INTRODUCTION TO BONDING METHODS
Most rabbits are territorial by nature. However, this does not mean that they all have to lead solitary lives. Rabbits that live in compatible pairs or occasionally even small groups will often benefit in many ways, including companionship, mental and physical stimulation, and not least a grooming partner!
Once you see how happy rabbits are when living in bonded pairs you will vow never to keep a rabbit on its own again if at all possible, and although there are exceptions to any rule, many rabbits can be successfully matched so long as care is taken with choosing a suitable partner, to allow for the process to take several weeks or months, and thought given to their environment. Most of our rabbits at CottonTails® rabbit and guinea pig rescue are re-homed in pairs, but there is a significant minority who simply will not accept another rabbit, no matter how well the introductions are carried out. I have found from personal experience that rabbits who are very “humanised” (such as house bunnies that are extremely comfortable around their human friends) can be amongst the most challenging to bond, with such attempts often ending in failure. Elderly rabbits that have lost a partner can often fail to accept a new friend too, and in many cases they ironically appear more happy and content once they have accepted that their lost friend is not coming back. With this in mind it is wise to always wait at least 2-3 weeks after the loss of a rabbit before rushing in to re-bond, both from the possible disease transmission risk and also to see if the rabbit will actually settle down and appear happy and content.
Although the general thrust of this article is about bonding your rabbit, please do not feel pressured into trying to match-up your rabbit just because you feel this is something you have to do. Whilst most rabbits do benefit from living with a compatible other, there are a sizeable minority that really do seem to prefer to live without having to share their environment, especially if they are humanised and have a lot of attention from their owner. This can be especially true of house rabbits, and also can be true of elderly rabbits who sometimes prefer to be on their own despite having shared their life until recently with a bunny partner.
Whilst there is no doubt that keeping rabbits in compatible pairs works best from the compatibility point of view, there are some (but not many) circumstances where a group or trio may work, so for more information on that topic, click on the side bar link for “Groups and Trios” or scroll down to the foot of this article.
The film below shows how a single bunny can be very happy if given appropriate stimulation and activities:
If your rabbit has been recently bereaved, it is best to wait a couple of weeks or so and observe his or her behaviour to determine whether he/she is really missing the companionship – this can be seen by noting changes in behaviour where a rabbit is perhaps more reserved, less outgoing, and seems to spend a lot of time hunched and inactive (not to be confused with the onset of gut stasis). Sometimes you will see this behaviour to start with, but some rabbits regain their bounce within a week or so and actually gain a new lease of life! So the point I am making here is to take each rabbit as an individual and decide what to do based on the circumstances involved and not based on what someone says in a book or website!
Neutering of both partners is vital for long-term success, and ideally this should be carried out prior to matching or, in the case of baby rabbits, as soon as they mature. With males this is usually between 10-16 weeks of age (as soon as the testicles descend), females being spayed from 16 weeks onwards so long as they weigh over 1kg. My observations have shown that young rabbits recover just as fast if not quicker than adults, and waiting until the rabbits are 5-6 months old can cause many problems, including fighting or breeding. Before looking at possible pairing combinations, there are some general points that should be kept in mind when matching rabbits.
There are two main methods of bonding rabbits, fast-track system and the slow approach, and it is the former that I will discuss first, although it is not now my preferred method unless circumstances are such that there is not time or space to follow the slower approach. The fast track method is not ideal as the sudden introduction of two rabbits that have never met before can lead to unnecessary fighting and injuries. I favour a combination of the two methods, starting with the slow bonding method and then swapping to the fast track system after 2-4 weeks.
With the fast-track system (or after the initial side by side living of the slow bonding method), neutral territory is usually necessary for the initial encounter and for the first few days thereafter, until the rabbits have accepted each other. This is somewhere where neither rabbit has been before, but it must be large enough to allow plenty room for them to get away from each other if necessary. This could be a shed, a garage, a greenhouse, or anywhere that they will be safe to live together until they have bonded. This usually takes about a week, by which time they should be enjoying each other’s company by grooming each other and choosing to sit together. They should be provided with distractions such as cardboard boxes (also useful to hide in), and their usual food, hay and water during this time.
