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What companionship do rabbits need?

Rabbits are a social species and have evolved to live in groups. In the wild, rabbits do not live alone.

Rabbits kept as companions are not biologically different from their wild counterparts and so their innate need to be kept in the company of other rabbits is just as strong. Rabbits have been shown to choose to spend time with other rabbits when they have the opportunity and, in fact, value the companionship of other rabbits as highly as food [1, 2, 3]. In addition, rabbits who are housed with another rabbit have fewer abnormal behaviours, such as fur chewing and bar biting [4, 5, 6].

Rabbits need the company of their own kind. No matter how hard we try, we cannot give our companion rabbits as much company as another rabbit can. We lead busy lives and even if we make sure we spend 3 or 4 hours a day with our rabbits, that means that they spend 20 hours or more without us. However, if they have at least one bonded partner rabbit they will never be lonely.

Rabbits are sociable, but they are also territorial. Therefore, rabbit introductions must be conducted carefully. Rabbits who are unknown to one another will need separate housing until they are successfully bonded. The process of encouraging rabbits to live compatibly with one another is called bonding, mixing or pairing. This process takes time and effort, but it is essential to carry out the bonding process properly and with the rabbits’ welfare in mind.

Once the rabbits have bonded they should not be separated as this will cause significant distress and can severely damage the bond. Therefore, if one of bonded pair of rabbits needs to visit a vet, then both should be taken, which will provide comfort for them both. Because rabbits form such powerful bonds with one another, the loss of a bonded companion can cause depression and illness. It is advisable to adopt another suitable rabbit as a friend if a loss means that a rabbit is left without a companion long-term.

Despite what many people believe, rabbits and guinea pigs should not be housed together. While there are some exceptions to this general rule, rabbit and guinea pigs do not usually get along and will often injure one another. Compatible companions of their own species are always better. If rabbits and guinea pigs have to live together and are already bonded, it is essential that the rabbit is neutered and that any male guinea pigs are also castrated. In addition, the guinea pigs must be provided with areas where they can escape from the rabbit and must also be provided with Vitamin C daily.

You need to ensure that the enclosure you have for your rabbits is large enough to allow your rabbits to exhibit natural behaviours such as grooming and feeding, with a separate area for toileting. Many hutches marketed for rabbits are too small. These active and inquisitive animals need plenty of space. Your rabbits’ enclosure should be as large as possible but the minimum size for a rabbit enclosure for two rabbits should be 3m (length) x 1.5m (width) x 1m (height) as recommended by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund. You can find more information on rabbit housing here.

This article is based on an article from our colleagues at SPCA NZ with their kind permission.

References

[1] Huls WL et al (1991) Response of adult New Zealand white rabbits to enrichment objects and paired housing. Laboratory Animal Science 41: 609-612.

[2] Held SDE et al (1995) Choices of laboratory rabbits for individual or group-housing. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 46: 81-91.

[3] Seaman SC et al (2008) Animal economics: assessing the motivation of female laboratory rabbits to reach a platform, social contact and food. Animal Behaviour 75: 31-42

[4] Podberscek AL et al (1991) The behaviour of group penned and individually cages laboratory rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 28: 353-363.

[5] Lidfors L (1997) Behavioural effects of environmental enrichment for individually caged rabbits. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52: 157-169.

[6] Chu LR et al (2004) A behavioural comparison of New Zealand White rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) housed individually or in pairs in conventional laboratory cages. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85: 121-139.

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Updated on October 8, 2019
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https://kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-companionship-do-rabbits-need/

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