TWICE AS HAPPY
Cottontails’ guide to bunny bonding
Rabbits are social creatures and live a longer and happier life when they are in pairs. They keep each other active and entertained while you’re not at home. They share living space, food, water, toys and litter trays. They groom each other, keeping each other clean and healthy, and comfort each other in times of stress. Having two rabbits is actually less work than having a single bunny who depends on you for all his emotional support. You needn’t worry that if you introduce a second rabbit, your existing one will be less affectionate – he will love you even more for giving him a friend of his own kind. If you have a senior bunny, it is never too late to introduce a companion to keep him young and stimulated in the last years of his life. Two rabbits can of course mean double the vet bills, but they’ll be more content and relaxed so they may be less likely to become ill in the first place.
Although rabbits are social animals, they are extremely territorial and tend to fight to establish who is the dominant bunny. As a result introductions can take several weeks, but they’re well worth the effort to give your rabbit a lifelong friend. If this is your first attempt at bunny bonding please take your time, read up and get advice from rabbit welfare organisations (see the links at the bottom of the page). Before you introduce your rabbits, it is essential to have them both neutered or spayed, even if they’re the same sex. Neutering will make them calmer and reduce hormonal behaviour (mounting, aggression) which makes bonding trickier. Wait two weeks after surgery to ensure proper healing, this is particularly important with a newly-neutered male as he can still be fertile for two weeks after his operation. Never introduce your rabbits until they’re neutered (even same-sex pairs) as they will probably start fighting and will then not become friends even after they’ve been neutered or spayed.
To adopt one or a pair of rabbits, please visit your local rescue centre, where you will find wonderful neutered bunnies of all ages, breeds and sizes – you may even be able to use their neutral space for the first bunny “date”. The best combination is a mixed pair, but two males and two females can also get along well. Bringing two rabbits home at the same time is quite easy, even if they’re the same sex, as the unfamiliar space is usually enough to make them become friends on their own. It is easier to bring a female rabbit home to a male than the other way round because females are more protective of their immediate environment. Baby rabbits under 12 weeks old will bond quickly, especially if they’re from the same litter (but click here for the benefits of adopting adult rabbits). Never leave two rabbits together if they’re not bonded, thinking they will work things out, as this can result in serious injury.
Before you start, make sure the rabbits are healthy and eating well. You will need two separate rooms or habitats until your bunnies are friends, for example two exercise pens side by side where the rabbits can see, hear and smell each other – but not touch, as they can bite and scratch through the wire mesh. Leave a small gap between the pens or make sure any partitions are fitted with a double layer of mesh. If your existing rabbit has the run of the house, place your new rabbit in a pen or room with a pet gate in the doorway (add an extra mesh panel).
Never try bonding where your rabbit lives or spends a lot of time, e.g. her exercise pen, where she sleeps, has her litter tray, hidey box, rugs, food and water bowls, as this will almost certainly result in fighting. Choose the most neutral space you can, the larger the better, for instance a bathroom, kitchen or outbuilding. Close off any areas where you can’t follow your rabbits if they start fighting, e.g. under a bed, behind furniture, hidey boxes, and make sure there aren’t any sharp objects that could harm your bunnies if they run into them.
Try to do a date every day for 15-20 minutes and build up from there. If the rabbits are getting along fine, keep them together for longer, otherwise separate them and try again the next day. Dates are supposed to be a pleasant experience for you and your bunnies so don’t do one if you’re in a hurry or stressed or they will sense this and the date will not go well. Remember it is natural for rabbits to be protective of their home – you too would feel uncomfortable if you were forced to live with a stranger. Take things slowly and be patient.
The most helpful thing you can do to facilitate introductions is swapping, i.e. placing each rabbit in the other’s habitat, so they get used to each other’s scent. If one rabbit is completely free-range, place the second rabbit in a pen or room and swap them round each day. Keep swapping the bunnies daily until they are bonded in a neutral territory.
When two rabbits meet, they might fall in love at first sight, but this is rare. They might ignore each other (a good sign!) or copy each other’s behaviour (eating, grooming, using the litter tray) while being on opposite sides of the room. This is also a positive sign as over time the rabbits will get closer until they’ll be doing these activities together and groom each other.
