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How to Handle a Pet Rabbit

Learn how to handle a pet rabbit in this Howcast video featuring bunny lover Amy Sedaris and rabbit expert Mary E. Cotter.


Mary: How to handle your pet rabbit. This is a big deal. I see people all the time mishandling the rabbits so tell me. How do I, what's the appropriate way?

Amy: Okay. Well when you first bring a rabbit into your home you want to give him time to chill. Most people don't do that. They're so excited about getting a rabbit. They want to pick him up. They want to cuddle him. They want to put him on their lap. But these are prey animals and anything grabbing a rabbit is a predator to a rabbit.

Mary: Right.

Amy: Nothing in nature picks up a rabbit. Not even its own mother in this kind of rabbit.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: They just don't, they're not easy creatures to handle. That isn't to say that you can't and that isn't to say that they can't be cuddled and all that. But you have to take it a little slowly with them.

Mary: Right.

Amy: So the best thing to do is set up the rabbit in a good sized cage like a puppy exercise pen. Give him room to move around. Give him a nice big litter box. This is before you handle him. And give him a couple days to chill out and get to know the environment. Get to know what it's like when you walk by.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: Then, by the time you're ready to handle him, he'll be familiar with you.

Mary: Right.

Amy: Now, the best thing to do is to sit down in his cage with him, in his puppy pen with him. Read a book. Make a phone call. Text somebody.

Mary: Jeeze!

Amy: Just do things that have nothing to do with the rabbit so he has the opportunity to come over and sniff at you and climb into your lap if he wants to without hands grabbing him. Many of these animals, especially really little rabbits like this one, have been picked up so often that after awhile they just start to snark at your hands and nip at them because that's the only way they can keep hands away from them.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: And then we work with them a long time to calm them down. So what you want to do when they're accepting of handling is to take your hand and really slowly, bring it in from the side rather than from the front, rather than . . .

Mary: Because you want to approach on the side always.

Amy: Where the eye is because . . .

Mary: Where they can't see, their eye is . . .

Amy: Because they can't see directly in front of themselves. Rabbits have not a true blind spot but a functional blind spot right in front of them. And if you do this with your fist and put them between your eyes and look around you'll get an impression. You won't be able to see anything ahead of you. And that's how rabbits are naturally. So you want to bring your hand in from the side, pause for a minute to give your rabbit a chance to decide whether he wants to be touched. If he doesn't, move away. You move away.

Mary: You mean out of the house?

Amy: Move out of the house. Just move your hand away.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: That teaches your rabbit that you're going to respect his space. That if he needs more space and more distance you will respect that. If you don't do that the rabbit will develop a habit of moving away from you to get that distance.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: Once you persuade him that you will move away when you're respecting his signals you remove his need to move away from you. Which is really great because you want him ultimately to come to you. So when you go to pick him up, what do you do? I'm going to take him out of here. This is a small rabbit and I have rather long fingers so I'm going to pick him up just this way to get him this far and put him here.

But when you're picking up to carry him the safest way to carry him is what we call the football hold. Never pick up a rabbit by the ears. A lot of people years ago used to do that. Many people still grab them by the scruff and dangle them. But that skin wasn't designed to hold the weight of a rabbit. It just wasn't. It's not comfortable for the rabbit. When you're picking up a rabbit comfortably the rabbit stays still. They don't struggle. They don't, you know, they don't move around. They don't look like they're trying to get out of your grip. So one way I encourage people to do it is with this football hold. And to do that you're going to move him close to your body like this. And you're going to tuck his head under your dominant arm, I'm right handed, and you pick him up like this.

Mary: Oh, okay.

Amy: And you stay very, very quiet and comfortable. He's fully supported. Doesn't move around.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: This hand is now free to push open doors and, you know, do what I need to do. And to put him back down I just move over to the table and I put him where his feet can grip and he's back on the table. He's really . . .

Mary: Okay. So what's the deal with his feet? Like so how do you hold his feet? Like didn't you tell me once that the rabbit's feet need to be in your hand. They want to feel like, they want to be on the ground. They like to be grounded.

Amy: When they're, when they're being held above like that I don't put my hands under their feet.

Mary: You don't. So their feet are free.

