Rabbits are social creatures. Perhaps this is because their ancestors (the European Wild Rabbit) lived in social structures called warrens. Warrens are very ordered, and all members have their place in the hierarchy. Ironically, it is this same social structure that often makes bonding a stressful experience. This article provides tips on how to bond your rabbits while minimizing bonding stress.
Choosing Mr or Ms Right:
Some feel that the best way to ensure a bond is to let your rabbit choose its own companion. However, this isn’t always possible. In addition, even if the initial meeting goes well, bonding may still be difficult.
So, if your rabbit isn’t able to choose its own mate, how do you choose the right companion for him? The key to a good match is personality – not breed or size. It is important to choose a rabbit with a personality that is compatible with your rabbit’s personality. Two very dominant, Zoe and Armani territorial rabbits are more difficult to bond than one dominant and one submissive rabbit. However, the size and breeds of the rabbits involved have no effect on the bonding process.
Generally, the easiest bond is between a spayed female and a neutered male. Babies often bond easily with one another and to some adults, but the bond may be broken at the onset of puberty. Male-male and female-female bonds may also work, but these pairs may require more effort and patience on your part than a male-female bond. For this reason, spaying and neutering, which helps to alleviate hormonal tendencies and territorial behaviour, is important for bonding even same sex pairs.
Always quarantine any new rabbit for two weeks. It is also a good idea to have the new rabbit checked by a vet before introducing him to your existing rabbit. After the quarantine, move the new rabbit’s cage into the room with the existing rabbit. Place their cages side by side to allow the rabbits to get used to each other’s scent. They should be able to smell and see each other, but not able to touch. You can allow separate exercise time in the same area, but make sure that the rabbits cannot bite one another through the cage bars.
Bonding sessions must take place in a small neutral area, i.e., an area that is not frequented by either rabbit. Make sure that there are no places that either rabbit can crawl into, such as an open cage or box, in your bonding area. You do not want either rabbit to feel cornered or for a fight to break out in an area that you cannot readily get to.
At first, bonding sessions should be short. As the rabbits start to become friends, your sessions can be longer. You want the bonding sessions to be a pleasant experience for your rabbits, so that they associate the other with pleasant things. Provide them with new toys, litter boxes filled with piles of fresh hay or a platter of veggies to share. Try to end the sessions on a positive note and work with your rabbits every day. Some rabbits bond very quickly, others may take several months.
- The bonding process will be easier if both rabbits are spayed or neutered. At the very least one rabbit MUST be altered when bonding male-female pairs to avoid accidental pregnancy. (Note: Adult rabbits are fertile at all times, mate quickly, and can conceive at a very young age. Don’t take this chance!).
- Prepare for marking of territory with feces and urine. After the rabbits get used to each other, the marking will gradually subside. Even spayed and neutered rabbits may mark territory in the presence of a new rabbit.
- For tough bonds, sometimes it is helpful to take both rabbits for a car ride before the bonding session. If there is any danger of the rabbits attacking one another in the car, put them in separate carriers. If you put them in the same carrier, have a friend drive while you supervise the rabbits.
- If you are planning to house the rabbits together in an existing cage after they are bonded, it is helpful to switch cages each day to avoid ‘ownership’ of one cage.
- Learning to recognize aggressive body language (e.g., tail erect, ears back, tense body posture) is helpful in preventing fights before they happen. Rabbits who fight will sometimes hold grudges, making the bonding process harder.
- The importance of neutral territory cannot be stressed enough. Often two rabbits will get along fabulously in familiar territory when one rabbit is caged and the other is not. However, they will behave aggressively when they are both out of their cages. Sometimes, it only takes a couple of hours in neutral territory before they start snuggling and grooming each other.
If, during the bonding sessions, the rabbits ignore one another and go about their business of eating, grooming themselves or relaxing, the session is going well. In time, the rabbits will bond. However, if the rabbits are continually aggressive towards one another, it may be best to allow them to continue to live separately.
In order to assess progress, it is important to be able to understand your rabbit’s body language. For example, to a rabbit, nipping and fighting are very different, even though they may look the same to us. Fighting is a deliberate attack. Nipping is a means of communicating.
Circling and chasing are common occurrences during bonding and can escalate into a fight. Stop circling and chasing when it occurs, but do not separate the rabbits. Instead, place them side by side, while petting them or feeding them treats. After they have calmed down, you can let them run around again.
