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.)

Litter Box Training

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2000 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

Rabbits are easy to litter train, providing you understand their toilet psychology. However, because hormones play a major role in their marking behavior, it is necessary for them to be spayed or neutered before attempting this training. Be sure to use only a veterinarian who has a long record of successful spays and neuters. Click here for a list of rabbit savvy veterinarians local to the Las Vegas area.

Litter Training With Respect To Urine
All our domestic rabbits are descended from the European wild rabbit. The variety of breeds is the result of selective breeding – none of them lived in their present form in the wild. To understand their toilet habits, we need to look at the behavior of the European wild rabbit.

These rabbits live in warrens and have the rabbit equivalent to a latrine out away from the warren. Every rabbit goes there to urinate. This keeps the warren clean and keeps predators from following the odor directly to the warren. So the European wild rabbit and all of it’s descendants (our domestic rabbits) have a strong instinct to use a single place to urinate.

If you keep your rabbits in a large comfortable crate/condo, they will choose a corner in which to urinate. Chances are good if you put a litter box with paper litter an inch or two deep covered with hay in a back corner of their crate, the rabbits will use that corner. (See below for types of litter that are safe.) The hay encourages them to sit in the litter box and if the litter gets wet, the hay helps keep them dry. They will eat the hay while it is fresh, but once it is soiled, they will concentrate on the unsoiled hay in their hay box.

Keep the rabbits in the crate/condo most of the time for two or three days. If you let them out during this time, don’t let them approach a corner, and don’t let them stay out long. In the condo, give them toys and a shelf that they can jump up on, to keep them happy. With rare exceptions, the urine training is complete at this point. After that, if you let your rabbits out of the crate/condo but not too far away from it, they will return to the litter box when they need to urinate.

If the rabbits are eventually given the run of a large part of the house, it may be necessary to put a second litter box in a corner of your choosing. Put some used litter in it to help them realize the purpose of this additional litter box.

If other animals live in the home, the rabbits may urinate on the floor of their condo once or twice, declaring “loudly” the condo belongs to them and won’t be shared. This usually doesn’t continue for more than a day or two, especially if the rabbits see that the other animals are respecting their space.

Litter Training With Respect To “Pills”
From the point of view of the rabbit, droppings or “pills” are not so much a waste material as a tool to mark territory. Pills are roughly equivalent to property markers, whereas urine is more like a shotgun, threatening dire consequences if ignored.

The trick to litter-training with respect to pills is to let the rabbits’ crate/condo be their personal, private property. Never reach into the crate when your rabbits are there. Never catch your rabbits and put them in the crate/condo or reach in and take them out. In general, never violate the crate space when the rabbits are in it. As long as rabbits feel that they own territory that isn’t shared, they will mark it with their pills. Pills on the floor of a cage are not a problem, because they are dry and odorless.

The second step in litter training with respect to pills is to block off a relatively small area around your rabbits’ crate, get in that space with your rabbits (i.e., share that space with them) and watch them carefully. If one of them drops a pill, herd the rabbit into the crate and toss the pill in, too. S/he can come back out right away, but each time one drops a pill, herd the rabbit into the crate and toss the pill in. Rabbits quickly learn not to drop pills in the shared space outside the crate/condo. Then you can gradually increase the space to which the rabbits have access, continuing the process described. If you are consistent and don’t hurry this process, you will soon have well-trained rabbits.

Litter Boxes
Ideally, litter boxes should have high sides, because rabbits back into the corner and may urinate over the edge. You will know if the sides are high enough if the urine doesn’t go over the edge. Rubber Maid plastic dish pans work well for many rabbits. There are also metal litter boxes designed with high sides and grates specifically for rabbits.

Rabbits may really “chow down” on materials that would not seem to be very appealing, including their litter. Therefore it is essential their litter material be a safe one.

