Socialising with people
Rabbits are affectionate and lovable creatures who can bond with their owners. But, as a prey species, they can be easily startled or scared, and so the bond between owner and rabbit can damaged or destroyed if care is not taken. Some guidelines when socialising with your bunny are:
- Move slowly and use a quiet calm voice to avoid scaring them. A calm rabbit is generally easier to handle, and the less stressed your rabbit is the less likely they are to panic and potentially injure themselves.
- Where possible, handling and interactions with rabbits should be at ground level. This is generally considered to be less threatening and stressful for the rabbit than lifting them, and also there is less risk of injury if the rabbit does escape from your arms.
- Any interactions between children and rabbits must be supervised for the safety and welfare of both the child and rabbit. All interactions with younger children must be at ground level. Only adults and older children who are responsible and have been adequately taught how to handle a rabbit should be allowed to pick up a rabbit and this should be closely and carefully supervised.
The RSPCA supports reward-based training methods involving positive reinforcement (the animal is rewarded when the desired behaviour is performed, and unwanted behaviour is ignored).
Positive reinforcement means we are adding something good or desirable (from the rabbit’s perspective) to increase or reinforce the chance that a behaviour will occur and be repeated.
Reward-based positive reinforcement training is the most humane and effective training method; it sets the animal up to succeed, is enjoyable for the animal and positively enhances the relationship bond between the animal and handler.
This is in contrast to training based on aversive stimuli, dominance, force, or punishment* – these methods must not be used as they are inhumane and can cause long-term behavioural problems. This includes negative reinforcement, in which an aversive (painful or unpleasant) stimulus is removed to increase or reinforce the chance that a behaviour will occur or be repeated.
* Punishment is defined as applying something aversive to the animal when a certain behaviour is carried out.
For example, we offer a treat when training our rabbit to do a trick. This would be considered positive reinforcement, and the rabbit will often repeat the behaviour, hoping to get another reward. Positive reinforcement is much more likely to produce the results you are looking for, while negative reinforcement can contribute to fearful and aggressive pets. You can also use positive reinforcement to build up trust. Bunnies respond very well to positive reinforcement – typically in the form of treats (although your rabbit might respond to being petted). Used appropriately, positive reinforcement can leave your rabbit positively keen to see you!
Socialising with other rabbits
Rabbits evolved to live in groups. Bonding your rabbit with a partner will greatly increase their quality of life, but there are benefits for the owner too; once you have witnessed your bonded pair or group grooming each other, eating, and lying down together, it’s unlikely you would ever want to return to keeping a solitary rabbit. However, it is not as simple as placing two rabbits together and expecting them to be immediate friends (that can happen, but not often).
Introductions have to be conducted carefully. Rabbits may be sociable, but they’re also territorial. Your resident rabbit will be naturally wary of a stranger being brought into their home. Some rabbits will establish an instant bond. You can recognise this by an initial lack of interest when first introduced, followed by individual grooming. This will soon progress to mutual grooming and the rabbits sitting together. Do keep a careful eye on a “love at first sight” couple for any possible aggression, but if all goes well, don’t separate them.
Some suggestions for helping your rabbits to bond
Remember that not all rabbits can get along. Bonding takes time and patience, and direct adult supervision is necessary to prevent injuries.
Because of the instinctive social behaviour of rabbits, a social hierarchy (or pecking order) needs to be established when rabbits that are new to each other are brought together. Some fighting should be expected. Preparations should be made to be able to separate fighting rabbits, because they can truly hurt each other.
When rabbits begin to reach sexual maturity, they will become hormonally driven and more territorial. Arrange to have them desexed before this becomes a problem.
Start by placing cages near each other so that the presence of a new rabbit is established. Do not place cages too close to each other, because injuries can occur through the wire sides.
Allow one rabbit out at a time into a rabbit-safe area. After some time, replace that rabbit in their cage and then let the other rabbit into the same area. This allows them to get used to each other’s scent.
Introductions should be made in neutral territory (e.g., a room that neither has been in before). This will decrease the need to defend an established territory. It may also make the rabbits more interested in the new environment, as well as feeling less secure and, therefore, more likely to need each other’s reassurance.
Putting both rabbits in harnesses on leashes will also allow them to see each other without getting too close at first. After several times, and when they seem less hostile to each other, they can be allowed to get closer to each other, but be prepared to separate them if they fight. This may require the gentle and careful use of large towels to separate the bunnies and protect both rabbits and people from scratches and bites.
Continue these visits in neutral territory. Eventually the rabbits can be together in the neutral territory.
Although some fighting may occur, they may eventually learn to tolerate each other and often will become bonded housemates.
When the rabbits are happy to groom each other and lie together, they can be left together unsupervised.
Some rabbits never get along with each other. Owners should be prepared for this eventuality by understanding that a new rabbit to the household may need to have their own cage and space in the house if they never become bonded to the existing rabbit(s).
What combination of rabbits works best?
The easiest pairing is castrated male/spayed female. So, if you already have one rabbit, choose a companion of the opposite sex, and make sure they are both desexed (before any fighting occurs).
Same-sex pairs can be tricky, but it is possible to keep two males or two females if they have grown up together. You’ll need to find either a pair of siblings, or two rabbits from different litters both between 8 and 10 weeks of age. Same-sex pairs must never be separated, even for short periods of time. Even then, many will have occasional squabbles. Any visiting rabbits may upset the balance and trigger fighting.
With same-sex introductions, if one or both of the rabbits is already adult, introductions should only be undertaken with great caution and expert advice. Such introductions are possible, but success is not guaranteed.
There is a lot more potential for serious fighting with same-sex pairs than when introducing opposite-sex pairs. Obviously, having both rabbits desexed several weeks before introducing them to each other may help to reduce initial fighting.