Many people believe that bunnies don’t really like being pet. Rabbits may shy away from hands, or they may even seem to get aggressive or upset with someone who tries to pet them. In my experience, even these rabbits actually love to be pet. You just need to learn the techniques to make your rabbit feel safe and relaxed while you pet them.
Do rabbits like to be pet? Most rabbits love being pet. Many will calmly sit with you for long periods of time while you give them a nice massage. Petting is a great way to calm an anxious rabbit down and to bond with your pet rabbit. However, it’s important to learn the techniques to pet your rabbit in a way that they will love.
Even shy rabbits or those who have had traumatizing experiences with human hands in the past can learn to love petting. If you are patient with your rabbit, you can teach them to make good associations with human hands. They will eventually be content to sit with while you give them a nice massage.
How to pet a rabbit
Petting a rabbit is a little bit different than petting a cat or a dog. With other pets, you will typically approach them with your hand directly in front of them to give them nice scritches below their chins and around their necks. Rabbits, however, need to be approached in a completely different manner if you want them to see your hand in a friendly way.
1. Make sure your rabbit can see your hand
Before you ever touch your rabbit, you want to make sure your hands are approaching them in a way that is not scary or offensive. For this, we need to have an understanding of rabbit vision and how they see the world around them. We also need a basic understanding of some dominance-based rabbit behaviors.
First it’s important to learn a little bit about rabbit vision. Rabbits have an almost 360º field of vision, but they have a blind spot right in front of their nose. This means, if your hand approaches your rabbit from directly in front of them, they can’t see what you’re doing and they might get scared. Therefore you always want to approach your rabbit with your hand at least a little bit to one side of their head.
You also want to pet your rabbit with your hand above their head. In groups of rabbits, a dominant rabbit will display his position by getting in the face of other rabbits. If your rabbit believes they are are the dominant bun, they might get offended by your hand coming directly at them. To prevent your rabbit from getting aggressive, you’ll want to approach your rabbit with your hand above them.
When you are going to pet your rabbit, make sure your hand is approaching from above their head and to one side. This helps your rabbit see your hand and will prevent them from taking offense at the gesture.
2. Petting the head
The safest place to pet your rabbit is on their forehead. Rabbits love the sensation of being pet here. It’s also the easiest place to reach with your hand coming from above their head. While petting your rabbit here, you can give them little scritches with your fingers, or you can give them small strokes on their forehead.
3. Petting behind the ears
If your rabbit is comfortable being pet on the head, the next place to move is behind their ears. This tends to be a sweet spot for rabbits. Give them a massage behind their neck here. They will often shift their position to relax more into the floor. If you’re feeling really dexterous, you can give your rabbit a massage behind their neck with the four fingers of your hand while rubbing their forehead with your thumb.
Should you avoid touching your rabbit’s ears? Contrary to popular belief, most rabbits don’t have very sensitive ears. While most rabbits aren’t necessarily going to enjoy an ear massage, they don’t mind when their ears are touched either. It’s a neutral area for rabbits.
However, you should not under any circumstances try to pick your rabbit up by their ears. This is very painful for rabbits. Instead you want to learn how to hold your rabbit correctly by supporting both the front and back halves of their body.
4. Full body massage
When your rabbit is comfortable with receiving scritches on their forehead and behind their ears, it’s time to try giving them a full body massage with strokes down their back. If your rabbit is not used to being stroked like this, they might be startled at first. This doesn’t mean your rabbit didn’t like to be pet this way, it just means that they didn’t expect it.
To help your rabbit get used to being pet down their back, start by giving them shorter strokes halfway. Continue giving your rabbit scritches on their forehead and behind the ears while adding in the occasional stroke down their back. Slowly increase the length of the back-strokes until your rabbit gets used to it.
Once your rabbit is used to being touched all the way down their back, you can start to give them a full body massage. Give your rabbit scritches up and down their back and massage them until they ‘melt’ into the floor.
5. Petting the cheeks
Many rabbits also enjoy being pet on their cheeks. Similar to being pet on their backs, they may be startled at first when you go to pet their cheeks. As you are petting their forehead, occasionally give them a little rub on either cheek. Over time, make these cheek rubs longer so you are giving your rabbit some wonderful cheek massages.
Petting your rabbit on the cheeks can be especially useful because it gives you a chance to do a basic tooth check. You can feel around your rabbit’s cheek teeth to see if there are any bumps or abscesses that are out of place. This can help you catch any signs of overgrown teeth as soon as possible.
Where rabbits don’t like to be pet
Most rabbits will be very happy to be pet for long periods of time, but there are areas that they prefer not to be touched. A rabbit who is pet in these areas is likely to jump away instead of relax:
- Butt: A rabbit’s bottom, right around their tail, tend to be a sensitive spot where they don’t like to be touched.
