Understanding a rabbit's basic nature as a prey animal, getting to know your rabbit and how to handle it...
Understanding a rabbit's basic nature is key to forming a relationship with it. In the wild, rabbits are prey creatures that are constantly on the look out for predators and only feel safe when underground. Whilst domestic rabbits are far more docile, this instinct is still ingrained in them and a soft, gentle approach is vital.
When startled, rabbits will either freeze or bolt for the nearest cover. Both of these can be harmful; rabbits have been known to die of heart attacks when scared, and when bolting for cover the rabbit may collide with objects, damaging itself in the process.
Furthermore, rabbits are ground loving animals who do not like being held or carried by a human. Their bone structure is fragile and if a rabbit kicks out in fear or pain it can easily damage its spine. Rabbits feel much more comfortable on the ground and prefer to be cuddled and stroked there without being held.
It is important to give your rabbit a space of its own, a "bolthole", where it can feel totally secure and know that it will not be approached. This could be the sleeping area of its hutch or, if you have a house rabbit, its sleeping area under a table or behind a sofa.
Never chase your rabbit or force it to be cuddled; this will reinforce the rabbit's ingrained instinct that humans are something to fear.
Getting to know your rabbit
A good way to get to know your rabbit is to sit on the ground, either in its run or in a room in your house, and let your rabbit approach you. Rabbits are naturally very curious and it will approach you to investigate. Your rabbit will probably have its ears pricked forward and its tail stuck out - this is their body language for being curious but ready to dash away at the first sign of danger so avoid loud noises and sudden movements. Let your rabbit hop around you and sniff you without trying to touch it. Talk to it in a low, gentle tone so it gets to know the sound of your voice and finds this reassuring.
In time your rabbit will gain confidence and start to exhibit more behaviour, such as grooming itself, nudging you with its nose to get your attention, flopping or rolling on the ground when it is tired, or racing around at high speed to let off energy. These are all natural behavioural traits for rabbits and show that your rabbit is relaxed and happy in your company.
You will need to be able to pick your rabbit up in order to carry out regular healthchecks and put it in and out of its cage or carrier. Always approach your rabbit from above as they cannot see objects directly in front of their noses. Stroke its back gently until you are sure it is not about to dash away from you. Slide one hand under its tummy, just behind its front feet and the other hand under its bottom. As you lift, try to keep most of the rabbit's weight on its bottom. Settle it securely across your body, not with its head pointing up at your shoulder as it may try to climb up.
Many rabbits will try to jump, from whatever height, once they sense you are about to release them so kneel down still holding the rabbit against you, then lower your arms and let it jump to the ground. If your rabbit is very nervous about being held, try wrapping it in a blanket or towel - it will make it feel more secure and will protect you from scratches.