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Rabbit Health

Rabbit Tails: What is their purpose?

If your rabbit is acting abnormally and you have concerns please take them to a vet immediately.

Almost all animals have tails (except for humans and apes). Their tails have evolved to serve specific functions to help animals survive and function at their best. Rabbits are no exception.

There’s no denying that a rabbit’s fluffy tail is adorable to look at. Their cotton-like fluff is eye-catching and is a big part of a rabbit’s appearance. However, it’s more than just cute: it’s also functional! Bigger rabbits will have bigger tails, whereas smaller breeds may have tails that stay short.

You might be surprised to know just how important a rabbit’s tail is to their life. Let’s take a closer look. 

Rabbit laying down showing tail

Why Do Rabbits Have Tails?

Rabbits evolved to have tails to help them communicate with other rabbits, to help them escape predators, and allow them to maintain balance as they move. In domestic rabbits, their tails can help their owner to understand how they’re feeling and what they need through body language

Purpose of Rabbit Tails
Signaling danger to other rabbits
Counterbalancing while turning
Confusing predators so they can escape 
Communicating with other rabbits
Domestic rabbits communicating with their owner

Signaling

In the wild, rabbits are a very social species. They live in large groups called colonies, in a network of underground tunnels and chambers called a warren. Within the colony, there can be hundreds of rabbits living in smaller family groups. They have a hierarchy and use body language to communicate with one another. 

A rabbit’s white tail is easily seen against their darker coat. Wild rabbits use their tail to signal to other rabbits in their colony that there’s danger approaching by flicking their tail up. This allows the other rabbits to freeze, hide, or run back to the warren for safety. 

This is also known as altruistic behavior, meaning it’s for the greater benefit of the group. Rabbits will warn others of danger, even if it puts them in harm’s way. They also drum with their hind legs to warn of a predator approaching. 

Turning and Balancing 

If you have a pet rabbit, you’ll notice they often turn very quickly especially when they’re running around. The same applies to wild rabbits. Their tail helps them to balance as they turn. The tail moves in the opposite direction as they turn to balance out their weight and ensure they can move quickly and smoothly. 

Escaping Predators 

Rabbits use the white of their tails to confuse predators as they run away. This helps them to escape. Their short tail also ensures predators don’t have much to grab onto. In the next part of this article, we’ll chat more about how their tail helps them escape. 

Communicating With You 

Domesticated rabbits have evolved to use their tails to communicate with their owners, so you know how they feel and what they want. Your rabbit might wag its tail if they’re annoyed or feeling stubborn. For example, if they want a treat or don’t like the food you’ve presented them with, they might show you some attitude by wagging their tail. Sort of like a kid having a tantrum!

If your rabbit is chasing their tail, it might be that they’re bored and need more entertainment. It could also mean they want to mate, or there’s a health issue with their back end that’s bothering them.

If your bunny raises its tail and pulls its ears back, it usually means they’re angry. Be careful because they might lunge forward or show other signs of aggression. They may even flick their tail up and down a bit.

If your rabbit is moving their head or body slowly and its tail is stretched out or pointed down, it usually means they’re nervous or unsure. They might also angle their tail down if they’re curious about something or investigating something new. 

If they are lying down and are relaxed, they will likely stretch out with their tails extended fully. The PDSA explains that a relaxed rabbit might also: “sit with their legs tucked under their bodies (like a little rabbit loaf!)”

Tail PositionWhat It Might Mean
Wagging tailAnnoyed or being stubborn
Chasing their tailBored, want to mate, or potential health issue
Raised tail and ears backAngry or aggressive 
Tail down and moving slowly Nervous or curious 
Stretched out while lying down Relaxed and happy
Tucked underbody while sittingRelaxed and happy 

Why Are Rabbit Tails White?

Most rabbits have white tails, especially on the underside of the tail. Since rabbits are prey animals, you might be wondering why they have such a visible tail compared to their body! Well, the answer is that it’s thought to confuse predators.

To escape predators, rabbits run away at high speed to get back to their warren or a suitable place to hide. They often run in a zig-zag motion. While they’re running away, they often do something called ‘tail flagging’. This means they raise their tail so the white underside is on display.

Research shows that this causes: “predator confusion, due to perceptual distraction from the ‘blinking tail’ stimulus emerging from the rhythmic motion of the running prey.”

Essentially, the predator sees the white of the tail and tries to follow it. The quick zig-zagging motion of the rabbit makes the white move quickly, making it hard to track and throwing the predator’s sense of perception off. This confusion gives the rabbit time to escape. 

It’s important to note here that due to the way domestic rabbits have been bred, they may not have a white tail. There is a wide range of color variations among domesticated rabbits. Since they don’t need to escape predators in captivity, the lack of white tail won’t affect them as it would if they were in the wild. 

How Long Are Rabbit Tails?

We only see the very end of a rabbit’s tail, so to us, it looks like a little round pom-pom. However, there’s actually a lot more to the tail. The tail is rounded at the end and longer when it’s stretched out. 

A rabbit’s tail length can vary depending on their breed, but they tend to be between 4 and 8 cm long. If your pet rabbit is relaxed and lying stretched out, you might see the full length of its tail. 

In the past, a rabbit’s tail was known as a scut, which referred to the short erect tail of a rabbit, hare, or deer. The word isn’t used as often anymore, although some people do still prefer it. You might even hear people use the term’ scuttlebutt’ which refers to a rabbit running away from a predator. This isn’t a scientific term, but it is cute!

Why Does My Rabbit Tuck In Its Tail?

So, we now know that rabbits have longer tails than we might expect. Most of the time they keep their tail in its natural position, which is tucked into their body. This gives that classic round ‘pom-pom’ appearance. 