If you are following the fast track method, it is best to take your rabbit with you when going to choose a new partner for him or her so that they can meet in neutral territory initially and then travel back together in the same carrying box (see below for details of this initial encounter). Travelling together is a proven method of kick-starting the bonding process as both rabbits are afraid during the journey home and look to each other for support and comfort. An extra box can be taken just in case the two have to be separated on route, but this is extremely rare as once the journey starts the rabbits usually sit very still and quiet. There is no need to take the other rabbit with you if following the slow bonding method however, as they will be living side by side for at least a couple of weeks before they actually meet face to face.
Don’t forget to find out what food your new rabbit has been fed on so you can make any diet changes very gradually, and also find out if the new rabbit is used to a water bowl or bottle, as rabbits that are used to a bowl will not be able to use a bottle successfully.
THE INITIAL ENCOUNTER – fast track method or after at least 2 weeks side by side
This should take place on territory not known by either rabbit, using an existing territory only if that particular individual is extremely nervous and submissive towards other rabbits. You usually get a very good indication whether or not the new combination has a chance of working within the first 15 minutes, although it is normal for both rabbits to ignore each other for a while to start with.
Common initial behaviours include mounting by one or both parties, often at the wrong end and sometimes both rabbits trying to mount each other at the same time, resulting in them spinning round and round in circles with ever-increasing speed.
A small amount of aggression is to be expected at the start as they try to establish the hierarchy in the relationship. Sometimes a rabbit may appear to be too afraid to move and may refuse to come out of the corner, but this is very common and usually resolves itself with time. This is a small price to pay if the end result is going to be the formation of a strong friendship that could last for the rest of their lives. The benefits of company are obvious and far outweigh any minor short-term problems, so don’t panic straight away, be patient and observant and be prepared to “let them get on with it” so long as it doesn’t become serious. Sometimes you will find either the male or the female will show very submissive behaviour and will appear to opt out of the proceedings by going completely flat. This is nothing to worry about and usually they will get up and move around or preen themselves once they feel the onslaught of mounting or other unwanted attention has ceased.
Very occasionally, one or both rabbits show severe aggression by attacking and wounding the other on the face or genital area or repeatedly on the body. These are serious attacks and the encounter must be stopped immediately, as it is unlikely to work long-term. Be careful when separating battling bunnies – you may get bitten in the confusion! In such situations it does not necessarily mean that the rabbits have to live on their own permanently. It is more likely that that particular pair are incompatible for whatever reason and different partners should be tried. I remember one particular male who showed strong dislike for the first five females he was offered but absolutely adored the sixth! Below is a film, taken by the rabbits’s owners, of two previous strongly bonded brothers fighting. They were permanently separated after this film was taken and thankfully neither of them was seriously hurt.
The story of this trio can be found by following the link below:
Sometimes a combination of the fast and slow methods of bonding is useful if one or both rabbits appears to be initially aggressive, and whilst it may make more sense to simply try a different partner, sometimes this is either not possible or the owner really wants to persevere and give it a try. In such cases, having the rabbits living side by side with a partition between them for a couple of weeks can be really helpful (for more details see the “slow approach”) as this partially desensitises the rabbits so when they are actually introduced a few weeks later they already “know” each other and their initial reaction to each other is not as emotional or animated as it would have been had they simply been introduced straight away.
The film below illustrates well the sound that some females make if persistently mounted by either a male or another female, and this should not be ignored if she continues to make this sound for more than a few days as it indicates she is distressed and anxious. It can be a common sound when bonding a neutered female with a neutered male (or female with female but this is not a bonding I would advise – see below for further details) and usually fades after a few days when the males interest reduces and the females starts to trust her new friend. In the case of the two sisters in the film, there was clearly an imbalance in the pairing and shortly after the film was taken they were separated and subsequently spayed and each matched with a suitable neutered male. The squeaky female did not make her sound again, not even with the bonding with the male, and was very much happier.
Putting the squeaking rabbit problem aside for the moment, if the rabbits still have problems settling down after a week or so, take them for another ride in the car, making sure that they don’t overheat if travelling on a hot day. On your return, place them once again in neutral territory and usually you will find they are more willing to tolerate each other after this experience.
Below is a quick guide to possible behaviours expected during the first few minutes of an initial match-up introduction:
- Both rabbits ignore each other. This is the commonest behaviour pattern and usually lasts for the first few minutes of the introduction. However, once the initial exploration of the accommodation is completed to their satisfaction, interaction then usually begins.
- Male mounts the female. This is very common even with neutered rabbits, and can be a trigger for the female to either run away, try and mount the male, or stand her ground and fight.
