Most rabbits enjoy a good massage. They’ll melt into the floor while they enjoy the wonderful sensation of being petted. However, there are many pet rabbits out there who avoid being touched. They’ll quickly hop away from you at the first sign of your hand coming towards them. I’ve worked with many rescue rabbits to help desensitize them to touch and make them more friendly toward people. For a few rabbits, this is just their personality, but most rabbits can learn how to enjoy being petted if you give them a little bit of incentive.
You can teach your rabbit to tolerate being touched by petting them while simultaneously giving your rabbit a treat. Eventually, the rabbit will become more comfortable around you and enjoy being petted for longer periods of time.
Of course, you have to make sure you’re petting your rabbit in a way that causes them pleasure and not discomfort. If you pet your rabbit the wrong way, they will never learn to accept being petted and will always run away from your hands. I’ll discuss the basic technique for petting rabbits in this article, but for more detailed information check out my article all about how to pet rabbits.
Do all rabbits hate being touched or petted?
While it’s true that some rabbits hate being touched, I have found that these rabbits are in the minority. Pet rabbits who have been socialized with people from a young age will typically grow to love being petted. For most rabbits, petting is a pleasant sensation. Once they’ve learned that human hands are not something to be afraid of, they’ll be more willing to stick around and not run away when you touch them.
But of course, not all rabbits grow up with human companionship, and many learn to fear people instead of trusting us. So, it’s not uncommon to find rabbits who shy away from human hands. For other rabbits, it comes down to their personality or mood. They’re only willing to be petted on their own terms, when they are sleepy and comfortable.
- Related reading: Does your rabbit hate you? Learn how to gain their love
Why rabbits don’t like to be touched
Even though it’s not necessarily common for rabbits to hate being touched, it’s not altogether unusual either. There are many reasons a rabbit could be hesitant around people and avoid being petted, even if they are otherwise very confident rabbits. Once you understand the source of your rabbit’s avoidance, you can teach your rabbit to enjoy a nice massage, or learn when and where they like to be pet the most.
The rabbit was never socialized with humans
If you adopted your rabbit from an animal shelter, it’s not unusual for them to come from a neglectful background. They may never have gotten the chance to bond with people and don’t really understand what you’re doing when you try to pet them.
Many rabbits who grew up like this end up being more sensitive to touch than other rabbits. While you can work to desensitize them over time, it will take a lot longer for them to allow you to pet them. However, with some time and patience, these rabbits can eventually learn to bond with you and stop running away when you touch them. You can use the steps in the following section to help desensitize your rabbit over time.
The rabbit had bad past experiences
Sometimes rabbits avoid being pet or touched because of bad past experiences. Maybe they have been handled roughly, or people pet them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. In this case, the rabbit’s avoidance of being touched is based entirely on fear. You will need to teach your rabbit to trust you before you can pet them.
One of the main causes of this fear is when rabbits are held too frequently. Most rabbits are afraid of being held, so if you pick them up every time you interact with them, they’ll start to associate your hands with that feeling of fear. You’ll want to temporarily stop holding your rabbit until they start to trust you more.
You can follow the steps in the next section to get you on the right track for desensitizing your rabbit to touch. I also have an article going over my step-by-step process for befriending scared or shy rabbits. So check that out for a more thorough guide in gaining the trust of a rabbit.
You’re not petting the rabbit correctly
Rabbits don’t like to be petted the same way that cats and dogs do. They hate when you touch their chin and can get offended if your hand approaches them directly in front of their nose (they have a blind spot). Always pet your rabbit with your hand coming from above their head.
The places that rabbits like to be pet most include:
- Behind the ears
Some rabbits will enjoy long strokes down their back, and some rabbits will like ear rubs as well.
It’s best to avoid petting:
- Belly and chest
Your rabbit is not in the mood right now
Sometimes it’s not that rabbits hate being pet, they’re just not in the right mood. In general, you should avoid petting your rabbit when they are eating, self-grooming, or using the litter box. When rabbits are active, anxious, or excited, they are usually less receptive to being touched too. If your rabbit is completely asleep, they might also be less responsive to petting.
The best times to pet a rabbit is when they are relaxed and chilled out, but not asleep. You might see them loafing around or sprawled out on the ground just observing the world around them. You can sit down next to them and rub their forehead and cheeks or stroke their back. You’ll know your rabbit enjoys it if you see (or hear) them grinding their teeth together. This is a sign of comfort and contentment in rabbits.
