Rabbits can make excellent pets but a common misconception is that they don’t like to be petted. However, rabbits can be incredibly affectionate and many love to be stroked.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) states that rabbits are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and sociable animals.
Of course, rabbits are all individuals and have different personalities. Some may enjoy being pet and interacting with their owner more than others.
Building a bond with your rabbit and getting them used to contact with you is pivotal in establishing a loving, affectionate relationship. Even if you rescued your rabbit and they’ve had bad experiences with humans, you can teach them that you’re a safe person.
If you’re wondering how to pet a bunny, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Let’s take a look.
How to Pet Your Rabbit
It’s important to remember that rabbits are prey animals, so they’re naturally nervous and have a deeply ingrained instinct to be on alert. Using the right approach can help your rabbit feel safe and relaxed with you.
When you’re petting your rabbit, you should go slow, be gentle, and perhaps most importantly, be patient. If you are just getting to know one another, it might take them some time to learn that they can trust you.
So, where do bunnies like to be petted? There’s some guidance below to get you started.
Come In From the Side
As we mentioned, rabbits are prey animals so their vision is designed to allow them to see predators so they can run and hide. Dana M. Krempels, Ph.D.explains that a rabbit’s eyes:
“eyes are placed high and to the sides of the skull, allowing the rabbit to see nearly 360 degrees, as well as far above her head.”
This can make them skittish when they see something coming toward them. The way their field of vision works also means they have a blind spot in front of their nose.
If you approach your rabbit from the front, they won’t be able to see your hand coming and will get startled. Instead, keep your hand to one side of their head so they can see your hand and won’t be surprised.
Pet the Top Front of Their Head
You should move your hand in from slightly higher than your rabbit’s head, rather than from in front of their face. This shows you aren’t trying to be dominant and aren’t a threat.
The best place to pet your rabbit is the top of their head at the front (think of it like their forehead).
Scratch or Stroke the Back of Their Ears
Some people think that rabbits don’t like their ears being touched. While this might be true for some rabbits, a lot of rabbits don’t mind it!
If your rabbit is happy with you petting their head, you can try moving your hand back and gently scratching or stroking behind their ears. Many rabbits will enjoy a gentle massage behind the ears. You can even pet their head and behind their ears, at the same time if you like.
If they seem to be enjoying this, you can try stroking their ears gently. Most rabbits will quickly let you know whether or not they like it (we’ll cover how to tell if they’re enjoying it later in this article).
Massage From Their Nose Down Their Back
Many rabbits enjoy being given a gentle massage from their nose right down their back. This can feel a bit strange to your rabbit at first, so take it slowly. You can begin by stroking from their nose to the middle of the back, and then once they’re comfortable with that stroke the whole length of their body.
Stroke Their Cheeks Gently
Many rabbits like being stroked on their cute little cheeks. Gently introduce petting them on the cheek while you’re stroking their head. See how they react, and if they like it, you can give their cheeks a little massage. My rabbit used to love getting his cheeks rubbed. He would lean his head into my hand: so cute!
|Pet me here||I might like to be petted here||No, don’t pet me here|
|Forehead||On my ears||Bottom|
|Behind my ears||Sides||Belly/Chest|
|Cheeks||Rest of face||Under my chin|
|Down my back||Feet|
Where Not to Pet Your Rabbit
Although most rabbits enjoy the attention of their owners, there are some places rabbits dislike being touched. They may freeze in fear, run away, or become aggressive. This can ruin the bond between you and make your rabbit distressed.
It’s best to avoid trying to pet your rabbit in the following areas unless it’s for medical reasons or for grooming:
- Bottom: Avoid the area around their bottom and their tail.
- Belly: Since rabbits are prey animals, their underside is a very vulnerable area for them. The majority of rabbits will dislike their belly area being touched.
- Chest: Just like their belly, most rabbits dislike their chest area being stroked.
- Chin: Rabbits tend to dislike being touched under their chin and may nip or move away if you attempt this.
- Feet: Their feet are a crucial part of keeping themselves safe from predators. It’s how they run away if they’re in danger! So, they typically don’t like them being touched and will often run away if you attempt this.
Keep in mind that all rabbits are different, just like humans. This is just general guidance to help you bond with your bunny.
It’s important to briefly note that most rabbits dislike being picked up and held. It can make them feel trapped and frightened, so it’s best to avoid this aside from grooming or medical purposes. Mary Cotter, vice president of House Rabbit Society, states that if you do need to pick your rabbit up you should: “support their front half, under their rib cage, with one hand and their rear end with the other, holding them close to your body like a football.”
