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Handling, Lifting & Transporting Rabbits

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Handling, Lifting & Transporting Rabbits Empty Handling, Lifting & Transporting Rabbits

Post by Happy Hoppers on Sat Nov 19, 2011 6:29 pm

Handling, lifting and transporting rabbits
Jay and Dr Anne McBride Bsc, PhD, FRSA

There are various scenarios where we need to handle, lift and transport our rabbits. As rabbits are prey animals, with identical inherent instincts to run and hide from danger as their wild cousins, handling them can be challenging for many owners. Further, if not performed correctly it can be very damaging to the animal itself – both psychologically, in its relationship with us and physically, through injury. If performed correctly, it is mildly and momentarily stressful, but presents no long term problems or injury.

Why is lifting and handling a problem for rabbits?

As relatively small animals, rabbits (domestic and wild) are a nutritious meal for large birds, foxes, snakes and other predators depending upon where in the world they reside. They are at their most vulnerable when they are young, as they are smaller and easier to catch. The small size of dwarf and miniature breeds means that even as adults they are still susceptible to an aerial attack from a hungry bird of prey. All domestic rabbits kept completely or partially outside are susceptible to attack by land living predators, be those foxes or even the neighbour’s cat.

The wild rabbit has evolved finely tuned senses that alert it to danger well in advance of an attack. In wild rabbits (and domestic rabbits that closely resemble the shape of wild rabbits), the eyes are positioned to give almost perfect surrounding vision, both above and around the body. There are, however, two blind spots directly in front of its nose and behind its head. The ears move independently to capture and locate sound that may present a threat. The rabbit’s first reaction is to stay completely still, in the hope that the predator won’t see them. If the predator moves in too close, the powerful hind legs will enable the rabbit to hop very quickly to a safe place – which is sometimes successful, sometimes not.
In the case of some fancy domestic breeds, where the shape of the head is altered, this vital sensory information may not be fully accessible to the rabbit. Lop ears that hang down, or small pointy ears are not able to receive the full refinement of sound available. Eyes that are not positioned as the natural design has evolved them to be are not able to give the same complete radial view and limit the visual information available to the rabbit. The combination of misplaced eyes and ears mean that these companion rabbit breeds can be edgy, skittish, and more prone to defensive actions.

Rabbits fine tune their escape strategies when they are young, and will continue to do so as adults, although this may become less frequent as they get older. You will often see wild rabbits, and pairs or groups of domestic rabbits ‘playing’, which typically involves chasing, jumping, twisting, quickly changing direction as they hop at high speed. These movements are defensive ones, designed to out wit a predator on the ground, and to escape once caught or lifted. Even companion rabbits that live alone will usually still practice these skills in their formative months and younger years. It pays to keep these skills toned, after all your life might depend on it..Owners refer to these behaviours as a ‘Binky’ – the jumping twisting movement that seems to almost surprise the rabbit as much as it delights the owner, and the ‘Bunny 500’ – when the rabbit hops (runs) at great speed around its enclosure/room.

What relevance has this to handling and lifting?

Rabbits are land based animals. Their instinctive response to being lifted from the floor is fear; after all in normal life this would only occur when they about to become a meal. Their reaction is to wriggle, kick, bite and do anything possible to escape. It is in this context that we have to approach handling and lifting rabbits. A pair of hands swooping down to pick up a rabbit is little different to the rabbit than a pair of talons with the same intention!

A rabbit that is being held by the upper part of its body with the lower part dangling or suspended will use its hind legs to kick out violently. A rabbit’s skeleton is light (around 7-8% of total body weight) and the delicate bones are easily broken. Violent kicking can cause lasting spinal damage, which can lead to arthritis, or a broken back - the former requiring lifelong medication, the latter resulting in euthanasia.

Having escaped the jaws or claws of the predator, the rabbit’s back and legs are then susceptible to injury through being dropped. In the case of a bird attack, this could be from a great height.

