Rabbits Are A “Hands On” Pet

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

14 thoughts on “Rabbits Are A “Hands On” Pet

  1. I have two Flemish Giants who adore one another. My boy Eric was desexed at 6 months of age and Ruby at 12 months. Immediately after Ruby’s operation Eric started going to the toilet anywhere in their hutch other than the litter tray. I would move the tray to where he had just gone but he would just go somewhere else. This has become the norm now so it’s very frustrating for me as they’re huge bunnies so cleaning is constant. They are never locked in their hutch. Their smaller door is open 24/7 so they have the run of the back yard at all times as we are fully fenced and private. We also have two Maine Coon cats who guard the property with their lives so the bunnies have 24 hour security. Any suggestions on how I can possibly aim at fixing the toilet issue would be appreciated. Bunnies certainly have a mind of their own so I’m a little sceptical there is anything that can be done!

    I am also about to very slowly introduce a recently neutered (tomorrow) rescue Flemish Giant named Archie to the mix hoping they will all eventually bond. He was going to be taken to the SPCA but the thought of that made me sad. He has an ear that flops to one side like a Lop so not sure what happened there. My family and I thought very seriously before adopting him but thought he deserved a chance at life. We are paying to have him neutered so it will calm him for the introduction in a few weeks. He will remain inside with us for a time before meeting Eric and Ruby while supervised in a neutral indoor space. After a while he will be able to exit the house and spend time outside in the garden whilst being able to see Eric & Ruby but unable to make contact with them in any way except through perspex panelling. He can also view them on the lawn from the veranda. The vet who Archie was surrendered to has kindly given us a reasonable time frame in which to see if this relationship will work so we don’t stress out everyone concerned. I know it can take time so patience and common sense are the key. At the end of the day Eric & Ruby are our priority so if this bond works I will be so happy. Any suggestions you might have that would make this bonding easier would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks.

    • After writing a post I have just read your philosophy on bunnies living indoors and fully respect your views, however, just in case you were wondering why I let my bunnies live outdoors, I live in New Zealand and the worst predator we have would be a cat. We don’t have wild animals in the seaside peninsula we live in. I wouldn’t expose them to any danger if I thought it possible and the size of these rabbits makes any cat think twice. My Maine Coon cats are incredibly territorial and love the rabbits. They are very laid back and happy rabbits who groom each other, snuggle and are in one another’s company always. Even the cats lay with them and groom them. We all spend a lot of time with them and it’s lovely to venture into the yard and have them come running up to us for a scratch and a cuddle. We sit on our veranda and watch their antics. They provide us with a lot of pleasure and are a huge part of our family despite living outdoors. They can come into the house at any time during the day in winter and most summer nights but their preference is outdoors where they forage and find shade on a hot day. They have plenty of shelter in a tropical garden. Its more like a resort than anything else. Cheers!

      • My main response to your rabbits living outdoors is the myxomatosis disease. I know that this stuff is all over Australia. Don’t you have that stuff there in New Zealand, too? My understanding is that you did. You know that all it takes is one flea or mozzie bite to be 100% fatal, no cure. That stuff just showed up here in the USA a couple years ago. I am paranoid to let my bunnies go outside, because fleas and mozzies are everywhere, as are the wild rabbits who carry the deadly disease.
        Loved reading about how you love your big bunnies, BTW. I love those big guys, too.

        The Bunny Guy

    • Whenever you add another rabbit to an area, that will start up a “marking” contest, this is especially true with boys. They will act just like male cats and want to pee and poop on every single square inch of “their” territory. Neutering and bonding, usually fix this issue. As long as they are not bonded or neutered, I would expect this behavior to continue unabated. It is what rabbits do (pardon the pun).

      The Bunny Guy

  2. Thanks very much for your response. I have been very busy with our new bunny (now Murray, not Archie). He just looks more like a Murray. He has made himself quite at home and the laundry has become his feeding and toilet place. We are amazed that he leaves absolutely no dropping around the house (1 or 2 occasionally). We have had to put up pet gates at each bedroom so he doesn’t wee on the beds and the cats can come and go when they choose. I don’t know what it is about beds and rabbits. It’s a bit frustrating but easily remedied. He is the most hard case rabbit I have ever had and he makes us laugh every day. We often check his still alive as when he decides to go to sleep he just flops over where he is and then he’s out for the count. We just step over him and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. He even sleeps on his back which is a very prone position for a rabbit. In the mornings we hear him and the cats running up and down the hallway playing together. After breakfast he sits at the door like a cat and waits to go outside. He has his own run and we have now put mesh gates up so he and the other 2 rabbits can sniff and get used to one another. Eric wouldn’t let Ruby near Murray at first but finally that has calmed down and I think they are just about ready to be introduced, one at a time. I haven’t wanted to rush it as Ruby & Eric adore one another so I didn’t want to upset the dynamics between them. Eric is much more relaxed that there is another boy on the scene. Their toilet issues have improved slightly although not completely.

