Licking – for rabbits it’s not just a quirky behavior, it’s an essential part of their daily routine. From grooming their plush coats to strengthening social bonds, rabbit licking serves many critical functions. But when does natural licking become excessive? Learn why rabbits can’t stop licking themselves, their partners, and their surroundings. Discover how their oral explorations provide a window into the world around them using their super-charged senses of taste and smell. Yet obsessive licking often signals serious medical or behavioral issues. Join us on an in-depth hop down the rabbit hole of licking behaviors, from the normal to the excessive. The truth will have you licking your lips in amazement!
Why Do Rabbits Lick Themselves?
Rabbits lick themselves for a few main reasons – grooming, bonding, and to gain information about their environment. Self-grooming is a normal rabbit behavior that serves important functions for a rabbit's health and social life. However, excessive licking in rabbits can sometimes indicate an underlying medical or behavioral issue that needs attention.
One of the primary reasons rabbits lick themselves is for grooming purposes. Licking helps rabbits keep their coats clean and free of debris. Through licking, rabbits distribute oils across their fur to condition it and make it water resistant. They are fastidious groomers and will lick themselves numerous times throughout the day. Rabbits are unable to vomit, so they also lick their mouths to remove any stuck food or hair they may have ingested.
Wild rabbits groom themselves to maintain clean fur for insulating warmth, camouflage purposes, and avoiding predators detecting their scent. Domestic rabbits maintain this natural grooming instinct. A clean coat enables rabbits to self-regulate their body temperature more efficiently. The oils distributed during grooming also help control skin pH balance and hydration. Matted, dirty fur can lead to conditions like fly strike where flies lay eggs on soiled skin. Therefore, self-grooming serves essential hygienic functions for rabbit health.
In addition to practical purposes, licking serves important social functions for rabbit relationships. Mutual grooming is how rabbits strengthen their pair bonds. Rabbits form close, affectionate attachments with their bonded mates. Pairs or groups of bonded rabbits will often lay together for long periods licking each other. They focus on licking around the head, neck and ears.
This social grooming is a comforting activity that releases endorphins and oxytocin in rabbits, promoting feelings of wellbeing, trust and bonding. It also helps reinforce the pair’s social hierarchy if one rabbit consistently licks the other more. Mutual licking sessions help consolidate bonded pairs. Rabbits deprived of social contact can suffer psychologically, so bonding through grooming is important for their mental health.
Mother rabbits also lick their babies as part of nursing. The babies reciprocate the licks as they get older to bond with their mother and littermates. Therefore, licking plays a nurturing role in forming early attachments between a rabbit family. Outside of immediate family, rabbits generally do not lick other rabbits they are not bonded with. So licking serves both as a social activity and marker of close bonded relationships in rabbits.
Aside from grooming themselves, rabbits also lick their surroundings frequently. Objects, people, surfaces, foods and other items are all targets for rabbit licking. They have a strong urge to explore new things orally. One reason rabbits lick their environments is to gain information.
Rabbits have a precise sense of taste and smell in their mouths. By licking items, rabbits can pick up chemical cues to learn about different features. Foods can be evaluated for palatability. Surfaces and objects can be smelled and tasted for traits the rabbit cannot otherwise detect through sight alone. Licking also allows them to identify scents left by other rabbits in their environments. It aids rabbits in mapping social information in their habitat.
Licking is connected to the flehmen response in rabbits – curling their lips to facilitate smelling scents and pheromones. Rabbits perform this flehmen response while licking to thoroughly analyze smells and tastes. This helps them interpret a wide range of environmental stimuli beyond vision. So licking items is an exploratory behavior that helps rabbits gather more information about their surroundings using chemical senses. It allows them to interact with their world in a multi-sensory way.
In summary, self-licking allows rabbits to stay well-groomed, strengthen social bonds, and explore their environment for information. Grooming behaviors are integral to a rabbit's daily routine and social relationships. But excessive licking can sometimes indicate an underlying medical issue needs veterinary attention.