If you wait and interact with your rabbit on their own terms, they’ll be more likely to appreciate you and stay around when it is time for petting. Whereas if you keep bothering them all day long, your rabbit will be less likely to allow you to touch them.
That’s just the rabbit’s personality
Most rabbits eventually learn to enjoy being petted, but there are a few out there who simply prefer to be left alone. Unfortunately, if this is the case, you’ll have to learn to accept your rabbit’s personality for what it is. Some desensitization might help your rabbit tolerate being touched or feel more comfortable around your hands, but always make sure to respect your rabbit’s boundaries.
How to desensitize a rabbit so they don’t mind being touched
Most rabbits who don’t like to be touched can be taught how to enjoy it. Usually, they will enjoy the sensation once they have had enough experience. In fact, most of the rabbits who avoid being pet the most to begin with end up loving it and constantly beg me for more. My Elusive was one of those rabbits and now she will literally climb into my lap to get me to pet her more.
Use this technique to help your rabbit associate petting with a positive reward. Over time, they’ll learn to see the petting itself as a reward too! Expect this process of desensitization to take at least a couple of weeks if you work with your rabbit every day. It can take a lot longer for especially shy rabbits.
- Gently pat your rabbit on the head while giving them a treat. Touch your rabbit on the forehead with one hand while giving them a treat with the other. If your rabbit gets spooked and runs away, don’t chase them. Wait for them to come back for the treat and try again.
- Give your rabbit two pets on the head while giving them a treat. After your rabbit will let you touch them while giving them a treat, start to give them little scritches on the forehead. Start by giving them one or two scritches, but increase them as your rabbit gets more comfortable.
- Little by little, start to pet behind your rabbit’s ears. Once your rabbit will stay put while you pet their forehead, start moving your hand a little. Try petting them behind the ears, starting with one scritch and increasing as your rabbit becomes more comfortable. You can also see how your rabbit reacts to cheek petting since this is a sweet spot for many rabbits.
- Stroke your rabbit. If your rabbit is comfortable with you petting them around their head, it’s time to see how they feel being pet down their back. Start with just one stroke, then go back to petting your rabbit around their forehead and ears.
- Pet your rabbit without a treat. As your rabbit starts to feel more comfortable being touched and pet, you can phase out the treats. By now, the petting will feel like a massage and it will be a reward in and of itself for the rabbit, so they won’t need treats as an incentive anymore.
When using treats with rabbits, remember to cut them into very small pieces. Remember, too many sugary treats can cause an imbalance in your rabbit’s gut, causing potential health risks. You can also use your rabbit’s pellets or leafy greens for healthier alternatives.
How age affects rabbits who don’t like to be pet
In working with many rabbits of different breeds and ages at the animal shelter, I’ve found that one of the biggest factors in a rabbit’s tolerance to touch is their age. Young rabbits are less likely to sit still for long periods of time and enjoy a good massage. They are also more likely to hop away when they are touched. Usually, as rabbits age they are more willing to allow you to touch and pet them.
I’m not sure exactly what the cause is. Maybe young rabbits have more sensitive skin, or maybe they still need to be socialized with humans. Alternatively, they might just have a shorter attention span and don’t like sitting still for long periods of time. Whatever the reason, you can use the technique in the previous section to start desensitizing your rabbits to being touched. Usually, they will settle down as they reach two years old or so, and they’ll be more likely to enjoy being petted by you.
When your rabbit doesn’t like to be held
Most rabbits will eventually learn to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being touched and pet. However, the same is not true for holding rabbits. In my experience, nine out of ten rabbits will be terrified of being picked up.
The problem is that a rabbit’s first line of defense is their ability to run away. When they are being held, there is no way they can escape if something scary happens. Because of this, they end up feeling trapped and scared when they are held.
I recommend avoiding picking up your rabbit unless you have to (to clip their nails, give them medication, etc.). Instead, it’s best to cuddle with your rabbit by petting them when all four feet are on the ground. This will increase the amount of trust your rabbit has in you, making them more likely to allow you to touch and pet them in the future.
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- Hay: Second Cutting Timothy Hay from Small Pet Select
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- Treats: Oxbow Simple Rewards
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- Enclosure/cage: A rabbit exercise pen
- Rabbit carrier: SleepyPod Mobile Pet Bed