Rabbits can be affectionate companions. They are not, however, naturally predisposed to feel at ease around humans. In a laboratory setting, in particular, being approached and subsequently scruffed by an unfamiliar human is likely to induce fear and stress responses—and possibly skew research data. Participants in AWI’s Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum recently shared their personal experience concerning the most practical and effective ways of getting rabbits to trust their human handlers. Many forum participants advised avoiding startling noises—but added that making some noise helps let them know who and where you are:
From day one, staff announce their presence by knocking on the door before entering the animal room and vocalize/talk to the animals to habituate them to their presence and voice. As part of the husbandry procedure, all of the cages are opened at the same time and left open during the presence of the husbandry staff in the room. … As the days go by, entering the room induces less and less fear behavior (mainly frantically running around the cage or going into hiding) and more and more animals are seen sitting at the front of the cage.
My first defense was always background noise—radio or television, at a low volume. My rabbits developed a preference for a particular station on the radio. This helps small noises become less threatening. … I, too, never stop talking in a rabbit room, low and calm.
When possible, letting them initiate contact also fosters trust:
When we house rabbits on the floor I will sit in the pen with them, talk to them so they get used to my voice and let them approach me on their time. I let them sniff and climb over me and will touch them only after they start making contact with me (unless I have to for some reason).
As with other animals, coupling gentle human contact with food treats is a sure way to get in a rabbit’s good graces:
Our rabbits love Bio-Serv Fruity Gems (dried pineapple and papaya). I start giving them treats in their food hopper. Then I will offer treats through the cage bars, then open the door and place them in my hands, then pet them while they eat. We like to hang hayballs in our cages. … Eventually it was easy to give them a pat on the head or a stroke along their backs as they were trying to get the hay and they wouldn’t dodge our hands. … This does take a few minutes each day but it is worth it to see them engaged with their environment and relaxed when a hand comes into their cage.
Overall, the comments made clear that handlers wishing to ease fear and facilitate easy interactions with the animals try hard to promote a “no surprises” atmosphere that respects a rabbit’s natural wariness. Making rabbits less “jumpy” isn’t the only benefit. Gaining their trust and keeping them calm may make research data more trustworthy, as well.