Rabbits are such cute, fluffy, sociable mammals that you might think they love to cuddle. But, while rabbits like attention, they don’t generally like being held.
A few years ago, a neighbor kid found a rabbit that escaped its hutch. The little boy had three cats at home held the rabbit-like it was a cat – by the scruff of its neck.
I realized that Sam didn’t know how to correctly hold a rabbit. Holding rabbits requires knowledge and skills.
How do you hold a rabbit? The best way to hold a rabbit is to always fully support the rabbit’s body weight. Place one hand or arm underneath the rabbit and your other hand underneath the forelegs. Support the top part of its body to give you a more secure hold.
You can hold the rabbit in the heart-to-heart position or in the rabbit-back-to-your-front position, cradle the rabbit, let it lay on your forearm while you securely hold its back, or swaddle it.
Never hold a rabbit by its ears, scruff, one leg or two, or in the trance position, as these can lead to injury (to you and/or the rabbit) or death.
Thus, holding a rabbit (and even approaching it correctly) is very important to ensure that your rabbit doesn’t get injured or that it doesn’t hurt you. In general, most rabbits don’t like to be held and cuddled, and it is very rare if a rabbit does enjoy this. Responsible rabbit owners respect their rabbit’s autonomy and only hold them when it is necessary.
Reasons You Need to Hold a Rabbit
Before I look at the best and worst ways to hold a rabbit, you may be curious to know about the reasons you need to pick up and hold a rabbit. It won’t be for cuddles. While you might enjoy cuddling with your rabbit, they won’t.
You shouldn’t pick up and hold a rabbit unless there is a reason. Rabbits are prey animals. When there is a predator close by, the rabbit’s body releases stress chemicals. Your rabbit might think you are a predator if they don’t know you and aren’t familiar with you. This causes the rabbit to heighten its senses in a flight-or-fight response.
Being held makes them feel as if they are trapped and in danger. Rabbits scare easily and in extreme cases, it can cause cardiac arrest.
Most common reasons to hold a rabbit:
- Move them to safety and out of harm’s way
- Weigh a rabbit
- Place a rabbit in a carrier when I travel for rabbit shows or take them to the vet.
- Take them out and place them back inside their hutch or cage
- Identify a rabbit’s sex
- Clip their nails
- Brush them during shedding or molting season to help remove extra fur
- Give medicine when a rabbit is sick
Differences Between Holding Large Breed and Smaller Breeds?
On my homestead, I have two large rabbit breeds (English Lop and New Zealand rabbit) and some smaller breeds (Mini Rex, Holland Hop, Havana, and a Harlequin). I’ve learned that there is a difference when holding a large breed versus a small breed.
With larger breeds, approach them confidently from the front so the rabbit can see you coming. Stand behind the rabbit. Firmly place one hand under the bottom and one hand on the chest below the front legs. At this point, you can lift. Pick up the rabbit with its back to your chest.
With a smaller breed, including mini or dwarf rabbits, pick the rabbit up from the front. Place one hand underneath its bottom and the other under the two forelegs. Lift the bunny and bring it closer to you. Hold it in the heart-to-heart position. The hindlegs will be curled and resting on your rib cage while the forelegs rest on your upper chest. Essentially, it’s a bunny hug.
When To Pick up and Hold a Baby Rabbit
When my first doe had a litter one year, I wasn’t sure if I could hold the babies, so I spoke with my vet.
Can you hold a baby rabbit? You can hold baby rabbits but should avoid it until they are 3 weeks old. If possible, check on them without picking them up. Newborn rabbits, called kittens, are born blind and deaf. They are easily injured from being held. Their ears are closed, and they are hairless. Baby rabbits can’t regulate their body heat – yet – and that’s why they burrow in the nest with their mom.
If it has wriggled out of the nest, I only pick up a baby rabbit and need to be placed back with the litter.
I also pick up the kittens to weigh them. I keep a little notebook so I can make sure they are being fed and are drinking enough.
But kittens are very fragile and they are tiny, so I make sure to handle them with care, supporting their back and placing a hand underneath them. When the kittens are three weeks and older, I interact more with them and pick them up as I would a small rabbit breed.
How to Hold a Rabbit Correctly: Step by Step Guide
Old a rabbit correctly and avoid injury take these steps:
Step 1: Pick up the Rabbit Properly
Before you can correctly hold a rabbit, you need to pick it up properly. This means ensuring the whole of the rabbit’s body is supported and using two hands.
Place your one hand under the two front paws, which helps prevent the rabbit from struggling and wriggling away, and with your other hand, place it under the rabbit’s bottom to support their body.
Lift the rabbit with its back to your front if it is a large breed or chest-to-chest for a small breed. This close body contact helps the rabbit feel more secure, and you can place your arms around the rabbit for a stronger hold.