- Female mounts the male, as point 2 but reversed.
- Tentative nose to nose contact, likely pulling away quickly initially and then repeating the behaviour a few minutes later.
- One rabbit becoming obsessed with the other by excessive grooming and other attentive behaviours, the other rabbit being very submissive and too afraid to move. This type of behaviour is not good news, as often within days or weeks the submissive partner “blows a fuse” eventually and a massive fight ensues.
- One rabbit quickly diving at the other to give a quick nip but not following it through and running off.
- One rabbit launching an unprovoked serious attack on the other, biting under tail or around the face and not letting up.
- Both rabbits start fighting within a minute of the introduction. This is thankfully quite rare, but also indicates that there is little chance of the match working.
The Slow Approach – the preferred bonding method
Another bonding approach is to house them in separate territories separated only by a strong wire partition, or a double wire partition if there is a fear that one rabbit may try and bite the other one through a single layer if there was no gap in between. This allows them to gradually get used to each other for several weeks before trying an actual face-to-face meeting. The disadvantage of this method is that it can take a long time and there is no guarantee at the end that the rabbits will like each other, but does reduce the chances of fighting and injuries. If you have one rabbit in a cage and the other running free, you must give each rabbit equal time in the two areas, otherwise the rabbit with the most freedom will consider himself “the winner” and will develop an air of arrogance that can be very difficult to undo! The slow method can show up incompatibility problems with the rabbits building up an increasing dislike of each other through the partition, seeing each other as a threat to their territory, and this means that if properly introduced for the first time they immediately fight as they feel they know each well enough to dispense with the formalities! If the two rabbits are not showing signs of attraction to each other or at least a tolerant indifference, the chances are high that it is not going to work and it is best to call it a day at that point before even risking an actual introduction.
Surprisingly, it is not always a good idea to give a newly bonded pair of rabbits free run of a large garden too quickly, as this can lead to a territory dispute and fighting can be the result, sometimes so severe that they have to be permanently separated. This can sometimes happen even to a long-term bonded pair if they are re-homed and given lots of freedom within the first week or so of the move, especially if they were not used to such space beforehand. It is best to wait 3-4 weeks to make sure they have settled down, allowing access to a run in the meantime.
Before reading any further, take a few minutes to watch the following videos, as they all have interesting and important points to make, including one introduction that went horribly wrong!
You will be pleased to know that within hours of arriving in their new neutral territory, Buster and Bella were sitting side by side grooming each other!
The following was written by their owners:
Buster and Bella appear to be very comfortable together now. Most of the time they are sitting or lying down together, side by side, nose to nose, head to tail. Bella seems to go towards Buster more than him to her. She often stretches herself out alongside him. They groom each other. This evening we watched Buster groom her ears for quite a long time. Bella just laps it up. None of us has seen any aggression between them since we brought them here. I will try to send you photos at some point. It is so heart-warming to see them being close and snuggling together.
Then an update two weeks later: The two bunnies are like a single entity now. They spend much of the time in close contact. Bella in particular seems very relaxed, often completely stretched out whilst leaning against Buster.There is a lot of ear grooming by both of them. We obviously spend a lot of time watching them, telling each other what they have been up to and generally feeling absolutely amazed that they have become so close.
Mildred and Merlin’s match-up:
Rusty and Bella’s match-up that did not work!
Bella and Major, a very difficult match:
Cherry and Peter’s bonding session did not go well:
POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS – Male/Female
Neutered male/neutered female pairings are the most successful long-term. Although compatible personalities are important, rabbits in such pairings are likely to show more tolerance towards each other than would necessarily be found in female/female or male/male match-ups. The large majority of opposite sex encounters end very positively, with most males trying to do what comes naturally when presented with a new female companion.
Pairing an non-neutered female with a neutered male will sometimes work but you are running the risk of the female’s hormone-driven mood swings (bunny “PMT”) seriously jeopardising their relationship long-term, as well as running the risk of her developing uterine and associated cancers at a later stage. It is also important to know that males are fertile for up to 4 weeks after their castration operation, and therefore any mating during this time could result in pregnancy if the encounter is with an unneutered female.
Pairing an non-neutered male with a neutered female is only suitable in the rare event of the male not showing much sexual behaviour towards his partner. Males that repeatedly try to mount and/or spray the female long-term will often break the temper of their partner and a serious fight will likely ensue. Not only that, but it is not pleasant for owners to have to deal with a permanently sticky, smelly and yellow-tinged rabbit! The photo below illustrates one such rabbit, who should be pure white!
