Tips & Techniques

Many rabbit owners feel uneasy when it comes to picking up or carrying their rabbits and when it’s a grouchy rabbit, it makes them even more unsettled.

In actual fact, most rabbits don’t like being picked up anyway. Rabbits are a prey species. Domestic rabbits still have the same instincts as their wild ancestors so being lifted off the ground is scary to them, you are mimicking something a bird of prey, fox, or hunting dog would do. Rabbits need to associate you picking them up with something good and actually look forward to it. Here you’ll find out how to do that!

How To Relax Your Rabbit

Handling rabbits with massage is a great way to deepen your relationship with your rabbit, as touching strengthens the animal-human bond. Stroking a rabbit can even lower your blood pressure, increase self-esteem and establish a feeling of well-being.

There are a lot of other benefits to handling rabbits with a massage.

Rabbit Massage…

  • …helps with behavioral issues
  • …increases range of motion
  • …reduces tension, inflammation, and pain
  • …improves circulation
  • …accelerates recovery
  • …strengthens immunity
  • …is a safe and natural supplement to your rabbit’s health care

How To Relax Your Rabbit

How to Gain Your Rabbit’s Trust

Bunnies can be very cuddly and really enjoy spending time with you, but it’s usually on their own terms. Like any deep relationship based on mutual understanding, trust between a rabbit and it’s carer or owner doesn’t just happen overnight, you have to be willing to put the bonding time in.

Follow the steps below and pretty soon your rabbit will be running up to you for head rubs and stroking every time they see you or hear you coming and you’ll look forward to handling rabbits.

The steps below are for handling rabbits that are new to your family but the same principles apply even if you have had your rabbit for a while and they are still shy and distrusting with you.

Handling Rabbits with Negative Association

If you always grab at your bunny every time they come close to you, they will associate that action with YOU all the time. They will just learn to always stay away from the nasty grabby person!

Handling Rabbits with Positive Association

Treats, stroking and spending gentle talking time with your rabbits will associate those nice things and actions with YOU all the time. They will learn to keep coming up to the nice treat & head rub giving person!

  1. Observing You
    When your rabbits first come home it will be very hard to leave them alone but allowing your bunnies to watch you as you go about your daily chores and routine will really pay dividends. They need time to observe you and to get used to their new surroundings. If they are in a cage inside your home put them in an area of the house where they will see the daily goings-on but not too busy that they will be jumping out of their skin every time someone opens and closes the door.  Rabbits tend to get bored easily, so giving them something to watch is good.
  2. Just Sit
    When you have 30 minutes or more to spare (daily in the morning and evening for two or three days), just sit near your rabbits. No touching, grabbing, holding or petting at all – just sitting and watching. As your rabbits get used to you, they will start coming closer and closer each time to investigate. Let them, BUT DON’T TOUCH. Handling rabbits at this stage is too soon.
  3. Feeding
    If your rabbit is in your home or outside in your garden, the no touching principle still applies when you are giving them their food for the first few days. It is vital in the trust development process.
  4. Treats
    Giving your rabbit treats will go a long way too. Don’t give them anything processed or high in sugar. Your rabbits will soon catch on that YOU are associated with something nice.
  5. Releasing & Interaction
    After a couple of days, your bunnies are used to your hand touching, your presence, and your smell. If you have your rabbits in a cage and run inside your home you can let them out at this stage. If they are in a hutch and run outside, then sit in their run with them. Don’t try and pick your rabbit up yet, they will want to explore you and the novelty of it all. 
  6. Light Petting
    Let the rabbit come to you. Let them sniff you. The most you should do by way of handling rabbits for the first two or three days is to gently stroke their heads. If they hop away, leave them alone.
  7. Persistence
    Keep up the daily head stroking between the ears. They love it! Other good petting areas are on their forehead, behind the ears, and on their shoulders. Don’t touch under the head or towards their back end.
  8. Regular Interaction
    This is the only way your rabbits will learn to trust you. Whether it’s petting, talking or just being in the same environment with them, they need to learn that you are not a threat.
  9. Winning Their Hearts
    Rabbits are naturally very social and adore affection and attention so once they feel secure around you, you will start getting head nudges, signaling the desire for head rubs and stroking. You may also start to hear teeth chattering, or “purring” and they may even start licking you. This is when you know you’ve cracked it! 
  10. Handling Rabbits
    Then, and only then, should you move on to picking them up.

How Not to Pick Up Your Rabbit

Handling rabbits by picking them up by the ears is harmful – a rabbit should never be picked up by the ears, legs or scruff. Doing so could result in serious damage to your rabbit. They will kick and struggle and wriggle free.

Rabbit’s backs are very fragile, falling incorrectly will cause their spine to break and the rabbit will die a very painful death. If you struggle handling rabbits without them jumping from your arms then use a pet carrier as described below.

How To Pick Up Your Rabbit

You should always use two hands, one supporting the bottom and one over the chest. If your rabbit is small enough you can place your thumb (the hand over their chest) over their shoulder for a firmer grip.

Hold the rabbit with its head a little higher than its bottom and with the bottom slightly tucked in. This will help prevent the rabbit from kicking out backward or trying to do a forward roll towards the ground. You should only move your rabbit short distances in this position, such as from the hutch or cage to their carrier, for longer distances you will need to bring them closer to your body for a firmer more secure hold.

Carrying Your Rabbit

If you intend to move a longer distance with your rabbit than just to it’s pet carrier, then there are two ways to hold your bunny. You should use the technique that your rabbit feels the most comfortable with and the one you feel the most secure with.

