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 ask for some fuss and attention. Getting your bunnies used to being gently handled is really worthwhile, as it makes life much easier and less stressful for them when it comes to essential bunny welfare activities, such as grooming or visits to the vet.
What not to do
However, it’s really important that rabbits are handled correctly. Not following bunny best practice can be extremely harmful, causing your pets anxiety, distress and injury. With their fragile spines, rabbits who feel insecure and struggle when held can be seriously, even fatally, damaged. New research from the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science underpins this, revealing that the way a rabbit is handled is likely to have a “direct impact” on their welfare. Here are the things to avoid:
- ‘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.
Bunny best practice
The good news is that the researchers found that: “Negative impacts on rabbits can be minimised by handling them in an appropriate way.” Here’s how to do it:
- 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.
- 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. 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 treats – let your bunnies come up to take them in their own time. When they are 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.
- Once you feel you’ve gained your rabbit’s trust, place one hand under their chest.
- Place your other hand under their hind legs.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Be careful as you let go as some bunnies kick out backwards when released.
- 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.
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.
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Sources: petgazette.biz, pdsa.org.uk, rspca.org.uk, rabbitrehome.org.uk, rabbitsonline.net