Safe Litter
• Paper litters, such as FibreCycle and CareFresh, seem to be the safest. Paper isn’t toxic and will pass through the rabbit’s digestive tracts if ingested.
• Hardwood stove pellets are also safe, however NEVER use the pine stove pellets!

Unsafe Litters
• Alfalfa-based litters will be eagerly devoured and are likely to cause obesity, so are to be avoided.
• Corncob litter will occasionally cause serious blockages of the G.I tract – DO NOT USE under penalty of death – the rabbit’s.
• Clay and clumping litters will cause severe blockages leading to death, if ingested.
• Pine and cedar shavings are not to be used because they give off chemicals which cause changes in the liver when inhaled. If the rabbit becomes ill, antibiotics will then be ineffective because of these changes. Discontinuing use of the shavings will return the liver to normal within a few weeks.

Dealing With A Not Very Common Problem
For some reason, some rabbits simply won’t stop urinating all over the floor of their crate. If this is the case with your rabbit, fill the crate with litter boxes so the rabbit has no choice but to use one. At first, s/he may use all of them but eventually s/he will probably stop using one of them – most often the one containing the food and water dishes. Remove a litter box after it has not been used for two weeks. It may take months, but usually a rabbit will stop using another litter box. When that box has been unused for two weeks, that one may also be removed. Eventually, most rabbits will finally accept and use only one litter box.

Summer and Winter Dangers

by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2002 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)


Summer presents some unique dangers to our rabbits. Prevention is best, but should your rabbit be the victim of any of these dangers, contact a veterinarian familiar with rabbits immediately

Heat Stress
Danger: Heat is a major threat to rabbits. Direct sun at any temperature and temperatures over 80 degrees are dangerous. Panting, wet nose, and weakness indicate heat stress.

Prevention: Freeze water-filled, gallon plastic bottles and leave them with your rabbits during the daytime. Provide a large ceramic tile or flag stone to help absorb heat from the rabbits when they lie on it. Ensure an adequate supply of drinking water. Never leave a rabbit exposed to direct sunlight indoors or out! Draw drapes indoors and be certain that outdoor shade won’t move off as the sun’s direction changes.

First Aid: Move rabbit to a cool area. Wipe ears with cold water or alcohol. Place plastic bags filled with ice on either side of the rabbit. Don’t leave your rabbit to rest! Get veterinary care quickly.

Fly Strike
Danger: Flies (any fly, the larval stage of which is a maggot) lay eggs on the droppings in litter boxes or on any wound on a rabbit, including a surgical incision. Maggots hatch, dig through the rabbit’s skin, and proceed to eat the flesh. They also produce a neuro-toxin that paralyzes the rabbit.

Prevention: Keep your rabbits indoors in a fly-free environment. Keep your rabbits clean, especially in the genital area. Keep their litter box clean. Don’t let your rabbits dig in compost piles or any place where maggots might be. Check your rabbit all over, especially in the genital area, every morning and evening for signs of maggots moving under the skin.

First Aid: Get your rabbit to a good rabbit-veterinarian fast. 24-hour IV antibiotics and fluids are essential, and even that may not save your rabbit.

Danger: The cuterebra fly, common in Colorado, has an unusual life cycle, but the larvae end up under the skin of the rabbit (in some cases, in a nostril, or even in the brain). There, it creates a small breathing hole that becomes crusted with the waste from the larva. It absorbs nourishment, without destroying its host, and eventually leaves through the breathing hole.

There are two dangers from the cuterebra:
1. infections can occur in the pocket created by the cuterebra larva
2. If the larva’s body is damaged, the rabbit may go into anaphylactic shock

Prevention: Keep your rabbit indoors. Check them for lumps any where on the body, but don’t mess with a lump if you find one.

First Aid: Take your rabbit to a good rabbit veterinarian to have lumps diagnosed and dealt with.