Mounting is a natural part of the bonding process. It is not necessary to stop mounting as long as the rabbit being mounted does not become aggressive or afraid. However, never allow backwards mounting ecause the rabbit on top can be seriously injured with one bite. Mounting can be amorous, as well as a way to establish dominance.
After your rabbits are getting along well in neutral territory without supervision, you can expand the area to gradually include territory that both have frequented. It is advisable to cage them separately until they are getting along well in territory that is not neutral. Start to cage them together for short periods while you are there to supervise. You do not want a fight to break out in the cage when you are not there to intervene.
In Case of a Fight:
When a fight occurs during a bonding session, our first instinct is to reach down and try to pick up one of the rabbits; however, this can lead to serious bite wounds. Do not use your bare hands to break up a scuffle. Instead, dump a bowl of water onto the fighting pair or cover them with a blanket. To prevent another fight, it is helpful to have a broom or a piece
of sturdy cardboard handy to slip between two angry rabbits. It is also helpful to wear oven mitts on your hands during a
bonding session, in case you have to break up a fight. A water bottle set on the ‘stream’ setting will also sometimes deter
After a fight, it is important to check your rabbits for wounds. Remember, not all wounds will bleed, so check thoroughly.
One important thing to remember when adopting another rabbit: Never adopt a rabbit as a companion for your current rabbit if you cannot accept the fact that they may never bond. Instead, consider fostering a rabbit in need of a permanent home. If your current rabbit bonds with your foster rabbit, then you can adopt him.
There are definite advantages to having bonded pairs. Rabbits who have a bonded mate tend to be less bored – and, therefore less destructive – than single rabbits. They have company when you are working late, and it is easier to clean one rabbit cage than two. Sometimes, however, it is just not meant to be. We have to remember to do what is right for our rabbits – and not what is most convenient to us.
Bonding rabbits: Trios can be trickier than a pair
Whether you are trying to bond a pair or a trio, the basics of bonding remain the same. The key to a successful bond is
personality. Some rabbits may fall in love at first sight and bond very quickly, some may develop a tentative friendship that takes several months to achieve, while others may simply be incompatible and not bond at all.
Body language and communication:
To assess the bonding process, you must understand your rabbit’s body language and basic forms of communication. Mounting is a natural way to show dominance. It is not necessary to stop mounting if the rabbit being mounted does not retaliate or become afraid. However, never allow backwards mounting because the rabbit on top can be seriously injured with one bite.
You also need to understand the difference between nipping (a form of communication) and biting (a deliberate attack). A rabbit preparing to fight may display an erect tail, flat ears, and tense body posture. Try to stop a fight before it occurs, using a spray bottle on a stream setting or clap your hands together, to distract a rabbit that is displaying a fighting posture. If you
have to separate a fight, wear oven mitts for your own protection. When fighting or nipping has occurred,always check your
rabbits thoroughly for wounds. Bites and scratches can abscess and become serious, so any cuts or abrasions should be
Circling and chasing are common occurrences during bonding that can quickly escalate into a fight. Stop circling and chasing, but do not separate the rabbits. Instead, place them side by side while petting them or feeding them treats. After they have calmed down, you can let them run around again.
There are definite advantages to having bonded rabbits. Rabbits who have a bonded friend tend to be less bored – and, therefore less destructive – than single rabbits. They have company when you are working late, and it is easier to clean one cage or pen area. However, keep in mind that when adding a third rabbit to an already bonded pair, the dynamics of the group may change. Sometimes one member of the existing pair will bond with the new rabbit, while the other does not. Or, the existing bond may break when a third rabbit is introduced.
When rabbits share accommodations it is harder to determine if all the rabbits are eating or defecating regularly. In addition, certain rabbits may require specific diets, so feeding them in a group setting becomes more complicated. For example, longhaired rabbits need more protein than shorthaired rabbits. Or, a rabbit that tends to gain weight easily, or have excess cecals, cannot receive as many treats as a slimmer rabbit.
Bonding trios can be tricky. Members Paul and Windy offer their tips for creating a bonded trio:
Bobby, my first bunny, arrived nine years ago. Life with Bobby settled into a pattern. But, as he was mostly alone, I decided to find him a friend when he was about 18 months old. Baby Sophie arrived from the Toronto Humane Society small enough to sit in her water bowl.
After a month in her cage, during which time free-range Bobby showed great interest, it was time for bonding. Sophie was let out with Bobby and I stood ready to intervene, expecting the worst.
