Information courtesy of The Rabbit Crossing
Bunnies need to have company of their own kind for them to lead a happy and fulfilled life. Most knowledgeable people who keep bunnies normally keep pairs, but some will also keep large groups; trios, foursomes or more.
The most common group is a mixed sex pair of neutered male and spayed female. It is however, common to see pairs of same sex bunnies who have grown up together and so have been friends for all of their lives.
Often newcomers to rabbit keeping will home a single bunny, normally following the poor advice given (or not given!) by pet shops or breeders. When they learn that it is better for their beloved bunny to have a friend they then need to find a suitable companion, and introduce the bunnies so that they can become friends. This process is called bonding and can be quite an involved procedure.
For those people who don’t know about bonding and have just put two bunnies together with good results, then I’d say how lucky they are. Not all bunnies will like each other at first if at all, so the process needs to be carefully managed to ensure that neither rabbit comes to any harm.
Bunnies will seek to set a pecking order, just as they would do in the wild. If you introduce two bunnies that both wish to be the head of the pair, with no signs of one giving in, then there is a real danger in continuing to try and make these two live together. Dominance is normal but can lead to fighting if not assessed and managed at the time of introduction.
There are various ways of introducing bunnies including having the future partners living next door to each other with only mesh between them for some period of time. This is thought to allow them to become accustomed to each other’s smells and their behaviours. Personally I believe that this just prolongs the inevitable hierarchy setting which has to happen regardless of time spent near each other.
Step by Step Guidelines - please read thoroughly before beginning
You must use a neutral space to bond the bunnies. This is vital because a bunny that recognises his own territory by smell or marks (chewing/weeing or other) will immediately choose to defend it. New or at the very least scrubbed and deodorised litter trays, water bowls, should be used. Don’t be tempted to use existing equipment.
The space used should be small enough to make the bunnies have to spend time next to each other. If given the chance to sit at opposite ends of a room, then they most likely will and nothing is going to happen. Confinement might seem cruel, but it is absolutely what is needed to bond successfully in my experience.
Do not provide places for bunnies to hide such as tunnels or boxes. This will allow the bunnies to stay away from each other, but in some cases can also allow a bunny to become trapped by the dominant rabbit that will guard the exits. Do not provide their normal toys as these distract the bunnies from the process in hand. However, putting a handful of ‘jingle balls’ in the compound can assist you to know when any chasing ensues if it happens when you have left the immediate area. They can also serve to ‘shock’ a chasing rabbit into stopping.
So for example a puppy pen can be used with an indoor cage base simply with newspaper, litter and hay, water and a few noise making toys. Alternatively you could add a litter tray in the tray base, but this should be removed immediately if one of the rabbits begins to guard it, seeing of the approaching rabbit.
Often a trip out together in a pet carrier before you begin will get the bonding process off to a good start. The stress of the unknown will generally encourage the rabbits to seek comfort in each other.
When you put the bunnies in your selected area, I often choose to put the male/males in first where a mixed group is going to be bonded. In my experience females are actually more territorial than the boys, possibly a way of exhibiting their natural behaviour and protecting ‘the nest’.
First Reactions and Behaviour
When you first observe the opening moments you will see any one of many behaviours. It’s quite normal for the bunnies to totally ignore each other to begin with. They may just investigate their surroundings and not even notice each other. You may have one bunny that is more interested than the other seems to be; this is not a problem and will probably progress into some attempts at mounting. This is sometimes sexual, but more often is just about dominance and showing who the top bun is. With a young male for example he may pester the female with a chase being the result. The female may run away at first but may also just sit and allow the male to do his worst. It is also possible for the female to get fed up with the advances and turn on the male; this can then result in a fight, which may need to be stopped. This could obviously happen in reverse with the female trying to take the upper hand, and often the male will submit for a quiet life.
The types of behaviour you may see will be some fur pulling, some nipping often around the bottom and scruff of the neck, some lying down away from each other, and maybe even some lying down next to each other. The bunnies may even be happy to graze in the hay together and share their pelleted food. All of this is good but is no guarantee of a strong bond. Time will cement a bond, and the longer the bunnies are confined together in a small unfamiliar space the better the pair or group should work when they go to their permanent new space.