    To answer your question, Myxomatosis was introduced here in New Zealand in 1952 but it never became established. There was a call for it again in 1980 but the Government found more negatives than positives in using it. A programme was set up for rabbit control but there is still an ongoing debate regards other controls. Calicivirus is the only real threat but there is a vaccination for this. Where we live there is no real risk of wild rabbits coming into contact with domestic rabbits.

    Cheers :)

  3. I’m doing everything you suggest to hold my rabbit everyday so she gets used to it.she is.the problem I have is when I sit on the floor she will come to me to get pet but then she ends up nipping me.shell run behind me and nip my back.or jump on my lap and scratch my clothes and bite my clothes.I’m saying No! When she bites.I will get up and turn my back on her.it helps a little.she is too young to be spayed.

    • Sounds like aggressive behavior. This usually wanes after spay or neuter surgery, but it could also be your bunny girl trying to tell you something. Is she getting enough playtime or run time out of her abode area? I recommend spaying her ASAP and then waiting about four weeks. Then if she continues to do this, it will not be due to needing her spay surgery.

      Make sure that you seek out a rabbit specialist vet for her spay. Dog and cat vets are notorious for failing at bunny spays. If you need help finding a specialist, email me and I will help, if I can.

  4. Very nice input about our cute little pets or kids, for that matter. Back in England, a friend of mine has a backyard full of rabbits and they are just so adorable. She would let them run around but I am just not sure during the winter and snowy weather. Great post and thanks for sharing. – Ryder

  5. Hi,

    I’ve just spent a few hours reading your blogs and QAs and found it very interesting and informative. I got a lionhead from a shelter about 6 weeks ago and they think she’s around 8 months old, but they gave me all the wrong information so I’ve been trying to piece together the correct info ever since! For example, they told me she would drink 1-2 large bottles of water a day, so when she drank nowhere near that I thought she was dying and tried to bottlefeed her like a baby. They also told me to give her 2 bowls of pellets a day and a bowl of veg. Well the veg gave her bad diarrhoea which resulted in a trip to the vet and now I can see from your site that I’m giving her far too many pellets.

    Do you suggest weaning her off slowly with a few less each day or should I cut down faster than that. And given her previous problems with veg (kale) should I try and reintroduce a bit more or keep her on a small handful of pellets for nutrition? At the moment she gets half a tomato or a little bit of kale every 2-3 days as I’m terrified she’ll get ill again.

    The main question I have is about her behaviour and if you have time to answer I’d really really appreciate that. I had her spayed about 3 weeks ago and she’s recovered well, but I don’t know if we’re bonding like we should be. I keep her in a 2×1 metre pen while I’m at work and then let her run free in the living room whenever I’m sat in there, which is for about 5 hours most evenings. She does jump up on the sofa or come to kiss and jump on me when I lie on the floor, but she still seems scared sometimes when I try to stroke her and she hops away. I think in general she’s happy as she does lots of binkies but do you think she’ll come to love me more with time?

    I do worry that keeping her on her own may be making her sad but I don’t want to introduce a second rabbit too quickly before I’ve bonded with her, and I’m worried they wouldn’t get on anyway. Can it take a few months for them to properly bond with an owner? The most touching time was when I took her to the vet with diarrhoea and she nuzzled into me to escape the vet – at least then I seemed the lesser of two evils!

    My last question is regarding temperature. I can find plenty of forums online that say they are best in temps between 11 degrees C and 26 degrees, but I want to give her the best possible temp, not just what she can endure. At the moment I leave the thermostat at around 18-20 degrees C (64-68 F) and have a thermometer to check. Does that sound good or would you recommend colder/warmer?

    Oh and one last thing – I haven’t taken her outside at all yet as it’s freezing cold. Do you think she’ll suffer from lack of fresh grass and fresh air etc? When it’s warmer I can put a pen outside and sit supervising her but I’ll never leave her alone out there.

    Thanks so much for any advice, and sorry for the essay this turned out to be.