It happened quickly. After some mad dashing and flying fur, Sophie flattened herself submissively on the floor before Bobby. Bobby was satisfied and headed for his den under the bed. Sophie, enamored with handsome Bobby, took off in hot pursuit and disappeared behind him. This happened in the span of two minutes and, having seen the fur fly, I was scared that Bobby would aggressively defend his private area. But that was it. Our first successful bonding experience was complete and Sophie became Bobby’s devoted companion.
Three happy years later, Bobby died suddenly and we were devastated. Soon after, a bunny cuddler at the Toronto Humane Society chose Joey, an 18-month old Himalayan dwarf, as Sophie’s new friend. After the first success, I expected the bonding to go well. Not being a fan of cages, I used a folding wooden baby gate between a wall and a piece of furniture to create a large corner territory for Joey. Free-range Sophie, fascinated by the new arrival, spent much of her time at the gate. But Joey defended the gate vigorously, biting at any part of Sophie that poked through. The gate had fairly large holes and Sophie ended up with a deep bite on her nose and a very visible scar.
As the weeks passed, Joey was occasionally allowed out in Sophie’s presence. Each time the fur flew and they were quickly separated. As Joey gradually settled into his new territory and routine, his aggressive behavior diminished. Around the four month mark, the gate was opened and there was no fighting. The bunnies visited between territories, but returned to their own space for food and toiletries. Initially the gate was shut when there was no supervision, but gradually it was left open more until it was always open. They have now been a happy couple for over four years.
This bonding was also a success, but took longer and was more traumatic. Again, the bunnies bonded because they chose to, with the humans acting only as servants and referees.
Four years later, Cammy, a grey, seven-year-old female arrived from Rabbit Rescue. Again, I used a baby gate, with smaller holes, between pieces of furniture to create a separate space for Cammy. I expected bonding difficulties with the trio, but hoped the territory concept might work. If Cammy settled into her own space, the bunnies could trade territorial access and bonding would happen. However, Cammy is not attached to her territory and rarely goes in voluntarily. However, the other bunnies love exploring it. I tried letting them explore neutral territory in the basement together, but they explored by themselves, and Cammy was attacked when the others came upon her.
Although Cammy is bigger and never bites or chases the other bunnies, barriers are required to keep her safe. At the six week mark, I started integrating her, but not without Cammy having been bitten several times. I monitor these bite areas carefully to ensure that they heal properly without abscesses developing. From three months, she has been out with the others for several hours most evenings in my presence.
Joey loves to chase Cammy, but is not interested in hurting her. It seems like a game and is good exercise. Sometimes they eat treats together and are calm for a minute. Then one makes a sudden move and the chase begins again. Sophie, on the other hand, is not interested in chasing Cammy but bites if she gets the chance. Sophie usually lies sedately out of the way but occasionally Joey chases Cammy into Sophie’s area. Sophie, who has a touch of arthritis, no longer hops up on things much and leaves Cammy alone on her stool. But when Cammy is nearby on the ground, Sophie is suddenly reinvigorated and moves incredibly fast.
Several times I experienced Sophie’s sharp teeth when, in trying to protect Cammy with my hand, Sophie bit me before realizing my hand was not Cammy.
Four months after Cammy’s arrival I was discouraged, as bonding progress had ceased. Then one day while I was cleaning Cammy’s eyes, Joey came to sniff and Cammy did not bolt. Holding her tightly, I turned Cammy around. Joey groomed her eyes, but Cammy did not reciprocate. This was the first grooming since the day Cammy arrived, when Sophie groomed her as I held them close. Cammy did not reciprocate then either. Cammy grooms herself, but does not understand the need to groom other bunnies.
Since Joey’s first grooming, Cammy seems less threatened by him. When he jumps up on her stool, she sometimes holds her ground while they sniff each other. To encourage the process, I force Cammy to stay for a while and pat them together. Joey will groom her and then position himself for his turn, which does not come. While being patted, they stay together, although Cammy remains nervous. I hope that this process will lead to Cammy accepting Joey. If it were just these two, bonding would eventually happen.
There has been no progress with Sophie and she remains committed to evicting Cammy. My hope is that Joey’s acceptance of Cammy will soften Sophie’s resolve. Only time will tell, but they may never be a bonded trio.
My observations on bonding cannot be generalized as the sample size is too small, but it seems that:
- It really is up to the bunnies. If they do not want to be friends, all you can really do is keep them apart.
