Basics of Bunny Handling and Behavior

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2008 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

The Crate, From the Rabbit’s Point of View
Rabbits in a crate view that crate as their home. When you enter it, you are violating their space. A few rabbits may welcome you, and run forward to be petted. But most will view you as an unwelcome intruder, just as you would view someone entering your home without invitation.

Interpreting Common Bunny Behavior
Thumping can mean a variety of things, depending on the context in which it occurs. It can signal danger, indicate nervousness, or be a statement of “I don’t like what you’re doing.” If it occurs when you are intruding into the rabbit’s home, it may be all three.

Bulging eyes
Rabbits’ eyes bulge because of either fear or pain. It obviously indicates fear if their eyes bulge when you enter their space.

Ears laid flat against the shoulders
When rabbits lay their ears back, they are are frightened or preparing to do battle.

Ears held forward
When rabbits hold their ears forward, they are showing interest. If you are entering their space, such ears indicate that they are curious about you.

Quivering cheeks
Rabbits “tooth purr” when they are very content and happy, by rubbing their teeth together gently. If you are walking past and happen to see this happening, about all you will notice is their cheeks appear to be quivering.

When rabbits leap into the air and fling their rumps around, or do aerobics in the air, they are expressing the joy of being alive and having space. These dances in the air have come to be known as “binkies.”

Flopping onto the side
Rabbits have a way of lifting their feet and falling onto their sides in a single sudden move that can make someone not familiar with rabbits think the rabbit has had a seizure or died on the spot. Actually, it’s just a way for rabbits to express that they feel very safe and relaxed.

Sitting motionless for long periods
A depressed rabbit will sit in a single position for very long periods of time, staring at nothing. This is very similar to a severely depressed human and not to be confused with a sleepy rabbit. Happy rabbits nibble at hay or other food stuffs, groom themselves and perhaps their companions, play with toys, and generally take an interest in life.

Body Postures
Aggression: tail lifted high, ears back, leaping forward (some rabbits are very protective of their mates and will attack if you touch the mate)
Urinating: tail lifted slightly, crouching
Relaxed: tail not lifted, ears forward or hanging down (in the case of lops)

Initial approach
When you approach a rabbit in a crate, be aware you are violating the rabbit’s space and the rabbit may not appreciate it. The proper way to approach a rabbit is with the back of your fingers coming down between the rabbit’s eyes. You may need to be on a stool in order to be high enough to do this.

If you bring your hand toward the rabbit horizontally, one of two things may happen:
1. The rabbit will be able to lunge at it.
2. The rabbit cannot see fingers in front of their nose. If your fingers smell like something to good to eat, they may take a bite.

Rabbits you approach in their crates will typically have one of three responses:
1. Friendly response: The rabbit comes forward, lowers her head as your fingers come down between her eyes, and allows herself to be picked up easily.
2. Frightened response: The rabbit hides in a corner, or behind something, and tries to avoid you. Sometimes, frightened rabbits remain still and drop their heads as your hand lowers between their eyes and allow themselves to be picked up. Others will flee from corner to corner trying to avoid you. With these, you may need to wait until they are in the litter box, then quickly and sharply pull the box toward you, grabbing the rabbit’s scruff to hold them still, and then pick them up.

(Note: NEVER lift a rabbit by the scruff. Be prepared for the rabbit to use his back legs to scratch at your hand and arm to free himself. You must be very quick to lift the rabbit using the techniques indicated below.)
3. Aggressive response: The rabbit lunges at you. Keep you hand above the rabbit’s head, coming down between the eyes with the backs of your fingers. Follow the rabbit around the crate until he drops his head (usually when he’s cornered).

Picking Up a Rabbit
Because the spine of a rabbit is the most fragile and easily damaged part of their bodies, it is essential you prevent the spine from flexing backwards when lifting them!

1.Move the rabbit into a position facing you
2.Slide your right hand under the rabbit’s rib cage
3.Put your left hand on the rabbit’s rump, above the tail
4.Press the rabbit’s body with your right hand against your left arm,
and lift quickly to get those powerful back feet off the floor
5.Fold your left arm into your body, so the rabbit is against your body

(Left handed people will probably be more comfortable reversing the above directions.)