How To Handle a Rabbit (An Illustrated Guide)


how to hold a rabbit

Many people will get a new pet rabbit and expect them to be cute and cuddly all the time. They see videos and photos of people who easily hold their rabbits, and think that all bunnies have patient and laid back personalities. This is, unfortunately, not true. 

Every once in a while, you will come across a very patient rabbit who will put up with being held all the time. This is actually very rare. Out of all the rabbits my family took care of, only one rabbit tolerated being held with any amount of grace. And even at the shelter, where I work to socialize rabbits, there are only a handful who don’t mind being picked up or handled.

Despite this, it’s important to learn how to properly hold your rabbit. You may need to handle them for any number of reasons, from grooming them to checking them for any signs of a medical condition. While most rabbits won’t appreciate you picking them up all the time, it’s still important to practice handling them occasionally. That way you can pick them up when you have to.

Do rabbits like to be held?

It’s a common misconception that rabbits like to be handled. In reality, most rabbits are afraid to be held. Rabbits are prey animals. They have survived because of their ability to run away and hide. This means that rabbits always like to have their feet on the ground. They want to be able to make a run for it as soon as they sense danger.

When being held, rabbits no longer have the ability to run away. Even though you don’t mean them any harm, most rabbits will feel trapped when they are being held. They will struggle to escape, and if they are being held incorrectly, the rabbit can easily get injured. 

As a rabbit caretaker, it’s important to respect your pet. Try to refrain from holding them every single time you interact with them. If you are trying to gain the trust of a shy rabbit, you will want to completely stop picking them up until your rabbit is very comfortable around you. Otherwise keep the cuddles to a minimum so that your rabbit doesn’t become afraid of you.

There is always an occasional exception to this rule. Some rabbits just have a calm demeanor, and some rabbits who were well socialized when they were young will tolerate being held. Even if your rabbit throws a fit every time you pick them up, they can learn to calm down. It will take trust on their end and a proper handling technique to help them feel secure in your arms.

When you might need to hold your rabbit

If your rabbit is one who dislikes being picked up, you should avoid holding your rabbit most of the time to respect their autonomy. But on occasion it will be necessary to pick them up. Whether it be for their own safety, or just for convenience, you will not be able to completely avoid handling your rabbit.

Some of the most common occasions you will need to handle your rabbit include:

  • Nail trimming: Unless you choose to bring your rabbit into the vet to get their nails trimmed every month or so, you will need to learn how to do this on your own
  • Keeping your rabbit out of trouble: Rabbits have a tendency to be little troublemakers. You might need to occasionally pick them up to remove them from any areas where they are exhibiting their more destructive habits.
  • Giving your rabbit medicine: If your rabbit gets sick, you will need to administer their prescribed medicine. For elderly rabbits, you may even have to give them a daily arthritis medication to help them stay active.
  • Placing your rabbit in a carrier: Most rabbits won’t hop into their carrier on their own. You will need to pick them up whenever you are traveling with the rabbit or bringing them to the vet.

How to pick up a rabbit (step by step)

It is important to use the correct technique when picking up your rabbit because they can get scared and try to struggle free. Rabbits have a relatively weak spine. If their bottom is not supported the rabbit could kick so hard that they throw out their back. If this happens, it is possible the rabbit will paralyze their back legs.

To prevent this, you want to make sure you are fully supporting your rabbit when you pick them up. Make sure the front half and the back half of the rabbit are being securely held at all times. To pick up a rabbit you will want to:

  1. Place one hand under the rabbit’s chest. It can be useful to try to get both of the rabbit’s front paws in your hand. This can prevent the rabbit from struggling as much.
  2. Place the other hand under the rabbit’s bottom. You’ll want to make sure the rabbit’s weight is resting gently in this hand as you pick them up so that they don’t accidentally get injured.
  3. Lift the rabbit and hold them close to your body. Keeping the rabbit close to your body will help them feel more secure. You will also be able to use your arms to wrap around your rabbit and prevent them from struggling or escaping.
how to pick up a rabbit
How to pick up a rabbit: 1) Place one hand under the rabbit’s chest; 2) Place one hand of the rabbit’s bottom; 3) Lift the rabbit and hold them close to your body.