Occasionally, some long-term neutered males lose their sexual drive and can become aggressive towards any rabbit they meet, and with this in mind, the bonding process may need to be taken at a slower pace to enable him to get used to the idea by using the wire partition technique described above.
As a last resort in such situations, it may be worth trying to pair up “difficult” rabbits with a baby rabbit of the opposite sex, but close supervision is essential as a baby would be less able to defend itself if it came under attack. In most cases, the baby does not seem to be perceived as a territorial threat and therefore may be accepted by a domineering adult who otherwise would not allow any adult rabbit on its “patch”. When the baby comes of age, the pair should be well bonded so no major problems should be encountered apart from minor behaviour adjustments. Neutering should be carried out as soon as possible to prevent the problems mentioned earlier. See ‘Bonded Pairs’ below for advice on neutering a bonded pair.
POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS – Female/Female
It is rare that females will live together long term without neutering, as hormone-related behaviours causes friction between the pair, sufficient enough to cause serious fighting. Even if both females are neutered and have lived together from the start (such as sisters or mother/daughter combinations), it is not uncommon for them to fall out irreconcilably after months or even years have gone by, often for no obvious reason.
POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS – Male/Male
Generally speaking, this combination only works if the two males concerned have been brought up together (true brothers works best) and have a good relationship at the time of their castration. The neutering operations must take place as soon as the testicles descend, usually at about 3-4 months of age, and they should both be castrated on the same day and immediately placed back together again in their normal environment on their return. If it is cold and they have not completely recovered from the anaesthetic, both rabbits need to be brought inside overnight, even if only one of them is showing drowsiness.
Any fighting demonstrated prior to the operation will mean that the relationship is very unlikely to succeed long-term, and the rabbits should be separated prior to the castration operation and matched-up with a neutered female each instead. A word of caution: I have on rare occasions found from experience that two bonded males will sometimes start fighting even after a few years have past, especially if moved to a new environment.
DON’T EVER SPLIT UP A BONDED PAIR
Once they are bonded, a pair of rabbits should not be separated unless absolutely necessary. Trips to the vet should involve taking both rabbits with you in the same carrying box, even if only one needs to be seen. If hospitalization is necessary, however (such as for neutering), it may not be practical to leave both rabbits there, in which case take the remaining rabbit with you when you go to collect his or her partner so they can travel back together for the journey home. However, if this would be detrimental to the recovery of the affected rabbit (for example having a wound or stitches in a very accessible place) it may be necessary to separate them. This should be done for the shortest possible time as it may be difficult in some cases for the pair to accept each other again. In such situations, it may be necessary to “start from scratch” again using neutral territory or a wire partition until things settle down. In the case of neutering, ask the vet to use a technique that involves no external stitches, to avoid problems associated with nibbling.
Rabbits usually recover much quicker if they are in their usual environment with their partner. Therefore, if only one half of a bonded pair is neutered and it is decided to neuter the other, there is usually no need to separate the pair after the operation unless the remaining rabbit causes distress due to harassment. An initial flurry of mounting activity is often encountered if it is the female that has just been returned because her male partner will be pleased to see her. However, if this behaviour does not settle down within a few minutes, remove the male for a few days until she is fit enough to cope with his advances.
If one of the bonded pair has already been neutered and the other one then needs to be done, follow the guidelines below to make sure that the bond is not broken in the process:
- On the morning of the operation, take the pair to the vets (travelling together), and on your return home with the remaining bunny, put him/her somewhere different for the day if at all possible.
- When you go to collect the rabbit that has just been neutered, take the other rabbit with you so they can travel back home together again.
- Unless the weather is extremely cold (such as in the middle of winter in which case you may want to keep them both inside overnight), the pair should go straight back into their normal environment again. You may find the male tries to mount briefly, but this is rarely a problem and soon settles down.
