I have worked to help socialize hundreds of rescue rabbits over the past 5-10 years. Almost all of the rabbits I’ve interacted with have come to love being petted once they start to trust humans. If you’re a dog lover, you may immediately jump in and try to give your rabbit a nice belly rub, but this is not the best place to pet most rabbits.
Most rabbits do not like belly rubs. They tend to be sensitive in this area, causing them to change position or hop away if you try to give them a belly rub. Some will be quite offended if you try to touch their belly, and will hold a grudge for a short time afterward.
There are always exceptions. Occasionally, you’ll find a rabbit who loves (or at least tolerates) belly rubs. If your rabbit is lying on their side, you can see how they react to belly rubs. However, if you’re trying to befriend a new pet rabbit, you should probably leave this area alone until your rabbit has had time to trust you a little more.
Why rabbits don’t like belly rubs
For most animals, the stomach is a vulnerable area that needs to be protected. For this reason, it’s actually uncommon for animals, including rabbits, to enjoy being pet on their stomach. Dogs are the main exception to this rule, but since they are so common as pets, people often think other animals will behave similarly.
Luckily, rabbits don’t usually attack hands that try to touch their belly like some animals do (cats, I’m looking at you), but most rabbits will quickly get up and walk away. Some will flick their feet at you in the process, which is a way for rabbits to say they are very upset with you (I always say it’s a rabbit’s way of flipping people off).
The main reasons rabbits usually don’t like belly rubs include:
- They’re sensitive on their stomach: Rabbits are simply more sensitive on their underside causing them to hop away. It’s similar to the way you instinctively move away when someone tries to tickle you.
- They are afraid you’ll pick them up: Many rabbits (especially rescue rabbits) have learned that human hands that come close to the belly mean someone is trying to pick them up. Since most rabbits hate being held, they try to avoid letting anyone touch them in this area.
- Protecting the stomach is an important survival instinct: Most animals have the instinct to protect their torso and stomach since there are many vital organs in this area. Rabbits are no exception.
- You’re rubbing too hard: Rabbits are fairly delicate animals, so when petting them, you have to make sure you are quite gentle.
Do some rabbits like belly rubs?
Of course, every rabbit is unique. I have interacted with a handful of rabbits who didn’t mind if I touched their belly (out of a few hundred). In general, larger rabbits are more likely to tolerate their belly being touched since they also tend to have more laid-back personalities.
Rabbits are more likely to tolerate belly rubs if they’ve flopped over on their sides, or otherwise relaxed. It also really helps if your rabbit already knows and trusts you.
You can also desensitize your rabbit to being touched on their belly over time. As you’re petting your rabbit along their back, you can occasionally pet them along their sides and move closer and closer to the belly. Don’t do this too frequently at first, since your rabbit will probably get up and walk away. But slowly (over several weeks or even months) you can rub your rabbit’s belly more often and see if they start to like it more.
How to know if your rabbit hates belly rubs
It’s generally pretty easy to tell if your rabbit doesn’t like belly rubs. Most rabbits will immediately flip over so you can’t touch their belly, and then get up and hop away. Occasionally, you’ll get a rabbit who growls at you or even tries to bite your hand. This is why it’s always best to know your rabbit and their personality before ever trying to touch their stomach.
What other places to avoid petting a rabbit
The belly isn’t the only sensitive area for rabbits. If you find your rabbit is always running away when you try to pet them, it may be that you are just petting them in the wrong places. Rabbits are different from cats and dogs and generally don’t like being petted in the same places.
In addition to the belly, rabbits generally don’t like being petted in the following ways:
- Butt: Most rabbits will get annoyed if you try to touch their butt. If your hand travels too far down when stroking the rabbit’s back, they may get up and leave because they are uncomfortable.
- Feet (especially hind paws): Rabbit feet are quite sensitive and most rabbits prefer it if you leave them alone. The back legs, in particular, are areas that rabbits don’t like.
- Chin: Unlike most other types of animals that I interact with, rabbits don’t like their chin being scratched.
Some rabbits prefer it if you don’t touch their sides too. If you’re petting your rabbit along their back and your hand goes too far to the side, some rabbits will get up and hop away. You’ll also occasionally find a rabbit who prefers it if you don’t touch their ears, but most rabbits won’t mind. The ears aren’t a place that they’ll find relaxing to pet, but they also usually don’t run away just because you touched them on the ears.
Where do rabbits love to be petted?
Despite their many sensitivities, most rabbits that I interact with do enjoy being pet after they have time to trust someone. This even includes rabbits who have come from neglectful and bad conditions that leave them fearful humans when I first meet them. The trick is to make sure you’re petting your rabbit in a way that they find enjoyable and relaxing.
The best areas to start petting your rabbit are on their forehead and behind the ears. These tend to be sweet spots for rabbits and feel like a nice massage. Once your rabbit is comfortable with you petting them in these places, try stroking them on the back and rubbing their cheeks.
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Recommended Products and Brands
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- Hay: Second Cutting Timothy Hay from Small Pet Select
- Pellets: Oxbow Garden Select Food for Rabbits
- Treats: Oxbow Simple Rewards
- Toys: Small Pet Select Natural Toys
- Enclosure/cage: A rabbit exercise pen
- Rabbit carrier: SleepyPod Mobile Pet Bed