by Nancy J. LaRoche
The Bonded Pair
One of the great blessings in the life of a rabbit is being bonded to another rabbit. But of course, with such a bond, eventually, one will lose the other. When this happens, the survivor’s human must take certain steps to avoid the surviving rabbit from sinking into deep depression which can threaten his or her life as well, especially if they were very devoted.
Coming to Terms with the Death of a Partner
If a rabbit has never seen death, they have no way of knowing what it is, except to see it in another rabbit. To understand that a partner has died, they have to spend time with the body. If the death happened at a veterinary clinic, you must bring the body back and put it in the rabbits’ home (their crate or pen) with the survivor. If a necropsy has been done, the veterinarian can stitch the body closed again and send it home with you. In some cases, they may send the body home and ask you to return it for necropsy
Give survivors three hours of complete privacy with the body. They may groom the beloved’s body, lie on or beside it, pounce on it, pull at it, run circles around it etc. When there is no response from the body, they begin to understand that their friend is truly gone and won’t be coming back. Instead of becoming deeply depressed and possibly dying, they will grieve and get on with life.
After three hours, peek in to see if the survivor has left the body. If they have, you can remove it. If not, give them another three hours and then remove it. It is rare for a rabbit to need more than three hours and extremely rare for them to need more than six.
If you don’t go through this process, survivors will wait for their mates to return… and wait… and wait… and wait… The waiting may continue indefinitely, because they expect their companions to return. It can eventually result in deep depression, refusal to eat, and death.
Death from Something Contagious
If the rabbit died from something contagious, you can be certain that the other rabbit was already exposed before symptoms were present. Giving the survivor time with the body does not add to the risk.
Typically a rabbit will grieve for the loss of a partner for several weeks. They will be quieter than usual and may seem moderately depressed. But they won’t stop eating altogether if you have followed the directions given above.
Caring for a Grieving Rabbit
If the survivor is eating well and showing little depression, the human’s role is basically to sympathize with some extra petting and attention, and sharing their own grief. I am convinced rabbits understand that I, too, am grieving when I pet or hold them – depending on their preferences – and tell them how much I, too, miss their mates.
If the rabbit’s grief is deeper, spend lots of time with him, gently loving him, talking to him, and otherwise consoling him. Try to give him some extra privileges so he can be close to you at times when he might otherwise be in his home in another room.
A very few will refuse to accept a new partner until they have completed grieving, but most will break out of their grief immediately if they find a new mate, so I strongly recommend doing so as quickly as possible.
Some Exceptions – Desertion
Of course, rabbits may become seriously ill and die at home. I have seen instances where the well rabbit has avoided the dying one during the last few hours and avoided the body after the death. I can only guess that he has come to terms with the gravity of her illness, has perhaps been frustrated at his inability to help her, and has fled as if to avoid the final blow. As humans, we may feel some anger about the well rabbit being so callous, and want to cry “Don’t desert her now!” But as humans, we must be careful not to interpret rabbit behavior on the basis of human concepts. There are probably perfectly good rabbit-reasons for his behavior, of which we are ignorant.