How to Train a Rabbit to be Held

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Those of us who are lucky enough to share our lives with a rabbit (or two (or six!)) understand what a pleasure these amazing little animals can be to be around however experienced owners also know that the love of a rabbit does not come cheap! As prey animals rabbits are naturally nervous pets that are understandably cautious.  As a result training a rabbit to be held can be notoriously difficult!


Unlike new dogs or cats that can become a lifelong friend as soon as you start providing them with regular treats or a bowl of food (otherwise known as the moment they realise you are their primary food source!) rabbits are not so easily taken in.


Rabbits, introduced into a new environment will take significant time to become settled and even more time to become confident around humans or other animals.


For new owners bringing a rabbit home for the first time, it’s often unexpected that when trying to handle their new companion they are met with resistance.


This is a problem, after all, how do you build a relationship with someone that seemingly doesn’t want to be anywhere near you!?


The point of the tips we are going to discuss is to help your rabbit feel comfortable and teach him through association that allowing you to pick him up results in a pleasant experience.


Inexperienced owners often envisage rabbit ownership as akin to keeping a cuddly ‘toy like’ pet they can stroke and carry around to their hearts content (as remembered from childhood visits to the petting zoo).  This isn’t usually the case.


The first thing to realise about handling is that if you’re finding it a problem, you’re definitely not alone.  More often than not, rabbits do not appreciate their feet being  four or five feet off the ground!


Don’t despair, and more importantly don’t give up on your rabbit.  You are still perfectly capable of showing him that he has nothing to be scared of.


Remember nothing happens overnight, if you really want to be able to handle your rabbit confidently you need to take it slowly.


Were here to explain how anyone can train a rabbit to be held and help that rabbit feel safe in your (loving!) arms!

Why Most Rabbits Hate Being Handled


Before you can attempt to handle your rabbit, it’s important to understand just why your rabbit won’t be too keen.


For rabbits, being picked up is a scary experience.  As kittens, rabbits unlike many mammals are not carried around by their mothers , for a wild rabbit, having their feet off the ground means that the rabbit is probably about to become lunch for a bird of prey, a hungry fox/coyote or a whole host of other predators (depending on which corner of the globe he lives!).


Kittens from captive mothers will of course be handled more frequently by breeders during infancy, however they still retain instincts from their wild cousins which usually display themselves more as the rabbit matures (and learns to fight for survival).


When they do eventually reach adulthood some rabbits approached by a human they don’t trust of course feel threatened.  If grabbed incorrectly by an inexperienced pair of hands or perhaps a young child the rabbit may liken this to being snatched by a predator.


Consequently the rabbit may panic, bite or scratch to escape (this can be quite painful for you as an owner).


This can be a vicious circle, you try to pick your rabbit up, he kicks bites or scratches, you consequently feel like giving up on him and your rabbit feels even more frightened of you than he did before!

Other Reasons Rabbits Don’t Like It !


Infancy, while obviously a great time to start bonding with your bunny, is a fairly short period in a rabbit’s life cycle.  Upon reaching sexual maturity even the sweetest baby bunny (even those  so comfortable they happily perch on your shoulder) may decide they no longer want to be anywhere near you (this is what I sometimes liken to the teenager phase!)


Even continuous handling from birth doesn’t always guarantee building the kind of lasting trust with your rabbit that will allow you to pick him up as an adult.


Rabbits are sensitive animals.  Just like teenagers, rabbits around 4-6 months can have complete personality changes.  Furthermore a neutering or spaying procedure or even just a general trip to the vets for a check-up may also cause your rabbit to become completely averse to contact.


Behavioural changes and aggression may also result from these procedures.


Perhaps you own an adopted rabbit? If so well done! We applaud you! So many lovely rabbits are abandoned every year when irresponsible pet owners discover that a cute bunny isn’t as easy as they thought (or the novelty wears off).


