When I got Oscar, my very first rabbit, I expected to be able to hold and cuddle her (yes, her!) on a daily basis. To me, that was her primary purpose. I was horrified to discover that she not only disagreed, she’d kick and scratch her way out of my loving embrace if need be. My arms were striped with the bright red welts that sharp little rabbit toenails leave behind.

The breeder who sold her to me advised me to keep forcing her to be held multiple times a day, which I did, and eventually she relented. But I hated forcing her. Though she never complained after that, I always had in the back of my mind that it wasn’t something she would have chosen — it was a job she had to do.

Why Don’t We Like Being Picked Up or Cuddled?

Humans and some other primates find hugs comforting. It makes it hard for us to imagine that other animals do not. But there are good reasons why they don’t.

First of all, consider that rabbits are the bottom of the food chain. For pretty much every carnivore on Earth, rabbits are what’s for dinner. Being able to start running any second is absolutely vital to the survival of their species. Being held is a major obstacle to escape. Therefore it’s extremely likely to make a rabbit very uncomfortable.

Even humans set a limit on hugging. It varies by individual, but most people only feel at ease hugging people they know well. And in all but the most intimate relationships there is a definite limit to the length of the hug. How long would it take before you started to fight your way out of a hug that didn’t end when you thought it should? 

Beyond that need to flee at an instant’s notice, rabbits are also autonomous beings. They desire the same control over their bodies that we do. Holding a rabbit is kind of like strapping them into a chair. Even the nicest chair isn’t so nice when you didn’t choose to sit on it or aren’t allowed to get out of it!

Learned Helplessness

Bunnies have different levels of comfort with being held. This rabbit is on guard but mostly ok. The bun in the cover photo above looks more stressed.

Through my dog training studies, I now know that by repeatedly forcing Oscar to be held, I wasn’t “teaching her to like it,” as the breeder described it. More likely, I had put her into a state behaviorists call “learned helplessness.” The textbook example of this is lab animals who are put into a container with no escape and given mild electric shocks. After experiencing this several times, the same animals will make no attempt to escape even if an escape route is offered. They just give up trying.

The electric shock example of learned helplessness is extreme. I don’t think I caused any physical pain. And I’m sure neither myself nor the breeder intended to do harm. I was a complete rabbit novice, following the most trusted advice I had available. I assume the breeder was following what he thought were best practices, too. 

I certainly did cause stress, though, at the very least. Looking back, I regret it. If you have a rabbit who resists being picked up, forcing them to comply until they stop resisting is not a good strategy. There are positive reinforcement-based training methods you can use such as this technique by Gwen Bradbury.  They achieve the same purpose without causing stress.   

I’m happy to add that I continued to educate myself on rabbit husbandry and Oscar’s life was ultimately a good one. She ended up a free-roaming, active rabbit who got picked up but not constantly. She got treats every morning and used to honk and hop circles of joy around me whenever I was near. She lived a full decade before finally succumbing to cancer.

Changing My Expectations

By the time I was ready for my next bunny, I had met people who recommended rabbit owners refrain from picking up their pets— and their advice resonated. I contacted the House Rabbit Society to adopt — an organization that hadn’t even been founded at the time I bought Oscar. The bunny I adopted was a much larger and more headstrong rabbit than Oscar, too. So I decided to try a more “hands off” approach. And I found actually like it better!

Ever since then, I’ve stuck with it. I only pick up rabbits when I have to. I look for alternatives like crate training and luring to move them around when they need to be moved. 

I get down on the floor. A lot. Or, I bend down from my chair or from standing up. Either way, I pet them where they are. 

And finally, I let them come to me for interaction. What’s amazing is, they do. If I’m on the floor during their active times of day, I find no shortage of bunnies coming to visit and settling in for a nice massage. More often than not, if I’m walking past a bun, her nose immediately sticks out towards me, “presenting” herself for pets.

What’s In It For Me?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying animal behavior, it’s this: nobody (man nor beast) changes their behavior unless they’re getting something good from it. Myself included. What’s my payback for not cuddling my bunnies?

Believe it or not, I find the experience of an animal choosing to be near me and be touched ten times more satisfying than holding them ever was. Moraea was a love-sponge from the day I met her. It’s delightful to have her come nudge my ankle for pets. While Finnegan is far less interested, it’s all the more heartwarming when he presents his little furry forehead to signal he’s ready for some lovin’. And I have no doubt whatsoever, he wants to receive it as much as I want to give it.

Besides the thrill of being sought out by these adorable creatures for the affection I can offer them, I have seen an amazing array of behaviors in the rabbits I’ve owned since I stopped cuddling; behaviors that I never saw Oscar do. For example, she always slept in a “loaf” position. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe she just didn’t like to flop and sprawl. But when animals are under stress they “shut down” their behavior. A rabbit that’s trying to avoid being detected by a predator will sit very still and not fully relax. So it’s also quite possible that her behavior was curtailed because she was on her guard whenever I was around, hoping I wouldn’t pick her up.

Sure, I still want to hug things and to be hugged. I’m lucky to have a wonderful spouse who is generally available. When he’s not, a large pillow or stuffed animal can suffice in a pinch.

The Fuzzy Tail of This Blog Post

I’m a convert! I don’t cuddle bunnies any more. Whether your rabbit clearly hates to be picked up, or seems not to mind it, a no-cuddling policy can yield a very satisfying relationship. If you understand your whisker-nose’s world view as a prey animal, it’s easy to empathize. Knowing the trust and affection it requires for buns to approach and seek out pets makes being together enjoyable for both of you!

2 thoughts on “Rabbits: To Have and Not to Hold

    • Totally agree! I struggle sometimes when I feel full of love for them and I want to show it. I wish hugging them sent that message but I know it doesn’t. However, it’s clear when they’re enjoying being petted!

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