A recent study has revealed that a source of much stress in the lives of many of our pet rabbits is when they are picked up by their owners. Being a ground-living prey species, rabbits associate being lifted off the ground with imminent death.
There is therefore a significant difference between the way we and our pet rabbits like to interact. A number of rabbits may show fear through growling, lunging or biting. Some may ‘freeze’, whilst others learn to tolerate being picked up. Subtle signs of fear or discomfort, such as facial tension, dilated pupils or flattening themselves can very often be overlooked, simply because owners are unaware of the reason for this behaviour. Interestingly, rabbits who live on their own are more likely to tolerate being lifted. Ideally, lifting your rabbit – however tempting it is, should be kept to a minimum, to reduce stress.
Offering a closed hand near the ground in front of your rabbit is a way of asking if he would like to be groomed or stroked. If the answer is yes, then your rabbit will lower his head. If he withdraws or does not lower his head then he is saying no thank you. This should be respected in order to create a happy relationship between you both. However if your rabbit does lower his head, then you should stroke only the head and ears so that he does not become fearful that he might be picked up.
Rabbits can be very easily trained to come back to a whistle, go in their hutches on command or even do simple tricks, for food rewards. Together with the addition of a run attached to the hutch, this allows a degree of freedom of movement and reduces stress. Training also helps to create a bond between you and your rabbit.
Rabbits do need to be regularly checked for any health issues and there are ways to do this that are less stressful than lifting them. How your rabbit is eating or resting can provide your vet with information on the general state of his health. Also, if your rabbit is not responding in his usual way to your commands, this may indicate a change in health. Your rabbit’s claw length can be visually checked and the head can be gently massaged to check for injuries. You can also check his back end by holding a food reward above the head, which should encourage your rabbit to stand on his hind legs.
If all else fails and you do need to lift your rabbit, then it is important to keep the paws supported so he can stabilise himself against any movement. Supporting the rabbit’s back end with one hand with all of the paws on your chest is thought to be the best solution. Lifting a rabbit in a towel prevents direct contact with the paws which is an area that rabbits find most distressing to be touched. Rabbits can be trained to sit on a towel in order to be lifted and moved.
If you would like further information on handling your pet rabbit, please do contact us. We are always here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and would be delighted to help.
Written by Paula Grant – Communications Manager