Of course the abandonment and the often neglect of rabbits that leads to them ending up in shelters can have a negative effect on the rabbits personality.


To these rabbits a human is definitely not to be trusted (until they have proved themselves!) sometimes all these rabbits want to do is find a safe hiding place.  In these cases it will be up to you as a caring owner to bring them out of their shell!

Meeting Your Rabbits Basic Needs


In order to be able to gain the trust of your new companion be it a baby, a ‘teenager’ or an adopted rabbit, you first need to ensure he’s happy, this means meeting all of his basic needs.


The first of these needs is adequate space.


Wild rabbits have huge open spaces to explore and even the very largest rabbit cages are no equal.  That said a large puppy pen will provide enough room for the rabbit to be able to display some of its natural behaviours and more importantly be able to move itself away from scary situations.  The space should be set up for your rabbit even before you bring him home so that he can be settled in as soon as possible.


Another important factor in keeping your rabbit happy is diet.  If you are a healthy person who attends a gym you have to eat well ensure your body is sufficiently fuelled and you are in a good state of mind, likewise your bunny needs the right nutrition to keep him happy too.


Keep your rabbit happy and healthy by providing him with an unlimited supply of hay along with fresh greens and water daily along with the occasional treat.


This will ensure that he will be in tip top condition and of course more willing to be trained or taught to doing something that he might not normally want to do.

A Quick note before we start!


A rabbit learns by association which means that they can be somewhat manipulated into doing something (or tolerating at least) if that something becomes associated with a pleasant experience.  You will notice as you work through this article that we mention using ‘treats’ a lot.


Treats are a great rabbit manipulation tool which we feel work well alongside praise and gentle head stroking in order to get your rabbit used to certain actions such as (lifting him off the ground!).


However we appreciate the need to keep your rabbit healthy and our reference to treats should not be interpreted as high calorie sugary pet shop treats that may cause your rabbit weight, health or teeth issues.


When deciding on treats to use before embarking on any kind of rabbit training always consider the long term effects on the rabbits health.  If at all possible choose small pieces of herbs (your rabbit may not be used) such as some tasty basil or oregano, very small pieces of fruit and vegetable such as apples or carrot pieces and parts of flowers such as dandelion.


Alternate different types of treats to avoid your rabbit becoming too bored and never feed excessive amounts.

Establish Where Your Relationships At


To be able to pick up your rabbit without a struggle, you will first need to establish where you already stand.


Does your rabbit let you approach without running away? If so well done, if not, it’s time to take a step back and work on your relationship.


We’ll be providing a full guide on building a bond with your rabbits in a future post which we’ll link here however some ideas on the basics can be found below.

Building Trust


Building a bond and adequate trust with your rabbit forms the foundation of any training programme you may undertake, be it training your rabbit to use a litter tray, clicker training your rabbit to hop up onto a sofa or getting your rabbit comfortable with being picked up!


You rabbit needs to feel completely safe around you before attempting to pick him up and building this bond will take time.  Remember,  he’s the boss and this needs to be on his terms.


Start by talking to him in his cage.  If he’s a new addition to your family this may be on the day you bring him home.  Offer an occasional treat through the bars to encourage him to come closer.  Keep an eye on him and if he shows signs of agitation, give him some space.


Your rabbit may initially be startled or jumpy to see you at first but visit him regularly until he starts to get used to you.   It won’t be long before offering treats through the bars of the cage progresses to the rabbit taking food directly from your hand.  The long term aim is to get the rabbit to allow you to stroke his head without any signs of agitation.


If you have the space available allow your rabbit to free roam in a safe hazard free environment.  Sit nearby and keep a few treats handy, if the rabbit approaches you, reward his curiosity with a treat.  Carry out this process on a regular basis until the rabbit allows you to stroke him without him running away.


This process may take weeks of consistent effort but eventually the rabbit will start to see you as a friend.