The tail tends to be tucked in because it evolved that way to keep them safe. A shorter tail means they can get back into the warren quickly and ‘disappear’ after running away from a predator. It also ensures a predator doesn’t have anything to grab onto, as a long tail may mean they could be caught! Having their tail tucked in also helps to keep it safe from accidental harm, as it’s quite fragile when stretched out. 

It’s likely that in the past, rabbits with shorter tails could more easily escape predators while rabbits with longer tails couldn’t. So, the rabbits with shorter tails were the ones who reproduced and passed on shorter tails to their babies. The shape, size, and position of a rabbit’s tail have evolved over many years so that the rabbit can function optimally.

How to Look After Your Rabbit’s Tail

Don't pull a rabbits tail

Your rabbit’s tail is made of a small bone connected to their spine, as well as flesh and fluff. It contains some small muscles and nerves to help it move. The tail is fairly delicate and fragile, so it’s important to be careful when handling it. There are also several health issues that can affect your rabbit’s tail, so you need to ensure you look after it well. Let’s take a closer look. 

Tail Health Issues

Bone Fusion

When they’re born, a rabbit’s tail bones haven’t hardened. They’re also born hairless and have less protection around their tail. Sometimes, tails can fracture or bones can even become fused together during development. This can cause a misshapen tail which can cause discomfort among other issues. 

Wet Tail

Due to illness or injury, some rabbits can struggle to urinate properly. This can lead to urine sinking into the fur around their tail, back legs, and back end. This isn’t just unhygienic, it can also be very uncomfortable and can irritate your rabbit’s skin. Over time, it can cause urine scald, where the rabbit’s fur falls out and the skin is severely irritated. A long-term wet tail can cause breaks in the skin and lead to infection. 

Flystrike

If your rabbit’s back end becomes particularly dirty, it can attract flies. The RSPCA explains that fly strike is: “a painful and sometimes fatal condition caused by flies laying their eggs on another animal. These hatch into maggots, which eat the flesh of their ‘hosts’.” If you see signs of flystrike, seek immediate veterinary attention. 

Mats 

If a rabbit isn’t able to keep themselves clean or if you don’t brush them regularly, they can develop mats (including on and around their tail). Mats aren’t just unsightly, they can also pull on your rabbit’s skin and be very uncomfortable for them. 

Tail Loss

Unfortunately, some mothers may over-groom their babies and accidentally chew off their tails. Adult rabbits can sometimes have accidents that mean they lose their tail. Some rabbits may bite their own tails off due to health issues, such as trauma, stress, or parasites. In these cases, the tail can’t grow back. 

In wild rabbits, this is a serious issue and could even be fatal for them if they can’t escape predators. For domestic rabbits, this is less of an issue and most can live happy lives without their tail. 

Regular Tail Care

As an owner, it’s your responsibility to make sure your rabbit is as healthy and happy as possible. There are a few ways you can take care of your rabbit’s tail to reduce the risk of health issues. 

Health Checking

It’s essential to regularly check your rabbit’s health by keeping an eye on their behavior and their body for any signs of ill health. If you notice your rabbit trying to bite or scratch at their back end, it’s best to get them checked by your vet.

When you’re checking your rabbit’s back end, if you notice any of the following, make an appointment with your vet:

  • Lumps
  • Bumps
  • Bald patches
  • Sores
  • Broken skin
  • Signs of parasites 
  • Signs of flystrike
  • Frequently wet tail
  • Strong odor
  • Very yellow fur around the back end
  • Anything else out of the ordinary

The sooner you catch potential health issues, the sooner they can be treated to stop them from worsening. 

Cleaning

Most rabbits will clean their own tail and around their back end very effectively, so you shouldn’t need to clean it very often. However, if they’re older, are overweight, have a health issue, or have long hair, you might need to clean it for them to prevent dirt from building up and causing a potential infection or flystrike.

You should also clean out your rabbit’s litter daily and their living area regularly to keep them healthy. It also ensures they’re happy: after all, no one likes living in a dirty home! 

Regular Brushing

Keeping up with regular brushing of your rabbit can prevent the uncomfortable mats we mentioned earlier. If you do notice a matt around your bunny’s tail, try to gently brush it out. If you can’t brush it out, you can very carefully cut the matt out so your rabbit can be more comfortable. 

Careful handling

It’s important you don’t touch your rabbit’s tail or try to ‘stretch it out’, unless it’s for grooming or medical purposes. The tail area has lots of bones, muscles, and nerves and it can be quite sensitive. Rabbits don’t like their tails being touched and can become quite upset if you try. If you are handling your rabbit’s tail to check their health or to groom them, you should be very gentle and careful not to injure them. 

Rabbits’ Tails Aren’t Just Cute!

We’ve learned that although rabbits’ tails are very fluffy and cute, they’re actually really important. They help rabbits to stay safe, protect themselves, and even communicate with us. Those are some pretty impressive jobs for such a small tail!

References

  • Christal Pollock, DVM, DABVP, (2020), Behavior Essentials: The European Rabbit. LafeberVet.
  • Reznikova, Z. (2011). Evolutionary and Behavioural Aspects of Altruism in Animal Communities: Is There Room for Intelligence?. Evolution (Uchitel Publishing House), (1), 122-161.
  • The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, (2022), Rabbit body language.
  • Semmann, D., Capelle, T., & Russell, Y. I. (2013). A rabbit’s tail: conspicuous rump patch causes predator confusion.
  •  Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, (2022), Flystrike in pets.

Thank you for reading this post!
Link is an incredibly spoilt rabbit who lives completely free roam. When he's not jumping on his owners heads at 5am or digging at carpet he can often be seen loafed or eating copious amounts of hay.