How NOT to pick up a rabbit

Rabbits should only be picked up in the way described. No matter what you may see in cartoons and movies, you should NOT pick up your rabbit by the ears under any circumstances. This is very painful for the rabbit and can cause serious injury. 

You should also NOT pick a rabbit up by the scruff on their neck. Rabbit mothers do not carry their young in that way, and their bodies have not adapted to make this a reasonable way to carry rabbits. The skin on the back of their necks is very closely connected to the muscles underneath. Picking a rabbit up by the scruff will put excess strain on these muscles and may even cause a painful tear.

How to hold a rabbit securely

Once you have picked up a rabbit, you will need to be able to hold onto them securely. There are a number of ways to correctly hold a rabbit. The way you choose will come down to your rabbit’s personality and your own comfort level.

The main goal when you hold a rabbit is to keep them in your arms without squeezing them and risking injury. Some rabbits are calm once they have been picked up, even if they put up a fight beforehand. Most of the time you’ll only need to use a minimum amount of handling to keep these rabbits from jumping out of your arms.

Some rabbits, however, will be constantly struggling or looking for ways to jump free. You’ll need to keep a grip on these rabbits so that they don’t jump out of your arms and potentially injure themselves.

How to hold a rabbit:

  1. Allow the rabbit to stretch out and put their front paws up on your chest or shoulder. Keep their feet and bottom supported with one arm while lightly wrapping your other arm around the rabbit to keep them stable.
  2. Keeping a grip on their bottom and front half, cradle the rabbit in your arm. Don’t turn the rabbit completely upside down. Instead keep their head up while you cradle the rabbit against your body.
  3. Keep a grip on the rabbit’s front half while holding them up against your body or laying them against your other arm. Make sure the second hand is supporting the backside of the rabbit and use the support of your torso to keep the rabbit from jumping out of your arms.
  4. Hold the rabbit with their back facing toward you and their feet out. Make sure their front and backsides are supported. This is a useful position for clipping a rabbits nails if you have a partner who can help.
4 ways to hold a rabbit
4 ways to hold a rabbit: 1) Front paws on your shoulder; 2) Cradle in your arms; 3) Laying against your arms; 4) Back toward you with paws out.

How to put a rabbit back down

After you pick up a rabbit, you will also need to put them down eventually. Rabbits don’t always land on their feet like cats do, so you need to be a little more careful when placing them back on the ground. Here are some steps to help you put your rabbit back down without risk of injury:

  1. Hold your rabbit securely against your body. Many rabbits will start to get jittery when they sense freedom is in their near future. Keep them secure in your arms to make sure they don’t jump too early and injure themselves.
  2. Slowly lower yourself down on your knees to a kneeling position. You can allow your rabbits back feet to settle onto your legs.
  3. Lower your arms to allow the rabbit to go free. Now that they are close to the ground, they won’t be injured when they hop out of your arms.
How to put a rabbit on the ground
How to put a rabbit on the ground: 1) Hold the rabbit securely; 2) Lower yourself into a kneeling position; 3) Allow the rabbit to hop out of your arms.

If you struggle to get all the way down to ground level, you can use a chair or sofa to help. Lower yourself down part-way to allow the rabbit freedom onto the higher surface, or simply sit down on the sofa and open your arms to let the rabbit free. 

If you are ever putting your rabbit down onto a slick surface, such as a kitchen floor or a tabletop, put a towel or mat down. Rabbit feet don’t have much traction on slippery surfaces so they might slip or skid when they hop out of your arms. Having a towel or mat will give your rabbit’s feet the traction they need.