If a companion rabbit is dropped from the chest height of an average adult human, around 4.5 feet (1.5 metres), it is also prone to the same injuries. Violent kicking can also result in some very sore and potentially deep scratches to the owner, usually around the arms and chest. If this occurs, and the rabbit is dropped, then both species are likely to be injured.

N.B: It is the potential harm caused through dropping a rabbit that is the main reason that children should not lift rabbits. This is challenging, as children, and some adults, want their rabbit to cuddle them, and will lift and hold the rabbit. However, to the rabbit, this can be terrifying, especially if there are lots of gleeful laughter, screams and shouts around. Loud and sudden noises are scary to rabbits, and the shrill and excitable sounds of children, combined with lifting the rabbit from the floor, can easily cause harm and damage to both child and rabbit. Once a rabbit kicks out or bites, it can easily be seen as a ‘bad’ rabbit, and then ignored, or surrendered to rescue, when its actions were only instinctively protective and defensive.

This is why it is strongly recommended that owners of all ages, get down to their rabbit’s level in order to stroke and interact with them. If that is not possible, for example the owner has a mobility problem, then rig up a system of ramps for example so the rabbit can come to the person rather than be carried.

When is it appropriate to handle or lift your rabbit?

There are some instances when we have to lift or handle our rabbits off ground and through training with positive reinforcement we can help the rabbit become accustomed to this action, and to realise that it will not end up as a meal. Rewards given immediately after being lifted (such as a nibble of favourite vegetable or pellet) will help the rabbit from pleasant associations with the action. Gentle and appropriate lifting should be done every day (ideally) in order to receive a favourite food item.

It is worth noting that however well your rabbit seems to accept lifting or handling, it is still a stressful experience for the rabbit. We should endeavour to lift them and hold them for the minimal time needed and only when appropriate. The stress involved in lifting and handling should be outweighed by the need to perform the task required. These tasks are to do with health checks rather than cuddles!

  • Relocation – There will be times when we need to move our rabbit(s) from one place to another – be it from hutch to run, front room to cage, to the vet or carrier for a journey. Ideally, rabbits should be trained to come when called, which reduces stress and unnecessary lifting, however, not all rabbits are easily trained, and many are known to be stubborn!

    It is in your rabbits best interest that you try to train them to come when called and respond to their name. This has many other positive uses than relocation.

    Ideally, in order to reduce the possibility of any injury rabbits should be relocated in a carrier.

  • Grooming – Inspection of the underside of the feet for sore hocks (Pododermatitis) or other problems, such as abscesses. Checking the jaw line for irregularities, the ears for infection and grooming the coat all require the rabbit to be handled and restrained.

  • Claw clipping – There are a variety of ways to clip claws, and different rabbits and owners will have a preference. In most cases, the rabbit will need to either be held above ground, or briefly laid on its back. We will talk about this controversial procedure in more detail later in this article.

  • Spot checking – In the warmer months, all companion rabbits, be they indoor or outdoors, should be checked twice a day for Flystrike. This involves lifting the rabbit, and closely inspecting the rear end for maggots. This is usually best done with a bunny on your lap, but the lifting and turning involved is stressful. This is negated by the danger that Flystrike presents, which is quickly fatal if left unnoticed, and a horrible way for your rabbit to die.

  • Medical procedures – Your rabbit should be used to being generally handled, as you may need at some point to administer oral medication, food and water. You may need to give your rabbit subcutaneous fluids (directly into the body through a needle), apply dressings or simply nurse your rabbit after an operation.

    If your rabbit is as relaxed as is possible during medical procedures or nursing, this reduces the stress on both the rabbit and owner.

Overcoming your rabbit’s fears

It is unlikely that most rabbits will overcome their fear of being lifted and handled from the floor – these are evolved instincts - however, they can learn to tolerate and so cope with this fear provided that the owner is conscientious about how they lift and handle their rabbit(s).

