Below is an in depth article explaining the steps to bonding a pair of rabbits. This detailed article can be a lot to digest but contains a great amount of useful information about the process of introduction. Don’t be discouraged if it seems complicated, as once you learn some of the language of bunny behavior, the steps involved in bonding start to make a lot of sense.
If you are considering getting a partner for your rabbit, the volunteers at the GHRS are here to help see you through it! From the 1st introductions, to picking the right companion for your rabbit, to continued instruction and advice during the transition, we will guide you and your bunnies as they form their lifelong friendship!
But before you go any further, step one is to become familiar with the basic procedure involved and to gain an understanding of what bonding will mean for your rabbit. So please read the article below to start you and your bunny on the way!
By Nancy LaRoche, Co-Manager Colorado House Rabbit Society
Rabbits are very social creatures who are happier and healthier, and live longer, if they have a mate. In nature, the wild European rabbit (from which all of our domestic rabbits are descended) bonds for life.
It is possible that a rabbit and cat or a rabbit and a dog will be good friends, but even if this is the case, it is still good for rabbits to have a friend of their own kind. Rabbits are “crepuscular,” most active in the early mornings and evenings. Most other companion animals are nocturnal or diurnal, so the pair usually won’t share life 24 hours a day. Furthermore, if a rabbit has to stay with a veterinarian overnight, s/he is likely to be far less stressed if s/he has a friend of her own kind to share the unusual environment.
Like people, rabbits are picky about their lifetime partners, and, like humans, are likely to be less selective when young than when they are mature adults. However, it is never “too late” to find a friend for a rabbit. In fact, when senior rabbits are introduced, they often are very gentle with each other, seeming to want a quiet companion with whom to share life.
Ideally, the two should be close to the same size and age-not that the rabbits care, but because of other considerations:
being close to the same size makes them less likely to hurt each other during the squabbles that usually accompany introductions, and being close to the same age maximizes their chances to live out their lives together, avoiding the “leap-frog” situation where an older rabbit has become a widow/widower, and is able to find only a younger partner, who is likely to also end up as an older rabbit looking for a partner when the older one passes on.
Rabbits, like people, are choosy about who they want as a “mate.” So if you have a rabbit who needs a partner, don’t think that you can get just any rabbit and be guaranteed a successful pairing. Plan on trying to introduce the two, observe the interactions, and, if the two are not compatible, try a different rabbit.
The most natural pairing of two rabbits is done with a neutered male, and a spayed female. Never try to pair two rabbits when one is altered and the other isn’t. The hormonal needs are too different, and the unaltered rabbit may drive the other one to distraction, trying to mate with him or her. Eventually the two are likely to have regular fights.
It is essential that each rabbit has had at least 10 days to heal, following their spay or neuter, before being introduced to each other. Serious injury, leading to death, may result if they are allowed to be together prior to the completion of this healing period.
Two spayed females will often become friends, and share a home, but they have to work out which of them is going to be “top bunny.” Two neutered males are even more likely to become friends, when no female is present. Because rabbit society is matriarchal, two males usually care nothing about the pecking order.
A tight friendship between males is almost sure to break up by introducing a single female. A tight friendship between females usually is able to accommodate the addition of a single neutered male.
It is also possible to have groups of rabbits, but methods of introducing groups and same-sex pairings will not be discussed here.
Start with two crates, one for each rabbit. Put them next to each other, with two or three inches separating them at first, so they can’t bite each other’s noses through the sides of the crates. (This is an ideal setup if one of the rabbits has just been spayed or neutered. The two can be next to each other throughout the healing period.)
Each day, switch the rabbits so each is in the other’s crate. Don’t switch the furnishings of the crates, and don’t clean prior to switching the rabbits, so each rabbit is living in the other rabbit’s space. Of course, you will have to clean the crates from time to time, but try to do it after the rabbit has been in the other’s crate for at least several hours.
After a few days of this, move the crates as close to each other as you can, but move them apart immediately if the rabbits are nipping at each other. If they are trying to groom each other, or are lying next to each other, take the next step. (If the rabbits never stop nipping at each other, you might want to start over with a different rabbit, although it is possible that, if you continue with the next steps, you might still get a pairing.)
Take the two rabbits to a neutral area that is fairly large–at least 8 ft by 4 ft, but larger if possible. (A neutral territory is one that neither rabbit has spent enough time in to feel a sense of ownership.) If the surface is linoleum or tile, rather than carpet, the rabbits will be unable to get traction, and will be less likely to hurt each other if they do start fighting. On the other hand, a flat carpet, with no pile, provides traction, and makes the rabbits feel more secure. I select the type of flooring I use based on how I perceive the rabbits; slick if I think there will be major scuffling; carpeted, if either rabbit isn’t totally confident. (Some people use a bathtub to introduce rabbits, but I prefer a larger space so the meeting can be more “natural.”)
Put several stools, tunnels, boxes, etc. in this area so the rabbits can get away from each other if they want. Include a litter box that has been used by both rabbits, a box of hay, and a heavy crock of water in an out-of-the-way spot, so the rabbits are less likely to land in it if they start scuffling or racing around frantically.
