Bonding and companionship for rabbits
Rabbits are naturally sociable animals and in the wild they live in groups for safety.
It's important that rabbits live with at least one other rabbit at all times, so that they feel safe. As they're social animals, they also enjoy eating together, grooming each other and lying down together to keep each other warm.
Living together will also make sure that they have companionship. Although rabbits can enjoy spending time with people, our company alone cannot meet a rabbit’s social needs. And rabbits are crepuscular (active at dawn, dusk and at certain periods during the night) so, even if you spend a lot of time with your rabbit, you will not be able to provide company all the time.
Keeping rabbits together
Rabbits can live happily together as:
- a neutered male and a neutered female – often the most successful combination
- two litter brothers or two litter sisters – although there is no risk of pregnancy, it’s important to still neuter as hormones will cause them to fight as they get older
- a compatible group – it's possible to keep more than two rabbits together, but unless the rabbits are related and neutered early, bonding can be more problematic, so it's often best left to the more experienced rabbit owner
- unrelated same sex rabbits that are introduced early (less then 12 weeks old usually) will usually get on well. They will need to be neutered to prevent them falling out as they get older.
More on neutering your rabbit.
What if I have a single rabbit?
If you have a single rabbit, it's never too late for them to bond with another rabbit.
If you have a young rabbit (under 12 weeks old) you'll usually be able to introduce another young rabbit of the same sex easily. If you have an older rabbit it take a little longer. But with a little patience and support, your rabbit will have a companion in no time.
Rescue centres like ours often have pairs and single rabbits looking for a new home. Our experts can also provide you with support so that your rabbits can be introduced safely.
Preparing to introduce rabbits
Rabbits are very social, but also very territorial. So, it's important that introductions or rabbit 'bonding' is carried out carefully and slowly. Putting two unfamiliar rabbits together without preparation can result in fighting which can get serious quickly.
Make sure that the rabbits you are introducing are also neutered. This will stop them from breeding (if you are pairing a male and female), but it should also help reduce aggression or harassment fuelled by hormones.
Important things to consider when bonding rabbits
- A neutered male and neutered female are the easiest pairing to bond
- Size and age do not always matter, but bear in mind a much larger rabbit may injure a very small rabbit if they do squabble or fight in the early stages
- Some rabbit introductions are very straightforward (‘love at first sight’). Others may take far longer (often months) to bond. Most fall somewhere in between.
How long does rabbit bonding take?
How long the bonding process takes depends on the space available, the personalities of your rabbits and how much time you have to dedicate to the process.
Rabbit introductions can be time consuming, especially in the early stages. It’s crucial that they are watched in case you need to separate them quickly.
How to introduce a pair of rabbits
1. Start by using two exercise runs
Start sessions early in the day, so that you have the whole day to supervise their interactions. If possible, the runs should be placed on grass as this will keep the rabbits occupied with grazing and, as feeding is a social activity, will help create positive associations with each other.
Place the two rabbits in separate runs and arrange them so they are near each other. This allows the rabbits to slowly get used to each other’s presence. Make sure the rabbits are not able to access each other through the bars at first. Make sure that each area has a hiding place, so the rabbits are able to retreat if they feel they need to.
During the day, exchange the run ‘furniture’ (litter trays, tunnels, bedding, carriers etc) so they get used to each other’s scent. They can also be brushed or stroked. This way each rabbit will already know a bit about the other before they meet, simply by smell.
2. Moving the runs closer together
Over the next day or few days (depending on the time available and the behaviour of the rabbits), move the runs closer. The aim is that the runs will eventually be right next to each other. Do not rush this stage, especially if either rabbit looks stressed.
Signs of stress in your rabbit:
- Hiding away
- Repeated attempts by one rabbit to get to the other (biting the wire or running backwards and forwards looking agitated)
- Any aggression, eg lunging forwards or grunting
Positive behaviours that indicate the rabbits are becoming more comfortable with each other are:
- Lying down, relaxed in the vicinity of each other
- Eating comfortably near each other
If the rabbits appear comfortable with each other, scatter feed tasty food so they're eating closely either side of the bars. For some rabbits this might result in defensive behaviour at first (this is not normally something to be concerned about at this stage), but do not add any further tasty food. This can be introduced later when the rabbits are more comfortable with each other’s presence.
When both rabbits' behaviour suggests they're happy with each other, you can now move on to the next stage. This usually takes a few days to a week (sometimes longer), depending on how much progress the rabbits have made and how much time you have.
3. Bonding sessions
The area where the actual introduction takes place should be neutral territory to both rabbits (ie an area unfamiliar to both rabbits). The size of the area should be large enough so the rabbits have space to avoid each other, yet small enough so they cannot disappear from sight altogether. Options include:
- a large run (which you can step into easily in case you need to intervene)
- a sectioned off escape proof area of a garden or room
- a spare room
- a utility room
If the flooring is slippery, place blankets and towels down to prevent the rabbits from hurting themselves.
You will need to be present at all times to begin with. One rabbit may harass another too much or occasionally a fight may break out, so it’s important that you are there to intervene when needed.
What if my rabbits start fighting?
Rabbit fights rarely resolve themselves and they can do a surprising amount of damage to each other in a short space of time. A rabbit’s skin is very thin and tears easily.
You'll also need to wear clothing that will protect you just in case the rabbits bite you by mistake if you have to intervene. Jeans, boots, long sleeves and thick gloves (eg gardening gloves) are a must!
How long should bonding sessions last?
This will depend on:
- how much time there is in the day to dedicate to the sessions
- how well the rabbits get on
- how confident you feel
Sessions can be short (5-10 mins) to begin with and can be gradually built up over the day or coming days. This will help them get used to each other gradually.
