DEAR MISS NANNERS: Whenever I pet a rabbit, it hops away in a huff. I even let it sniff my hand first! I only want to make furry friends. Am I being rude? — Frustrated Lagomorph-Lover of Pasadena

DEAR FLLOP: Unfortunately, yes. But take heart! These simple etiquette guidelines should put you in good bunny graces.

Rule #1: No Bun Wants to Sniff Your Hand

They just don’t. They don’t care if it’s clean, or manicured, or even anointed with banana scent. Offering your hand to a bunny to sniff is not only unnecessary for the rabbit’s sake, it may even be considered rude. In bunny body language sticking a body part near or below the mouth could be interpreted as a demand for submission and deferential grooming. 

If this surprises you, you’re not alone. Like lots of people, I was taught to offer my hand for dogs to sniff since I was knee high to a pit bull. Many people mistakenly generalize this training to all domesticated pets. Here’s an even bigger surprise: I recently discovered that  dogs don’t appreciate finger-fragrance offerings either . So we can all delete that move from our pet-greeting repertoire like a bad pick-up line.

Rule #2: Don’t Get Mouthy with Me

The sniff-my-hand approach has a second fatal flaw: Buns don’t want anyone messing with their nose or mouth. It’s the same with any animal, including people. Think about how awkward and invasive it feels when someone literally gets in your face. If you get too close to the chompers, you’re asking for a bite. 

Rabbit Social Graces

Rabbits do like to be petted. It’s similar to the way they naturally interact with each other. Rabbits who are friends will groom each other with their tongues. 

Finnegan soliciting licks from Moraea

In fact, they like this so much, they’ll ask each other for it. If you’re a rabbit, a grooming request is formally made by pushing your head underneath another bunny’s mouth. The request’s long-eared recipient may acquiesce and respond by licking — or he may turn away or even hop away, if he’s not in the mood.

Typically in rabbit relationships, one rabbit will be pushier. The dominant rabbit generally demands and gets grooming more often than the other bun — sometimes via force or intimidation. Thus, a gesture that looks like a request for grooming — such as a human’s dangled digits — might be considered presumptuous or rude, particularly if you’ve never met before.

Rule #3: The Devil is in De Tails

While we’re at it, rabbits don’t like anyone messing with their back end either. Again, can’t blame ’em. Picture yourself in a social situation and someone touches your behind. If it’s intentional, it’s pretty clear what the intention is! Frankly, to the bunny, you’re not looking like their dream partner for dirty dancing. Moving straight backwards from the head, the further you go, the more likely you are to see your rubdown recipient tense up — or hop right off the massage table.

If a rabbit is pretty laid back by nature, and knows you, you may be able to push the boundaries a bit without raising alarm. I can usually get to the hip area on my buns before they’ll flinch. During shedding periods there are often loose tufts of fur just above the tail. I can’t resist gently pulling them out, but even the slightest sensation in the nether regions can trigger a quick vamoose. I know I’m pushing the boundaries. I appease my groomees by using my other hand to lavish them with gentle head strokes.

Rule #4: The Paws that Doesn’t Refresh

Lastly, leave the feet out of it. Bunnies don’t want you touching their tootsies. Their swift legs are their best weapon of self defense. By touching their foot, you’re threatening their ability to escape and that will invariably make them nervous.

I’ve worked with my buns to positively reinforce foot touches and even short holds. The goal was to desensitize them for stuff like vet exams and nail trims,  but I know they don’t enjoy it. They’ll put up with it if I’m paying them in high value treats, but it’s strictly business. It’s not a friendly gesture.

Rule #5 No Belly, Baby

Green = yes
Red = NO
Yellow = Maybe

I’ve never seen a rabbit offer his tummy for pets. As with dogs, exposing the stomach is a very vulnerable gesture. Prey animals don’t even show it to each other. No way do they want you in there. Seriously, you won’t win points for trying.

Putting Your Best Pet Forward

The formula for making a good impression on a rabbit goes like this:

Move slowly and let him watch your hand approach

Sudden movement toward a bunny can make him nervous. It might feel like a predator swooping in for the kill.

Top of the head, ears, and shoulders are well-regarded real estate

Rabbits will lower and extend their head towards you to ask for pets. They’re spelling it out for you: “This is the best way to touch me.” The cheek is also a favored place with some bunnies.

Be gentle

Even the lightest touch is noticeable to a rabbit. A heavy hand feels aggressive. Start off just smoothing the fur in its natural direction of growth. If the bunny shows signs he’s enjoying what you’re doing and wants to settle in, then you can try ruffling the fur up or applying slightly more pressure, but never get rough like you might with a dog.

Never force or chase a rabbit 

As a prey animal, choosing to stay put indicates the bunny’s OK with what you’re doing. If he chooses to leave, let him go. Giving him the freedom to leave whenever he wants makes it more likely he’ll return for another round.

Always supervise kids

The director of my favorite rabbit rescue once described her horror upon discovering a child lifting a rabbit by its ears. Kids don’t know. Bunnies are fragile. Teach little ones well and don’t turn your back. For that matter, I supervise folks of any age who aren’t rabbit-savvy.

Here’s a demonstration of petting best practice:

With a bonded pair, you can pet both with one hand!


The Fluffy Tail of This Blog Post

… is something that we now all know we shouldn’t try to touch. Tempting though it may be. When you meet a bunny and you think he’d like some pets, slowly reach for his forehead. Stroke softly and stop if he pulls away. If you hit it off, he’ll sink into a heap and enjoy. If not, you can at least rest assured that you aren’t being rude!

2 thoughts on “Reach Out and Touch Some Bun: Rabbit-Petting Etiquette

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