FIGHTING BETWEEN A BONDED PAIR
The large majority of match-ups do work well in the long term, but occasionally a bonded pair will suddenly start fighting for no obvious reason. In these circumstances it is advisable to have both rabbits checked over by an experienced vet as ill health in one or both can trigger this behaviour. I have seen several situations where one rabbit has been going through the onset of gut stasis and the change in his or her behaviour has been enough to enrage the partner and stimulate aggression. Another example of this was with a recent spate of bullying between a strongly bonded pair that was proving a puzzle until I thoroughly examined both rabbits, only to find that very deep inside the male’s ear was the start of either an ear infection or mites. Appropriate treatment was started immediately on both rabbits, and the aggressive chasing stopped straight away, indicating that the male was grumpy and unhappy due to his ear discomfort. Interestingly, after 3 weeks he started to chase the female again, and on examination I could see the problem was still lurking deep within one ear, but once treatment was underway the bullying again stopped completely. It was lucky that the female was very submissive to the male, which prevented proper fighting from occurring, and the problem with a pair where the partner fights back is that they may fall out so significantly that even once the medical problem is resolved they may have broken their bond for good.
Another bone of contention between an otherwise well bonded pair is an inequality of grooming, where only one rabbit is prepared to groom the other, despite desperate “pleas” by the other bunny to be groomed too. A trick to try is to put a few drops of yogurt on the rabbit’s head that does all the grooming, in the hope that the other reluctant partner will see this as a good idea and will lick off the offending droplets, grooming the bunny at the same time. If this is repeated a few times it can give the encouragement needed to demonstrate that mutual grooming is actually rather pleasant. Don’t put too much on, otherwise you will stimulate the rabbit to self-groom, which is defeating the point of the exercise completely! Most pairs of bunnies get better at sharing activities the longer they are together, but some do retain their stubborn individuality for longer than others.
FACTORS THAT CAN TRIGGER FIGHTING BETWEEN AN APPARENTLY BONDED PAIR:
Neutering – Whilst there is always going to be exceptions to any rule, it is rare for a pair of rabbits to stay happily together in the long term unless both are neutered. Some owners choose only to neuter the male in a male/female pair, but as time goes on it is not uncommon for the unspayed female to have a false pregnancy. This in turn triggers territorial behaviour as she is convinced she is about to have a litter and may chase away any other rabbits in the immediate area, including her partner. The general rule is that for a bonding to work in the long term, both rabbits must be neutered, preferably before they are introduced to each other.
Gender of the pair – The gender (sex) of the two rabbits involved can be really important. In general, the best combination for bonding two rabbits for long term success is a neutered male and a neutered female. Two males will usually only work in the long term if the males are brothers (having grown up together), are neutered early as soon as their testicles descend at around 12 weeks (or earlier depending on development), and that at the point of neutering they are not showing any signs of aggression towards each other – mounting is normal but aggressive chasing and fighting is not. It is common for a pair of non-neutered males to start fighting from around 3 months onwards, but sometimes it can take 12-18 months before serious fighting arises, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences. Female pairs often end up fighting later on, sometimes taking 2-3 years before this happens but it is so common that here at CottonTails® we do not recommend bonding female with female even if both are spayed. This is true of sisters and mother/daughter combinations. However, if the females are over 4 years of age it is likely they will stay bonded as they have past the main trigger stages and should be settled.
The initial bonding procedure – For rabbits that are bonded with another individual that is not known to them (i.e. not a litter mate or parent), the method of bonding can be crucial. Common mistakes include not using neutral territory for the first week or two, and by neutral territory I mean completely unknown to both rabbits, where neither has seen or been in before. Cutting this initial stage short because the pair seem to be getting on well is another common mistake, as is giving a newly bonded pair too much room too quickly. Whilst it is important that the pair have plenty of room to move around and get away from each other if necessary, giving them a whole garden to run around in shortly after they have been bonded is simply asking for trouble. This often triggers fighting and the only option is to go back a stage to the neutral territory again and from there gradually increase the area for exercise over a few weeks.
Accommodation – The size of the accommodation can influence the behaviour of a pair of rabbits too. Whilst it may seem obvious that shutting a pair of rabbits into a very small area could lead to frustration and fighting, it is equally important not to give too much room too quickly, as outlined above. Some rabbits simply will not tolerate another rabbit around if they are in a very large space, which seems to be a contradiction in terms but I have come across several situations where a pair get on well in a hutch with run attached but fight severely when out in a large garden.