    • My guess would be that this girl is probably already a bit overweight because of the amount of food they were giving her. Therefore, I would start her new diet right away.
      The kale is good but you need to give her a variety of veggies each day. Tomatoes are not that good for rabbits and have some alkaloids in them that are thought to be unhealthy for a rabbit’s kidneys, longterm. I would stop with the tomato and start giving her a variety of at least three green leafy veggies each day.
      Avoid giving the same food every day. This week you can give parsley, red top lettuce and some kale each day. Then next week, give some cilantro, romaine lettuce and some basil or dill. By changing their diet, you keep them from having a build up of the different alkaloids or toxins in many of the foods. Also, many of them are quite high in calcium and this presents a problem if too much is ingested. Rabbits excrete excess calcium in their urine and prolonged overeating of this mineral can cause a sludge to develop in their bladders.
      There are many lists of healthy good vegetables for rabbits online and what is available and your rabbit’s preferences will also play a role in what you decide to feed her.
      Always test a bunny with new veggies by adding just one new one at a time. This way if your bunny has a reaction to it, you will know which one it was. Many bunnies are allergic to certain veggies, such as the way your rabbit reacted to the kale. I have found all kinds of food allergy with rabbits and so you do not want to keep giving your bunny something that is going to make her sick all the time.
      That said, I have noticed that most rabbits will not embrace new foods right away. Mine need to be introduced several times to a new food before they will eat it. This means that if you give your rabbit something once and she does not eat it, just serve it again because often they need to be exposed to it a couple times before they will accept it as food.
      Your rabbit is obviously liking you but you are scaring her because you are ignoring her signals and communications. It would help a lot of you were to study rabbit language a bit. You would be surprised how much your girl is probably telling you and you are ignoring her.
      For example, if you mirror her body position and posture, she will not be as threatened by you. When a rabbit turns sideways to you, she is telling you that she is slightly afraid of you and she is going to run away if you come closer. If you turn sideways, too she will know that you got the message. When a rabbit gives you the butt, you are being told that she is angry and does not want you any closer, right now. Learn to recognize her signals and she will respond a lot better and bond with you.
      Rabbits like it slightly cooler than we do. They do get cold if it is too chilly, but they normally are the most comfortable in a temp where we might want to get a sweater. Hot temps are what you need to be careful about. Temperatures over 80F can be fatal for a rabbit.
      Rabbits don’t need fresh grass and can do just fine with only fresh hay. 80-90% of their diet should be grass hay. Only 10% should be veggies. They don’t need pellets at all and a teaspoon to a tablespoon is more than sufficient for an adult rabbit, depending on size.
      Just be away that all the things that can hurt your rabbit exists outside. Disease, predators and toxic plants are out there and taking them outside exposes them to these elements. You are very smart to be there to supervise outdoor activity because this is where things can go wrong very quickly.

      Thanks for writing and hope this answers some of your questions.
      Stephan
      The Bunny Guy

  6. we just got two baby rabbits a couple weeks ago and the one is more accepting of being held/ picked up than the other one. i’m glad I read your post because now I know to pick them each up at least once a day.
    how much space does a rabbit need to run around? do i need to give them access to the entire house for several hours a day or is running around a small room ok? do i need to get lots of things to stimulate the bunnies mind?

    • A small room or a hallway is big enough. They need enough space so that they can get up to speed and do their bunny dances and binkies. You will know the space is large enough when you see them doing the Bunny 500 and big hops in the air while they are running at full speed. The minimum recommended pen or cage size is 12 sq.ft., but they need about 2 or 3 hours a day of run time in a much larger area to be happen.
      Yes, things that are stimulating for bunnies are old phone books, toilet paper tubes stuffed with hay, apple or willow sticks, cardboard boxes and hidey boxes.

  7. I have a new bunny, a Holland lop, a male. I rescued him from a petting zoo because of his sweet temperament and seeing how the children were allowed to treat him, and the others there. I loved him at first sight. Yes, I’ve had several bunnies in my life, but find your information here so enlightening, and just love it all.

    My question: this sweet little blue lop is so dear, and to bond with him I did something I did with small kitties I was bottle feeding one – I made a pouch inside my shirt and I put him there to see if he would like me to “wear” him a bit and bond. I gave him a spinach leaf, he ate it happily and quickly, then settled down to sleep.
    So, I was just wondering if you had run across others, or even yourself, who had ‘worn’ their bunnies for a bit, and how that had turned out. He seems very content to snuggle down and sleep or just to lay with his tummy next to my chest with his head poking out while I work on the computer. And he is very bonded to me already, after only having him a couple of weeks.

    Your thoughts?

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