understanding the intelligence of prey animals

by JP
(New York City)

My experience is that many people misunderstand rabbits' intelligence because they are used to understanding the intelligence of cats and dogs -- both predators. Interacting with predator and prey creatures is very different.

Cats can sometimes be gently wrestled with (watch out for the claws!), as can dogs. And both cats and dogs can share "predatory" play with their owners. Cats, for example, will chase a string, and dogs will fetch sticks. But as prey creatures, rabbits interact very differently -- and much more passively -- making them seem less intelligent. And in truth, they probably are less intelligent. Dogs in particular have an ability to read human expressions that is entirely alien to rabbits and, I suspect, cats. But if you appeal to rabbits on their own level, I think you'll find out that they are smarter than they may first seem.

I've owned a Mini Rex for about 5 years that lives freely in my house. It is fully litter trained, has been trained to chew sticks and not the walls and furniture, it hops up on the bed to sleep with me at night when I say "bedtime!", and it comes bounding for food when I give it a special whistle. Conversely, it's learned to scratch on my leg when it wants me to pick it up and cradle it on its back like a baby...which it does so often it would be annoying except the little guy is so cute and loving it's impossible to be annoyed.

All of these behaviors came about through a methodical process of trust building. As a prey creature, I never went to my rabbit but always let it come to me when it felt comfortable. When it wants to be put down, I do so immediately but gently and slowly, and never fully release it until it is firmly back on the floor.

The biggest thing that rabbits require that dogs and cats do not is time. Rabbits take time to fully let their guard down and transform the relationship between predator (human) and prey, into caretaker and loved pet. Even for domesticated rabbits bred in captivity, this relationship takes time to build. But invest the time and you'll find that rabbits are smarter than many people give them credit for.

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