Rabbits need the company of their own kind but you cannot just mix two unfamiliar rabbits without following the proper process, as this could result in adverse outcomes.
Rabbits are sociable, but they are also territorial. Therefore, rabbit introductions must be done carefully. 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 to ensure both rabbits are safe and happy.
Things to know before you start the bonding process
Before you start the bonding process, make sure that the rabbits are desexed, physically fit and healthy and are eating well. Both rabbits will also need to be up-to-date with their vaccinations and worming treatments.
Mixed-sex pairs usually work best, so it is advisable to get a male and female, but it is absolutely essential that rabbits are desexed safely before pairing is about to take place. Male rabbits can be desexed at 10-12 weeks old and females at 16-20 weeks old. Male rabbits can take up to six weeks to become sterile after they are castrated, so it is best not to introduce to any non desexed females prior to this time. Females should not be bonded with another rabbit for at least 2 weeks after desexing to reduce the risk of injury to the wound.
Two baby rabbits (under 12 weeks of age) who are the same sex can live with each other immediately; however, in this case, desexing must take place before the rabbits reach sexual maturity as fighting may take place and this may lead to permanent incompatibility. All other combinations of rabbits will need to be carefully and gradually introduced.
Rabbits can inflict significant damage to each other if they fight. It’s vital to keep a close eye on them throughout the pairing process as, left unchecked, one or both could be seriously injured.
No ‘stress bonding’ methods should be used, such as introductions in very small spaces or unnecessary car journeys, because deliberately putting rabbits into a frightening situation poses risks to safety and welfare.
Recommended bonding process:
- First, get the rabbits acquainted by sight and smell. Keep the rabbits in their own separate homes and allow them access to a large run with mesh separating them or put them in nearby enclosures, where they can sniff each other through the wire. This allows them to get used to each other’s scent and company without being able to fight. To help this you can also swap their litter trays over or rub a cloth over one rabbit and then the other (to get them used to each other’s scents).
- When both rabbits become relaxed in each other’s company and are used to the sight and smell of each other, start putting them together for very short periods of time in strictly neutral territory where neither rabbit has been before. This must only take place under constant close supervision.
- Make sure you put lots of distractions in with them in their neutral territory, such as several piles of hay, herbs, cardboard boxes and a tunnel, as this will help them immensely. Rabbits are very territorial and any competition for resources might cause tension, so ensure that you have at least two feeding and watering stations and hiding places. At any sign of tension, separate the rabbits (using a towel to intervene to prevent injury).
- Try again the next day, gradually increasing the time the rabbits spend together. Always supervise them and separate the rabbits at the first sign of a fight. Repeat this until the rabbits are relaxed in each other’s company.
- After a few days or weeks of successful interactions, when the rabbits are happy to groom each other and lie together, they can be left together unsupervised. If negative behaviour occurs, separate the rabbits and begin the introduction process again. Rabbits who repeatedly fight are unlikely to be able to bond and different companions should be sought for them.
- The whole process can take from a couple of hours to a couple of months. The better the rabbits get on at their first meeting, the quicker they will bond. In addition, putting the rabbits together for very brief periods (e.g. 10 minutes) every day means that they will get used to each other far more quickly than if you do it less often.
- Rabbits who are not fully bonded must be kept separately when you are not with them.
- It is natural that one rabbit will be dominant over the other, however, there should not be aggressive behaviour. The subordinate rabbit shows their acceptance of the other’s dominance by licking them. The rabbit that puts their head down to be licked is claiming top spot, and by licking them, the partner is accepting that the other rabbit is boss.
Rabbits form a bond for life. Once the rabbits have bonded they should not be separated, as this would cause a great deal of psychological trauma to them both. It is recommended that both rabbits are taken to the veterinarian if one needs to attend. This prevents stress and aids recovery. If the rabbits are kept apart and one comes back with a different smell or a change in health, they may reject each other and begin fighting. If this happens the introduction process will need to be carried out again.
This article is based on an article from our colleagues at SPCA NZ (which was based on guidance on introducing rabbits written by the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund) and reproduced with kind permission.