Ingestion of Fur
Danger: Rabbits groom as cats do, thereby ingesting hair, especially when they are molting.* Unlike cats, rabbits are physically incapable of vomiting, so if the hair fails to pass, and begins collecting as a hairball, it can create a mass in the stomach making it impossible for the rabbit to eat. Veterinarians usually recommend surgery at this point, although we have had good success with a non-surgical treatment.

Prevention: Keep your rabbit well groomed and give them a papaya tablet once or twice a day,** increasing this to as much as three or four tablets twice a day.

First Aid: If your rabbit’s droppings appear to be getting smaller, give him or her several papaya tablets several times a day, and gently massage the stomach (which is high in the abdomen, partly under the “V” of the rib-cage.


Winter presents far fewer problems for rabbits than summer does. Rabbits handle cold better than heat, although either can be deadly. For house-rabbits, there are only two winter-time concerns.

Danger: Drafts can weaken a rabbit’s immune system, and cause them to succumb to illnesses.

Prevention: Keep your rabbits out of drafts

First Aid: Warm your rabbit up and move him or her out of the draft. Watch carefully for symptoms of any illness during the next few days.

Going in and outdoors
Danger: Rabbits do not tolerate sudden changes in temperatures.

Prevention: Do not take them outside from a warm house if there is more than 20° F difference between the indoor and outdoor temperature. An even greater danger is moving a rabbit from a cold environment into a warm one. Again, do not do this if there is more than 20° F. difference between the outside and inside temperatures.

* In the wild, rabbits molt in the spring and fall. The length of day is one factor that sets up when the rabbit will molt. In the middle of the winter, when it is coldest, the days begin getting longer. This causes the rabbit to shed the winter coat and grow the winter coat about three months later. Likewise, in the middle of the summer, days begin getting shorter, causing the rabbit to shed the summer coat and grow the winter coat about three months later. However, when we bring rabbits into our homes, and they are exposed to light until, perhaps 10 PM each evening, light ceases to be a factor in when they will shed. It is not unusual for house rabbits to begin a heavy shed in December or January.

** Papaya tablets have enzymes from papaya and pineapple, providing an easier way to give these than the fresh fruit. Rabbits usually like them, although to introduce them, you may need to crumble them over their pellets for a few days. Papaya tablets can be found at health food stores, but Oxbow makes one especially for rabbits that is much less expensive

Why You Must Spay Or Neuter

The use of the word “must” in the title of this article was an intentional one. For those of us who are involved in rabbit welfare, there is no choice when it comes to spaying or neutering a rabbit, we just know that it must be done. In fact, every rabbit the Las Vegas House Rabbit Society adopts out has already been spayed or neutered. It is our policy to have this beneficial procedure performed for all of our rabbits and it should be yours too!

Below are points taken from the National House Rabbit Society’s article, FAQ: Spaying and Neutering. We hope that they make clear the importance of providing this surgery for your rabbit. As you will read, your rabbit will be healthier and happier because of it.

So if you have obtained your rabbit elsewhere and are considering whether or not to have the operation preformed, please consider the facts below. If you are considering adoption from the LV-HRS, you can have peace of mind knowing that your bunny will have already gone through the procedure and had ample recovery time.

The Facts

Altered rabbits are healthier and live longer than unaltered rabbits. Statistics show that 85% of intact female rabbits will die before the age of 5 due to reproductive cancers. These painful and terminal diseases, ovarian, uterine and mammarian cancer, are virtually eliminated by spaying a female rabbit. Your neutered male rabbit will live longer as well, given that he won’t be tempted to fight with other animals (rabbits, cats, etc.) due to his sexual aggression. Older males are also at risk for testicular cancer. Though not the common problem uterine cancer is, it is a risk nonetheless and one that can be easily avoided with neutering.

Altered rabbits make better companions. They are calmer, more loving, and dependable once the undeniable urge to mate has been removed. In addition, rabbits are less prone to destructive (chewing, digging) and aggressive (biting, lunging, circling, growling) behavior after surgery.

