Rabbit companions

Rabbits are social animals; in the wild large groups will live happily together, providing company, security and physical grooming to each other. Company of their own kind is just as important for pet rabbits too. However, to ensure that the bonding process is as trouble-free as possible, there are some simple, but important guidelines that should be followed.

The most successful combination tends to be a male (buck) and female (doe), with both individuals neutered (around 4-5 months for bucks and 5-6 months for does). Obviously if neither animal is neutered you’ll soon end up with lots of baby bunnies!

If only the doe is neutered the buck will constantly try and mate with the doe, which will antagonise her and lead to possible conflict between the two animals. If you just neuter the buck, the doe may actually try and mount the buck, which again will cause upset between the two rabbits, and the doe will also still be at an increased risk of uterine cancer; affecting up to 80% of unspayed does by the age of 5 years. Some occasional mounting behaviour is a normal display of dominance, even between two neutered rabbits.

Rabbits of the same sex can live together but bonding two rabbits of the same sex is often much harder, takes a lot longer, has a higher failure rate, and any fights are likely to be much more serious and vicious. If you are attempting to bond two rabbits of the same sex, then ideally they should be introduced at a young age and neutering of both animals is essential.

Up until a few years ago, many rabbit books recommended keeping guinea pigs with rabbits for companionship reasons, but the tide has turned and now the majority of rabbit and guinea pig books, as well as rescue centres, animal organisations and vets, agree that the two should be kept with their own kind and not mixed.

Provided all the rabbits and any male guinea pigs are neutered, they can cope quite well together. But guinea pigs are rodents and have different dietary requirements from rabbits. Guinea pigs are unable to synthesise their own vitamin C, so require fresh foods high in vitamin C (dark leafy vegetables such as dandelion leaves, spring greens, kale, etc). These foods also provide rabbits with essential fibre.

Even docile rabbits will often bully and molest guinea pigs; chasing them, biting them, mounting them or even sitting on them, which can cause serious and fatal injuries to the guinea pig, not to mention the stress they endure. The majority of this is sexual frustration and is avoided if the rabbits and male guinea pigs are neutered.

Even the smallest of rabbits is going to be comparable in size to a guinea pig, with powerful back legs, which are more than capable of causing serious injury to a guinea pig. Having a hideaway where only the guinea pig can fit into isn’t a satisfactory compromise as there may be occasions when the guinea pig is unable to reach its safe area, e.g. if it is backed into a corner. However, in the rabbit’s defence, it has also been known for guinea pigs to bully rabbits!

Having ascertained that rabbits should live with other rabbits and that company in the form of another bunny is preferable, how do you actually go about trying to bond rabbits?

The bonding process is the same if you are attempting to bond two rabbits of the same sex or one of each sex, though as has already been aforementioned, one doe and one buck is usually easier and quicker to bond and bonding of two same sex rabbits is liable to fail.

Rabbits are often very territorial and introductions need to be done carefully. Firstly both rabbits must be neutered; if the rabbits aren’t old enough to be neutered then continue at stage 1 until both have been neutered and recovered from their operations (baring in mind that a buck may still be able to impregnate a doe for at least 3 weeks after castration, so keeping a doe and buck apart for around 4 weeks after neutering is advisable).

Stage 1

Place each rabbit in a cage, where they can see and smell each other through the wire of the cages, but cannot get at each other to cause injury. Swap their litter trays and toys over every day, so each bunny gets used to the others scent.

Stage 2:

When you are happy that the rabbits are both at ease with each other and showing no aggression you can begin mixing them for supervised, short periods of time in a neutral place – somewhere where neither rabbit has been before, so could claim as their territory, i.e. a room in the house, bath-tub, new run, etc.

Place lots of toys in the area (rattles, tunnels, boxes to hide in, balls etc, which has neither rabbits scent on) to help distract the rabbits attention from each other and at least two feeding bowls so the rabbits don’t feel they have to compete for food.

Some chasing, nipping or mounting is perfectly normal. Continue putting the rabbits together like this on a daily basis or several times a day if possible, until the rabbits seem to accept each other. Leave them together for as long as possible (always supervised), increasing the time when you feel they are comfortable with each other.

Sometimes rabbits can just ‘fall in love at first sight’ and if this happens, followed by mutual grooming of each other, they should be OK to be left together unsupervised, as this is the stage that you want to achieve.

If serious fighting breaks out, separate the rabbits immediately (being very careful not to get bitten yourself – use blankets, cushions or cardboard sheets to push between them) and revert back to stage 1, until the aggression disappears, and then move back onto stage 2 again (this may have to be repeated several times).

