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Bonding with Your Shy Rabbit

by Karen DeGroat

Rabbits are unique animals that are a joy to have as pets. I currently have eight rabbits that live in my home. Some of my rabbits are more outgoing than others, but I love each and every one for who he is. I appreciate their wide range of behaviors; begging for attention, resisting attention, being shy or being aggressive. If you have a rabbit that is shy, with time and patience, you should be able to gain his trust.

Midnight is my extremely shy dwarf rabbit. She can also be quite aggressive, especially with her playmate, a male bunny named Velvet. Although Midnight’s personality is often strange, I have worked with her and she has made a great deal of progress. But her innate shyness still shows through. For example, if I shake the bag of treats I keep for them, she will come running and gets so excited that she will jump on my lap to get a treat. At the same time, if I reach out to pet her, and she is not in the mood, she will either run away from me or grunt at me to say, “let me be!” I truly love Midnight, despite all of her quirks. Sometimes, she can be very humorous: if I lay on the floor on my stomach when playing with Midnight and Velvet, Midnight sometimes will jump on my back! Remember, this is the same bunny that will run away if she does not want my attention. It did take her a long time to get this comfortable with me. If you have a shy rabbit, it is definitely possible for you to win him over. The following advice is what worked for Midnight; see if it helps you with your rabbit…

First, consider your rabbit’s nature. You need to understand the “prey mentality.” Rabbits are one of common prey animals that other animals will hunt to eat. They are naturally less outgoing than a dog or cat, because they have to constantly be on the alert for animals that will eat them. Many rabbits do not like to be held or cuddled and may never enjoy sitting on your lap. However, many can learn to enjoy attention and petting from their human caregiver. Imagine if a giant rabbit came toward you and you did not know this strange animal’s intention. Personally, I think I would be so scared that I would try to run away or possibly bite the scary beast! Who knows what you would do if you felt cornered? So, let your rabbit get to know you slowly.

When you are getting to know your rabbit let him choose when to interact with you. Try not to force yourself upon your rabbit. Pushing yourself on a shy bunny can result in your little friend cowering from you, running away or biting out of fear. It may help if you find out as much about your rabbit’s background as you can. For example, your rabbit may have been given to a person who had rabbit allergies, or worse, the previous owner just didn’t want the rabbit and therefore the rabbit was ignored. The rabbit may have lived in an environment that was loud, had too many children or where he was picked up and prodded all the time. Perhaps your rabbit lived outside in a hutch and was not socialized.

If your rabbit has a cage or some other confined living arrangement, instead of reaching in to take him out, open the door and let him choose when he wants to come out; that way your rabbit will feel like he is in control. You should sit quietly in the area where he is living. It may take days or longer before he chooses to come out with you around. Perhaps you can catch up on reading your mail, or find another way to occupy yourself. If you ignore your bunny, he may be curious to see what is going on. Sooner or later his curiosity will get the best of him and he will come out. Always keep the door to his living area open. If he is scared, let him go to his safe space. Rabbits like dark spaces, so you may want to set up a place for your rabbit to bolt to, such as his cage, a hiding place, or a simple corner. Rabbits also love to explore paper bags and may use them as hiding places or even toys. Patience is a virtue when making friends with a shy rabbit. Rabbits really are sociable creatures and their need for human interaction will eventually shine through.

Next, turn on the charm. You should speak calmly and lovingly to your rabbit. In other words, “sweet talk” your rabbit. Do not make sudden moves or noises. If your rabbit approaches you, have a special treat available to see if you can tempt him to come near your hands. When his curiosity gets the best of him, he will come close to you. Praise your rabbit with your “happy” voice for being so brave. When you feel he is getting used to your hand, you can offer him a treat. After a few days of your rabbit accepting a treat from your hand you can slowly try to pet him on his head. If he resists or runs away, try again next time. Your new friend may want to sniff you to learn that you are not a predator. As the days go by, your rabbit will accept more touching, may climb on you, and will soon look for and accept your attention. You will recognize the day that comes when your rabbit acts happy to see you. You will have wonderful feelings when you see bunny binkies or a side-flop near you. A “binky,” when a rabbit does a series of runs and jumps high in the air, is an expression of extreme joy and happiness. When a rabbit side-flops, he is saying, “I am so relaxed that I can flop on my side right next to you.”

As I described above, I love to lie on the floor on my stomach to let my rabbits jump on my back and sniff my hair. They often use my legs as a ramp up to my back. My husband likes to lay on his back and let the rabbits jump on his stomach. Two out of our eight bunnies enjoy this activity. We offer the rabbits a special treat and pet them when they seem to be in the mood for attention. Sometimes they would rather run around and be left alone instead of having our attention. Either way, I enjoy watching their antics.

Finally, there are several important things to remember about rabbits. First of all, they do not like a hand in front of their face. This is because bunnies’ eyes are on the side of their heads, so they can’t see as well directly in front of them. You should speak to your rabbit as you approach so your hand doesn’t take her by surprise. A startled rabbit can give you a painful nip. Do not push your rabbit to be your friend faster than he is ready. Each new person that comes in contact with your rabbit should be introduced to your bunny gradually. Your rabbit may bond with some members of the family but not others. Spending time with your rabbit when you feel the most relaxed will make a difference with the experience, but keep your bunny’s natural waking and sleeping hours. Rabbits are the most active during the dawn and evening time and enjoy rest time during the afternoons. Never shout or holler at your rabbit, even if you think your rabbit is “misbehaving”.

Sometimes, you will need to pick up your rabbit, such as when it is time to take your rabbit to the veterinarian or when he needs his nails trimmed. It is very important that you remember that a rabbit must never be allowed to kick his or her back legs to try to get away from you, because doing so can cause your rabbit to fracture the spine. Sadly, this often results in a rabbit that has to be humanely euthanized, something that is totally preventable with good handling techniques. Always support the bunny’s back legs when you must hold him.

Please be sure to have your male rabbit neutered and your female spayed. Although altering your rabbit is essential for his or her health, it will also improve behavior. Spaying may prevent or diminish a female from being cage protective and neutering will prevent a male from marking you with his urine, which is quite unpleasant! I had a male rabbit that was “in love” with me. He would spray me with his urine to tell other male rabbits I was “his”. Even though I knew this was normal behavior of a male rabbit, I still did not find it pleasant. I had the male rabbit neutered, and the behavior stopped. To say the least, I was thankful when I no longer went through multiple changes of clothes each day!

I have different relationships with each eight of my rabbits. Some of my rabbits enjoy more attention than others. Midnight, although she will always be a bit shy, is a smart, active, adorable rabbit whom, after time and patience, has been won over!

Copyright 2006 Karen DeGroat

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