One or both rabbits might flop on their side, which means they’re content and relaxed, or do binkies (happy jumps, tail-flicks, etc.). These are wonderful signs that the rabbits are going to get on well. When a rabbit eats in the presence of the other bunny is also a good sign, make sure there is always food present during introductions to promote a happy feeling (offer one bowl per bunny).
Grooming of any kind during the bonding process is great! Whether it’s independent or grooming each other, their relationship will probably continue to blossom from this point. When a rabbit lays his head down on the floor, it’s a request for grooming and a sign the bunny wants to be friends. It may take a while for the other bunny to start grooming him, and the top rabbit will get the most licks. Sometimes both bunnies put their head down, when this happens simply bend over and give them a head rub. This will make both bunnies feel they’re getting some love. Do the same if the rabbits thump or turn their back as these are signs they’re frustrated and want attention.
Chasing behaviour by both male and female rabbits is common in introductions, as they’re working out who is the dominant bunny (often the female or the rabbit you least expect, for instance a very shy one). Chasing is fine as long as the bunny that runs doesn’t get hurt or fight back. If he does, say “No!” and clap your hands to distract them, or separate them and try again the next day. You may also see one rabbit run circles around a bunny who’s sitting still. This is part of the courtship/dominant behaviour and is usually done by a bunny to round up his mate.
Mounting by both a male and a female bunny is also normal and serves to establish who’s top rabbit. This behaviour is fine if other rabbit doesn’t mind. If she does, and runs, it is still not usually a problem, but if she becomes aggressive you must be prepared for a longer introduction. Watch out for reverse mounting, when a bunny mates with another rabbit’s head and may end up getting bitten by the submissive rabbit. Separate the bunnies by nudging the top rabbit gently to the side. Sometimes during mounting a rabbit may nip the back of the other bunny, pulling out some fur, this is also OK provided the other rabbit does not get stressed.
A rabbit may do a nip and run (to get attention) or nip the other rabbit while guarding her litter tray or other area. Your rabbits are working out their relationship. If you feel things are getting heated, say “No!” loudly or clap your hands and separate them. Don’t confuse the nip and run with an all-out fight, when the bunnies chase each other’s tails in a tight circle. Break this up immediately (wear gardening gloves or use a towel) to avoid serious harm. This can also stall the bonding process as rabbits have a good memory and will remember a bad experience. If possible prevent fights before they happen by looking out for aggressive body language (raised tail, ears back). Once fighting has stopped check each rabbit for injuries and separate them for a day or more. Keep swapping their habitats so they get used to the other rabbit’s scent in their litter tray, beds, hidey boxes, food and water bowls. Then try bonding them again in a neutral territory, preferably a new and a larger one. Be patient and slowly increase the time the rabbits spend together until they become friends.
During introductions you will notice some loss of litter-training as the rabbits mark outside their litter tray with urine and droppings. Lay down a washable rug or blanket and accept that you will need to do some extra cleaning. Once your rabbits are bonded good habits should return.
When you are sure the rabbits have bonded in the neutral area, it’s time for them to move into their habitat, room, or in the case of free-range rabbits, the rest of the house (do one room at a time). Everyone always worries about moving day, but there are a few things you can do to ensure it goes smoothly. First of all clean the rabbits’ living area thoroughly: wash up food and water bowls, wipe litter trays with diluted white vinegar and replace all litter, bedding, hay and straw. Wash fleece rugs and blankets and vacuum or mop the floor. Rearrange your rabbits’ toys, boxes and furniture to make everything seem new.
It is easier to move the bunnies in together after they’ve had a few long dates and one or two overnight dates in a neutral territory. Make sure you have plenty of time to watch the bunnies and check they’re getting along well. Friendly signs include sharing food, litter trays, blankets and hidey holes, cuddling up together and grooming each other. After the move there may be a few tiffs but these should resolve quickly (clap your hands and say “No!” if needed). If these continue you may need to give your rabbits more space by opening up their living area, or return them to the neutral space for more dates. You can move them back in together once they are completely bonded in their neutral space.
Once your rabbits are paired up, it is important to keep them together. If one needs to go to the vet you can take both in the same carrier and they will snuggle up for comfort, this is one of many benefits of giving your rabbit a friend.
A word about stress-bonding
Rabbit welfare organisations no longer advise bonding rabbits in a small place (e.g. a bathtub) or in the car. If you want to keep your rabbits stress-free and healthy, gentle bonding is the way to go, it may take extra time and effort but it is worth doing the right thing for your rabbits.
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