How to Tell if Your Rabbit Enjoys Being Pet
So, how do you tell if your rabbit is enjoying being stroked? Well, there are plenty of signs you can look for including:
- Lying down and relaxing: If your rabbit lies down and rests their head on the floor, or flops into their side while you’re petting them, it shows they’re enjoying the interaction and that they trust you.
- Nose twitching: Happy rabbits will constantly twitch and wiggle their nose, even when they’re relaxed.
- Quiet teeth grinding: Rabbits will often grind their front teeth quietly when they’re enjoying being stroked, sort of like a cat purring! This shows that they’re very relaxed. Loud teeth grinding indicates stress or pain, but don’t worry it’s easy to tell the difference.
- Nudging you: If when you stop petting them for a moment, your rabbit nudges you with their head, they’re asking you to keep petting them. Stopping petting for a second every now and then is a great way to see if your rabbit is happy: they’ll either move away if they’ve had enough or ask for more.
- Leaning into you: If you feel your rabbit leaning or pushing into your hand as you pet them, it’s a safe bet that they’re enjoying it!
- Seeking affection: Many rabbits will come up to you and seek attention by lying next to you, nuzzling against you, sitting on your lap, or even digging at you until you pet them.
- Mutual grooming: If you’re very lucky, your rabbit might groom you back by licking you. This is a real honor and is so cute!
Getting Your Rabbit Used to Contact
Stroking your rabbit isn’t just fun for you and them, it’s also a great way to get your rabbit comfortable with being touched so you can keep an eye on their health. Stroking your bunny gives you a chance to spot any lumps, bumps, and skin irritations. It also makes grooming your rabbit much less stressful for you both!
If your rabbit doesn’t like being pet, there are things you can do to build a bond between you and get your rabbit used to contact. It’s best to start this process as early on as possible.
There are areas that most rabbits won’t like being touched, which we discussed earlier. Although you shouldn’t pet your rabbit in these areas, it’s worthwhile getting your rabbit used to brief touches in these areas for grooming and health purposes.
You can get your rabbit used to contact by using the tips below. If you need extra help, chat to your vet for advice.
|Do ✔||Don’t X|
|Spend time with your rabbit||Pick your rabbit up (unless necessary)|
|Talk to your rabbit||Speak loudly or move suddenly |
|Be patient and consistent||Touch areas they don’t like more than needed|
|Offer plenty of treats||Try to rush things|
|Take your time||Ignore signs that they’re distressed |
|Watch their body language |
Sit With Your Rabbit
The first step is spending time with your rabbit. Sit quietly by their enclosure or on the floor when they’re free roaming. You can talk quietly to them to get them used to your voice. If they come up to you or show interest, toss a treat onto the floor to teach them that interacting with you is a positive thing.
A great way to start building trust is by holding out treats and waiting until your rabbit takes them from your hand. Don’t try to touch them yet until they’re comfortable taking treats from you. Once they are, you can move on to the next step.
Touch While Offering a Treat
If you’re starting with a rabbit you aren’t bonded to, you can touch their forehead in the way we described earlier while offering them a tasty treat. At first, they may move away or appear startled, but they will likely come back to take the treat. When they do, you can pet them again on the top of the head briefly. Continue this process for a few minutes each day until they get the hang of it.
If you’re trying to get your rabbit used to you touching those sensitive areas we mentioned, you can use the same technique but only touch the area briefly. Remember you’re not trying to encourage petting in this area, but rather just to desensitize them to touch in that area.
Talk to Them
You can help your rabbit get used to you and to feel more relaxed by talking to them in a gentle, calm voice while you’re working on petting them. This reassures them and reinforces that you are not a threat.
Be Patient and Consistent
It can take weeks or even months to build up trust, especially if your rabbit has previously had bad experiences with humans. The best thing you can do is be as patient as possible. Be consistent, doing short sessions to practice these skills each day.
Once your rabbit is used to being pet or touched in one area, you can move on to the other areas we mentioned earlier. You can alternate between petting them in the area they’re used to and the new area you’re working on. Take it slow and continue offering treats.
Maintaining a Positive Relationship
Once you’ve gotten your rabbit used to being petted and built that trust between you, it’s really important that you continue to interact with them as often as possible. Ideally, daily interaction is key to maintaining this positive relationship. This ensures your rabbit is happy, allows you to keep an eye on their health, and lets you enjoy a beautiful connection with your pet.
RSPCA, (2022), Rabbits.
Dana M. Krempels, Ph.D., (1998), What Do Rabbits See?
Matt Soniak, (2016), How to Care for Your Rabbit.