SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

How to safely handle your rabbits

Rabbits are sociable animals who will enjoy lots of attention and company from you. However, some rabbits may not be used to being handled.

Please remember that new rabbits might take a little while to get used to you and their new home, even when they are used to being handled. Remember too, that in the wild, rabbits are a prey species, so they are naturally fearful of a sudden approach, especially from above.

  • Never sneak up on your rabbit.
  • Let your rabbits come and sniff you on their own terms. Then offer a healthy treat and a gentle stroke.
  • Give your rabbits a few gentle strokes before picking them up.
  • Do not rush contact or force your rabbit to be held.
  • Spend some time on the floor hanging out with your rabbits so that they get used to your presence.
  • The more you gently handle your rabbits, the friendlier they will be.

How to pick up your rabbit

  • Place one hand under the rabbit’s chest.
  • Put the other hand supporting his/her back legs.
  • Hold the rabbit gently but securely against your chest.
  • Rabbits’ spines are fragile and can fracture easily. Their hind legs need to be held securely so that they cannot kick out and damage their spine.
  • If there are children in the house who might interact with your rabbits, they must be supervised and trained to hold the rabbits properly.

“Trancing” rabbits

Holding rabbits on their back until they go perfectly still, as if they are in a trance, is also known as “tonic immobility”, “hypnotising” or “trancing” rabbits. This is an unacceptable way of handling rabbits.

The "trace" is an automatic fear response displayed by rabbits who are terrified and “play dead”; therefore, it should never be deliberately used on rabbits.

Researchers have shown, through monitoring the rabbits’ behavioural and physiological responses to “trancing”, that rabbits are aware of what is happening to their body and their surroundings during the “trance” and have increased heart rate and stress hormones.

The only occasions when it is acceptable to utilise this stress response in rabbits is when it is performed by a veterinary surgeon in extreme circumstances in order to carry out lifesaving observations or to assist with lifesaving procedures. However, this should only be conducted as a last resort, and not as part of a routine groom or check-up.

Rabbits who have frequently been placed in a “tonic immobility” position learn to anticipate when it is going to happen and become stressed more rapidly, thereby entering an immobile state more quickly. Rabbits do not have to be fully reclined to be in a “trance”.

Download our Rabbit Care Brochure (PDF)

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