- Belly and chest: A rabbit will guard their underside very closely. They may snap at you, run away, or change to a position where their belly and chest are pushed against the floor so that you can’t get to them.
- Chin: Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits tend to shy away from any hand trying to touch their chin.
- Feet: Rabbits like having control of their feet at all times so they can run away when necessary. They will quickly run away if you try to touch their paws, especially their hind legs.
Over time, you can build up your rabbit’s tolerance to being pet in these areas. This way you can handle them more easily when you need to. Being able to touch their butt and chest will be useful when you need to pick up your rabbit. In addition, being able to touch their feet will make clipping their nails much easier.
As you’re petting your rabbit try giving them long strokes down their back that end at their butt. Then leave your hand there for a short time to get them used to being touched while they are also experiencing the pleasure of a massage. Similarly, you can desensitize your rabbit’s paws by touching them for short periods of time while you are also petting them in ways they enjoy.
For their chest, you can first start massaging the rabbit along the sides of their body. Work toward leaving one hand below their chest while the other is giving them nice petting. This way your rabbit will no longer be afraid of being touched on their underside.
How to know your rabbit is enjoying your petting
If you want to know that you are petting your rabbit correctly, the best place to look is at your rabbit. Their body language will tell you whether or not they are happy with your petting technique.
What signs are you looking for?
- Teeth grinding: Also called purring, this is when rabbits gently grind their teeth together to make a soft vibration. You might hear the sound it makes, but it can be very soft. The other ways to know if your rabbit is purring is when their whiskers are gently moving or when you feel a vibration when you pet their head. Learn more about the sounds that rabbits make and their meanings.
- Melting into the floor: Rabbits that are very relaxed and happy will shift their position so that it almost looks like they are melting into the floor. They’ll stretch out into a comfortable position, and then put their chin flat on the ground.
- When your rabbit asks to be pet more: You can test whether or not your rabbit wants to be pet more. Stop petting them and place your hand on either side of their head, near their nose. If the rabbit softly nudges your hand or does nothing and just sits there expectantly, then you know your rabbit is enjoying being pet and wants more.
Some rabbits will shy away from human hands and don’t seem to enjoy being pet. There is the occasional rabbit who just doesn’t enjoy the sensation of being touched. However most of the time, the aversion to being pet comes from some bad association with human hands. The rabbit may be afraid of being picked up, or they have been handled roughly in the past.
These rabbits won’t automatically enjoy being pet, but if you are patient with them, they can learn. In fact, most of the rabbits that I’ve worked with at the shelter who were completely avoidant of human hands at first, were the ones who actually enjoyed being pet the most.
Petting a shy rabbit
To teach a shy rabbit to love being pet, you’ll need to have a lot of patience. They will be completely avoidant of human hands at first, but then they have a eureka! moment, where they understand that your hands are not going to hurt them. All of a sudden, they’ll become the most cuddly rabbits who are always demanding to be pet.
- Touch your rabbit on the head while giving them a treat. Your rabbit might flinch away at first, but they will come back for the treat. Continue petting them in this way, with just one pat on the forehead while you give them a treat, until they no longer shy away from your approaching hand.
- Give your rabbit scritches behind the ears. After your rabbit is comfortable with being touched on their forehead, add in some scritches behind the ears. The rabbit will probably tense up at first and may back away. Wait for them to come back for the treat and keep trying until they are comfortable being touch on their forehead and behind their ears.
- Give them strokes down their back. Start with giving the rabbit just one stroke down their back and then moving your hand away. Increase the amount that you pet them as your rabbit starts to get used to your hand. Continue to give them little treats to reward their good behavior until the petting itself becomes the reward.
This whole process could take a week or it could also take many months. Be patient with your rabbit and give them time while you teach them to love being pet. In the meantime, you’ll want to avoid holding your rabbit as much as possible, because that will lead your rabbit yo distrust you and continue to be afraid of human hands.
How age affects petting rabbits
Young rabbits can be a little bit of a different story. These little bunnies tend to have a lot of energy and a short attention span. They may enjoy being pet, but they’re not likely going to sit still for any long period of time.
But as your rabbit gets older they’ll start to mellow out. They’ll be more likely to enjoy a good cuddle session sitting next to you. Usually by the time a rabbit is about two years old, they’ll be starting to settle down for some relaxing petting.
Do rabbits like to be held?
Most of the time rabbits don’t like to be held. It makes them feel trapped and unable to escape if a predator happens to come along. While it may be necessary to hold your rabbit occasionally, you should avoid making it a common way that you interact with your rabbit.
How do you know a rabbit loves you?
Rabbits will show that they love you in many ways. They may say they trust you by laying down on the floor next to you, or they might lick you to groom you and show that they care about your well being. All in all rabbits are very social, and if you take the time to bond with your rabbit, they’ll be happy to send love back to you too.
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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