Excessive Licking in Rabbits
While a normal amount of licking is healthy for rabbits, excessive licking can be problematic. Extensive licking beyond a rabbit's typical grooming routine may signal an underlying medical or behavioral issue.
Excessive licking in rabbits often stems from physical health problems. Possible medical causes include:
Dental disease – Issues like tooth spurs, malocclusion or abscesses in the mouth cause pain or irritation, leading rabbits to lick at their mouths and jaws. Dental problems require veterinary treatment.
Skin parasites – Mites, lice or fleas can infest a rabbit's skin, causing itching, inflammation and hair loss. Parasites prompt affected rabbits to lick and scratch themselves more. Veterinarians can prescribe effective parasite treatments.
Pododermatitis – This bacterial skin infection on the feet causes painful sores. Rabbits compulsively lick their infected feet trying to soothe irritation. Antibiotics from a vet are needed to clear pododermatitis.
Urinary tract infections or stones – When rabbits have a UTI or bladder stones, they frequently lick their genitals due to the irritation and discomfort. Veterinary care is required to diagnose and treat the underlying cause.
Pain – Arthritis, musculoskeletal disorders and internal issues like gastrointestinal stasis can cause body pain that rabbits try alleviating by licking. The vet can pinpoint and manage the pain source.
Hormone imbalances – Spayed/neutered rabbits with unusually high sex hormone levels may display excessive genital licking. Bloodwork checks for altered hormone levels.
Allergies – Environmental allergies to things like dust or pollen can prompt inflamed skin and compulsory licking in some rabbits. Anti-itch medication may help soothe allergic reactions while identifying allergen triggers.
Sometimes extensive licking stems from behavioral or psychological causes like:
Stress or anxiety – Many rabbits lick themselves more when stressed. It can become an obsessive, compulsive comfort behavior. Relieving sources of stress through environmental enrichment aids anxious rabbits.
Boredom – Inactive, lonely rabbits confined for long periods often excessively self-groom out of boredom and frustration. More exercise, toys and social interaction helps ease boredom licking.
Attention seeking – Some rabbits learn that licking gets them desired attention from owners. Ignoring attention-seeking licks helps discourage this behavior.
Obsessive compulsive disorder – A small percentage of rabbits develop abnormal obsessive licking habits. These can be managed through behavioral therapy and environmental modification.
Learned habit – Rabbits who over-groomed due to a past medical issue may continue the behavior even after the medical trigger resolves. Retraining them not to over-lick helps break the habit.
Excessive licking that causes hair loss, skin damage or irritation requires prompt veterinary guidance. The underlying cause, whether medical or behavioral, necessitates diagnosis and tailored treatment. Self-trauma from obsessive licking can occur if causes are left unaddressed.
Managing Excessive Licking
Depending on the inciting cause, reducing excessive licking may involve:
Treating medical conditions through veterinary care
Addressing sources of stress, anxiety, pain or discomfort
Increasing environmental enrichment with toys, space and exercise
Discouraging attention-seeking licks by ignoring the behavior
Using Elizabethan collars or bandages to prevent self-trauma from obsessive licking
Administering anti-itch medication for allergies under veterinary guidance
Consulting an animal behaviorist for compulsive licking issues
While licking is innate rabbit behavior, abnormal levels of licking signal an underlying problem needs resolution. With proper veterinary diagnosis and a customized treatment plan, rabbits can overcome sources triggering excessive licking habits. Their natural grooming behaviors can then return to normal healthy levels.
Licking is a vital part of a rabbit's daily life. Through self-grooming, rabbits keep their coats clean and skin healthy. Mutual social licking strengthens bonds between mated pairs and families. Environmental licking allows rabbits to explore their surroundings using chemical senses. But excessive licking beyond normal grooming levels often indicates a medical or behavioral issue needing veterinary attention. Treating the inciting cause restores healthy licking behavior in rabbits. With their natural grooming urges satisfied, rabbits can return to licking themselves, their partners and their environments at normal levels.