Rabbits and children: how to help them bond

Do rabbits make good pets for children? And can you teach kids how to look after rabbits properly? Read our top tips on helping them get along!

Having a pet can be a wonderful experience for children, giving them the chance to get close to an animal and learn what it takes to be responsible for their care. But it’s important to introduce rabbits to our children in the right way, and teach young owners how to behave around them. Read on for age-appropriate ways to help kids get to know their rabbits, from simple stroking to feeding and cleaning out – and don’t miss our child-friendly video guide to owning rabbits for the first time.

We tend to think of bunnies as child-friendly pets: they’re small, cute and (thanks to Peter and other fictional rabbits) enduringly popular with youngsters. But, like any pet, they’re also a big responsibility for the family, requiring gentle handling and ongoing care and attention.

The average rabbit can live for eight to 12 years, and possibly even longer – so before bringing rabbits into your home, you’ll need to make sure your children understand they’re not just passing playmates, and will require long-term care and commitment.

If you do decide to bring rabbits home, bear in mind that while some enjoy human interaction, others can be more introverted, and there are no guarantees your new bunnies will take to your kids as enthusiastically as your children take to them! To help make their relationship as mutually fulfilling as possible, you’ll need to lay the right groundwork.

When it comes to choosing the best rabbits for kids, it’s sensible to pick a breed known for its calm, friendly and affectionate nature. Child-friendly rabbit breeds include the Dutch, Jersey Wooly, Himalayan or New Zealand White. More highly strung breeds, such as the Lionhead or Angora, may be less suited to living with young children.

It’s a good idea to look at adopting rabbits from a rescue; although you may not have the option of choosing their breed, the rehoming centre will be able to advise on which animals they think can live happily alongside children.

Whatever breed of rabbit you choose, it’s always best to let them settle into family life gradually, and supervise their time with children. It’s all too easy for a rabbit to get injured by improper handling or boisterous play, and very young children in particular may not be able to provide the kind of gentle, quiet and controlled handling that rabbits require, so should never be left alone with them.

Before introducing rabbits to your home, explain to your child or children that they are very shy and fragile pets, who will be fearful of unfamiliar situations, loud noise and sudden movements. Our video guides are a great place to start – we’ve designed them especially for younger owners, to help understand what rabbits need and how they can help look after them.

Children will naturally want to meet the new arrivals immediately, so make sure they understand your new pets will be scared at first, and need time to settle into their accommodation before exploring further afield or being handled.

Make introductions slowly, and let your rabbits get used to their new family’s presence and scent before making any attempts to touch them. It can be helpful to create a ‘safe space’ around their living quarters for rabbits and children to get to know each other. Allow rabbits to venture out of their accommodation into this secure area, where one child at a time can be sitting calmly and quietly. Wait for the rabbits to approach the child, rather than the other way around, and don’t let your child pursue the rabbits. Be alert to any signs of fear in your rabbits, and always let them retreat to their private quarters if they get nervous.

Once your rabbits are more confident about sharing the space with a person, getting your child to offer them some food, such as fresh herbs, will help create positive associations with their presence. At first your child may need to place the snacks a little way away from themselves, before gradually bringing them closer and closer to encourage a rabbit to approach.

Make it clear to your child that you should only handle or stroke a rabbit if its body language is relaxed and it’s not trying to run away. Rabbits must never be picked up or tugged by their ears or tails – and they usually don’t like having these areas, or their tummies and feet, touched.

On the other hand, many rabbits do enjoy stroking on their foreheads and cheeks. This should always be gentle (less vigorous than patting a dog!), and your child should never force a rabbit to be petted. Make sure kids know that a rabbit who feels safe and relaxed is more likely to seek out affection and cuddles – but trying to grab or restrain unwilling rabbits could put your pets off human contact entirely.

Getting your child involved in rabbit-related chores and play activities is a fantastic way to help them become responsible human beings and learn more about nature. For example, even very young kids could help measure out your rabbits’ daily food allowance and change their water.

Slightly older children can help out with cleaning (even if their initial enthusiasm for this chore doesn’t last long!). Talk to them about why it’s important to keep rabbits’ enclosures, and particularly their toilet areas, clean and comfortable for them. (If your children are old enough to follow a discussion about hygiene, you could explain why poo shouldn’t be allowed to build up.) Instil good hygiene habits by getting your kids to wear gloves for cleaning, and stressing the importance of handwashing after.

Like all pets, rabbits require exercise and get bored if they lack stimulation. It’s great to get children involved in providing enrichment – for example, you could enlist their help to collect and make DIY bunny toys and treats. Rabbits love dandelion leaves, so why not teach children to recognise and collect these, then scatter them around your rabbits’ enclosure to provide a rewarding feeding experience? Or get them to tuck rabbit food into empty cardboard kitchen-roll tubes or cereal boxes for your pets to rummage out. Sensible children can also play a part in training rabbits and teaching them to recognise their name.

You could also encourage children to develop an interest in their new pets even when they’re not hands-on with them – for instance, by drawing a picture showing their rabbits eating a good diet, or making up a story about an adventure they had before they came to live with you. With patience and understanding, it’s possible for kids and rabbits to forge a real and satisfying friendship.

Teach kids more about rabbits with our handy downloadable infographic on our furry friends, and don’t miss our guide to bonding with your rabbits for more tips on helping bunnies and humans get along.

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