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Look for the signs of anxiety in a lone rabbit.
- Quiet and hiding – rabbits are prey species, and when frightened and stressed, will sit quietly, making little or no movement. Pet rabbits tend not to investigate their surroundings and will frequently hide under hay or in tunnels and boxes.
- Easy to pick up – when in this stressed state, many rabbits will be easy to pick up and handle. Owners will often misread this as their pet being well behaved, but in fact they are ‘freezing’ their position to not draw attention to themselves.
- Fast heart – a stressed animal will always have a very fast heart rate.
- Aggressive behaviour – some rabbits living alone become aggressive. This is usually because they are anxious, feel threatened and will then attack what they perceive to be the threat.
The bonding process – use our 10-point check list
It’s far better to house rabbits together in pairs or small groups. However, if you just mix two unfamiliar rabbits together without any preplanning, you’ll more than likely end up with a fight and some serious injuries. They must always be introduced to each other carefully and with supervision.
- Same size – ideally the rabbits that are going to meet should be around the same size. They don’t have to be the same breed, but if they are of similar proportions then they won’t be threatened by size.
- Health check – the rabbits need to be fit and well, so be thorough with your clinical examination. Offer health checks with the nursing team. One of the best ways to assess a rabbit’s general health is to check that they are producing normal faeces. Their faecal pellets should be numerous, small and dry. If you see sticky wet faeces around the bottom, there is likely to be an issue that needs investigating first.
- Similar diet – it’s best if both rabbits are already used to eating the same diet prior to introducing them to each other. A sudden change in food for one or both will be stressful. Provide plenty of fresh hay and garden picked forage (dandelions etc) to encourage them to each together. Enrich their environment so that they don’t become bored.
- Neutering – always make sure that both rabbits are neutered, as this will make the whole bonding process easier. If you introduce two unneutered males together you are very likely to get territorial fighting.
- Vaccinations – always check that both rabbits are up to date with their vaccinations. There is no point in exposing one or more of the rabbits to unnecessary risk of infection.
- Neutral territory – it helps if you can introduce them in an area that is new to both of them. Rabbits can be quite territorial, so if you present one into another’s home, the instinct to protect the territory will cause trouble.
- Don’t mix for the first week – in most cases its best to initially introduce two rabbits with a barrier between them. A simple chicken wire mesh separating the two will do. This way they can see, smell and assess without actually being able to hurt each other. This barrier introduction should be used for about a week.
- Use the barrier – place the feeding and water bowls close to the barrier, as well as the litter trays. That way normal daily routines will take place in close proximity to each other. They will have more chance to get used to each other quickly.
- Remove the barrier – do this after the initial period of separated mixing, probably after about a week. During this time, you need to be extra vigilant, so this should only be done when someone is available to step in if a fight occurs.
- Tunnels – provide a couple of short (1m long) plastic tubes for the rabbits to run into. This will enable a female being persistently followed by a male to retreat and avoid being mounted. Rabbits like the feeling of security inside a tunnel shelter.
How do you know when the introduction has been successful?
When watching and observing the mixing of unfamiliar rabbits, look for the signs of success.
- Feeding – when together, you should see them feeding on hay and leaves in a relaxed way.
- Grooming – a relaxed pair of rabbits will start to groom themselves and each other in a relaxed manner.
- Sitting together – happy, contented, stress free bunnies will happily sit next to each other.
- Play – some chasing around the enclosure will be normal. In the wild you’ll often see companions running around after each other in a playful, non-aggressive way.
Beware of these signs
- Attacking – if you see one of the rabbits constantly seeking the other to attack it, this is a sign that the mixing will take longer.
- Fur pulling – dominant rabbits may repeatedly pull chunks of hair out of the other. Looks for the signs of fur in clumps in the enclosure, or bald patches on the coat.
- Injuries – check them every day for injuries. Some bite wounds can be difficult to see. You may notice wet patches of fur that seem to be stuck with saliva. Any wounds need to be attended to so don’t hesitate to call us if you are worried.
- Hiding – if one of the rabbits is feeling more threatened, you may notice that it is always hiding inside a tube or under a box. This need not be addressed.
Watch this great video >
The RWA and Wood Green Animal Shelter produced a video back in 2016 on introducing new rabbits safely. It’s as relevant now as it was 3 years ago, so share it with your clients.
Work with the RWAF and your local rabbit rescue groups
Many of you will already be aware of the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (RWAF), a not for profit organisation striving to improve the health and welfare of domestic rabbits in the UK. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for ideas and help for you and your clients for all matters regarding rabbits. There’s even a section on Pairing up Rabbits (Bonding) here. And don’t forget to support your local rabbit rescue group, as you’ll be sure to find enthusiastic helpful volunteers who are dedicated to helping the pet rabbit population. Your clients with lone rabbits could be directed towards these rescue centres to look for suitable companions.
Here are some of the Rabbit Rescue Centres registered with the Rabbit Rehome website >
Watch our FREE Webinar >
Don’t forget to watch our FREE Webinar on “Rabbit bonding; making friends not foes” presented by Rae Todd and Anne McBride. If you follow the link to the Webinar Vet website, you’ll be able to get access to an hour of free rabbit CPD. Click here to get access now