When to Intervene
Should you immediately see one or some or all of the bunnies start to charge after each other and ‘lock on’ to the tail or bottom, and this lead to the other bunnies doing the same, there needs to be immediate intervention to prevent serious injury. Often when bonding a pair that is showing this kind of chasing, they will circle around each other and end up attaching themselves to each others behind and run around in a ring. This is going nowhere fast. You should never attempt to put your hands in between the rabbits to stop this but should find an alternative way of breaking the cycle. The use of a towel held between the rabbits or possibly a long handled broom just between their faces is sufficient to stop them in their tracks. You can use a method of ‘hold and release’ like this, as the rabbits may well stop chasing immediately after the intervention, with a reoccurrence later on. Allow the bunnies to continue together unless this becomes constant with a risk of injury to either rabbit. It is possible for this kind of behaviour to be seen early on in a bond for it to totally disappear after a short while, once the rabbits have become used to having company. If it doesn’t, it may have to be stopped, but could possibly be tried again some days or weeks later. If you ever see any blood or injury, then the process must be halted immediately.
To encourage the rabbits to sit together it’s a good idea to hand feed their favourite treats (in moderation) to divert their attention from each other but onto you. It is also good to scatter their pelleted food at meal time, in their hay box or on the floor so that they don’t fight to get their heads in a bowl. If you see any food related aggression, then it may be necessary to monitor and stop the bond if it becomes dangerous. This would be a time to possibly try hand feeding to see if the behaviour changes, although a handful of rabbits that are food aggressive, don’t change their behaviour ever and may need to always be fed separately.
What to Expect in the Short Term
The longer the bunnies are together, the better the situation gets, although it isn’t uncommon for owners who bond to think that as soon as they seen the rabbits being calm and not chasing, that they are going to be okay. This is not always the case as they can be together for quite a number of days only to ‘kick off’ when you least expect it. So, when bonding, closely monitoring behaviour for hours and even days is necessary.
As time moves on, the most positive thing you can hope to see are the bunnies grooming each other. Often one will choose to groom the companion’s head. This is a very clear signal that things are developing. The ideal situation is when both rabbits groom each other, showing a firm friendship. You may have to wait some days to see this, but on occasion, you can see it almost straight away. The rabbit who wishes to be dominant in the pairing may be the one to do the grooming and it’s used as an instruction to the other to say “I want to groom you now”. Often the less dominant rabbit will ‘submit’ by putting its head flat down on the floor to allow the other to access the head area for washing. However, just to confuse things, a dominant rabbit may also choose to lay its head down under the nose of the companion as if to say “groom me now or else”, and if the less dominant rabbit does, then things will be well. If it doesn’t then the rabbit asking may become aggravated and pester for attention. All of this is normal in the setting up of the pecking order and pretty soon, it will be established and things will calm down.
If you don’t witness any attempt from either rabbit to groom, then a helpful tip is to apply something tasty to each head e.g. banana/apple juice, and then when the bunnies lick the flavour off the head the other rabbit will assume that it’s being groomed. It’s quite a neat trick and normally works well.
Signs its Working
When you see bunnies that are happy to eat with each other, sit or lie next to each other, are mutually grooming and are not at all bothered by being jostled, then the bond is working and only needs time to become really strong.
Always allow plenty of time for a bond, and when you see the positive shoots of a new friendship, do not be too hasty to remove the bunnies back to their full time accommodation. Bonding takes time and even when things improve, the space provided to them needs to be increased very slowly at first, judging the behaviour as you go. If things take a turn for the worse then go back a step and decrease the area that they have.
If the rabbits will be living in accommodation previously used by one of them it is essential that the whole area is not only cleaned by de-scented with a suitable product (e.g. Simple Solution). If one rabbit goes back into its old territory, it will most likely lead to a reversion to protecting its home and fighting can begin. It’s also a good idea to replace any items such as toys or litter trays that have indelible odour or chew marks, which again mark home turf.
If your bunnies are used to being free range in a garden, they will certainly have made it their own territory so they should not be allowed to go in the garden space for quite a while following bonding, and when they do, again the space must be restricted. They will have littered and chewed plants and fences etc to show their space, and most humans won’t have spotted this until its too late.
So, basically bonding needs a restricted/small space, neutral territory, time to develop slowly, and lots of patience from the owners. It will definitely be worth it!
Bringing Bonded Bunnies Home
If you decide to seek assistance to bond your own rabbits or if you go down the route of adopting a rabbit or rabbits to be friends with your existing bun(s) where the rescue likes to do the bonding for you, you will need to continue the good work already done when you bring your rabbits home.
