When you look at a rabbit, you may notice that they are often moving their ears in many different directions. A rabbit’s ears are incredibly helpful for their survival and give very expressive clues about a rabbit’s emotional and physical state. The movements of a rabbit’s ears can mean many things, with specific turns representing various situations.
Here are the 11 reasons that rabbits keep turning their ears:
- Recognition of danger
- Careful listening and concentration
- Curiosity and interest
- Attention seeking behavior
- Nervousness and worry
- Anger and aggression
- Relaxation and contentment
- Happiness and excitement
- Communication with other rabbits
- Ear irritation
- Temperature Regulation
Ears are one of the primary ways that a rabbit will tell you how it is feeling and how it feels about its environment. Its ears, combined with other changes in body language, can give you important insights into the rabbit’s state. This article will show you all the reasons that rabbits keep turning their ears and the deeper meaning behind each of them.
11 Reasons Rabbits Keep Turning Their Ears
Being aware of their environment and giving details of their various mood and emotional changes result in the movement of a rabbit’s ears. There are fairly specific movements and turns that all have different meanings, allowing us to better understand the rabbit and its unique physical behaviors.
1. Recognition of Danger
The ears of rabbits are not only long and cute, but they are also designed with survival in mind. The wide surface area and curved shape enhance a rabbit’s listening abilities, giving them tremendous hearing abilities. This shape amplifies sound in the environment, allowing a rabbit to be incredibly alert and aware of its surroundings.
Rabbits have long been a species that has been hunted, making it necessary that they have strong hearing to get out of dangerous situations. This alertness and hypersensitivity to sound are still applicable today, and rabbits are very sensitive to sudden sounds in their environments.
Rabbits can turn their ears and move them in multiple ways in order to recognize danger:
- Independent Turning: The ears of a rabbit can actually move and turn independently from one another to detect multiple changes in their environment at the same time.
- Wide Turning Radius: Rabbits can turn their ears up to 270 degrees to find the source of the sound they are recognizing.
- Quick Turns and Twitching: If it is danger that is being detected, these movements will be in a quick and twitching motion.
- Straight: One of the key signs of alertness and recognizing danger is keeping their ears very straight while this turning and twitching motion occurs.
- Folded over itself: In very dangerous situations, the rabbit may fold its ears over itself almost as a way of hiding from harm.
The most dramatic and impressive ear turning abilities of a rabbit are done when it is trying to hear the sounds and potential dangers around it.
2. Careful Listening and Concentration
The movements associated with recognizing danger are very similar to that of careful hearing and concentration. The ears that are standing up and listening carefully to their surroundings may still twitch as they turn. If they do not sense danger but are still concentrating, they may not be as quick in their movements.
As mentioned with the independent movement, sometimes when a rabbit is concentrating, it will keep one ear up, and the other will be down as if it is relaxing. This one upward ear can turn in the direction of the sound without disturbing the other one. This one up, one down tactic is a clear indication that the sound is not threatening.
3. Curiosity and Interest
If a rabbit is very interested, it will turn its ears forward to hear better and get closer to what’s happening. Not only will its ears be forward facing, but the ears will also bend slightly forward, pointing the tips of the ears towards what it is looking at. This is when they are at the height of their curiosity and the ears almost look like the bill on a hat.
These are the ear movements and turns that are characterized by a rabbit’s heightened curiosity:
- Wide and Straight: A rabbit will widen and stretch its ears out to the side of its head when it is curious from afar.
- Forward: In addition to facing downward slightly, a rabbit will turn its ears directly forward as widening takes place. This allows the rabbit to get even closer to the action before it analyzes a situation and makes an approach.
Many of these movements are subtle variations of each other, especially when the rabbit is alert and focused. The widening of the ears is the key sign that the rabbit is curious about a situation around them.
4. Attention Seeking Behavior
Because rabbits are found in domesticated environments as pets, they have evolved their body language to communicate with their owners. They have to rely on humans for their food and overall life maintenance, making communication necessary if they want something.
