Rabbits – handling

Information about handling, training and showing rabbits.

Schools that keep rabbits must have the use of suitably constructed pens and cages that secure the animals. These pens may be portable but must be solid in construction and erected in a way to be safe for both humans and rabbits.

Approved activities Category
Observation of normal animal behaviour of rabbits 1

Rabbits are prey animals and are naturally wary of people. They have a strong flight response and will make every attempt to escape what they view as a threat or danger. Rabbits often become stressed when being handled and should never be handled excessively. It is important to monitor the rabbit’s behaviour and identify if the rabbit is becoming stressed. Only rabbits accustomed to handling should be picked up, groomed and handled for extended periods of time. Short periods of familiarization and gentling from an early age will acclimatize rabbits to handling and make them more comfortable with handlers, reducing their stress. It is important however to only handle rabbits for very short periods in the initial stages so that they associate handling with a pleasant experience.

The rabbit’s natural instincts mean that movements from above indicate predator attack and trigger a flight response. Hence to reduce stress to rabbits and make catching them easier, always crouch or sit down in the enclosure so as to not appear as such a threat to the rabbits. Move slowly and calmly and reduce fast arm movements that may appear as an attack to the rabbit. Consider that rabbits have very sensitive hearing and so always use a soft voice and reduce any loud noises surrounding the rabbits. It is always preferable to wait until a rabbit approaches you before picking it up rather than have to grab for it, however rabbits that are not as tame may hide away. If rabbits are hiding in a nest box or in a corner, quietly remove the nest box from around them and gently pick up the rabbit. Never reach into a nest box quickly without warning and grab a rabbit. This will only stress the animal and may cause it to bite or scratch. Well-designed refuges assist with catching.

Rabbits have very powerful hind legs and very sharp claws and teeth and can cause injury if they scratch or bite. Always use the appropriate catching, holding and carrying methods when handling rabbits. Never pick up a rabbit by the back legs or ears, as this may injure its back.

Capture, restraint and handling of rabbits

Rabbits must not be picked up by the ears or hind legs.

Approved activities Category
Capture, restraint and handling 2
Familiarisation 2

A rabbit can be easily captured and handled if movements are calm and confident. Do not allow too many students to attempt to handle the animal at one time.

The correct method of handling a rabbit is to grasp the skin at the back of its neck firmly but gently with one hand, and to support the rump with the other hand. When carrying a tame rabbit for a longer distance, the rabbit can be placed on the forearm, facing the elbow with the handler still holding the back of the neck. The nose and eyes can then be concealed in the crook of the handler’s elbow. A rabbit will sense any insecurity in the handler and may struggle, possibly injuring its back or scratching the handler.

Image: Correct method of picking up and holding a rabbit.

Familiarising animals

Rabbits should be acclimatised to handling to help make working with them more efficient, less stressful and safer for them and the handlers. Familiarising rabbits is typically used for better outcomes in a variety of situations and for different purposes and generally occurs with consistent handling from a young age. These include:

  • For pen cleaning and daily management
  • For showing and preparation
  • Transportation
  • Routine husbandry procedures (worming, grooming, washing, skin treatments, vaccinations).

Familiarising animals can be made easier by mixing younger, untamed rabbits with older more placid rabbits that are comfortable with being handled. When a handler enters the enclosure, if the older, tame rabbits do not attempt to run and hide away, younger rabbits may be more comfortable with the handler. Usually if one animal becomes stressed, the other animals will sense that there is a threat of danger.

Showing rabbits

Approved activities Category
Training rabbits for showing 3

Time and effort needs to be put into training and preparing animals for showing. Training is best done slowly from a young age. Extensive handling from a young age will ensure that rabbits are comfortable with being handled and surrounded by people, which will reduce stress levels when they are taken to a show.

In preparation for the show, ensure that rabbits are in prime condition. Make sure that they have been treated for parasites and are of a correct body weight for their breed and age. Daily grooming leading up to the show will improve the quality and appearance of the rabbits’ fur and help train them.


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