  1. With one hand supportig the bottom, bring the rabbit towards you facing you with all four feet against your chest. By holding them against your body will stop them from kicking out. Put your other hand across the rabbit’s shoulders. Put your thumb in front of the rabbit’s front leg to prevent escape attempts over your shoulder.
  2. The other position is like a hug. Hold the bunny firmly against your chest using your arms, then hold the rabbit sideways with its feet resting at your hip facing your right shoulder. Wrap your left arm across its body and support the chest with your hand, thumb over the shoulders, fingers underneath. Use your other hand to support the bottom, firmly to press their feet against you so they can’t lift them to kick out. You might want to practice with a calmer bunny or pillow first so you can get the position right.

How To Pick Up Your Rabbit

How To Handle Nervous Rabbits

Handling rabbits that are nervous is quite a common problem, which is why I have included it here. Many rabbits are nervous about being picked up. They may not be used to being handled but more often than not they have had horrible experiences and now associate being picked up as very upsetting.

One rescue rabbit of mine has obviously had something bad happen to her. She detests being picked up, always has. She didn’t like being stroked either. It took me 6 months of persistent trust bonding before she’d let me stroke her head even. She tolerates being carried now but she’s not happy about it. But she does bound over to me wanting head rubs when she sees me so I tend to avoid picking her up at all unless I really need to since the affectionate stroking is fine with me!

With time and patience, you can encourage your rabbits to feel OK about the carrying experience. I won’t go all out and say they’ll love it though. If you need to carry your rabbit as you build up its confidence then use the carrier case technique described below. 

Here are the basic steps to handling rabbits that are quite nervous:

  1. Confidence
    You’ll need to build up your rabbit’s confidence slowly. Sit near them and stroke them, talk to them and offer treats.
  2. One Hand Pick Up
    Gently pick them up (hand under chest) so the front feet leave the floor only an inch or so then put them back down again then offer more praise and treats. A distraction like food can help your rabbit get used to this.
  3. Two-Hand Pick Up
    Once your rabbit is comfortable with this you can bring up the other hand to support their bottom and the front feet. To start with just put your hand under their bottom and still only lift the chest up.
  4. Bottom Lift
    You can gradually build this up so you lift the bottom too and her back feet almost leave the ground. Again repeat this until your rabbit is not phased by it.
  5. Inch Off Ground
    Progress to lifting an inch or two of the ground and then putting them down again.
  6. More Movement
    To get to this stage may take you several weeks of a few lifts a day. The next stage is to introduce more movement. You could sit next to your rabbit and lift them on to your lap or move them across the floor. From there you can progress to slightly longer lifts and just keep building as your rabbit gets used to the new experience.

How To Put Your Rabbit Down

Correct rabbit handling isn’t just about picking your rabbit up and carrying them, it’s also important to know how to put your rabbit down again.

When putting your rabbit back into its house or on to the floor you need to be careful not to let it jump out of your arms. Many rabbits will attempt to leap down once they see their hutch or cage, it’s a familiar sight of safety. Hold the rabbit firmly until their feet are on the ground.

Be careful as you release them as some rabbits kick out backward when finally presented with freedom.

How To Use A Rabbit Carrier

Handling rabbits that are nervous,  scared, shy or even aggressive then you should use a pet carrier to move them in.

Also if you are not very confident about handling rabbits yet, using a rabbit carrier initially will build up your experience and confidence around your bunnies.

A carrier is a plastic pet case with top, front or side opening doors or removable window bars. The best ones for rabbits are those that have a lid that comes away from the main body of the case from the top. One with a side door is good too as it allows your rabbit to walk easily in and out.

Steps Using Your Pet Carrier

  1. Introduce the pet carrier to your rabbits before you use it. Put it somewhere they can explore it and get used to it. You can give it positive associations by putting food, treats, and toys inside.
  2. Put some toweling or hay inside to stop your rabbits slipping and sliding in transit.
  3. If your carrier has a side door you should easily be able to encourage your rabbit in and then close the door.
  4. Your rabbit may need lifting into a carrier with a top door but sometimes they will learn to jump in on their own as they have associated the space inside with yummy treats.
  5. If you are putting the rabbit carrier in your car or van, to transport them to the vets, for example, make sure there is plenty of air circulation around the carrier and it is not badly balanced so it can slide around or fall down. 

Aggressive Rabbits

There is always a good reason why a rabbit will show aggression or bad behavior. It is beneficial to you and your rabbit to address any aggression as soon as it is seen.

Why?

First, however, you must understand why their aggression is there in the first place – it could be down to stress or a severe desire to protect territory.

Trust

Then gently persuade them to change their behavior. Go back to How to Gain Your Rabbits Trust and go from there, BEFORE trying to pick them up.

Companionship

And remember an angry rabbit could be down to something as simple as boredom, so make sure you play with them, interact with them daily or get them a companion animal or another rabbit to be social with.

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Miranda Hawkins
Miranda currently lives just outside Colorado Springs, Colorado with her husband, 8-year old son, and what she lovingly calls her “zoo.” Miranda grew up in the Midwest and always had animals around while growing up. After graduating from college, she married her husband Sam and they moved to the mountains of Colorado where Miranda became very involved with the regional rabbit rescues.

Currently, her “zoo” includes two dogs, one rambunctious cat, and three indoor rabbits. Oliver, a delightful Black Otter Holland Lop, and Juniper, a gorgeous Opal Satin Angora, are a bonded pair and have been together for three years.

She had the pleasure of adding an energetic Fawn Flemish Giant to her family one year ago, named Sir Gregor. He had been abandoned outside a pet store and was put up for adoption. Miranda feels very blessed to have this lovable lagomorph living amongst her family and is a strong advocate for educating people about rabbits and how special they truly are.

Miranda has put together a team of rabbit lovers and breeders from across the country and hopes you will find the information and resources on the JustRabbits.com site beneficial. She loves to hear from her readers and looks forward to seeing many more people become loving responsible bunny parents.