If your rabbits are displaying positive behaviours then you can increase the amount of time of the next session. This will lead to fully bonded rabbits that can be left alone together.
What to include in the neutral bonding area
This depends on your individual rabbits You may have to tweak your approach once things progress. All the items you use, such as litter trays, should be unfamiliar to both rabbits or cleaned beforehand.
Provide lots of hiding places so that the rabbits can get away from each other if necessary. As rabbits are territorial, do not include items that can easily be defended. Open ended boxes and open beds are best.
- Provide several large piles of hay, two bowls of water and at least two litter trays.
- Scatter tasty and interesting items of food such as herbs and a few nuggets. This not only serves as a positive distraction when they first meet, but they will also associate the other with something good. As this food is tastier than hay, scatter it well to reduce competition. If either rabbit becomes defensive of the tasty food, stop using it. It can be reintroduced at a later date when the rabbits are more comfortable with each other.
- Place the rabbits at opposite ends of the neutral area and let them meet in their own time.
If either rabbit starts to ‘defend’ an item from the other one (such as a litter tray or a box), you may have to strip back items in the neutral area to begin with. Always provide a few piles of hay and a few water bowls. Once the rabbits feel more comfortable with each other, you can add the items back in again.
Reading rabbit behaviour
For the first few minutes it’s quite normal for rabbits to appear to ignore each other before you see any more ‘obvious’ behaviours. At some point, they'll approach each other to sniff. They may then back away from each other before approaching again.
Concerning rabbit behaviours
Chasing, a bit of circling, mounting behaviour, occasionally fur pulling or nipping is normal and to be expected. But be ready to intervene if either rabbit starts to look stressed or like they are about to become aggressive with each other, eg:
- continuous, fast circling (this might lead to a fight)
- excessive mounting or chasing
- boxing (when both rabbits stand on their back legs ‘boxing’ each other)
- lunging forward, grunting or ears flattened
- excessive fur pulling
Although all these behaviours can be expected in the process of bonding, they can trigger fighting, so it's best interrupted before things escalate.
How to safely intervene or interrupt a session
- Wearing gloves, gently and swiftly separate the rabbits. It may be possible to redirect the rabbit’s attention on to something in the area (usually by introducing additional tasty food as long as this wasn’t the trigger for a squabble).
- If time allows and the rabbits settle, you can continue the session. Or you can take a break, go back a few steps and try again later.
Mounting is a normal behaviour in rabbits and you can expect to see quite a bit during the bonding process. In this situation, it's not a sexual activity but an expression of ‘dominance’.
During sessions one or both rabbits may carry mount the other as they establish their social structure together. Although normal, mounting can sometimes trigger a minor squabble or a more serious fight, so keep an eye on how things progress. You'll need to be ready to intervene if this happens.
Occasionally the male rabbit may mount a female rabbit's head. If this happens, gently remove him as this may trigger her to bite his genitals which will result in a serious injury.
Some pairs take a while to establish who is the more dominant partner, and mounting may continue for longer. Fully bonded rabbits will not mount each other very often.
Positive bonding behaviour in rabbits
Over time and with each session you should see both rabbits becoming more familiar and comfortable with each other’s company and an increase in positive social behaviours such as:
- resting or sleeping next to each other
- eating side by side
Seeing these behaviours more regularly is a great sign and you can begin to leave them for longer periods together.
Grooming is a very social activity and is often a sign that bonding is progressing well. Typically, the more dominant rabbit will often ‘request’ a groom by dipping their head in front of the other rabbit. But remember:
- not all rabbits groom each other
- one rabbit might do all the grooming
- both rabbits might groom each other
‘Love at first sight’
Occasionally rabbits will display positive social behaviours immediately, such as mutual grooming, eating together and lying down next to each other. If this happens, this a very good sign and, if you have time, the rabbits can be left together for as long as is possible during the day.
If the bonding session continues to progress well and you feel confident leaving them, then the rabbits can be the housed together overnight.
Most rabbit introductions involve multiple sessions and a great deal more time, so do not feel disappointed if the pair you are introducing are not straightforward. ‘Love at first sight’ is actually quite rare for rabbits.
Monitoring rabbits living together permanently
Once you're confident that your rabbits are getting along consistently, you can then move them to new housing and monitor them throughout the day.
Ideally, the housing should be unfamiliar to both rabbits, but if you're using the existing housing, make sure it's thoroughly cleaned and any exercise runs moved to a different patch of grass (if possible).
If your rabbit housing area is large, only allow them access to a part of it at first, watch them closely and be ready to intervene if need be – a new area for a newly bonded pair can sometimes trigger a few of the behaviours you'll have seen during the early stages (chasing, mounting, circling etc).
If you have any concerns do not feel confident leaving them alone together, keep them separate at night and carry on with the introduction on the following day.
A rabbit bond can be fragile at first. There will be situations that can trigger a break in the bond and cause a squabble or fight, such as:
- increasing their space or resources too quickly
- changing their housing
- high value food (such as herbs, vegetables, nuggets). For some rabbits, sharing high value food will never be an issue, for others it may be a while before they feel comfortable ‘sharing’. Scatter feeding is a great solution to this as it reduces competition.
Rabbits need time to trust each other so make any changes slowly and gradually. Most rabbit bonds strengthen over time, so any change to housing or space will not affect their relationship.
Although bonding rabbits can be time consuming and be a bit stressful at times, once you have successfully bonded your rabbits you will never look back. Rabbits need and enjoy living together and there is no better companionship for a rabbit than another rabbit!
Rabbits should never be split up once bonded. They should always travel in the same carrier. If one rabbit needs to go to the vet, talk to your vet about this and make sure that the other one can accompany them.