Health Issues – If one of the pair develops health issues, this can alter the dynamics of the relationship drastically. An example of this would be in an older pair, where one rabbit develops arthritis and as a result is far more reluctant to move around. This can mean that the other rabbit feels neglected as their partner appears subdued and unresponsive and sometimes even grooming between the pair is affected due to the one in discomfort failing to respond to the partner’s signals for attention. Some rabbits react in a very grumpy way to this change of behaviour, and this can lead to significant fighting. Thankfully a daily dose of a pain medication such as Metacam can alleviate the symptoms of arthritis in many cases, allowing the affected rabbit to move around freely again. However, sometimes if the bond is broken it is very difficult to mend. Even minor complaints can affect the relationship, in particular conditions like mites, as this can irritate the skin of the rabbit and make them uncomfortable and irritable.
Age – Some rabbits can change as they mature, so if a pair are bonded very young there is sometimes a change in dynamics between the pair at the point of maturity, leading to a battle for dominance with often serious consequences. Sometimes it will settle down again, but in some cases the damage is irreparable and the pair have to be split up. The same can be true if an older rabbit is bonded with a much younger one, with similar outcome.
Whilst there is no doubt that un-neutered rabbits are affected by seasonal changes such as length of daylight and temperature, it may come as a surprise to some people that neutered rabbits are also affected in a similar way. Although neutered rabbits do not experience the variation of hormones compared to that of an intact rabbit, the pineal gland in the brain still reacts to environmental cues such as daylight changes in such a way as to instigate some behavioural traits that one would not expect in a neutered individual, including territorial behaviour in preparation for breeding. No surprises then when some bonded rabbit pairs suddenly start fighting in early spring! This phase can last for anything from a few days to 4 weeks or more, but in most cases the pair settle down again to bonded bliss once more. However, the rift in some pairs can be so serious at this time that it permanently splits the bond between them, and this is especially the case where the bonding was not very strong anyway. It can be a particular problem between females, more so if they are not neutered, and I have seen many bonded female pairs start fighting seriously around mid-February onwards when the length of daylight is significantly changing.
Changes – On the basis that a pair of rabbits have been matched correctly from the start, the commonest reason why a bonded pair fall out is because there has been at least one fundamental change that affects them directly. Examples of these are:
- New accommodation
- Much larger run
- New partner
- Significant weather change
- Sudden frightening noises or the frequent presence of a fox or other predator
- Addition of new pet such as a dog or cat
- Addition of another rabbit within visual or scenting distance
- A journey, especially if the pair do not travel together, which is sometimes necessary if one rabbit needs intensive care at the vets.
- Boarding, where the pair are taken to new surroundings that may not be as good as they are used to, causing tension and frustration which can show as irritation between the pair.
Personality – Whilst it is not always useful to put human emotions and values onto animals, there are similarities between humans meeting new people for the first time and a rabbit bonding session. In a human social situation there are some people you know instinctively are possible new friends, and likewise you know immediately with some others that you need to avoid them at all costs! It is not something we can work out consciously, we just know, and presumably we are using cues from body language, pheromones and general behaviour and appearance to form our initial opinions. Of course, sometimes we do not guess right! This is basically what can happen during the initial introduction with rabbits – in some cases it is obvious within seconds that it is not going to work and the pair have to be separated as at least one of the pair has taken an instant dislike to the other. In contrast, there are some introductions where the pair behave like they have always been together! Most bonding sessions fall somewhere in between, and it is not unusual for mounting, chasing and low-level fighting to occur in the initial half an hour or so. In most cases it sorts itself out, and emotions such as fear, resentment and territorial behaviour can quickly settle down as the pair start to trust each other.
Solitary – Whilst the vast majority of rabbits will accept a suitable partner, there is a tiny minority that simply refuse to share their lives with any other. Sometimes such individuals give the appearance that they are grudgingly tolerating their new friend to start with, but within a couple of weeks that all changes and serious fighting ensues. This is more common in rabbits that are more human orientated than normal, and is prevalent in house bunnies that are used to being the centre of attention and strongly attach themselves to one person in particular in the household.
Problems occurring in a new home
It is not unusual for new owners to update me with the antics of their newly acquired rabbit pairs, and it is common to be told how much the personalities have changed in their new environment, especially if the accommodation is significantly bigger than what they were used to (ungrateful …). The following was written by the new owner of Tigga and Rhubarb, who found there were problems within a couple of days of them settling in to their new home:
We took Rhubarb and Tigga home and introduced them to a small pen we had already set up in our bedroom. The reason we set up the small pen was to encourage the use of a sole litter tray as they were using four at Cottontails! After 3 days we took the pen away as they were successfully using one tray.
