Just like humans, all rabbits are individuals. And, along with having different temperaments and personalities – from boisterous ball chuckers to chilled out cuddle bunnies, their early experiences can affect how they feel about being handled.
Unless they’ve got used to it from a very young age, some rabbits really don’t enjoy being handled and may wriggle, kick out and even give you a nip when you try to pick them up.
Others, who have gained confidence and trust in their human, will happily hop along to request some fuss and attention.
Whether you have a bun who enjoys interacting with you, or a rabbit who clearly prefers plenty of ‘me’ time in their own space, the important thing is to learn how to handle them correctly.
Rabbits have an in-built fear of being lifted up
Bunny experts at RAWF (Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund) state: “Rabbits are a prey species. They are ground (and subterranean) dwelling. In the wild the only time they would be picked up would be if they were about to become a predator’s dinner. Our own pet rabbits can find this just as alarming, because fear of being lifted is hardwired into their genes. Rabbits that are panicked by being held may struggle and hurt their backs or legs, or they may leap to the ground and hurt themselves when they land.”
Being able to handle your rabbits in a way that won’t scare them or cause them to injure themselves is essential so you can groom them, carry out bunny health checks, or if you need to give them medication.
RAWF adds: “Rabbits that have been handled from a very young age are often more confident and will sit quietly in our arms, without struggling or panicking. Don’t let your guard down though. Although they may seem calm, they can be unpredictable, and they might suddenly leap out of your arms if you aren’t holding them properly.”
The RIGHT way to handle your rabbits
RAWF advises: “If you’re starting off with a nervous rabbit that hasn’t been handled much in the past, you need to build its confidence in you and start off by letting them come to you. Hand feeding is a good reward, and they may allow you to stroke them quite quickly. Take it at a pace they’re comfortable with until you can touch them all over without them panicking before you ever try to lift him up.”
BUILD YOUR BUNNY’S CONFIDENCE
- Start slowly. A pet rabbit’s natural reaction is to fear being picked up. It takes time for them to understand that being gently and correctly lifted by you is not going to cause them any harm. Rabbits don’t like being grabbed from above and have a blind spot in front of their nose, so it’s best to approach them from the side.
- Be gentle. Move slowly and talk quietly around your rabbits so as not to startle them and they get used to your voice and your presence. Allow them to sniff at your hand – they’re more likely to be relaxed in a quiet and calm handling environment.
- Stay low. Park yourself at rabbit level and start by hand-feeding some healthy, tasty treats – let your bunnies come up to take them in their own time. When they’re comfortable with hanging around you, stay at their level, and gently pet them, keeping your hands low, so they start to feel more chilled out around you. Do this daily so they gain confidence and build their trust in you.
LIFTING YOUR RABBIT UP
RAWF says: “When you do lift them, they need to be and to feel secure. You may need to start by putting a hand over their shoulders to keep them steady. Then put one hand under their chest, with a couple of your fingers between their front legs, the other two around the outside of one leg and your thumb around the outside of the other. With your other hand scoop up their bottom. Get them very close to your body as quickly as you can so that they’re secure and cannot wriggle nor leap out of your grip. Don’t squeeze. Rabbits are very fragile, with fine bones that snap easily and internal organs that can easily be damaged. You need to be firm without squeezing.”
- Get into position. Once you feel you’ve gained your rabbit’s trust, place one hand under their chest. Place your other hand under their hind legs.
- Help them feel safe. Sitting down on the ground, lift your rabbit and hold them against your body, gently but firmly. Help them feel secure by holding all four feet against your body. Try covering their eyes (with a towel or in the crook of your arm) to help them feel more relaxed while being held, ensuring their nostrils aren’t obstructed. Always ensure that your rabbit's bottom is supported.
- Make it a pleasant experience. Only hold them for a short time, talking in a soft voice and gently stroking them. Avoid lifting them up from the ground to a standing position unless it’s absolutely essential. For example, if you’re taking them to the vets, it’s best to gently encourage them into a cat carrier at ground level, carrying it as low as possible to the car.
PUTTING YOUR RABBIT BACK DOWN
RAWF advises: “When putting your rabbit back on the ground, you need to be careful that they don’t make a jump for freedom. Keep them as close to your body as you can, bend your knees and squat down, and lower your rabbit to the ground still in your secure grip. Put them down gently and if they don’t run off straight away, give them a head scratch so that they will know you’re still their best friend and you love them. Let that positive reward be what they remember about the experience.”
- Gently, but firmly, does it. When you put your rabbit back down, be careful not to let them jump out of your arms or they could injure themselves. Hold your bunny firmly until their feet are on the ground.
- Watch out for the bunny kick. Be careful as you let go as some bunnies kick out backwards when released.
- Practice makes perfect. Follow this process regularly so that your rabbits get used to it, understand it’s not something bad and that some soft stroking and tasty treats are all part of the picking up package.
The WRONG way to handle your rabbits
These are the ways you should never, ever handle your rabbits:
- ‘Scruffing'. Holding the rabbit by the scruff of the neck. As prey animals, when a person reaches down towards their neck, it’s like a bird of prey or other predator swooping in to grab them for a hot lunch. Unsurprisingly, this can be extremely traumatic for them.
- Carrying them on their back. This puts the rabbit in a harmful, trance- like state and indicates they’ve reached the top level of ‘fear stage’. It’s thought this occurs when a predator will toss a rabbit on its back and the bunny just gives up, essentially going into a trance of terror.
- Picking them up by their ears or legs. This can cause serious pain and injury. RAWF states: “We cannot stress this strongly enough. There is no need for it, and no excuse. It’s wrong, plain and simple.”
Children and rabbits
Make sure any youngsters in your family know how to handle your bunnies properly and are always supervised. Younger children should interact with rabbits while they’re sitting down on the ground or on a low seat, which makes it safer for them and for your pets. Only adults or responsible older children should be able to pick up rabbits.
FIND OUT MORE about looking after happy, healthy rabbits with The RWAF Guide to Rabbit Care >>
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