The key thing to remember when trying to understand your rabbit’s behaviour is that rabbits are prey animals. As such, they are by nature cautious.
The degree to which this affects their behaviour is really a matter of the rabbit’s individual personality and life experience but it does go a long way to explaining their reaction to new circumstances and, in particular, their sometimes violent response to meeting another rabbit.
The Nature of Rabbits
Rabbits are very sociable creatures and enjoy company of their own kind. In the wild rabbits can live in huge numbers. Sadly however many pet rabbits are kept in isolation in small hutches in the garden, causing them to become both lonely and bored. Fortunately more and more people are beginning to understand that rabbits need far more space to exhibit their natural behaviour than they have traditionally been provided by the conventional rabbit hutch and owners are now designing and building much more suitable outdoor accommodation.
Rabbits also make good indoor companions, although as with owning an ‘outdoor’ rabbit, this is not to be entered into lightly. If you would like to know more about keeping a house rabbit, the Rabbit Welfare Association (formerly the British Houserabbit Association) can provide a wealth of information including advising on suitable in-door accommodation and bunny-proofing your home.
Why keep rabbits in pairs?
If you have ever seen two ‘bonded’ rabbits you will understand the obvious pleasure that rabbits get from being with their own kind. Bunnies that are lucky enough to have an enclosed garden in which they can run around will not only run and play together, but also spend time just sitting together, sunbathing (weather permitting!) and grooming each other. The pictures on this page illustrate the behaviour of successfully bonded rabbits.
So, what makes a good ‘pair’?
Young rabbits acquired together from the same litter do not pose too much difficulty. Given the right personalities any combination of two does (females); two bucks (males) where both are neutered on maturity; or a male and a female can all potentially make good pairs. Where one of the pair is a male he must be neutered as soon as he become sexually mature both to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to reduce the aggression that male rabbits in particular tend to show to each other. A word of warning here: male rabbits can remain fertile for some time after neutering therefore if the female is unneutered the prospective pair will need to be kept separately for a few weeks. You will need to take guidance from your vet as advice seems to range from 3 to 6 weeks recommended separation time.
The RSPCA strongly recommends that both male and female rabbits be neutered. Both male and female rabbits rehomed through the RSPCA Bedfordshire South Branch foster scheme will generally always be neutered. The only (rare) exceptions would be if a vet recommends that due to a rabbits age or ill-health it would not be safe to undergo the operation.
The First Introduction
Because of their ‘prey’ instincts, rabbits are naturally territorial, and therefore the best way to introduce them to each other is on neutral territory. The area should be as large as possible but broken up with various obstacles and perhaps a few favourite vegetables to act as distractions. The potential pair should then enter the area simultaneously.
What happens next really depends on the pair. Sometimes after a little ‘eyeing-up’ and perhaps a little chasing the rabbits may lose interest in each other and do their own thing. Often, I’ve found that one of the pair shows far more interest with the other seemingly indifferent to their new follower!
Occasionally the ‘introduction’ may culminate in fighting. If this happens split the pair immediately and try again later, perhaps the following day. Because there is a risk of fighting, it is important that introductions are always undertaken with close supervision so that any fights can be broken up immediately.
Even if the first introduction is relatively non-eventful, the rabbits should still be housed separately at night. This process can be repeated as many times as necessary over the next few days until you regularly see the pair sitting together, or grooming each other.
At this stage the pair can be shut in the accommodation that they are to share together to see how they react. All being well, they can then be left together but regularly observed to ensure that no fights break out. The introduction process can be greatly assisted by allowing the prospective pair to have their accommodation adjacent to each other. This allows them to size each other up and even form a relationship in their own time through the safety of the wire. This is particularly beneficial where a rabbit is known to be particularly aggressive as their behaviour towards each other can be observed prior to allowing the pair to meet properly. Again, you would watch for the two rabbits spending time just sitting or lying together, albeit with the wire acting as a guard for the time being!
Once bonded, rabbits are generally friends for life. However, if the pair are separated for any length of time, for example if one of the pair requires veterinary treatment, it may be necessary to repeat the introduction process. Equally though, if one of the pair was to pass away it is important to allow your bunny time to grieve before trying to introduce a new friend.
Introducing rabbits is not an exact science and the time and method used may vary depending upon the animals concerned. Although it may sound rather a complicated and lengthy process, the potential rewards far outweigh the time and effort involved. You may be lucky and the pair may immediately ‘hit it off’ or it may take a little longer. Either way, the rewards for both you and your rabbit should make it worth it.
If you would like any further advice or information, please contact Alison Sutton Branch Manager firstname.lastname@example.org