Step 2: Hold the Rabbit Securely
There are several ways to securely hold a rabbit.
Heart to Heart Position: The heart-to-heart position is ideal for small rabbit breeds. In this position, the rabbit places their front paws on your shoulder or upper chest. With one hand or arm, support the rabbit’s bottom. This helps keep them stable.
Back to Front: Back to front works well for large and small rabbit breeds. Keep their backs to your front. Support their front and hind legs with your hands or arms. You can also use this position when you need to clip your rabbit’s nails, even if it is a small breed.
Cradle Position: To initiate the cradle position, start with the heart-to-heart position. Keep ahold of the bottom and let the rabbit “rest” their body on your upper arm, thus cradling them. Ensure you keep their head up while they almost sit on your arm.
Lower Cradle Position: Your rabbit can lay on your lower arm while holding them by their back. This provides support to the rabbit and it helps you keep the rabbit in your arms.
Bunny Burrito: In the bunny burrito method, you swaddle a rabbit in a towel. This is an effective way to hold a rabbit especially when you need to administer medicine.
Step 3: Put Your Rabbit Down Safely
At some stage, you’ll need to put the rabbit back on the ground. You want to make sure you have a firm hold of the rabbit. When you are ready, kneel or squat down so that you are closer to the ground. Then slowly loosen your hold on the rabbit, and let it hop away.
I usually give my rabbit a treat once I’ve put it down as a reward for “good behavior.”
Pro Tips for Holding a Difficult Rabbit
Most rabbits don’t like to be picked up, so here are a few tips you can use when dealing with such a rabbit:
- Ensure the rabbit is calm before you pick it up. I generally pet and play with my one feisty rabbit before holding it.
- I get down on the ground and try to make myself as level as possible with my rabbit when I want to pick it up. This is kind to my back and helps me have a better grip as I pick up my rabbit. It also has the added benefit of making me smaller so my rabbit doesn’t see me as a threat.
- I spend time training a tricky rabbit by putting it in areas where I’m likely to touch it while picking it up and holding it.
- I only pick up and hold a difficult rabbit when I need to.
Dangers of Incorrectly Holding a Rabbit
It’s critical that you learn how to correctly hold your rabbit. One study found that 60% of rabbits struggle when you pick them up, and showing fear-related aggressive behavior is common.
Your rabbit will get very stressed when it feels scared because they are fragile. They have a high body muscle-to-bone ratio, with their skeleton comprising 7-8% of their body weight, while the skeletal muscle makes up 50% or more of their body weight. A rabbit’s spine is their weak point, and their hind limb muscles are powerful, which creates risk when they are held.
A rabbit that’s insecure will usually kick. But, the kick can cause damage to their spinal cord and fracture a vertebra. This can result in paralysis.
Rabbits that are especially scared or have had bad experiences will try to escape your grasp. This can cause injury, including internal organ damage, broken bones, or spinal injuries.
In addition, a strong, swift kick can injure you. Your rabbit may scratch or bite you. Rabbits don’t normally bite unless they are terrified.
The Worst Ways to Hold a Rabbit
During the lesson on how to hold a rabbit, I first started by showing the little boy how not to hold this mammal. On the topic of rabbit etiquette, here are the worst ways to hold a rabbit:
Never Hold a Rabbit By the Ears
Never ever pick up your rabbit by its ears. If you do, the hindlegs are not supported. Because they are heavier in comparison to the rest of its body, the legs put a strain on the spine as they hang.
Second, your bunny’s ears aren’t strong enough to support the weight of its entire body. Holding it by the ears can cause tissue damage and injury. It is also painful.
Never Hold Rabbits By the Scruff
Never hold a rabbit by its scruff like you do a cat. The skin behind a rabbit’s neck is too fragile and it can’t completely support the rabbit’s weight.
This results in pain for your rabbit as it places too much strain on the muscles here, and the muscles could even tear. The rabbit could also act out and injure you.
Avoid Holding Rabbits By the Legs
Never pick up a rabbit by grabbing hold of one or two of its legs. Your rabbit may break a leg in an attempt to getaway. In a best-case scenario, it’s probably going to pull a muscle or sprain its leg. Both of which are still terribly painful.
Holding Rabbits In the Trance Position
There is much controversy around the topic of trancing a rabbit these days. When you trance a rabbit, you turn it onto its back so its feet are up in the air. Some pet owners place their rabbits in this position to clip their nails or for grooming purposes.
However, studies have found that the rabbit’s heart rate will rise and its body will release a lot of stress hormones. As such, I only put a rabbit in the trance position as a last resort, but I dislike placing my rabbits in any form of discomfort.
Holding a rabbit correctly is important to building trust and keeping your bunny safe. Although rabbits are resilient, they can injure easily and incorrect holding is a cause of many rabbit injuries.