    Ideally, Start young – Rabbits should be introduced to handling and lifting as soon as possible. Most rabbits available from pet stores and breeders will be around 8-10 weeks old. After settling in to their new home, owners should spend time with their rabbits to gain their trust. Once a small or baby rabbit has made its initial enquiries about you, and has come to take food from your hand, or allowed you to pet its head, then you can start to train it to be lifted and carried safely.

    When it has already gone wrong – A rabbit that has not been properly handled or properly handled but only infrequently, or has made the association of being lifted with something unpleasant such as medication is potentially a lot more difficult to handle. The rabbit is likely to show behaviours we humans call ‘aggressive’: biting and kicking. But actually these are the behaviours of a frightened animal. Teaching it that being lifted is ‘ok’ is not an insurmountable task, but one that requires more time and patience. Obviously, the younger the rabbit is, the more likely it will be able to revise its view of being picked up by humans.

It is important that we understand that the previously learnt fear associations never go away… all we can do when treating fear problems in any animal (including humans) is to provide an alternative scenario for the animal. In our current example that new scenario is ‘being lifted is nice, and means good food’. We have to remind the rabbit of this regularly for the rest of its life. If not, the rabbit will revert to the previous learnt ‘being lifted is scary’ scenario. If you think about this, it all makes sense…. Fear is what saves your life, and it is a very powerful thing once learnt.

Techniques - Stage 1

BE PATIENT! These techniques must happen in 'Rabbit time', which may be frustrsting for the owner, but is a security device for the rabbit! Each step of training may take a few days or a week or two.It can take some rabbits a while to work out that your hands are a part of you, and not some seperate entity that is going to carry them off! Once your new rabbit has settled into it's new home, it's time to make friends and train the rabbit to become accustomed to you and your touches.

If you have a particularly nervous or edgy rabbit - perhaps an adult that has learned not to trust humans, you can tape a stick, or Willow twig (dowling) to a soft grooming brush and use this to initiate touching. This is a particularly useful tool for teaching any rabbit to become accustomed to children, as both children and rabbit remain safe

The benefits of this are twofold:

  1. The rabbit may attack the brush, which spares you some damage.

  2. When you have overcome this stage and can start to use your hands, the rabbit has has no negative associations with you, just the brush.
    A new brush may be required for grooming; choose a different design.

For this technique, place some favourite food at a distance that the rabbit will feel comfortable being near you. As the rabbit eats, stroke the top of its head with the brush/dowling. Repeat until the rabbit is comfortable with this, then move the brush/dowling further down the back. This process coiuld easily take a few days or weeks, try not to move forward until the rabbit is comfortable with this. Always talk to the rabbit, to get it accustomed to your voice. Try to be calm and speak in a soothing voice.

This next stage would be the first stage for a baby rabbit, which is less likely to bite, however, if the rabbit shows any signs of aggressive (frightened) behaviour, resort to the brush/dowling combination.

Start to use fingers

Sit at their level (ground), with some favourite food near you, and wait! Rabbits are naturally inquisitive and sociable, and they will be intrigued by you, and happy to see some food! Once the rabbit is relaxed in your presence, you can take one finger and touch or stroke its nose and head. This is a normal rabbit to rabbit greeting. If the rabbit hops off, be patient and repeat if the rabbit comes back.

When the rabbit is happy with you stroking its head, stroke the ears and touch behind the neck. Rabbit hops off: wait and repeat, later, or another day. If the rabbit is not coming back for food it is most likley nervous, and will not play. Training should be deferred to another day or later time. If the rabbit is scared, forcing training will frighten it and damage any potential relationship with you.

Many rabbits are particularly nervous about having their back's touched, this is due to the blind spot we mentioned earlier. With food as a distraction, run an extended finger down the back to the rear. Keep repeating this until the rabbit becomes accustomed to it - most usually when it carries on eating regardless. You will notice stress in the rabbit by a slight hunch as you aproach or move your fingers down the back, and the eyes may widen. If the rabbit lets you continue, this is a good sign!

