Why every bunny needs a buddy
Scientific studies have shown that rabbits stay warmer and even recover more quickly from stressful events and illness if they have a companion of their own kind.
Yet the 2020 PDSA PAW report shows that 42% of pet rabbits still live alone.
As rabbits are crepuscular, they are usually most active around dawn and dusk. In the winter this will be whilst many owners are still at work and in summer when it gets light much earlier most of us will still be asleep.
Unless a rabbit is a completely free-range house rabbit with owners that are at home all day everyday, how much companionship are we realistically able to provide a single rabbit with?
Rabbits are largely silent and they communicate using subtle body language, very different from the main way we humans communicate with each other.
As much as we might love our rabbits and spend time interacting with them it’s simply not the same as having a companion of their own kind.
Some people are concerned that having a friend may have a negative impact on their existing rabbits’ behaviour. I can honestly say that this is not the case and that the many owners see a decrease in unwanted and destructive behaviours once their rabbit has a constant companion.
If you have a single rabbit that likes human attention they will continue to enjoy this after they have been bonded and if you have a shyer rabbit their confidence is likely to grow if they are paired with a friend who is happy to interact with people.
So how do you go about finding your single rabbit a friend?
By far the easiest way is to contact your local rabbit rescue. A rescue will do their best to match you and your rabbit with a suitable rabbit companion.
The rabbits will already be neutered, vaccinated, vet checked and have had a behavioural assessment prior to being offered for adoption. On average this would save an owner approximately £100.
Many reputable rescues also offer a bonding service where they will introduce your existing rabbit to potential friends in a neutral environment and carefully monitor the interactions until they are satisfied that the rabbits have established a stable relationship and can return home to you. Definitely far less stressful than owners attempting to bond themselves at home.
Some people may choose to purchase a rabbit from a breeder or pet store or even via online selling sites. I would recommend that you do exercise caution and are aware that many of these rabbits will need vaccinating, neutering then a further period of separation to allow hormones to calm before bonding can be attempted.
In our experience the best combination is a buck and doe where both are neutered, but other combinations can also work well.
Rabbits do not care about breed, size, colour, or age of their potential new friend.
One of the most common reasons we have rabbits signed over to our rescue is where same sex pairs that were purchased together as babies have subsequently badly fought when they’ve reached sexual maturity at a few months of age.
Age is not usually a factor to consider when bonding if the rabbits have reached maturity and you can successfully bond a ten year old rabbit with a two year old providing, they are otherwise compatible. However, finding a companion of a similar age to an existing rabbit is something many rabbit owners look for as they may not be willing to commit to an endless cycle of bunnies.
The most important things to look for when picking a new friend for your existing rabbit is for the new rabbit to have a similar activity level as this means the rabbits will ultimately spend more time in each other’s company. The other is to pick a rabbit with a complimentary character to your existing rabbit. Two very confident, dominant rabbits are less likely to be a good match than a dominant rabbit and a calm, submissive rabbit.
Again, a rescue will be able to advise you on this. They will also be able to offer advice on whether a rabbit will be a good fit for your current lifestyle and how your existing rabbit lives.
Matching rabbits with the correct home is something that we take very seriously as in doing so we give the rabbit the best chance of a forever home and the family a rabbit they will enjoy spending time with. We do insist that the whole family comes and meets the potential friends if possible as rabbits react differently to different people and experience has shown me that the rabbits pick their new home as well as the humans involved in making the decision.
A lot more work goes into matching rabbits with their forever home than you might expect. We look at many other criteria, such as if they are suitable to live indoors or outdoors and what type of environment might suit them best, would cope in a busy household, with children or where there are other animals. We also consider each rabbits individual likes and dislikes and the suitability as a partner for the existing rabbit.
A good example would be matching a longhaired rabbit with potential new owners as these rabbits have very specific requirements. You need an owner with enough free time to groom and trim them regularly and they are not best suited to enclosures with runs that don’t have a solid roof as they get very matted and dirty if they get wet. They also need to be housed on hard standing such as paving or a kennel type enclosure with non-slip flooring for the same reasons so dig proof grass enclosures do not work well for long haired rabbits either.