Avoidance of obnoxious behavior. Unneutered male rabbits spray, and both males and females are much easier to litter train, and much more reliably trained, after they have been altered.

Altered rabbits won’t contribute to the problem of overpopulation of rabbits. Over 7 million adorable dogs, cats, and rabbits are killed in animal shelters in this country every year. In addition, unwanted rabbits are often abandoned in fields, parks, or on city streets to fend for themselves, where they suffer from starvation, sickness, and are easy prey to other animals or traffic accidents. Those rabbits who are sold to pet stores don’t necessarily fare any better, as pet stores sell pets to anyone with the money to buy, and don’t check on what kind of home they will go to. Many of these rabbits will be sold as snake food, or as a pet for a small child who will soon “outgrow” the rabbit.

Altered rabbits can safely have a friend to play with. Rabbits are social animals and enjoy the company of other rabbits. But unless your rabbit is altered, he or she cannot have a friend, either of the opposite sex, or the same sex, due to sexual and aggressive behaviors triggered by hormones.

Spaying and neutering for rabbits has become a safe procedure when performed by experienced rabbit veterinarians. The House Rabbit Society has had over 1000 rabbits spayed or neutered with approximately .1% mortality due to anesthesia. A knowledgeable rabbit veterinarian can spay or neuter your rabbit with very little risk to a healthy rabbit. Don’t allow a veterinarian with little or no experience with rabbits to spay or neuter your rabbit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Spay And Neuter

Is surgery safe on rabbits?
Surgery can be as safe on rabbits as on any animal. Unfortunately, the vast majority of veterinarians aren’t experienced with safe rabbit surgery techniques. Don’t allow a veterinarian with little or no experience with rabbits spay or neuter your rabbit. Using isofluorene as the anesthetic and appropriate surgical and after-surgery techniques, spaying and neutering of rabbits is as safe as for any other animal.

At what age should rabbits be spayed or neutered?
Females can be spayed as soon as they sexually mature, usually around 4 months of age, but many veterinarians prefer to wait until they are 6 months old, as surgery is riskier on a younger rabbit.
Males can be neutered as soon as the testicles descend, usually around 3-1/2 months of age.

When is a rabbit too old to be spayed or neutered?
veterinarians will have their own opinions on this, but in general, after a rabbit is 6 years old, anesthetics and surgery become more risky.
It is always a good idea, in a rabbit over 2 years of age, to have a very thorough health check done, including full blood work. This may be more expensive than the surgery, but it will help detect any condition that could make the surgery more risky. This is especially important if anesthetics other than isofluorene are used.

Can you tell if female rabbit has already been spayed?
The probability is very high that she hasn’t. One can shave the tummy and look for a spay scar. However, when veterinarians use certain stitching techniques, there is no scar whatsoever. Hopefully, these veterinarians will tattoo the tummy to indicate the spay has been done, but otherwise, the only way of knowing is to proceed with the surgery.

What does the surgery cost?
Spay/neuter costs vary tremendously in different areas of the country. The low end of the range can be as inexpensive as $50-75 (though we have never heard of the procedure preformed this inexpensively in Georgia) while vets in major metropolitan areas, where rents and labor costs are very high, often charge several hundred dollars. Feedback given from bunny owners in the Atlanta area put the average cost around $250 and we have heard quotes that go over $400. Dr. Colby, an area veterinarian experienced in rabbit care has started a low cost spay and neuter program. To read more about this program, please visit the page Low Cost Spay And Neuter

How can I find a veterinarian that can do the surgery safely?
You can start by checking out our page Area Vets for a list of rabbit experienced vets in the Atlanta area. The National House Rabbit Society also offers an article on tips to find a good rabbit vet. The article includes tips on how to interview a potential vet, questions to ask and things not to do. To read the House Rabbit Society’s article, please click here