Tigga the male rabbit starting becoming bolshy around feeding time and very bossy to little Rhubarb who is half the size of him. We took note of this and mentioned it to Mairwen who told us to spread the food around which worked.
On day 5 of us having the bunnies Tigga started mounting Rhubarb and becoming a real pest. I got in touch with Mairwen again as I could see Rhubarb was not happy with the situation. This went on for two days and we decided something had to be done as Rhubarb was becoming very unhappy and subdued. We agreed Tigga was doing this to be dominant.
Mairwen suggested I took the bunnies out for a drive in the carry crate they arrived to our house in. I thoroughly cleaned the cage and thoroughly hoovered our bedroom where they had been staying. I left all the windows open in our house and sprayed the house with air freshener to try and minimise the scent of the bunnies. I took them out for a drive up to my horse which is 15 minutes away with all the windows of the car down and left them outside in their carry crate for two hours. We returned home and I put them into a small pen a 1/4 of the size of our bedroom.
They stayed in this size pen for 8 days. Each time Tigga mounted Rhubarb I gave him one verbal warning by shouting his name angrily and a second warning of pushing him of if he didn’t listen. I didn’t give him the opportunity of a third warning and he would be banished to the small cage. He found this a true insult and banged and nibble the cage down. After thirty minutes of time out I’d pet him and let him loose again. We kept doing this for the next five days and he learnt that he wasn’t allowed to mount Rhubarb.
He does it now still occasionally, but gets off straight away to my voice. I still lock him in the small cage to remind him who’s boss if he doesn’t listen which seems to work.
I hope this match-up guide has been useful, and that it will give you the confidence to find a friend for your bunny if he or she hasn’t already got one. Remember, rabbits can have moody and bad tempered days just like people can, so you can expect to see the odd scuffle and disagreement between two otherwise loving partners from time to time. Use your judgement and common sense, and don’t panic!
RABBIT GROUPS AND TRIOS
Whilst most experienced and knowledgeable rabbit owners and professionals agree that the best social arrangement for rabbits is to keep them in bonded neutered pairs (usually male/female), there are some situations where a trio or group may be attempted, with varying degrees of success. In this article we will look at various options to give such an arrangement the best possible chance of working.
However, it must be said that if you have a happily bonded pair of rabbits you are best to leave well alone and not try to add in any extras! Some owners set up a rabbit group with apparent ease, only to find later on that fighting breaks out with injuries and sometimes fatalities – things can go wrong even after a year or two, so do not be fooled by seemingly an easy bonding, you need to be prepared to cope should it all go wrong. The photos below show the extent of the injuries that can occur within a group of rabbits. Thankfully this rabbit made a full recovery and was successfully bonded to a neutered male and rehomed.
There are various factors that can and do affect the chances of making a long-term success of a rabbit trio or group, and all of them can affect the outcome in some way. Without question, all rabbits concerned should be neutered before attempting the bonding – males can be castrated as soon as their testicles descend (usually from 9-12 weeks) and females can be spayed from 16 weeks onwards so long as they weigh at least 1kg. Do bear in mind that it can take days or even weeks for a trio or group to settle, and make sure you have contingency plans in case it does not work out.
This is arguably the most important factor when attempting to set up a trio or group (or even a pair), and unfortunately it is not a trait that is easy to work out in advance, as it is only when the rabbits are together that you will see the personality type of each individual. It is also not uncommon for rabbits to behave in a submissive manner with one partner and then be the dominant one with another, so you really need to see the interactions between all the individuals to determine what sort of personalities you are working with in that particular situation.
For a group or trio to work well in the long term, it is absolutely vital that there are at least one or two individuals who are submissive and willing to quickly accept the authority of more dominant rabbits without much fuss. Such individuals do not retaliate when challenged by another rabbit and will simply either run away or will sit tight and accept any advances (hostile or otherwise) until the dominant rabbit gets bored and goes away. Such rabbits often accept the company of various others within the group, one day sitting with one sub-group, another day relaxing with different rabbits altogether. These individuals are often the lynchpin to success, acting as a buffer between other individuals with more dominant personalities.
If you are unfortunate enough to have rabbits with incompatible personalities, the group or trio simply will not work, no matter what the accommodation or other factors are, and it may be necessary to remove an individual or two permanently and see if that then settles the group down. However, this can often upset the dynamics of the group and there may be a few days of adjustment where another rabbit steps up to the mark to become top bunny.
