Rabbits are social animals that live in groups, usually with one male and several females. It is unnatural for them to live alone though a distressing number are kept without a bunny friend (Mullan & Main 2006). It’s really important because solitary living reduces their lifespan (Schepers et al., 2009) Social contact is nearly as important as food to them (Seaman et al., 2008). Laboratory rabbits, even those already living in groups, prefer an area which has a mirror. Like budgies, they enjoy even the sight of other rabbits, not understanding that this is their reflection (Dalle Zotta et al., 2009). Social contact with other rabbits enriches their lives (Whary et al., 1993). Animal laboratories that care for the welfare of their animals now house rabbits in groups, not singly.
So if you want your rabbit to be happy, give it social contact with another rabbit. The easiest way to do this is to get two rabbits, male and female, that have grown up together as babies. Both should be neutered, otherwise they may be aggressive to each other in spring, the breeding season (McBride et al., 2004) . Or, get a bonded pair from a rescue centre. If you have a single rabbit that needs a friend, go to a rescue centre and ask if they will handle the introduction, making sure that your rabbit and the new one are compatible.
Don’t just stick a new rabbit in the enclosure. The existing rabbit will see him as an intruder and there may be a fight (Crowell-Davis 2007). And once there is a fight it will be difficult to get the rabbits to accept each other.
Bonded rabbits should visit the vet together. Rabbits identify friend and foe by scent. If one comes back smelling of the vet, the other may attack it (McBride 2014)
If you are going to do the introductions yourself, you must introduce them on neutral territory – a new enclosure, the floor of a room they are not kept in, or a roomy bathroom (not the bath in case of accidents on a slippery surface), or perhaps a room in a friend’s house. There must be enough room for them to get away from each other. Be really patient about this because you don’t want to get it wrong. It may take weeks.
The safest way of doing an introduction is to let them smell each other for a few days through a partition first: ie rig up a baby gate or something similar to divide them from each other. Or put a bit of chicken wire between them. Make sure that both rabbits have somewhere to hide in their individual area – a pet carrier, a hutch, a covered crate. A couple of big tunnel drainpipes (the kind sold in builders merchants made of ceramic) would help too. Mix their scents by taking bedding from one of them and putting it into the other’s area for the first 1-2 weeks.
Then, when they seem to be ignoring each other, remove the barrier for short periods under supervision. Keep a kitchen chopping board or a tray to separate them if necessary. Make sure there is plenty of hay and food at each end so they can keep to their own end if they choose. Add play items like cardboard boxes, hiding places and other distractions. Slowly increase the periods. Be very patient. Slow is better than fast. Never let them have an extended time together without supervision, ie at night time, until you have seen mutual grooming or lying together.
If there is still severe aggression separate them. It could be that the individuals are incompatible. If they really dislike each other, see if a pet behaviour counsellor, who specialises in rabbits, can give you a rebonding programme. If that doesn’t work, the rehoming one and looking for a more compatible new bunny may be the solution.
Guinea pigs are so much smaller than rabbits than they can be severely harassed or even seriously wounded if a rabbit kicks them. Neuter and spay your rabbits, then you can give your bunny a rabbit friend who speaks the same language. Guinea pigs need much more vitamin C than rabbits. Moreover, some rabbits carry a bacterium, Bordatella bonchiseptica, which is harmful to guinea pigs.
Crowell-Davis, S. L., (2007), ‘Behavior Problems in Pet Rabbits,’ Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, 16, 38-44
Dalle Zotte, A., Princz, Z., Matics, Z., Gerencse, Z. Metzger, S. & Szendro, Z., (2009), ‘Rabbit preference for cages and pens with or without mirrors,’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116, 273–278
McBride, E.A., Magnus, E. and Hearne, G. (2004) Behaviour problems in the domestic rabbit. In ed. Appleby, D. The APBC Book of Companion Animal Behaviour. London, UK, Souvenir Press., 164-182.
McBride, A., (2014), ‘Rabbit Behaviour – welfare and handling in a clinical environment,’ BVBA rabbit in clinic webinar, 5 August 2014.
Mullan, S. M. & Main, D. C. J., (2006), ‘Survey of the husbandry, health and welfare of 102 pet rabbits,’ Veterinary Record, 159, 103-0109
Schepers, F., Koene, P. & Beerda, B., (2009),’Welfare assessment in pet rabbits’, Animal Welfare, 18, 477-485.
Seaman, S. ., Waran, N. K., Mason, G. & D’eath, R. B., (2008), ‘Animal economics: assessing the motivation of female laboratory rabbits to reach a platform, social contact and food, Animal Behaviour, 75, 31-42
Whary, M., Peper, R., Borkowski, G., Lawence, W. & Ferguson, F., ‘The effects of group housing on the research use of the laboratory rabbit.’ Laboratory Animals, 27, 330-341