The alert behaviors mentioned above may happen in a domesticated setting, but they are typically reserved for rabbits in the wild as threats are much greater. If you see a rabbit exhibiting these behaviors in their cage, it typically means they want to be fed.
In addition to straight and forward facing ears, they will often be sitting up on their hind legs, and their nose will also be in the air. This combination of behaviors is typically associated with begging for food or getting your attention.
5. Nervousness and Worry
When a rabbit does recognize danger, its ears will transition from an alert and upward position to one where it turns its ears back. The rabbit will turn its ears behind it, almost as if it is resting on its head. This makes it difficult to differentiate between scared or relaxed. The key difference is the ears will not be resting but slightly off the head.
You can accompany this behavior with big or bulging eyes, showing their teeth, and a nervous tapping of their feet. They may also be seen in a crouched position. Looking back at their ears, you may notice that a worried rabbit also widens their ears as they are facing back behind them.
The ears will typically be flattened as they hover over their shoulders. Rabbits feel most nervous when they are vulnerable and feel as if they are unprotected. In a domestic setting, this includes loud noises or large and open cages that provide no hiding spots for the rabbit.
6. Anger and Aggression
This is a state that you never hope to find a rabbit in as it causes them distress and could lead to biting if you are close to them. A rabbit will display multiple ear turning movements when it is bothered.
These ear positions are ordered in the amount of aggression that is present, and it will escalate from there:
- Up and out: Usually found in a standing position, the rabbit will make its ears erect while turning them to face outward. To assert their dominance and show aggression, the rabbit will assume a boxing-like position.
- Backwards and up: The rabbit is a bit more agitated now and has turned its ears backwards while still holding the ears up.
- Ears against back: Look for the rabbit to push its ears towards its back with the opening still facing outward. As the rabbit becomes more aggressive and may need to bite or interact, it will lower its ears and hold them back.
Ear position is the most important factor for rabbits in displaying their anger or disgust. Once the rabbit has fully lowered the ears on its back, you should steer clear. This is not an invitation to pet, and it will be very clear and accompanied with other body language such as a squatting stance.
7. Relaxation and Contentment
A relaxed rabbit can often look quite similar to a nervous or frightened rabbit, but the key difference is in the ears will be turned back and rested on its body. The rabbit will relax its ear muscles enough to keep them positioned easily on itself. In some cases, it will turn one ear upward and erect if it hears something going on.
Another way they show they are relaxed is for the ears to face downward and almost frame their face. Any sign of the ears touching its body and appearing in a restful position are key indicators of a relaxed rabbit.
8. Happiness and Excitement
A happy rabbit uses its ears and body to show a lot of emotions. Typically, a happy or excited rabbit will have its ears mostly erect and close together. The ears will turn slightly backward or outward. The rabbit will still maintain a relaxed posture with its ears, not as stiff as it would be in a dangerous situation.
Specifically, when the rabbit is excited, you may notice a lot of ear movement. Instead of a quick twitching that is associated with irritation and worry, you will notice shaking of the ears in a more playful manner. This is often paired with hopping in case the ear direction is not enough of an indication.
Close together, backward or outwards, and up but floppy are key ear turn movements that suggest the rabbit is happy or excited.
9. Communication with Other Rabbits
Not only do these ear movements indicate how a rabbit is feeling so that we are aware and can study it, but these movements serve a survival purpose. It is their way of communicating their feelings and emotions to other rabbits. There are different situations in which this would be helpful for them to use:
- Possible threats: Turning of the ears to indicate fear or danger can alert other rabbits to be cautious as well. At the same time, a relaxed rabbit encourages those around them to relax.
- Mating: Expressing their mood to other rabbits is necessary for procreation. Rabbits communicate these intentions with body language, which includes their ears.
- Dominance: Rabbits will turn their ears upward and outward to make themselves appear larger in order to assert their dominance.