Start to use hands

After some time with finger stroking techniques you can start to use more fingers, be patient! When the rabbit is relaxed with this use your hands, as if you were stroking a cat. Move from nose tip to rear in a confidant and flowing manner. Reassure the rabbit with a 'good boy/girl' and always reward. If the rabbit gets upset, do not be tempted to give a treat! Rewarding inappropriate behaviour will teach your rabbit that if it doesn't play along with training, it will get rewards - the rabbit will get over it's upset without a treat!

Encourage the rabbit onto your knee

Sit with your legs long in front of you and place some favourite food on your lap. Call the rabbit, and wait. The rabbit will be able to smell the food, remain calm and quiet, and the rabbit may eat from your lap. It may also jump onto your lap! Both of these are positive signals that the rabbit trusts that you won't harm it, and feels secure enough to eat from your lap. Repeat for a few days.

Lifting stage 1

Whist the rabbit is beside you, or on your knee, stroke down to the rump, and the place a hand underneath the bottom. This will be a strange action for the rabbit, and it may well hop off immediately, and that’s fine. Each time the rabbit is near you or feeding from you, try again, until you can lift the rump, just a centimeter, then place it back. What happens here depends on each individual, but you should continue until the rabbit is accustomed to it, and remains with you. This may take some time. Increase the lift to two or three centimeters.

Lifting stage 2

As you stroke the rabbit, place a finger underneath its chest. Then two fingers, and so on, until you can get your hand under the chest. Make a lifting movement, without lifting the rabbit, so that it gets accustomed to your hand gently lifting the ribs. This also can take days or longer.

'Techniques - Stage 1' are demonstrated in this video made exclusively for Hopping Mad by Anne McBride, Jay and Stewie

Techniques - Stage 2

Lifting stage 3

It is advisable to wear a thick or fleecy type top for the next few stages to prevent scratches, should your rabbit get frightened and try to jump out from your hold.
When the rabbit is accustomed to being lifted and touched on the rump and chest, you can start to lift the rabbit from your legs. Encourage the rabbit onto your legs. This movement needs a confidant and swift approach. Placing one hand under the chest, and another under the rump, lift the rabbit into your trunk, just a few inches, carefully put back down and REWARD!

The first few times the rabbit will most likely kick, hop off, or bolt off, flicking its rear paws at you as it goes. Your rabbit is telling you s/he is not totally at ease with this. So your job is to gently persuade it that all is ok and no harm is intended.

Repeat this over a few days, until the rabbit is showing less signs of stress. If the rabbit shows reluctance to come to you, do not worry, give training a break for a day or two, return to just stroking the rabbit as usual, then resume progressing to lifting. Remember the bunny wobble is not a tantrum, but your rabbit telling you s/he is a bit anxious.

Once the rabbit is more relaxed with each small lift, then you can lift the rabbit to your chest and hold it for a couple of seconds. The grip must be tight enough to prevent the rabbit kicking out and injuring itself, but not so tight that the rabbit cannot breathe or becomes panicked.

With one hand under the chest and the other securing the hind end and legs, gently hug the rabbit into your chest, hold, carefully put back down and REWARD! Do this only once in a session and only a few training sessions a day. Ensure that during this training you are spending a lot of time just playing and interacting with your rabbit in a fun and less threatening way. There needs to be balance, or the rabbit will start to associate you with stressful situations only.Having overcome being lifted, other regular activities where your rabbit needs some restraint become easier. Remember to pick your rabbit up every day for a nice reward so that it remains comfortable with being handled this way.

Health Checks – where and how often

Some rabbits will become comfortable sitting on your lap whilst you are seated, but this is not the norm. Rabbits need brushing regularly to keep their coat and skin healthy. This is also an opportunity for the owner to do a few basic health checks.

Health checks should always be done in a safe place where, if your rabbit struggles or escapes from your hold, it will not injure itself. Ideally this is on the floor, or a low table with a non-slip surface.