Amy: Their feet are free and relaxed. Usually you'll watch a rabbit's feet just drop down. There are times when you do want to put your hand under their feet. If they're feeling really, you know, ansy and insecure, then you want to give them a sense of security. But the rabbit won't feel insecure like that. Try that yourself and then I'm going to show you another way to pick him up. And you want to watch, this is a good example, you want to watch things like jewelry. If you have a bracelet, if you have long hair and you're leaning over and it's getting in the rabbit's eye.

Mary: Like that?

Amy: Perfect.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: And then just lean over and put him back on the table. This is a tall table for you.

Mary: Yeah. There's lots of different ways I pick up my rabbit.

Amy: And then there's another way to pick up that I like to do. If the rabbit is facing you, you put your elbow down near the rabbit's head and let your hand drop around his little butt. Not underneath, just around on the top of his tail. And then you use this hand and you push his front quarters onto your arm. So you're pushing his weight, his front leg and his rib cage, onto your arm like that. And watch his feet now.

Mary: That looks comfortable.

Amy: Watch his feet. And I'm not suggesting that you hold a rabbit in the air. But see the feet slowly dropping. See that? He's just kind of relaxing because his body is supported. And then I can tuck him under my arm like this and he doesn't struggle.

Mary: Cute.

Amy: There are various ways to pick up a rabbit. If you can get the rabbit to arch his back, for example, watch this. I put my front hand, and I call it the front hand, that's whichever hand happens to be holding the front quarters. In this case it will be my left hand. So my front hand will support him under his chest and his front paws. And his front paws, let me turn this sideways so you can see a little better. His front paws are kind of resting in my hand. And then I use this hand, ask him to arch his back a little. See that little arch?

Mary: Now, that's tricky.

Amy: (?) because they're sensitive.

Mary: Right.

Amy: But that's a sign that he'll relax. Once he's doing that he's not ready to bolt. If he won't do that then I don't pick him up this way. So let's do it again. Watch.

Mary: I corner mine and grab it. Okay.

Amy: So I'm going to put my hand underneath the front quarters and ask him to arch his back a little. If he agrees then I'm going to pick up his hind quarters like this and scooping him up.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: He will stay like this. I mean it's not a good idea to dangle them in the air. I'm just showing you that a rabbit will stay still when he feels well supported. And then I put his hind legs down first because that's where he bears his body weight, and then his front legs.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: And most rabbits handle really, really well that way. I don't know if you want to try it yourself?

Mary: Well, I just do it differently. Maybe it's just a habit that we have, you know.

Amy: Let's switch place.

Mary: Like I do. I just kind of do this. That's how I . . .

Amy: Which is good. You're using an alternative for the football hold.

Mary: Yeah, that's what I do.

Amy: Putting his butt underneath . . .

Mary: But I don't, you know. I know they like to be on the ground. Their feet like to be . . .

Amy: They do. They're ground animals.

Mary: So I only pick her up if I really, you know, have to get her in a carrier, you know.

Amy: And the main thing to when you have to do that is you should have handled your rabbit enough in advance so that you don't have to chase her. If you have to chase her to get her in a carrier . . .

Mary: Broomstick. Yeah.

Amy: Whatever. If you have to chase her then you're a predator.

Mary: Right.

Amy: And she's gonna learn that you're gonna chase her and she's going to run away from you.

Mary: Oh I know. I've been on that list.

Amy: So, yeah. Haven't we all at some point or another?

Mary: Yeah.

Amy: And the other thing is once you've learn to handle a rabbit like that it's pretty easy to get them in and out of a carrier because you can use treats. And we have here a box of raisins. Where's the box of raisins?

Mary: Right there.

Amy: We have a box of raisins. Once rabbits have tasted raisins, and I don't think this guy is a raisin man, I don't usually give him raisins. But once they've tasted raisins and they hear this box rattling like this . . .

Mary: Oh sure.

Amy: Most of them will come running.

Mary: Yeah.

Amy: And if you rattle that raisin box and give him one raisin every day, by the time you have to go to the vet you rattle the raisin box and you put a raisin in his carrier, he'll go into the carrier all by himself.

Mary: Right.

Amy: Not a problem. Easy. So that's one oh one. Handling one oh one. There are lots of other things to talk about but this is a nice, safe, easy peaceful way to do it for the rabbits.

Mary: Okay.

Amy: Which is what we're about.

Mary: Yes.

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