Consider a Road Trip


Another great trick to bond with your rabbit is to take him for a drive.  While of course we don’t recommend unnecessary ‘scare tactics’, similar to how a car journey can be a good way of bonding two rabbits together, this mildly uncomfortable event can also have a similar effect on your own relationship and enable you to begin making a trusting bond.


If you have someone who is willing to drive you, taking your rabbit out will provide the unfamiliarity in surroundings that will cause the rabbit to seek comfort and of course you as his owner will be there to provide this.


Start by ushering him into a pet carrier and carefully putting it on the passenger seat of your vehicle, sit with the carrier on your lap as the vehicle moves off.


When the vehicle is in motion carefully remove him from the carrier, supporting him under his bottom and holding him against your chest.


Stroke him gently, talk to him and reassure him that he is safe, he will surely appreciate the comfort you provide and start to see you as a pair of safe hands.


Ensure you put the rabbit back in the carrier before exiting the car or if the rabbit shows any sign of distress.

Another Tip


Picking your rabbit up on occasion is necessary for health checks,  veterinary appointments or even nail clipping (for those brave enough to attempt this themselves!)  If your currently finding handling difficult carefully ushering the rabbit into a pet carrier rather than chasing him about can also be a much less stressful option for both of you, especially in the early days of your relationship.


Treats of course can be used to encourage him into a carrier and leaving the pet carrier close or inside the rabbits living space and occasionally leaving food inside will also encourage your bunny that the carrier is nothing to be feared.

How To Start Picking Your Rabbit Up


Rabbits learn through association and by now your rabbit has likely started to associate you with the pleasant experience of a tasty treats!


You’ve made some great progress so far, remember that scared bunny that would run away at first sight of your approach? He’s probably approaching you now, perhaps even giving you a cheeky nudge to encourage you to give him some attention! Well done!!


However just because you are able to pet your rabbits head, or stroke him along his back this doesn’t necessarily mean he trusts you enough to allow you to let you raise him a few feet off the ground.


Handling a rabbit to pick him up is quite different to a simple head pet.  You will be touching some of the rabbits more sensitive areas,  namely his underside/chest, bottom and back.  First you will need to get your rabbit used to being touched in these areas.


Kneel on the floor until your rabbit approaches (keep some healthy treats at hand).  Begin by attempting to increase the area your rabbit has so far allowed you to pet, initially this may be uncomfortable to your rabbit but if he moves away, do not chase him or attempt to grab him back.  Instead let him take some time before encouraging him back with a treat.


When picking up your rabbit he will also panic unless he feels his weight is being supported. Prepare your rabbit for handling by extending your hand down his back until you are supporting his bottom.  Again this may take some getting used to for your rabbit but be persistant and reward him and he eventually won’t even notice!


Continue this stage until you can successfully touch the rabbit in the areas that you will be handling when you pick him up.

Getting Your Rabbit Used To Small Heights


If you’ve managed to successfully bond with your rabbit to the point whereby he’s happy to spend time with you and is allowing you to fuss him you are doing really well.  That said were not quite finished yet.


Attempting a full lift of your rabbit from a kneeling position to a high up standing position would obviously be quite a shock for a bunny.  Think about it, when visiting the local swimming pool for the first time did you start at the very highest diving board? Of course not! you started on the smallest one and built up to it!


Likewise similar progressive levels should be used for your rabbit.  Attempting to pick him up too high, too soon could completely scare him out of his wits, destroy your relationship and put you right back at square one! The first of these progressive levels should be getting him used to a very small height.


From the usual kneeling position, attempt to lift your bunny onto your lap, (this will only equate to mere inches if your kneeling on the floor alongside him).  If your bunny allows this, amazing! Reward him with a treat, give him some gentle head strokes and set him back down on the floor.


If your bunny shows resistance he may not quite be ready for this yet, he may feel more comfortable just putting his two front paws on your lap for now.  If this is the case, use a treat as encouragement moving it a bit further towards you and a bit more out of your bunnies reach until he eventually (over time) hops up for it.