Wear heavy shoes or boots (sports shoes are usually sufficient, but avoid sandals), and have a broom handy. Put the two rabbits in the neutral territory simultaneously, and stay with them. Don’t have more than one person in the area at a time, because if the rabbits start to fight, two people may knock into each other and be unable to separate the rabbits. If the rabbits do start to fight, use the broom or your feet to separate them. Grab one with your hand only when you have them separated so you aren’t bitten by a rabbit who thinks you are part of the other rabbit!
Note: when rabbits fight, they draw the third eyelids over their eyes to protect them. They don’t see detail to begin with, and with their eyes covered by the third eyelid, they see even more poorly. They may attack your feet, not realizing that you aren’t the other rabbit. Obviously, if your hand is in the way, they may attack it, not meaning to hurt you, but mistaking you for their foe. So be careful about getting your hands where the rabbits may bite them. Once the rabbits have been separated, grab one quickly, lifting him or her off the floor into your arms.
Rabbits may spend as much as a couple of hours pretending they don’t see each other. Or they may immediately attack each other. Or they may touch noses, and suddenly be “in love.” The most common reaction is for them to spend some time avoiding each other. Don’t try to force them to be together.
In nature, the female wild European rabbit builds her burrow, and then goes to find a male to become her mate. So it is natural that most often, our female will be the first to approach the male, who may run away, or warn her to leave him alone. She will continue to approach him, and may even mount him (head or tail) until she “gets his attention” at which point he may start chasing her. At this point, she will suddenly become a little “coquette,” running away, letting him exhaust himself trying to catch her. Do not interfere with this!
Sometimes the male will continue to ignore the female, no matter how much she likes him. If this happens, she is likely to eventually lose patience. A woman scorned, she may finally attack him. Chances are poor that such a pair will bond well, although you may want to give the two a break and start over a few days later.
Sometimes the male may immediately rush the female and try to mount her, with out so much as a by your leave. Usually the female will turn on him and fight him off or race frantically away, trying to find a place she can go where he can’t mount her. Having small stools or tubes serving as “tunnels” is important for her to be able to get away from him. On the other hand, she may decide she likes him, and allow him to corner her and have his way with her.
If you have the time, you can allow the two to remain together for several hours, as long as you can remain with them. If you don’t, let them be together for at least 30 minutes (assuming there are no actual fights), and repeat the introduction again later.
Rabbits will often go through “dominance displays,” each expressing dominance over the other. Chances are that the female domestic rabbit will actually be the dominant of the pair (the society of the European wild rabbit is a matriarchy), but the male must let her know that he isn’t just a doormat. So each will “display” dominance to the other.
If the male is a doormat, the female will become disgusted, and attack him. Again, this pairing may not work, but you can try again a day or two later. Sometimes, after thinking over what happened, the rabbits will approach the situation with different attitudes.
After the honeymoon, when the pair settles down to everyday living, in the best pairings, one cannot see any evidence of which rabbit is the dominant. Each may groom and gently care for the other. But during the introductions there are two common displays of dominance.
The first is one where each rabbit leaps over the other, and strikes the other one’s back with his or her feet. Usually hair goes flying everywhere, but it is highly unlikely that either rabbit will even be scratched. Again, do not interfere. If they are exhibiting this behavior, it is because they must “have this discussion” before they are ready to accept each other.
Another display of dominance has to do with mounting or “humping.” Such behavior is motivated by three possible factors: sex, domination, and affection. During introductions, the initial primary factor is usually dominance, with sex and affection both playing a part. But in the “love at first sight” pairings, it is likely to be mostly sheer affection. Each rabbit will mount the other. They may mount the head or the rear.
Do not allow the male to mount the female’s head if you can’t see her nose poking out from under him. If she doesn’t like what he is doing, she may bite his penis. Such a bite could be deep enough to sever the urethra, making him unable to urinate. Obviously, this could be a life threatening injury, requiring surgery. If he tries to mount her head, push him gently so her nose is sticking out, or so he is mounting her shoulder.
Sometimes the two rabbits will each begin trying to mount each other, causing them to circle, head to tail. This must be broken up immediately. Each rabbit is getting frustrated, dizzy, and angry, and a vicious fight will break out if it isn’t stopped.
Eventually, the rabbits will begin spending less time scuffling and chasing each other. They may take naps a foot or two apart, or explore different parts of the room. Little by little, they will begin lying closer to each other, grooming each other, and fully accepting each other.
The “cage” (the rabbit’s personal home) tends to be a far more personal possession than the space around it. It is important to let the rabbits decide when they are ready to share their home. If you put them in it together, you may cause a vicious fight. It can be very difficult to break up such a fight inside a cage.
Allow the rabbits to go into their home together on their own. One may go in, the other start to follow, and quickly back off, acknowledging the territory of the other. Gradually, they will agree that they are, truly, a “couple,” having equal rights to their home, and will curl up together in it.
Rabbits are highly individualistic creatures. Please understand that this description covers the way most rabbits behave most of the time, but be aware they may do something totally unexpected. The best advice, should this happen, is, use common sense in dealing with it and try to put it in the context of the principles explained in this article.