- Playing: Rabbits just want to play with each other sometimes, and this can be easily signaled so that they both know that it is a safe activity.
Using the ears is a simple way for rabbits to understand each other, especially in the wild, when they rely on one another for survival.
10. Ear Irritation
If a rabbit starts to shake its ears or turns them in order for the rabbit to scratch at, this may suggest a problem with their ears. If the shaking is not consistent, you shouldn’t have to worry, but consistent shaking may be the result of ear mites. This should be addressed immediately for their safety and comfort.
Ear mites are caused by a parasite that can impact one ear or both and can spread to the surrounding areas. It often manifests itself as scales on the skin and can lead to hair loss. These areas can grow into larger lesions and lead to hearing loss if not treated. You should be aware of the warning signs so that this doesn’t happen to your rabbit.
If you notice that the rabbit keeps turning and shaking its ears and head, this can be early signs of irritation. The parasite is often spread by exposure to infected rabbits where lots of them congregate in domestication, including shelters, pet stores, and homes that house multiple rabbits.
The ears may not turn a specific direction, but any scratching and ear shaking should be seriously considered.
11. Temperature Regulation
One of the coolest things about a rabbit’s ears is their ability to regulate temperature. According to the Calgary Humane Society, a rabbit can actually warm itself up and cool down through the use of their ears. This skill is crucial because rabbits cannot sweat, pant, or release heat like many other animals can. This means that the rabbit has to be a bit more inventive in releasing the heat.
There is a large number of blood vessels that run through the ears of a rabbit. Ear size in rabbits has adapted to geographical location across the world in order to help aid in this thermoregulation.
Heating and cooling are related to the flow of blood to and from the ears. A rabbit can channel more blood to its ears and will turn them in the direction of a breeze. This transferred blood flow (sending more direct heat to the ears) cools their body off and allows the heat to be released into the wind upon contact.
To conserve body heat, a rabbit can also restrict blood flow to the ears so that it can maintain a healthy core body temperature. They will turn their ears away from wind and closer to the body in order to conserve more energy and warm up the rest of their body.
Understanding the Ear Movements
Getting a better idea of the ear movement and the reasons that a rabbit keeps turning its ears will allow you to gain a complete understanding of the feelings and behaviors of your rabbit (or rabbits in general). This can help to evaluate discomfort and possible infections.
We have gone over these reasons for why rabbits that keep turning their ears, but here’s a quick cheat sheet of movements so you can remember:
- Recognition of danger: Ears will be kept pointed with quick turns and twitches. They can independently turn from one another up to 270 degrees.
- Careful listening and concentration: Rabbits will have erect ears that turn slightly outward, may only be one ear.
- Curiosity and interest: A rabbit’s ears will be forward facing and widened to get closer to what they are interested in.
- Attention seeking behavior: In domestic settings, straight and forward facing ears will reflect their desire for attention or food.
- Nervousness and worry: A rabbit turns its ears back toward its head without touching its body. Look for this ear-body separation to differentiate this from relaxation.
- Anger and aggression: Ears will widen and face sideways or slightly backward. Very aggressive rabbits may push their ears down against their backs.
- Relaxation and contentment: Ears will be turned back and resting on its body with calm muscles.
- Happiness and excitement: Their ears will be up and bouncing or shaking in a playful manner. Ears are usually close together and facing slightly outward.
- Communication with other rabbits: All ear movements and turns will allow them to communicate with other rabbits for survival.
- Ear irritation: This is characterized by shaking and potential scratching.
- Temperature Regulation: Ears will become erect or restrict depending on the external temperatures in order to regulate their body temperature. Blood flow also changes to support this.
While some of the differences can be quite subtle, the slight changes in the turns and direction can be very telling about the status and temperament of the rabbit. There are tons of reasons that a rabbit could be turning its ears, and each of them has unique meanings, so this animal can best protect itself in the wild and your home.