Rabbits who are properly socialised (including being handled appropriately) from a young age tend to be calmer and more confident when handled. They are also more likely to be less stressed and even enjoy being handled if they have been adequately socialised. This is important as it is necessary to be able to safely handle and restrain rabbits for a number of husbandry procedures like cleaning them, moving them, clipping their nails, and veterinary examinations.
Rabbits always need to be treated gently, and handled carefully and securely. Even when they are calm and well socialised, sometimes rabbits can panic and may struggle or jump from your arms; this can lead to injuries (to the rabbit or person) and potential escape. Rabbits can be easily hurt if they struggle; their spines are particularly prone to injuries, which can be serious, and even fatal.
Move slowly and use a quiet calm voice to avoid scaring them. A calm rabbit is generally easier to handle, and the less stressed your rabbit is the less likely they are to panic and potentially injure themselves.
Where possible, handling and interactions with rabbits should be at ground level. This is generally considered to be less threatening and stressful for the rabbit, and also there is less risk of injury if the rabbit does escape from your arms.
Any interactions between children and rabbits must be supervised for the safety and welfare of both the child and rabbit. All interactions with younger children must be at ground level. Only adults and older children who are responsible and have been adequately taught how to handle a rabbit should be allowed to pick up a rabbit and this should be closely and carefully supervised.
If the rabbit being handled shows any signs of stress, you should stop the interaction (signs may include struggling, aggression, or hiding). The only exception to this is when a rabbit must be taken to the veterinarian or is being examined/treated by the veterinarian. When you are first socialising your rabbits and getting them used to be handled, you will need to be patient and slowly build up their confidence with regular, short, and gentle handling sessions. Use rewards to make the experience a positive one for your rabbits and build up their confidence around people.
If a rabbit’s behaviour changes (for example, they resent being handled, seem afraid or become aggressive, where previously they coped well with handling) then they should be checked by a veterinarian in case there is illness, injury or pain that is affecting their behaviour.
Slippery surfaces usually make a rabbit fearful and so should be avoided. Put down something that is not slippery that they can stand on, like a non-slip mat or towel over something that will prevent the towel from moving around.
Picking up a rabbit
It is best to pick up a rabbit by getting down to as close to their level as possible, as they are less likely to feel threatened. Start by placing one hand under the rabbit’s chest; their front legs should be held securely by the fingers of this hand (place your thumb around the outside of one leg, a couple of fingers on the chest between the legs, and another finger or two around the outside of the other leg). Your other hand can be used to scoop up your rabbit’s bottom and hold their back legs securely. In this way you can lift them and, as soon as possible, bring the rabbit close to your body. Hold the rabbit’s body and all their four legs firmly and securely but gently against your body by cradling them with one arm and supporting their backend, to prevent them struggling or jumping from your arms. Never squeeze a rabbit, they are fragile and easily injured. You can allow the rabbit to hide their face in the crook of your arm if they want but make sure that you do not obstruct their nostrils.
When putting a rabbit back down, you still need to be careful to keep them safe and secure. Continue to hold the rabbit gently but firmly against your body as described above, bend your knees, squat down so you and the rabbit in your arms are close to the ground, then lower the rabbit slowly and calmly the short distance to the ground. Ensure that the rabbit has all four feet on the ground before calmly and gently releasing them. Ideally, if your rabbit does not run off straight away, reward them with a stroke and/or treat to make this a positive experience and encourage them to be calm and not to run off immediately.
What not to do
A rabbit should never be ‘tranced’ or ‘hypnotised’; this involves holding a rabbit on their back, causing them to freeze. This is part of the flight, fight, freeze response and is how some prey animals react when captured by a predator. Rabbits exhibiting this behaviour are extremely distressed. It is unacceptable to subject rabbits to this kind of treatment.
Rabbits should not be picked up by the scruff of their neck; proper gentle handling should be used instead. Appropriate handling will be safer and less distressing to the rabbit.
A rabbit must never be lifted or held by the ears. This is distressing, painful, and cruel, and can also damage the ears.
Rabbits are clever and curious, and they can be taught to do a variety of things; these can be fun tricks and/or actions that can be very helpful with husbandry. This can include litter training and teaching your rabbits to come when they are called and return to their enclosure when asked, which should make catching them easy and much less stressful.
Training your rabbits can enhance your bond with them and also provide mental and physical stimulation for your rabbits.
It is vital that only positive reward-based training methods are used (for example, rewarding your rabbit for coming when called by giving them a healthy and delicious treat). Rabbits must never be punished – this is not effective and is only likely to make your rabbits nervous and afraid, and may lead to behavioural problems.
If your rabbit’s behaviour is problematic and this is ongoing, you should seek expert advice from your veterinarian who is knowledgeable about rabbits and/or a qualified behaviour expert who has experience in helping rabbits.