You’ll also want to be ready with a reward after you put your rabbit down. Most rabbits are very upset when being picked up and handled. They’ll probably flick their feet at you when they hop off, which is a way rabbits express their displeasure with their body language. Getting a reward might keep them from being too upset with you.

Of course, sometimes rabbits will still be very upset. I had one rabbit who would give me the cold shoulder for hours after being handled, so sometimes they just need a little time and space before they’ll forgive you.

How to burrito a rabbit

Sometimes when you handle a rabbit, they will need to be more securely held. In these cases, it will be necessary to make a bunny burrito with your rabbit in a towel. For the most part I only need to burrito my bunnies when I need to give them medicine. For example, I had to give my elderly rabbit, Tenshi, her arthritis medication every day. Tenshi was pretty stubborn, so I had to wrap her in a burrito to make sure she would take the medication.

To burrito your rabbit you will only need a towel and your rabbit. It is also helpful to wrap your rabbit on a higher surface, such as a table, that your rabbit unfamiliar with. This will keep your rabbit from immediately hopping away.

To burrito a rabbit:

  1. Put the towel on a flat surface and place the rabbit on top. You’ll want to place the rabbit closer to one end of the towel. Stand directly behind them, keeping the rabbit from backing off of the surface. Do your best to pet your rabbit and calm them down.
  2. Fold over the front of the towel so it’s above the rabbit’s front paws and snug around their neck. You don’t want to pull it so tight that you choke the rabbit, but you don’t want it to be so loose that they will be able to shake free.
  3. Fold over the shorter side of the towel and tuck it under the rabbit’s abdomen. Lift their paws to get the towel securely under the rabbit’s weight. It should be tight, but not compress the rabbit’s chest. You can continue to pet your rabbit to keep them calm.
  4. Wrap the other side of the towel all the way around underneath the rabbit. You will need to gently lift the rabbit up while you wrap the towel underneath. Make sure it is snug but not too tight.
  5. Lift the back portion of the towel up, over the rabbit’s bottom. This will keep the rabbit from backing out of the burrito.
  6. Bring the remaining flap up and over the rabbit, tucking it in underneath. Now your rabbit is in a secure burrito and ready to take their medicine.
HOW TO BURRITO A RABBIT
How to burrito a rabbit: 1) Place your rabbit on the towel; 2) Fold the towel over the front of the rabbit; 3) Fold over one side of the towel; 4) Wrap the other side of the towel around; 5) Fold the back flap up; 6) Wrap the remaining flap and tuck it under the rabbit.

Desensitizing your rabbit to being held

To make handling your rabbit easier, you can work to desensitize your rabbit to being touched and held. The idea is to get your rabbit used to being touched on their chest, bottom, and feet, so that they won’t make a fuss when they are being picked up. This won’t work unless your rabbit trusts you, so before you start trying to desensitize your rabbit you should take the time to bond with your rabbit.

If you are working with a young rabbit (less than 6 months) the process of desensitizing your rabbit will be a little easier. At this young age, your rabbit will likely be more open to being touched and held on occasion. You’ll be able to teach your rabbit that being held isn’t so scary before they really learn to be afraid of it.

To desensitize your rabbit, you’re going to want to go slow. You don’t want your rabbit to stop trusting you.

  1. While you are petting your rabbit, occasionally leave a hand on their bottom or down by their chest. Do not try to pick up the rabbit. If the rabbit thinks you are going to pick them up and runs away, don’t run after them. Instead allow them to come back to you so you can continue petting them.
  2. After the rabbit is used to the bottom and chest being touch, start moving your hands to both these areas at the same time. Do not try to pick your rabbit up yet. You’re just trying to get your rabbit used to your hands so they won’t hop away before you have a chance to pick them up.
  3. When your rabbit stays calm whenever you put your hands in lifting position, start to pick up your rabbit just an inch off the ground. Then put them back down and continue petting them. Your rabbit will probably run away the first few times you do this. Don’t chase after them. Instead let them come back to you so you can continue petting. Eventually the rabbit will understand that what you’re doing isn’t scary and they’ll be right back on the ground again.
  4. Continue to lift your rabbit higher until you are holding them in your arms. Then put them back down. Go slow, and remember to never chase your rabbit. The goal is to teach the rabbit that they don’t need to be scared of being picked up, because they will eventually be put back down again.

