Rabbit Behaviour Problem: My Rabbit Hates Being Picked UpDoes this sound familiar? If you have a rabbit like Harry that hates being picked up, then read on to find out why your rabbit reacts that way and how to change it.
Why do so many rabbits hate being picked up?
Being picked up is not a natural experience for a rabbit. Unlike many animal parents, such as cats and dogs, rabbit mothers don't pick up their kits and carry them around. The only time a rabbit would experience this type of movement is if a predator attacks them!
For a rabbit to be comfortable with being picked up, it must learn through positive experiences that being lifted isn't something that causes harm. This should start when they are just as few weeks old as part of socialisation. The person caring for the young litter should get them used to being touched and picked up so they grow up thinking that it is normal and nothing to be worried about.
Unfortunately many baby rabbits miss out on this socialisation before they go to their new home, or they may have bad experiences later on that make them fear being picked up. When a rabbit kicks out and tries to stop you picking him up, it's because he is frightened.
From your rabbit's point of view:
- It's not that I don't like you, but would you go up to a passing acquaintance, grab them around the waist and swing them across the room?
- A cuddle? That seems a little forward - shouldn't we start with a handshake or something?
- My instincts say I've just been grabbed by something that wants to eat me and if I don't make them drop me quick I'm a goner.
- Have you got me? I'm not sure? You don't seem sure? Am I going to fall? It's really high! This is really scary!
- I'm not stupid, I know when you sidle up to me like that you plan to try to grab me. Last time you did that, I got really scared; I'm not staying around for you to try again.
If I just keep picking my rabbit up will he get used to it?
Has that worked so far? I'm guessing you've tried a few times already and your rabbit is probably not showing any signs of getting happier about the process. Every time you pick your rabbit up and he wriggles, fights and gets scared it just reinforces the message that being picked up is a frightening experience and should be avoided.
How do you retrain your rabbit?
To change your rabbit's feelings about being picked up you need to break the cycle and the association between being picked and being frightened. Although the process I'm about to walk you through will take time and patience on your part, it will help your rabbit learn that being picked up isn't scary.
Most people get ahead of themselves when it comes to teaching their rabbit to be comfortable with being picked up. If you want your rabbit to be relaxed about the process you need to take several steps back...
1. Can you walk up to your rabbit without it running?
If your rabbit runs in the opposite direction when you walk towards it, you are not going to be able to pick it up. Rabbits are very good at reading body language and working out routines, so if you're thinking about trying to pick your rabbit up - he probably knows. If your rabbit hates being picked up and thinks that is what you have planned, then it's not surprising he's heading in the opposite direction.
Before you think about picking your rabbit up you need to rebuild the trust between you. Your rabbit sees being picked up as a frightening experience and associates you or people in general with that. The first thing you need to teach your rabbit is that you aren't going to do anything scary to him - like pick him up.
How do you do that?
The first thing is to stop picking your rabbit up. Your rabbit panics at the first hint that's what you are going to do, and you can't teach him it's not frightening if he's still experiencing fear.
If you need to move your rabbit, use a pet carrier or box that your rabbit can hop into himself - use treats to encourage your rabbit in and out. If your rabbit associates it with the vet then leave the carrier in his space and add tasty food now and then - after a few days without being put in and taken to the vet your rabbit will treat it as part of the furniture. Bottom checks can be done by feel or by encouraging your bunny to sit on top of something see through like the mesh on top of a cage. A set of steps or a tunnel could link a cage to a pen - be creative!
As well as not picking your rabbit up, you need to spend time with him whilst not picking him up. Sit in the pen and allow your rabbit to explore you in his own time. Walk around, past, and through your rabbit's area - not directly at him - and completely ignore your rabbit. Gradually your rabbit will stop reacting to your movement by heading in the opposite direction. You can then start approaching your rabbit and offering food - use your rabbit's favourite part of normal meals to avoid weight gain. It's quite aggressive body language to walk directly at a rabbit head on, so when you approach aim slightly to one side - like you plan to walk past. You might need to start by stopping some distance away and letting your rabbit hop to you.
2. Can you touch your rabbit?
When you pick a rabbit up you touch their chest, shoulders and bottom - can you touch these areas of your rabbit without him running? If you can't touch your rabbit, you are not going to be able to pick him up.
Rabbits learn from experience and know what actions precede others. Many rabbits are happy to be handled up until you touch a specific area or move your arms in a specific manner. Your rabbit knows that those are the actions that signal you are about to try picking them up and that triggers their fear.
Before you can teach your rabbit not to be scared of being picked up, you need to teach your rabbit not to be scared of having those areas touched.
How do you do that?
Think about the areas you stroke your rabbit and the areas you touch to pick your rabbit up - often they aren't the same.