Sexes and neutering status
The best combination for a group or trio is a neutered male and two or more females, and it is vital that all the rabbits are neutered, not just the males, as entire females can and do get broody and moody, often exhibiting signs of false pregnancy which can make them territorial and liable to pick fights with others. On rare occasions it can be possible to have more than one neutered male in a group or trio, but they either need to be already bonded (such as compatible brothers) or at the very least one of the males needs to be completely submissive in so as not to pose a threat in any way to the other male. Trios and groups of females can sometimes work, but it is best if they have grown up together or there is at least one or two in the group who are very submissive, just like with the males.
Although the process of bonding rabbit groups or trios that are only months old may seem initially easier, this is the time where rabbits change quite fundamentally – they are just entering maturity but lack the social skills and maturity that age and experience brings. This means that you will not really know if the group is going to work in the long term until several months have passed, and to have gone through at least one Spring as this is a common time of year where trouble starts, with the onset of longer daylight triggering certain behaviours, even in neutered rabbits, which can lead to territorial squabbles and fighting. Trying to bond older rabbits is possible but again it is vital to get the right mix of personalities.
Ironically, it is not always the case that giving a group lots of room is guaranteed to work, as sometimes having lots of space means that the group splits up into sub-territories, with each sub-territory being fiercely defended from other rabbits. However, it is essential that there is enough room for each rabbit to be able to withdraw from the group should it want to, so places to hide are important too. A newly formed group should not be given too much room too quickly, and something like an aviary, or a shed with run attached is ideal. Only when the group appears to be stable after a few weeks should they then be allowed access to a bigger area if this is desired, but even then you may still see initial disagreements as they sort out the dynamics of the group and for the social hierarchy to re-establish itself again.
Bear in mind when planning the accommodation that that each rabbit within the group needs to be able to be caught for examination and vaccination, and provision must be made at the start for this to be possible. For a group of 4 rabbits, a 6′ by 4′ shed leading onto a large run or a safe garden can work well, adding in more space if the group is larger or if the rabbits concerned are giant breeds. House rabbit groups are much easier to manage from this point of view, and it is also easier to monitor behaviours within the group so that appropriate action can be taken quickly as required.
Strangely enough this is not the most important factor in success of groups, as personality and other factors have far more influence on success long term, as has been discussed earlier. I have encountered several large groups of rabbits living semi-feral lives, and whilst on first inspection the groups seemed to work, on closer examination it was apparent from the various torn ears and other injuries that a great deal of fighting was occurring, without the owners being aware there were problems. For some owners this is an acceptable outcome, for others it certainly is not.
A common reason for some owners to want to set up a rabbit group is where a female has had a litter and the owner wants to keep the babies. The success of such a project is totally dependent on the factors above, with emphasis on mix of sexes and personality, and whilst they will all get along to start with, the problems start with maturity and the onset of hormones. Keeping such a group means that early neutering is vital, and they may have to be split into same sex groups temporarily until they have all had their operations. Keeping them within sight of each other during this time is vital to give them the best chance of accepting each other again once they are reintroduced, but there is no guarantee that taking even these steps will guarantee success.
The Bonding Process
The mechanics of bonding rabbits can be fraught with problems, but basically the process is much the same whether you are bonding a pair or a group. If the group already know each other visually by living in adjoining pens, the introduction may well be easier, but it is best to start from scratch just in case. First, you need to set up neutral territory, somewhere that none of the rabbits concerned have seen or been in before. They will need to be in there together 24 hours a day for at least a week, or they can remain there in the long term if that is your chosen permanent territory. Furnish the area with lots of places to hide such as cardboard boxes and baskets, and set up the litter trays and feeding areas. Next, you need to take all the rabbits for a run in the car for around 10 minutes or more, keeping them in carriers either as singles or pairs/groups if that is how they normally live. On your return, place all the rabbits into the prepared area and watch them for at least the first hour to make sure no serious fighting occurs. If it appears that one individual is causing major problems that are not resolving, you can take that rabbit out and place it in an adjoining pen for a week or two so both sets get used to each other without actual contact, and see if you can integrate it later on.
Having a happy bunny group is a joy and a privilege, and if you are lucky enough to have compatible personalities for it to work well in the long term they will give you hours of pleasure and you will see rabbit behaviour at its best, but do have a Plan B at the ready just in case!