Rabbit safety tips

Because rabbits can be feisty, it’s important to practice some basic safety to reduce the chances of injury to everyone involved. So whenever you are going to pick up your rabbit, keep these tips in mind:

  • Calm the rabbit down first. It’s much easier to pick up a calm rabbit than an energetic, active rabbit. To calm them down, spend a little bit of time petting the rabbit to give them a nice massage.
  • Pick the rabbit up from the ground instead of bending over from standing. It’s much easier to stay balanced if you kneel down next to your rabbit to pick them up rather than trying to grab them while you are standing. This will help you have a more secure hold on your rabbit too.
  • Supervise children. For the safety of both the rabbit and the child, it’s important that you supervise any interactions very closely. Rabbits can be easily injured if they are grabbed or held in the wrong way. They can also scratch or bite with their strong teeth if they are feeling frightened.
  • Form a trusting relationship with your rabbit. Rabbits are more likely to be calm in your arms if they know you care for them and won’t try to hurt them. They might still be uncomfortable or tense, but they are less likely to struggle continuously.

The controversy of trancing a rabbit

Trancing a rabbit is a technique that is used to immobilize a rabbit. The rabbit is turned over onto their back with their feet up. In this position, the rabbit’s instincts will force them to “play dead,” so the rabbit will not move while in this position. 

In past decades, this was a traditional way to handle rabbits to make nail clipping and grooming easier. However, as we learn more about rabbits and their survival mechanisms, we have found that this can be a very stressful position for a rabbit. Studies have shown that both the rabbit’s heart rate and stress hormone levels increase significantly while in this position. 

For this reason, it is considered bad for a rabbit’s welfare to be put into a trance with any frequency. This technique should only be used on very rare occasions as an emergency or last resort. For example, your rabbit-savvy vet might use this technique if they need to perform an important medical examination. 

Other ways to interact with your rabbit

Just because you aren’t holding your rabbit all the time doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with them. In fact, rabbits are very social creatures and love to socialize with you and the family. They just like to interact with their feet on the ground. Consider these options when going to play with your cute little bunny:

  • Petting them while sitting on the floor. Rabbits love to be pet, and they’ll be happy to come running up to you if they know they’re going to get a nice massage out of it.
  • Teaching your rabbit to jump onto your lap. Rabbits don’t like to be picked up and placed in people’s laps, but you can teach them to jump into yours of their own volition. Try luring them with a couple treats and see if you can get them to hop onto your lap while you’re sitting on the sofa.
  • Teaching your rabbit tricks. You and your rabbit can have fun and bond with each other with some training sessions. Teach them to give you a high five or give you kisses.
  • Give toys to your rabbit. You can make or purchase many toys to give your rabbit. Anything from cardboard tubes to puzzle toys can be a lot of fun for a rabbit. Learn more about how to find toys that your rabbit will want to play with.
  • Grooming your rabbit (and letting them groom you). While many rabbits dislike brushes, others can find them very relaxing. Sometimes rabbits will try to thank you for petting or grooming them by licking you in return. That’s a great sign of trust and love from a rabbit.

Sources:

  1. McBride, A; Day, S., McAdie, T., Meredith, A., Barley. J., Hickman, J. and Lawes, L. “Trancing Rabbits : relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear?” Proceedings of the VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare, http://wabbitwiki.com/images/b/bb/Tonic_immobility_paper_ghent.pdf.
  2. “Trancing.” Rabbit Welfare Association And Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/trancing.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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