What kinds of questions should I ask the vet?
*About how many rabbit clients does the veterinarian see in a year?
*How many spays/neuters OF RABBITS has the veterinarian has done in the past year?
*What was the success rate?
*90% success is way too low. Every doctor, whether for animals or humans will occasionally lose a patient; usually because of an undiagnosed problem. veterinarians across the country who spay and neuter rabbits for the House Rabbit Society have lost on average less than 1/2 of 1%.
*If any were lost, what was the cause?
*Does the veterinarian remove both uterus and ovaries? (they should)
*Does the veterinarian do “open” or “closed” neuters? (closed is preferable–let your veterinarian explain the difference)
*Is entry to the testicles made through the scrotum or the abdomen? (Entry via the abdomen unnecessarily increases the trauma for male rabbits)
*Does the veterinarian require withholding of food and water prior to surgery in rabbits? (Do not do this–rabbits can’t vomit, so there is no risk of that during surgery, and rabbits should never be allowed to get empty digestive tracts)
*What anesthetics are used–some veterinarians are quite successful with anesthetics other than isofluorene, but the bunny is “hung over” after surgery, which increases the probability that s/he will be slow to start eating again, which can lead to serious problems if not dealt with.
*Review the procedure (op and immediate post-op) with your vet. Ask how problems will be detected: how often will they (the veterinarian and the techs) look in on your rabbit and what will they look for?. What will they do pre-op to find any potential problems? How will they support your bun in the hours after surgery: Oxygen, warmth, quiet (barking dogs and yowling cats in the next cage are probably not helpful), and stimulation? What are they going to do to make it come out right?! Ask questions! That will get your veterinarian’s attention. Let them know you’re concerned and that you’ll be paying attention.

What post-operative care should one give?
You can read about post-op care here on our website under our Care Health and Diet section. To read our article on post-op care, please click here. Careful monitoring and rabbit knowledge are important to seeing your bunny through it’s recovery period and making the surgery a successful one. One of the many benefits of adopting from the GHRS is that your bunny will have already been through the experience and will have received the best veterinary care available and compassionate and diligent post-opt care from our knowledgable volunteers!

Safe Greens For Rabbits

An improper diet can be deadly to a bunny, so it’s important to feed them correctly! When a rabbit is not fed correctly, problems with teeth, digestion and obsesity can arise. A healthy diet includes, unlimited access to fresh Timothy hay, greens, and quality thimothy based pellets. Some greens are better for your rabbit than others. Below is a list of safe greens for rabbits. You might find it useful to print to use while shopping.

Vegetables & Greens

To use on daily basis:

It is important to have a mix of light and dark leafy greens daily. NOT one or the other to maintain proper nutrition and proper amounts of calcium. Too much calcium causes urinary tract problems in bunnies so they need a good mix to balance that intake.

Always try and be consistent and feed the same items. Much like an infant you need to introduce anything new in small quantities and slowly so as not to upset their digestive system.

It is important to provide at least two cups twice daily.

Here is a recommended greens regimen:
Sprigs of: Cilantro, Parsley–Italian & Curley

Combined with: lettuces:
Green or Red Leaf Lettuce (never Iceberg)
Romaine lettuce
Wheat Grass

Then add in limited quantities:
*May cause gas or contain oxidants and giotrogens. Please use sparingly.

Carrot tops
Radish Tops or sprouts
Bok Choy
Broccoli leaves and stems
Kale (limit to one tablespoon twice daily)
Cabbage (limit to one tablespoon twice daily)

*Limit to 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds of bodyweight. This is critical. Bunnies are junk food and sugar lovers but it CAN KILL them. Fruits can be sugary, so feed sparingly as a treat.


*These items and other human “treats” can cause intestinal problems, including a toxic overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the intestinal tract. Beware of “rabbit treats” sold in stores as these may include seeds, nuts, corn or too much sugar.

Cereals (one square of non sugar coated shredded wheat can be given as a treat. Limit to one per day)
Raw potato or skin
Sugary treats
Yogurt drops
Beans or legumes
No butter or iceberg lettuce EVER.