I would say that probably ninety percent of potential adoptees will end up choosing the rabbit we have already identified as the best match for them.
The bonding process
At Rabbit Residence Rescue we will usually bond the rabbits ourselves on site and the majority of rabbits will stay with us anywhere from five to fourteen days. We bond in the region of one hundred single rabbits each year and have a dedicated neutral bonding area where we can increase or decrease space and vary enrichment easily.
It is important to use a neutral area for bonding, by this we mean an area unfamiliar to both rabbits as introducing a new rabbit into another rabbits ‘space’ can cause territorial aggression.
If you are looking to bond yourself at home the Rabbit Welfare Association has a brilliant booklet on bonding rabbits and there was also an excellent video on the RAW Facebook page put together by Wood Green Animal Shelter which shows various behaviours you should watch out for and how to spot them as it is crucial that you understand the basics of bunny body language before you attempt to bond your rabbits yourself.
Rabbits observe a social hierarchy and confirming that social hierarchy through different behaviours is an integral part of the bonding process. There will almost certainly be one dominant rabbit and one submissive rabbit in a pair. The same happens when rabbits are bonded into groups and attempting to bond rabbits that have previously fought as one was unwilling to submit to the other into a group rarely, if ever resolves the dominance issues.
You may think that the submissive rabbit gets a raw deal, but once the hierarchy is confirmed, both rabbits are perfectly happy.
At the rescue we have a dedicated, neutral bonding area with moveable partitions so that we can increase and decrease the size of the area and the amount of enrichment depending on the needs of the individual rabbits we are bonding.There is no such things as a fool proof bonding method and what works well for some rabbits may not suit others.
We first introduce the rabbits to each other with a mesh barrier in between them which prevents any initial fighting and then either go on to the process outlined below unless we feel that housing the rabbits next to each other for a few days and scent swapping (swapping litter trays and enrichment items) would be beneficial. The scent swapping process, done in a neutral starting space is the method we usually recommend to owners who are attempting to bond themselves at home as they may be less easily able to spot small changes in the rabbits behaviour towards each other or have less time to closely monitor the rabbits when first introduced which is key if you want to ensure no injuries occur if something starts to go wrong.
We generally recommend using as close to a circular space as you can with just a large pile of hay and a water bowl in the centre so neither rabbit can claim any territory. This should lessen any defensive behaviour. We also use Pet Remedy spray when the rabbits first meet as we have observed some positive reductions in anxiety and initial aggression when using this product during the bonding process.
It’s usually fairly obvious whether the bond is likely to be successful in the first few minutes after the rabbits are introduced and one of the advantages of asking a rescue to bond your rabbit is that it is likely they will have a choice of potential friends to try should the first potential friend not work out.
It’s important to acknowledge that you cannot force two rabbits to be friends and in some cases it is simply better to try a different rabbit in order to either prevent injury if serious aggression has been shown.
It is normal for both rabbits to ignore each other for a while to start with, or seem too worried to move around, but you should soon be able to observe that the rabbits are starting to relax as they begin nibbling at hay or groom themselves. Ideally both rabbits will then become more curious about one another and gently sniff each other before retreating, then slowly move so they are sat closer together and maybe mirror and copy one another’s behaviour. These are all signs that the bond will be successful.
Thumping when a rabbit uses a back leg to stomp. A thump is a to let everyone know they are frustrated or annoyed about something or as a warning sign if they feel threatened. The rabbits may also show each other the ‘bunny butt’.
Eating comfortably together and laying down near one another are also positive signs as to do these in close proximity to another rabbit shows that they are not stressed by the others presence.
It is normal for some chasing to occur as the rabbits need to establish who is going to be the dominant one in the pairing, this may also involve some nipping, or fur pulling.