- The new bunny must be comfortable in its new home before bonding can begin in earnest.
- A baby bunny is more readily accepted.
- Male to female bondings are easier than same sex bondings, even if the bunnies are spayed or neutered
- Group dynamics make bonding three bunnies more difficult than a pair.
It took me a week to bond my first pair of rabbits, Fluffie and Spiffie. There was no fighting, no “dominance” (except for the first five seconds when Spiffie met his new mate) but also no grooming. One rabbit was slightly more submissive to the other, which was a surely a good sign, and they would enjoyably lounge on a towel together.
Nervously, I put them in a single cage at the end of the week and hoped they would survive the night while I was not watching them. When I found them very much alive and socializing the next morning; that must have been where my addiction to rabbits had a wonderful new beginning.
I was very lucky considering I was oblivious at that time to what could have happened if a fight were to arise. Then again, I have learned that in bonding rabbits, sometimes taking a plunge is not such a bad idea.
I adopted Rose as the third rabbit several months after Fluffie and Spiffie were bonded. I started observing and getting to know my own rabbits’ personalities: Fluffie being dominant and a little aggressive, Spiffie being incredibly outgoing, and Rosie being somewhat submissive and shy. I tried to avoid having a group with more than one dominant bunny because I have heard that two dominant rabbits usually fight. And, even if they do bond they may fight later on in the relationship.
In the six months before successful bonding occurred, I had tried bonding sessions in several neutral areas, such as the bathtub, bathroom, car (both moving and parked), table tops, and penned off areas throughout the house. Every day I switched their living space and litter boxes because I hoped that they would get acquainted with each other’s scent. Theirpens were side by side and nothing large would block their view from each other.
In the beginning, I tried to introduce all three rabbits at once. That did not turn out very well because Fluffie and Spiffie just chased off Rose. So, I started to do what I
call “paired bonding”. First, I would pair one of the bonded rabbits with Rose, then I would pair the other member of the bonded pair with her. This way, Rose would not be ignored and the member of the bonded pair would feel safer (and more comfortable) getting to know the other rabbit.
Initially I kept the sessions brief to keep things positive. Then I threw in several hour-long sessions, always trying to end bonding sessions on a positive note. For example, I gave the bunnies a treat right before ending the session, teaching them that every time a session ended well, they would be rewarded.
Once you see that the rabbits are more relaxed, you can start trying “trio bonding” sessions.
- Spay or neuter the rabbits. This will eliminate chances of unwanted litters and your bunnies will be less territorial.
- Pick a neutral spot in your home to introduce the rabbits rather than introducing them in established territory. This gives a rabbit less reason to “defend” the space.
- Give each “pair” some alone time and work with the pair that seems more difficult to bond.
- Switch living areas or litter boxes every other day, so the rabbits get used to each other’s scent.
- Sharing a litter box filled with hay or vegetables helps distract the rabbits while keeping them near each other.
- Smear a little bit of peanut butter or banana onto one of the rabbit’s heads to encourage grooming. Grooming provides the rabbits with a sense of acceptance.
- And remember, patience and persistence are needed.
Blissful Bonded Bunnies….or Not
Bonding Stories From OREO Members:
Love at first sight
Major Tom was an “only child” for about 6 months when we noticed he just wasn’t as playful or perky as he used to be. On a trip to the mall we fell in love with a grey Mini-Rex, we hoped Tommy would too. We took the two buns into a neutral room for their first date. Both of them were more interested in exploring the room than each other! So we took them out into the main room of the apartment and crossed our fingers.
Well, they fell in love at first sight. They instantly were grooming each other and flopping next to each other. No marking of territory, no fighting – none of the things we were worried might happen. We even let them share a cage (we connected the two cages) after only a couple of weeks — they were dying to be together 24/7, and we were convinced by the through-the-bars kissies they kept trying to give each other.
When I first saw “The Girls” they were around 6-7 weeks old and I was praying they were both the same sex. The vet was pretty sure they were both female, but their hormones were raging and the dominance war continued.
It was making me very nervous. Poor Daisy had her head jumped on and butt bit so many times! The little Netherland Dwarf, Binky, was tormenting my big, goofy Mini-Rex – so separate cages and a little bit of peace and quiet were in order.