Car journeys:

If the rabbits seem accepting of each other, but are still showing some nipping and chasing of each other, you can also try taking them for car journeys. Place the bunnies in a large enough carrier for two bunnies and take them for a short car journey. This is a stressful experience, so the rabbits will rely upon each other for support, rather than attempting to fight, and begin to form a bond. If any tension is shown then separate the rabbits immediately, but the journey times can be gradually increased if both rabbits seem okay. This can be done daily or as often as you feel necessary, for as long as necessary.

Stage 3:

The aim is to get the rabbits to accept one another and rely upon each other for support and company. Once the rabbits have begun grooming each other you can be pretty confident that no real aggression will be shown from this point on, but it is very wise to keep a close eye on them both for several weeks afterwards.

There are no set rules for bonding rabbits it can be an instant attraction or take many weeks or months of hard work. Sometimes you may never be able to bond two specific rabbits together.

Rabbits do have distinct preferences as to who they want to live with and will sometimes not bond with a specific rabbit, only to happily accept the next bunny you try and bond to them. Even bonded pairs may have tiffs when an increase or return of nipping, chasing and mounting may be seen (usually around spring). This is normal and as long as no real aggression is shown they shouldn’t be separated. However, it is wise to keep a closer eye on both rabbits at these times.

Yes, even rabbits who haven’t set eyes on another bunny for many years can happily accept a bunny pal and often a younger pal will give an elderly bunny a new lease of life in their twilight years.

This is largely dependent upon how much time you are able to spend with your rabbit. For people who work all day, it may be worth considering getting your rabbit a friend to keep him company whilst there is no-one in the house. But if you are at home for a large percentage of time, and able to spend time giving your bunny company then you may feel that he doesn’t need a bunny pal.

This rarely works and can seriously damage the bond between the two existing rabbits so is not recommended. The saying twos company, threes a crowd is very true! If you have enough space and time, mixing two already bonded pairs can be easier than adding a single rabbit, but each pair needs its own personal territory so be prepared for lots of nipping and chasing!

A rescue centre is usually the best place. Often the rabbits are already neutered and some will also allow you to take your bunny along to select a friend for an existing bunny. Be certain that your rabbit’s vaccinations are up-to-date before taking it along.

Another added advantage is that if you really can’t bond a rabbit from a rescue centre to your existing bunny, the rescue centre should be able to take the bunny back and you can try your rabbit with another from the centre.

Bonded pairs should never be separated; what illnesses one rabbit has the other is liable to already have anyway. If one rabbit has to go to the veterinary surgery, or be hospitalised, then take its mate along for company. Often having their mate there will give the sick rabbit encouragement to carry on and taking their mate away when they are ill will only depress and upset both rabbits.

Frequently, bonded pairs who are split up, for even a short amount of time will have to be re-bonded when being introduced again and may not accept each other again, so it is imperative that pairs are never separated unless it is detrimental to one or both of their health to stay together.

When the sad time comes you will be understandably very upset, but your rabbit may also be affected and there are things that you can do to make this time easier on them.

Try and let the rabbit that has been left behind, spend some time with their companion’s body. This enables the rabbit to realise that their friend has gone. The rabbit may initially nudge the body trying to get them to move. This can go on for seconds, minutes or hours and if possible it is best to leave the body with the remaining rabbit until they lose interest in it and move away from them. At this point you can remove the rabbit’s body.

Watch the rabbit closely for any changes in their behaviour. They may seem more lethargic and depressed and not want to eat as much. Ensure that they keep eating, drinking, urinating and passing faeces and if you are concerned about their health then contact your vet straight away.

Spend more time with your rabbit. They are used to having a constant companion so will be feeling lonely, confused and maybe scared. Offer them their favourite foods, play games with them or just sit, stroke and talk to them gently.

Consider getting another rabbit as a companion. This may feel like the last thing on your mind but it may be the best option for the rabbit that has been left behind. Rescue centres always have rabbits that are in need of a loving home and will often come fully vaccinated and neutered and many rescue centres will undertake bonding introductions so you can see if the rabbits are going to get along together.

Things to remember

  • Introduce only neutered rabbits, regardless of sex.
  • One buck and one doe is the most successful combination.
  • Introduce rabbits on neutral territory.
  • Never split up bonded pairs unless serious fighting occurs.
  • Introduction a third rabbit into a bonded pair rarely works.
  • Some nipping, chasing or mounting is normal, even in bonded pairs.
  • Immediately separate rabbits if serious fighting occurs.
  • It may not be a good idea to mix rabbits and guinea pigs.
  • Try and go to a rescue centre to acquire a bunny-pal.
  • It may be love at first sight but it could also take months of perseverance.