Give the rabbit a while to get used to this lap height before you attempt the next crucial step.

Holding Your Rabbit At Mid Height   


With your rabbit now comfortable sitting on your lap and being petted (even in areas he might see as somewhat peculiar!) it’s time to progress to the next level.


From the kneeling position with your rabbit on your lap place your dominant hand at the base of the rabbits back and gently cup his behind.  Continue to stroke the rabbit with the other hand, and keeping your dominant hand as a support to his hind quickly slide your other hand underneath him between his front and back legs.


Take the weight of the rabbit using both hands and quickly bring him up against your chest.  Keep your dominant arm close (much as if it were in a medical sling or you were holding a football) and let your whole arm support the weight of the rabbit. The ideal position involves your hand being positioned to the front of the rabbit with front paws supported.


Move your other arm and position it alongside the rabbit’s side as further reassurance to the rabbit that you have a secure hold of him and he will not fall.


At first it’s likely your rabbit will struggle or his breathing may become heavier.  If this happens carefully lower him back down as you reassure him (offer him a treat as a reward for being good!).


Carry out this process four or five times a week until your rabbit becomes more comfortable.  While there are no guarantees that he will ever be completely at ease you can reinforce this as a positive experience using (you’ve guessed it!) a treat!

Progression to Standing


Just look how far you’ve come! finally after all your consistent effort you are loved and trusted by your rabbit! He’s happy to eat from your hand, lets you pet him regularly and loves to sit on your lap for some fuss!


You are hopefully now also used to sitting and holding your rabbit against your chest without too much of a struggle and more importantly without too much stress or discomfort to the rabbit.


But what’s next? Obviously it’s nice to sit with him and feel close but picking up your rabbit is usually going to be for practical reasons, perhaps you want to take your rabbit into another room, transport him into a nearby run or garden or move him into a carrier for an upcoming veterinary appointment?


Standing up is the easy part (well we say easy but we do understand that you may have taken several months to reach this point!).


From a kneeling with your rabbit firmly against your chest, straighten your legs to a half standing position, if your rabbit shows agitation or starts be breathing rapidly at the sudden change in height drop back down to the kneeling position.  If he seems ok with it slowly and carefully stand up.


Hopefully your rabbit will now see you as someone who can be trusted with his safety, and will allow you to handle him without a struggle.


If your rabbit does not appear to be comfortable with a full standing position consider a more gradual height increase.  This might include lifting your rabbit up on to the settee or a bed before progressing higher.

Final Thoughts


As rabbit owners it is possible to leave your rabbit to his own devises to some extent, and provided he is given adequate space to roam your rabbit will happily go about his business without ever feeling the need to be picked up, indeed this represents the least stressful option for your rabbit.


However, in most cases leaving your rabbit alone without any contact is detrimental to your relationship and not in the best interests of the rabbit who may start to feel isolated, especially if he’s not really being treated as part of the family.


There is no getting away from the fact that even if you can resist the cuteness and do not intend to be constantly petting and handling your rabbit, sometimes picking him up is essential for his own good!


These steps while not exclusive to all rabbits represent our opinion of best practice if you hope to be able to pick your rabbit up with minimal stress to the rabbit (and the least risk of a nasty scratch or a bite!).


While there are different opinions and exceptions to the rule the ones shared in this article are based on our experience however no one is in a better position than you to know how strong your relationship is with your rabbit and what he may tolerate.


In most cases its simply not enough to attempt to get your bunny ‘used’ to being picked up by constant handling, the rabbits natural instinct is fear and will put the rabbit under a huge amount of stress.


Remember just like people all rabbits are different.  Some may be fine with being picked up from the very start while others may never get used to it however consider the advice and put in the groundwork on your relationship beforehand to build trust and you will give yourself a great chance of success.

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