Friends Don’t Scruff Friends: How Not to Handle Your Rabbit

Rabbits are still somewhat less well known than our most common companion animals, we sometimes subject them to care and behavior methods used on dogs and cats. This misapplication can range from the harmless to the life-threatening (as in administration of oral forms of penicillin).

Dogs and cats carry their newborn babies by the scruff (and nurse them round the clock). They commonly use this method to transport the babies from one location to a place the parents feel will be safer. Newborns weigh very little, and they know to hold still and not struggle when carried. Once these babies have gained weight and are able to move around on their own, their parents no longer lift them by the scruff.

As prey animals our domestic rabbits have a different approach to raising their young. Baby rabbits sleep continually until disturbed by the return of their mother at mealtime. Mom buns stay away from their nest in order to not attract predators to the area.1 They return only to feed (usually once a day) in the early dawn.2 Their babies are totally defenseless until they are able to run and move about on their own.

What happens when a rabbit is picked up by the scruff?

Their skin is made up of three layers, the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutaneous. Just as in our human skin, rabbits’ skin is plentifully supplied with nerves, which allow them to feel your touch; temperature; and pain. The subcutaneous layer consists of fat, connective tissue, blood vessels and nerves. This layer helps hold the skin to the muscle tissue. When you lift a rabbit by the scruff the skin is torn loose from the muscle tissue. In humans, when skin’s function is disordered we experience a strange or abnormal sensation. I assume a rabbit feels the same discomfort and unease. Could this be why some rabbits seem irritable or unfriendly or do not want to be touched?

After babyhood, Bunny loses the “freeze” reflex and may struggle and hurt herself trying to get free when restrained. Scruffing is what happens when a hawk or raccoon has you in her grasp and is about to make you her supper. Thus scruffing is both painful and terrifying. When placed back on the ground, Bunny may attempt to get away as she would from any predator. While rabbits may never actually enjoy the handling necessary for routine care, there are many ways to accomplish these tasks that are less frightening and therefore more effective as well as more humane than scruffing. We do not lift our cats and dogs by the scruff,3 they are much too heavy. We have even more reason not to scruff rabbits.

1. Although it has been reported that the wild European rabbit may (rarely) relocate their young, our domestic rabbits are not observed doing this.
2. We sometimes observe our domestic rabbits feeding again at 12 hours, perhaps because their better diet increases milk production.
3. Using scruffing as a way to control an animal, during nail clipping for instance, can be done as long as their rear end is supported against a solid surface.

By Sandi Ackerman

House Rabbit Journal Summer/Fall 2007: Volume V, Number 2