They went in for their spay at 6 months. I kept them in separate cages for a couple of days after the spay and they’ve been best buddies ever since. Once in while one will jump on the other or chase, but I think they’re just trying to break up the monotony of their day. There has never been an injury – the occasional little tuft of fur but nothing else. When I come home from work they’re cuddled up on the same dining room chair either snoozing or grooming each other. It always amuses me that they share everything – even the same small precious piece of carrot – without fighting over it.
When I got Casper I was under the assumption that Bubbles was a girl. However, when I took Bubbles into get spayed, HE came back neutered. When we first started bonding all they wanted to do was mount one another. We started bonding in the bathroom and had daily car rides. The car rides helped A LOT. I was so excited when I saw the boys lay down together for the first time. I knew they were going to make it and be best buddies! It took about two to two and a half months to get them bonded.
Now, they do everything together…especially get into trouble. They groom each other constantly. I’m so happy that they love each other. They are brothers and best friends!
When The Bond Breaks:
Zoe (AKA “The Queen”) and Stuart were a bonded pair for 2 years. About two months after Stuarts death it seemed to me that Zoe might benefit from having a new partner again. So I found Armani.
When we got home I took all the precautions of introducing a new rabbit: took both him and Zoe to a new, neutral room in the house. They sniffed each other for a long time and even sounded a few growls (from the Queen), to which Armani seemed to be oblivious.
After the usual business of “who’s the boss” all-day all-night mounting (turns out Armani was), there seemed to be a really good chemistry and a new couple formed. They would curl up together, lick and groom each other, play with each other until it was time for one to go to the vet. It was usually Zoe that had to go (and is stilll fighting numerous bacterial infections and eye discharge) and each time upon returning Armani would constantly growl at her and chase her. I guess the unfamiliar scent from the vet and technicians was the trigger. I even tried taking them both to the next visit but nothing seemed to help. I keep them separated now by providing a huge child-play area and taking turns for who’s out and who’s in.
I am saddened sometimes when I see one trying to get to the other by sneaking their head through the cage for grooming, and in the case of Zoe, most times the request for grooming ends up with a bite from her estranged husband!
At Long Last…Maybe:
A few months after I adopted Shakti, I took her to meet Jeffy Batu at a pet show our group was attending. Jeffy Batu and Shakti really seemed to like each other and got along well at the show. I caged Shakti and Jeffy Batu side by side and I took all the necessary precautions, trying to bond them in neutral territory while keeping brooms, spray bottles and veggies on hand. Session after session they ignored each other. I took them for car rides and tried bonding them at the vet’s: and they were not interested in each other.
Eventually, they did show interest – in fighting. Jeffy gashed Shakti’s ear badly and I stopped trying to bond them for a while. I waited six months for them to give up their grudge, and then made one final commitment to bonding. After several sessions in neutral territory (and a lot of spray bottle action!), Shakti finally began licking Jeffy Batu.
It’s been a long process since then, but there is now mutual grooming, a strong friendship…and, well, a few minor ‘tiffs’ here and there! Eventually I hope to house them together but, at least for now, they can run around together happily for hours.
The first time Gilbert and Olivia met was at Olivia’s foster home. All went really well there, a couple of sniffs and basically ignoring each other. Both rabbits were in a foreign environment which likely aided in the nice results. But I soon learned they were two dominant bunnies, which resulted in injuries during the second bonding session.
The fighting started almost immediately with Gilbert trying to mount and Olivia spinning in circles trying to reach Gilbert to mount him, until they were a tight ball of aggression. Olivia was the one who ended up injured. It appeared she had only torn her ear which didn’t require much treatment.
She seemed fine until she stopped eating about 5 days later. It was then that I found a huge (the size of a twoonie) abscess on her abdomen, up near her top left mammary gland (she is a long-haired rabbit which made detecting the injury more difficult). I thought she was going to die. She eventually recovered over the next two and a half months.
Olivia was not spayed at the time of the failed bonding session. I knew there was risk involved in trying to bond when she was not spayed, but at the time I thought I would never be able to have Olivia spayed because of a heart condition (detected and misdiagnosed through xrays and two ultrasounds). She was just spayed a couple of weeks ago, and I still see a lot of dominant aggressive behaviour in her.
At this point in time I do not plan to try to bond them again. Olivia has already almost lost her life twice and she isn’t even two years old yet. I don’t want her to have to battle for her life anytime again soon, and certainly not because of my desire to have them bonded. I think that their lives are both enriched by having such close contact with each other (through the pen wall) and that they are both happier bunnies despite not being able to live together.