Recent studies about the mechanics of instinctive predator avoidance by prey animals shows how remarkable it is that domesticated rabbits will bond with house cats. Rabbits like other small prey mammals use their powerful sense of smell to detect and evade predators, including species they have never met before. Within the last couple of months what happens at a molecular level in rabbit olfactory receptors to trigger predator aversion (particularly to urine) has been reported in scientific journals. Rabbits like rodents have a capacity for recognizing interspecies odors and their danger-associated behavioral response is hardwired.
Gardeners have known for years predator urine (like bobcats) will keep rabbits from noshing on their nasturtiums. It turns out cats have the highest concentrations of the chemical which repels prey animals and lions have the highest concentration of all animals. This summer gardeners in Syracuse, NY have noticed a marked decline in the number of rabbits grazing their flowers when they spread lion dung (provided by a nearby zoo) on the soil. The smaller domesticated version of big cats, i.e., the domesticated house cat, also produces the chemicals. (Another good reason to keep a cat litter box located well away from house rabbits aside from the fact rabbits should never ingest the clay litter.) Here at home the rabbits play with the cats, lounge with them in evenings and make every effort to get the cats to groom them by “flat heading” under their feline chins. This behavior hardly screams fear. Even the gardeners in Syracuse have noticed wild rabbits are getting over their aversion to lion odors without the actual lions stalking and pouncing on them. There haven’t been any “pouncing incidents” with my sister and my cats and rabbits despite their proximity. In fact, if the cats wanted to groom them, not one of the rabbits would turn up their nose. For more information on bonding rabbits and cats see Amy Shapiro’s article at this Link. (Photo: my cat Pele grooms Mr. Hops)