It is very common that people will have pet rabbits and rarely handle or hold them. I meet a lot of bunnies and their families through my rabbit grooming business and it has become painfully obvious that there are a lot of pet rabbits whom are never being socialized.
It is true that rabbits are born with an instinct to not like being picked up or handled, but through socialization, we can teach them to tolerate it and even look forward to it, in many cases. Still, I run into so many families who have interpreted their rabbit’s not wanting to be picked up as the correct way to befriend a bunny.
Actually, in the long run you are doing your bunny and family a huge disservice by not teaching your rabbit to allow this kind of interaction. You can literally go years without ever picking up your bunny, but what happens when it becomes grooming time or a vet visit is in order? I am finding that many people who are in this category are hiring me to come groom their rabbit. When I arrive, I learn that they have not handled or picked up their rabbit and he is totally freaking out, just for a nail trim or combing. This is not good. Imagine how terrified a rabbit like this is going to be if he has to go for a car ride to the vet.
Something that is even more tragic, as far as I am concerned is that these folks are missing out on the true joys of having a pet rabbit. If you are not able to get close enough to your bunny to pet him or groom him, you are really not bonding with your pet. Rabbits show each other love through grooming and if you want to tell your rabbit that you love him in his own language, that involves petting and grooming him, just as you would any dog or cat.
The way to begin socializing your rabbit is to spend time with him EVERY day. Not once or twice a week. If you do that, then it means the other five or six days a week, he will be pining for your attention. Having a pet is a daily function, not a whenever you have time function. Basically, it is like having children I often tell people. For that matter, I call all my rabbits my kids.
All pet rabbits need at least two or three hours out of their cage and pens each day to run and play. Rabbits were born to run and this is an important part of having a happy pet rabbit. If your rabbit is not getting this simple run time every day, then you probably should not have one.
In order to foster the human animal bond, you need to spend about an hour or so each day interacting with your rabbit. You do not have to do it all at once and it can happen throughout the day, but he needs that human touch to learn that being a friend with a big scary human is OK.
You should start off getting down on the floor to teach the rabbit that you are a friend. Watch TV, read a book, talk to your bunny, just do something on the floor for a period of time. Your rabbit will eventually start approaching you to visit. All but the most skittish bunnies will start coming up to get their heads and ears rubbed.
Learn how to pet your bunny. Do not rub him on the butt or lower back. That is an insult in bunny language. Rabbits do not like having their chins or underneath their heads pet. In their language you are telling them that you are the boss of them and are threatening them when you do this. Not a way to make friends. Some rabbits will tolerate, but most will become quite annoyed by any continued attempts to get underneath them in any way.
You approach a rabbit from on top of his head. A rabbit tells another rabbit that he loves and respects him by kissing the top of his head and ears. Gently petting them their conveys your love and respect.
I can always tell a person who has no rabbit experience at all, because they will try and approach a rabbit like a dog, by letting them smell or sniff their hand. This is the absolute wrong way to approach a rabbit. First, directly in front of their noses is a blind spot and if you put your hand under their nose, you are basically saying, “I am the boss of you! Kiss me!” Again, this is not the way to make friends with a rabbit.
The top of the head is where you want to first pet your bunny. This is universal amongst all bunnies. You can socialize your bunny to tolerate being pet and rubbed on his backside, but that usually comes after you are closely bonded with him. Do not expect him to like that kind of touching, right away.
I HIGHLY suggest that you pick your rabbit up at least once EVERY DAY. Not once a week or month, but every day. This is important. Through repetition, you teach your bunny that nothing bad is every going to happen when you pick him up.
Therefore, the only time you pick him up it should not be to be stuffed into a pet carrier and thrown into the car for a scary car ride. It should also not be to have some big strange grooming person picking them up and hacking off their toe nails. If the only time a rabbit is ever picked up, these terrifying events are occurring you are actually reinforcing his fears.
The number of times that a rabbit gets picked up and something scary happens should be vastly outnumbered by the hundreds of time that they get picked up and nothing scary happens. Do you get that important point? It is critical that there are many many more good things happening when they are picked up and handled than scary things.\
I have a bunny who has always been freaked out about being handled. It was as self fulfilling prophecy that she feared she would be dropped because when you picked her up she would squirm frantically, causing you to drop her. It took me five years of working with her to get her 90% cured. She still runs from me sometimes when I want to pick her up but she is so much better.
I did this by picking her up and hugging her every day. I would just pick her up and set her on my lap or hold her and give her a kiss. I would be very careful to not let her squirming make me drop her. Then I would gently set her down.
At first, she would scamper off, thumping all the way. Then she would take a step to run away and seeing that I was not chasing her, she would turn around to re-approach me for another pet or ear rub. Eventually, I have gotten her to be so much better that I can even just walk up and just pick her up, but that took about five years of constant work. Still, I believe it is worth it. Most rabbits are not cuddle bunnies, but through daily working with them you can get pretty close.