Chasing that results in the two rabbits spinning round and round in circles with ever-increasing speed can easily escalate into a fight, with both rabbits biting and holding on to one another usually whilst trying to kick each other with the hind feet at the same time. This should be deterred either by making a load noise such as clapping to distract them for a moment or by using a towel or soft broom to temporarily break the line of sight. You should find that the rabbits then separate themselves and retreat away from one another. If one rabbit instantly tries to attack the other again this is not a positive sign.
If the rabbits do fight, serious injury can occur very quickly so these should be stopped immediately. Continued fighting or one rabbit attacking the other is a sign that the bond is unlikely to work. This absolutely does not mean that the rabbit should live on their own permanently it is just a signal that the particular combination are incompatible.
I do believe that there is the perfect rabbit friend out there for every bunny, it just sometimes takes a several separate attempts with a few different rabbits to find the perfect friend. We have had rabbits come to us with multiple failed bonds that we have managed to successfully bond after trying them with several different rabbits or by varying the technique such as using a very large space with lots of enrichments and multi exited hideouts.
On very rare occasions (three rabbits out of just over six hundred) we have made the decision to rehome a rabbit as a single free range house rabbit after multiple bonding attempts which have later broken down resulting in severe injury to the other rabbit.
One rabbit mounting the other regardless of their sex is also the rabbits trying to establish dominance over one another and this should be allowed. The mounting behaviour usually calms down after the first day or so.
Its worth noting that male rabbits should be gently discouraged from mounting the females head as if she becomes annoyed, she may bite his genitalia which can cause serious injury. Some rabbits do get excited and hold on to the other rabbits’ fur when mounting, this is also normal behaviour provided the other rabbit tolerates it. If they suddenly pull away a small amount of fur may be pulled as a result.
Once chasing and nipping has ceased and the rabbits are comfortably eating and laying together you should see them groom one another.
One of the rabbits may initiate the grooming by bowing their head to the other. It is normal for one of the pair to do the majority of the grooming, this is nothing to be concerned about and is completely normal. Although initially the male rabbit may seem more dominant it is often actually the female who is in charge in the relationship.
Once you are only seeing positive behavioural interactions between the two rabbits you can start slowly increasing the space and adding enrichment items. It is important that all hideouts have more than one exit so one rabbit cannot be trapped and forced to defend themselves.
At this point you may also see nipping or chasing when one rabbit decides to claim an area or item of enrichment. If this happens we recommend that you go back a stage for another day or two.
Once the space and amount of enrichment items is similar to that in the original rabbits normal enclosure and there has been no chasing or nipping for a few days it is time to think about the rabbits going home or if bonded at home back in to their usual accommodation.
It is important to note that a bonded pair of rabbits should not be separated. Trips to the vet should involve taking both rabbits with you in the same pet carrier, even if only one needs to be seen.
You need to ensure that you have thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the entire area and moved all of the enrichment items around to make it as neutral as possible for your newly bonded pair.
Ideally this should happen during the morning so you can spend the rest of the day observing from a distance as some chasing and mounting may occur at this point.
We usually recommend that owners to not allow access to more than one room if indoors or to any additional levels or areas that can only be accessed via one route for the first few days as well as ensuring all hideouts have multiple exits as mentioned above for the first few days and that when space is increased or the rabbits are allowed out into the garden that they are supervised in case any unwanted behaviour occurs.
We recommend that any veg, treats or pellets are scatter fed to discourage any competition over food. Scatter feeding is a more natural way for rabbits to eat as it is similar to natural foraging behaviour and is also means the rabbit is less likely to choke as they will not be bolting their food atspeed.
It is also important that you as the owners do not interfere whilst the rabbits are settling back in at home, this is really hard for some owners who will be used to cuddling their rabbits and seeking out interaction with them but it is better to let the rabbits choose to come to you when they want a fuss and for you to ensure any affection or hand fed treats are shared equally between your original rabbit and their new friend.
If you have adopted your new rabbit reputable rescues offer lifetime back up so if you have any concerns they will be able to offer you advice and support.