You need to start touching those areas you'll need to use when picking up as part of social interaction, so that they lose their association with picking up. For example, when stroking along the back of your rabbit, continue all the way down the spine until you are cupping their bottom as you would to pick up - but don't lift. You can also allow your fingers to drift down your rabbit's side gradually until they tuck under the chest.
Initially your rabbit will probably move away. That's okay. Do not grab your rabbit! If your rabbit moves away, allow him to and don't follow. If your rabbit knows that he can leave if he wants to he'll be much more relaxed. You need to make your rabbit want to stay - food is great for that! Sit down with your rabbit, offer treats in one hand, and stroke your rabbit with the other. Grooming is a bonding activity between rabbits; it will help strengthen your bond with your rabbit, and that, along with the food, will help make positive associations with touch for your rabbit.
Continue this stage until your rabbit is comfortable when you put your hands in position ready to lift him.
3. Can you support your rabbit's weight?
Before you pick your rabbit up and carry him across a room, you need your rabbit to be comfortable with small movements. If your rabbit runs as soon as you take any of his weight, you will not be able to pick him up.
The goal of this stage is to be able to lift your rabbit so you are supporting his weight, but at least two paws are still safely on the floor so he feels secure. These are the positions your hands need to be in to safely lift your rabbit:
How do you do that?
This stage builds on the previous one, now as you let your hand drift under your rabbits chest when stroking, add a little a little upwards pressure, as if you were about to lift. Do not actually lift your rabbit at first. Again, have a treat in the other hand and allow your rabbit to move away if he wants. Do not rush this! Once your rabbit stops moving away, gradually add a little more lift, and then a little more, working up gradually until your rabbit's comfortable with his front feet leaving the ground. If you have trouble, you could try resting your hand on his chest, then raising the treat upwards so your rabbit naturally lifts his front feet to reach and keeping your hand in position as he moves so you are just supporting his movement not making it.
To pick up a rabbit you'll need to lift the back end too. As before, have a treat in one hand and stroke along your rabbits back, until your hand is in the right position to lift and gently take a little of your rabbits weight. Build up gradually until you are gently lifting your rabbit. Don't lift more than a fraction off the floor; you don't want your bunny to feel like you're trying to make him do a forward roll.
When your rabbit is comfortable with you supporting the weight of his chest and bottom separately, it's time to put the two together. You'll have to put the food on the floor this time! To begin put one hand under his chest, then stroke the other down his back and position it at his bottom. Once your rabbit is comfortable with this, then lift the chest so his front feet leave the ground slightly and then put him back down.
4. Now you can think about picking up your rabbit!
It might take you weeks or even months to get to this point, but now your rabbit is comfortable with you approaching, happy to be touched all over and trusts you to support his weight, you can finally think about picking up your rabbit.
It's a big step, so again it needs to be done very gradually in small increments so your rabbit is always comfortable with what is happening. Your rabbit should already be comfortable with your hands in position to lift, so now start small lifts, so your rabbit's feet just leave the floor and you put him straight back down. Continue by moving your rabbit a few inches forward or sideways and putting him down, again keep your rabbit close to the floor - and don't forget to treat! You can then progress to lifting your rabbit on and off things, for example a thick textbook, low box or on to your lap when you are sitting on the floor. Don't move your rabbit far or too high from the ground. Gradually increase the distance and the height, building up very gradually and going back to include small distances too.
Your rabbit may never love being picked up, but hopefully you can now lift your rabbit comfortably into a box or out of his cage without him being frightened.
As you progress through the stages of encouraging your rabbit to be comfortable when you pick him up, here are a few things to remember:
- Encourage your rabbit to stick around with food but always let him hop away if he wants to.
- Little and often is the key, a couple of goes of whichever stage you are at a few times per day is plenty.
- Don't make all your interaction about learning to be picked up; grooming your rabbit, playing with toys and just hanging out in the same space will all help your bond and build trust.
- Repeat past steps to reinforce the learning; for example, even if your rabbit will now let you lift his chest, you don't have to always do that, sometimes just rest your hand there so your bunny doesn't go back to associating every touch in that area with being lifted.
Teaching a rabbit that is frightened of being picked up to be comfortable isn't a quick process. You'll need to go back to basics and very slowly introduce the concepts your rabbit will need to be comfortable with before you can progress to actually lifting your rabbit. Little and often is the key, along with plenty of patience - good luck!
Did this article help you understand your rabbit's behaviour? If so, you might like to try my book: Understanding Your Rabbit's Habits
- Learn to speak bunny with an illustrated guide to body language
- Understand the motivation behind your bunnies behaviours
- Find out how to support your bunnies behavioural needs