Advice from the expert: How to handle your rabbit

By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert Nut

Rabbits have traditionally been bought as a child’s pet; however, it is easy to incorrectly handle rabbits and potentially cause injury to both rabbit and handler.

One thing we need to remember when dealing with and handling rabbits is that they are prey animals, they have a large number of wild predators. Being restrained, held and lifted off the ground is very unnatural for them and can cause a great deal of stress. Children should never handle rabbits unsupervised; they should never be the sole responsibility of a child; the parent must always be involved.

Before handling your rabbit, you need to ensure they trust you and are not scared of you. One of the major complaints people with rabbits have is that they become aggressive or run away when owners go to handle or interact with them, to understand this we need to understand the mindset and natural habitat of a rabbit. They live in burrows where they only expect to meet other rabbits face to face and are most exposed when outside feeding. When outside in the open their predators can include birds of prey when young, for this reason they have an intrinsic fear of shadows above them. If they are in a hutch or run and you try to pick them up from above, then their natural instinct is to behave as if you are a predator and react accordingly. Where possible always get down to their level, make slow, gentle movements without any jerking or sudden grabs and it will be far less frightening for them.

Any handling training is best done on their terms, slowly and starting at floor level. Initially sit on the floor with your rabbit and allow them to get used to you, offering treats from your hand to get them used to approaching you and to make being around your hand a positive experience. Once this happens, most rabbits enjoy having their forehead gently stroked as it mimics mutual grooming, so this touching should be a positive experience. Once this is happening, getting them to either climb onto your lap with treats or gently lifting them onto your lap to give them treats and head strokes is a good next step.

Clicker training, mainly used to train dogs, can also be used to help build a bond. Clicker training involves associating the sound of the click with a treat to give a positive cue to use when the rabbit displays a behaviour that is desired. For basic handling that can include training a rabbit to come close to you, to put their head down for grooming, to come out of a hutch to you or to climb onto your lap. The process initially involves the rabbit getting a treat every time the click is heard and makes sure they associate the noise of the click to a reward. The click noise is then a very quick and easy way to let the rabbit know that the behaviour they are doing is the correct one for a certain command without confusion. Once basic behaviours are trained then more advanced ones like tricks can be attempted! It can even be used to train them to go in and out of pet carriers to avoid some of the unnecessary handling. While this seems a slow process, it is important as rabbits can suffer severe and even fatal injuries with incorrect handling. They have very strong hind legs and if unsupported or held wrongly, they can kick out and suffer major spinal injuries. Wrapping them in a towel can help to avoid scratches but care must be taken that all limbs are still contained safely and no injury can occur.

Rabbits should NEVER be picked up by their ears. If your rabbit must be moved or has to be picked up then the best way to do this is to place one hand underneath their chest, one around their hind legs to stop them from being able to kick out and to make sure the weight of your rabbit is supported throughout. Ideally keep them close to the ground or a safe surface so if they do become stressed then they can be safely and quickly put down. Turning over a rabbit and placing it on its back was used as a method to restrain them as when this is done, they will usually freeze and not kick out. However, we now understand more about why this happens. This is a defensive behaviour called ‘trancing’ and is done when they are seriously stressed, they freeze and play dead in the hope that the predator will leave them alone. Rabbits that are seriously stressed are at serious risk of lashing out and causing injury to the handler or themselves, or even stress so much they can die. Rabbits can make wonderful pets, however they are complex animals and care must always be taken with their handling.

Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).