Whilst in some cases, following an introduction of a few days, rabbits can become immediate friends, this is not always the case and the change to their new home environment needs to be managed carefully to ensure that the bond continues to develop and not go backwards, or break up totally
If you are bringing newly introduced rabbits home to a totally new space then the you will find it easier to maintain the growing friendship than if you are returning one of the group to their original territory. It is worth mentioning however, that even with new accommodation; it is often a good idea not to allow the rabbits to use the whole space immediately, but to build up over a period of a few days to a week. You should be able to determine from the behaviour shown if you need to take it really slowly or if the rabbits are firm friends right from the outset.
If you are using existing accommodation, whilst your bunnies are away being bonded, you need to totally clean and de-odorise the space. Where possible remove any obvious signs of marking or ownership e.g. chewed toys, marked litter trays, fabric items such as animal beds/toys (have a certain smell or fluff) and any other items which may indicate to the original bunny that they are back in their old space.
If possible, for the time being replace any items that are well used/marked – these can always be returned at a later date.
Thoroughly clean the accommodation, using a disinfectant and also a de-odorising product which could be something as simple as diluted vinegar, or a purpose made product such as Simple Solution. Allow sufficient time for this to dry if used on porous surfaces.
If the accommodation is large, then find a way to reduce the space down in the initial stages of homecoming. If your housing is a hutch or wendy house with a run attached, then close off the run for at least a few days. In a larger shed, it may be useful to break down the space to a smaller area using a puppy pen. If your bunnies come home and are not totally bonded (possibly due to the time involved for this to happen – bonds develop over a long time) then to offer too much space at an early stage can allow the rabbits to choose not to be together if it wasn’t love at first sight. They need reduced space in order to understand that they are now a pair/group and that they don’t need to run away! Do not be tempted to give too much freedom too quickly; ignoring the small space rule because your bunnies seem to be firm friends has been the undoing of many rabbit owners. Allowing the rabbits out in the garden or run, or in their whole area after only a few days is likely to cause failure so be aware, only increase the territory after a good number of days (anything between 5-7) and do it gradually. If behaviour changes go back a step and decrease immediately until things return to positive.
In general your rabbits will continue to be happy and their friendship will grow, but, in some cases by bringing bunnies home to an existing space some unfriendly behaviour can start. As we know mounting/chasing is regularly seen in a new bond to show dominance. If this ceased before homecoming and then begins again, it may be one or other rabbit deciding to try and assert themselves, and in some cases it may be a different rabbit to the one who was boss previously. This should be allowed to happen provided it doesn’t escalate into fighting or chasing that may be a precursor to injury.
By using the methods already described in the step by step guide above, any unsettled behaviour should calm over a few days. If it doesn’t, then it may be worth analysing if there is anything you can do to make the space more neutral. Putting the rabbits in a carrier and taking them out for a drive can usually help to settle the small glitches in the process, but if things take a turn for the worse, it may be worth speaking to the person who carried out your bonding for you to ask for some tricks that were used in the initial introduction. Most often any set backs will be temporary and the new owners should persevere. It is really important that the rabbits are not split up UNLESS THERE IS A RISK OF INJURY, or you will be back to square one and you will need to begin the process again from scratch.
When feeding newly bonded rabbits, it can be useful to scatter their pellets in their hay or on the floor of their accommodation at first, so that you can monitor how they are at feeding time. Food issues can often be a problem with some rabbits being greedier than others. This can result in one rabbit getting the lions share of the food and also in the rabbits beginning to be food aggressive. By feeding by scattering, it can encourage the rabbits to forage calmly and be happy in each others company. Rabbits forced to get their noses in a small feeding bowl side by side, when they have only just met, can lead to squabbling so this needs to be watched in the initial stages of the relationship. Many, many rabbits never have a problem, but it is worth taking care over this process.
Don’t forget that once bonded, the rabbits must never be split unless there is a real need to do so, such as illness where one needs special nursing care that can’t be done with company present, or if there is a risk of injury or disease. Your bunnies must always travel together, so even a quick trip to the vets where only one bun is to be seen, means that you must take all of the group (unless it’s a very large group in which case several buns must go together). If one of your bunnies needs an overnight stay at the vets, your bunny savvy vet should understand completely the need for the bonded bunnies to stay together and if he/she doesn’t, then you probably need to find another vet. A rabbit going to the vets on their own will come back smelling totally different and may behave differently and to introduce them back may be very problematic and is just not worth the risk. In fact, by your bunnies travelling together, you will find that their stress levels are reduced; the bunnies feel secure from having a buddy along for the ride.
To summarise, it is really important to realise that when you bring newly bonded bunnies home, this is just the beginning of the new relationship and that as new owners, you need to put in the effort to help the friendship to grow successfully.