Health checks should be done at least weekly, more often if you can. If you have done the basic training in getting your rabbit at ease with being handled, then they will only take you moments and will be part of your regular interaction with your bunny.

Grooming and brushing

Placing the rabbit between your legs (if sat on floor), place two spread fingers on the rabbit’s shoulder blades to secure it, gently. Start to brush the head from nose to ears; the rabbit will probably enjoy this! At this stage, this may be enough for the rabbit, as before, be patient!

To brush the rest of the coat, move the brush behind the ears, and in long, sweeping strokes, go from ears to rump. Brush the sides from floor up to the spine, and the down again. If the rabbit is wriggling, release the fingers, reward, reassure in a calming voice and decide whether to proceed or leave the rest until another time. Also if the rabbit is wriggling consider how hard you are brushing… you may actually be hurting it!

To brush the belly and rump, lift the rabbit under the chest, and hold it firm to you. Brush under your fingers and down to the genitals, just a couple of times.
Turn the rabbit sideways and brush from shoulder to rump. Repeat on the other side.
Finally, and with some space between you and the rabbit, brush from tail up to the back. As you brush, inspect the coat for any signs of skin problems, such as fur mites, flaky skin or irritations.

Other basic health checks

Once your rabbit has become accustomed to being brushed, handled and lifted, you can do some basic health checks as you groom. Keep the brush handy to brush the head in between checks, as this will help keep your rabbit still.

Building up a mental picture of when your rabbit is well will give you a clear indication when it is not, and this can be invaluable to getting treatment more quickly, should it need it.


Take your two index fingers and start at the ear-end of the jaw bone, and move them down the jaw bone towards the mouth, firmly but gently. Rabbits can be sensitive here, so be careful and progress in small stages. You are checking for any irregularities in the jaw bone that could indicate dental problems or infections (abscesses) so some mild pressure is needed.


Most rabbits like having their ears stroked. As you stroke them, look inside each ear for any signs of waxy build up or infection. Take a sniff, infections can smell pungent, and different from that of clean, healthy ears.

Rear and genitals

Reasons that you need to check the backside and genitals:

  • Stools that have stuck into the fur
  • Sticky stools (caecotrophs) that have stuck into the fur
  • Inflammation, swelling or redness around the genitals
  • Flystrike

This is an important health check, and a very good reason to have a rabbit that is accustomed to being handled and lifted. If stools, (waste or caecotrophs) are stuck into the fur, it attracts flies. In warmer months, the flies may lay eggs in the fur and cause your rabbit to have a flystrike attack – which is quickly fatal if left unnoticed, and a horrible way for your rabbit to die. In warmer months, rabbits should be checked twice a day.

If you see maggots, call your vet immediately, and inform them that your rabbit has flystrike – this is an emergency and you should be seen as soon as you arrive.

If you see ceacotrophs in your rabbit’s fur regularly, you should consult your vet.

Swelling or redness around the genitals or anus requires immediate veterinary attention.

Lifting your rabbit to check the rear and genitals

Place one hand under its chest and the other around the rump. Lift and extend the rabbit’s back so the rump goes away from you, tilting the rabbit until you can see the rear completely. The upper spine should be held lightly into your chest, and the lower spine and rear fully supported along your arm and hand. If not, and the rabbit twists suddenly, you may find it cracks or breaks its back. There is no need to completely invert the rabbit, just tilting about 45°. The rump lifts up, and you can inspect. If your rabbit has white fur, you may need another helper to inspect more closely, as maggots are white, and can easily disappear into the coat.

Claw clipping

This procedure can be the bane of many rabbit owners, and many take their rabbit to the vet for claw cliiping – there is nothing wrong in this approach – if you are unconfident about claw clipping, it is easy to get wrong, and make the claws bleed. It is usually stressful for the rabbit, and is best done with two people.
The easiest way is clip claws with the rabbit on the floor. One person secures the rabbit while the other takes out a paw at a time and clips the claws. If your rabbit stays still and relaxed, then this is ideal.

