to bored grooming as an alternative.
Rabbits licking themselves is an instinctual drive and a perfectly natural action. At the same time, if they lick themselves or other rabbits or things too much, it can start to become dangerous.
By knowing why rabbits lick and what different licking behaviors mean, you can make sure your rabbit is happy, healthy, clean, and able to live life to the fullest.