Another approach is to hold the rabbit on the crook of your arm, while someone else clips the claws from underneath. The rabbit should be held tight enough that it cannot jump and injure itself, but not so tight that it restricts breathing.

TI Applications:

The last, and most contentious approach is to turn your rabbit onto it’s back, and induce a state that is called ‘Tonic immobility’ (TI). Many owners refer to TI as ‘Trancing’, due to the seemingly relaxed and tranced-out appearance of the rabbit, but this is a misnoma, because TI is known to be both terrifying and very stressful to the rabbit, placing it in danger of a heart attack, if not kept to the briefest possible time.

However, if the only alternative is a trip to the vets, which in itself is extremely stressful, then in confidant hands, TI is a valid option, provided that the time your rabbit is inverted is kept to a minimum. Ideally TI should involve two people, and should be administered at floor or low level. TI is naturally a fear provoking action, and the rabbit's response will be to remove itself from this state quickly when it is released or up-turned. The rabbit may kick, wriggle and twist, and then make a bolt for safety. If it is not near the ground, then a fall could cause serious injuries, including a cracked or broken spine.

Many owners prefer to use a towel to wrap the rabbit in, a ‘Bunny burrito’. This is a safer option if your rabbit is a biit of a kicker, as it prevents the rabbit kicking its way out of the position, which can cause injury. If using a towel, place it in a diamond shape on your legs or low level table.

Inverting the rabbit

Lift the rabbit to your chest, then with a confident, fluid movement invert it and place the rabbit down with its head away from you. Gently secure the rabbit between your thighs, remember securely does not mean so tight you crush ribs / restrict breathing. Support the back of the head as it lowers, and if you have a helper, the top of the head can be stroked. If the rabbit feels unsupported, it will kick and wriggle to escape.

Alternatively, hold the rabbit to your chest or crook of your arm. If using a towel, wrap the rabbit up, with its four paws outside of the towel. Whilst one person clips the claws, the other is stroking the inverted head, and talking to the rabbit, whilst assessing the state of the rabbit, and helping keep it secure. Be as quick as you can without hurrying and potentially cutting the quick of the claw, making it bleed.

Another TI application is to put two rolled up towels onto the floor or low level table, to act as bolsters. The towels are close to each other, and the rabbit lays, upside down, between them.

As soon as all four feet are clipped, release the rabbit back into an upright position. If the rabbit is on the floor already, this will minimize the risk of spinal damage. It is highly likely that the rabbit will try to roll itself up on its own. Assist it, without impeding its movement. Once the rabbit is upright, stroke it’s head, calm and relax it, give a reward and let it go, if it hasn’t already fleed!

There is no doubt that TI is a very stressful experience for the rabbit, and it may take some time to clam down. TI is something that should only be performed by vets, for diagnostic purposes, and owners for claw clipping and rear end spot checking, if your rabbit is prone to a messy bottom!.

'Techniques - Stage 2' are demonstrated in this video made exclusively for Hopping Mad by Anne McBride, Jay and Stewie

For more information on TI, please read this academic paper, co-written by the co-author of this article, Dr Anne McBride, which concludes “The conclusion was drawn that both the physiological and behavioral responses of rabbits to TI are indicative of a fear motivated stress state (Day, 2004). This confirms the previous assertion that the promotion of TI as a means to increase a bond between owners and their pets, because the rabbits enjoy it, is misplaced (McBride, 1998). It may be appropriate for veterinary surgeons, and owners to continue to use this method for minor procedures, such as nail clipping as it holds less risk than anesthesia. However, the data suggests that rabbits should only be put into TI when necessary and owners and others educated appropriately.”

This article was first published in Hopping Mad! Bunny Magazine, October 2011. The original article can be read HERE
Produced for Hopping Mad! Bunny Magazine Copyright © Happy Hoppers Forums Uk & EA McBride - October 2011 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Last edited by Jay on Tue Nov 22, 2011 9:15 am; edited 3 times in total (Reason for editing : Formatting)
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