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by Suzanne Smith, reproduced with permission. Original version
Nothing is cuter than watching two rabbits lie side by side kissing each other. They are clearly very happy and enjoy each other's company. Rabbits are social animals that benefit from living in pairs or groups. Despite the need to live with another rabbit, you cannot just put two rabbits in a cage and expect them to immediately get along. Rabbits, like humans, must date first. During their courtship, the rabbits learn to trust each other and eventually fall in love. Rabbit dating is referred to as bonding. Every pairing is different, as there is not a set path to take. Here we will discuss different techniques and styles for bonding rabbits.
Some bondings are fairly easy while others are difficult. I truly believe that you can bond any two rabbits, but I don't always think it is worth the stress. Rabbits rarely fall in love at first sight and indifference is a good first sign. It means that they are scoping each other out and trying to figure out if they can trust each other. A quick bonding can take two weeks while the more difficult ones can take 3-4 months. On rare occasions, bonding takes 6 months to a year. Not only will you need to make a time commitment, but you will also need a second cage, space to work in, and plenty of patience.
Just like with people, every bunny and every pairing are different. For this reason I can not step you through a procedure of how to do this. Rather, I will explain things that I look for and different options to try. What works in one situation, can easily fail in another. This article will try to explain different approaches to use and how to read your rabbits' behavior. You will need to figure out what works for you.
When you try to bond a pair of bunnies, please be patient and committed to it. It can be very easy to get discouraged, to be convinced that it will never work. Three days later everything can be going great. This isn't something that is steady, but a series of "breakthroughs". I've had more people call me insisting that the rabbits aren't interested in each other and several days later call again with news that they are totally in love.
Many people wonder if their rabbit will change once they have a playmate. The answer of course, is yes. Every situation is different so I cannot tell you what will happen with your rabbit, but I do know that your rabbit will be happier.
If you have a rabbit who is friendly with you, they will remain friendly. They do love human attention. If your rabbit is shy, and the new rabbit craves human attention, you may easily find that your bun will mimic the new rabbit and find some strength from his example. They may find themselves with their new mate begging for attention without realizing it. If they see it isn't scary for the other bunny then maybe it isn't so bad.
While a mate does sometimes help bring a rabbit out if their shell, I have also seen the reverse. A shy bun that receives a mate may decide that it wants to concentrate on building that relationship. With time your rabbit will become friendlier, but it may take a little longer.
I do want to stress, that I have never seen a friendly rabbit lose interest in human companionship. Once a bunny likes you, they always will.
Many people state that rabbits are less likely to get into trouble once they have a mate. They aren't as bored and are more content. While this is true in some cases, rabbits do learn from each other and I have seen rabbits teach each other bad habits. Hazy, my digger, fell in love with Hershey, a non digger. Once day I saw them both in a corner- she would dig, he would dig, and this repeated itself. Clearly he was learning from her and quickly become a more intense digger than she ever was. Monkey see, monkey do. They may get into less trouble because they are happier, but they may also learn new bad habits.
Every case is different. I can tell you that your rabbit will be happier, may be friendlier and get into less trouble, but I cannot guarantee any of it.
Unless it is impossible for health reasons, it is essential for both rabbits to be spayed or neutered before introducing them. Once they are altered their hormones won't be as strong and the male won't be as interested in mating. I do find it an advantage to bond about a month after a rabbit has been altered as they often have just enough hormones left to be interested in the other rabbit without going overboard. If they have been recently altered, you need to wait at least three weeks for them to properly heal from the surgery as any skirmishes could result in internal injuries.
You should figure out housing and bonding areas before bringing a second rabbit home. You will temporarily need a second cage for the new rabbit and a place for that cage, preferably near your current bunny. You will also need to find neutral areas in your house where you can do the introductions.
Please make sure that both rabbits are healthy. Bonding is stressful and if your rabbit has any health problems they can easily surface. If your rabbit has Pasteurella or a heart condition, I would only consider this if it were to be a very easy bond.
The best mate for your rabbit is one that they are interested in, and vice versa. In other words, let your rabbit choose his/her mate. They definitely have preferences and bonding will be easier if you listen to them. Preferably, you should take your rabbit to several foster homes and let them meet several other rabbits. An experienced fosterer can help you interpret the signals. To set up for these dates, you need to have a small (about 2' x 3') area set up that is neutral to both rabbits. Sometimes people will use an exercise pen, bathroom or hallway. You want to prevent any fights, so have a water squirt bottle handy to spray them just in case. Wear heavy gloves or place an old pair of sneakers on your hands so you can separate them without being bitten. If they start to fight, they will blindly bite and will not notice that your hand is there. (Yes, I have scars.) Lastly, I do not put a litterbox in the pen as one bun may stake that out as their territory.
While I do mention fighting in the previous paragraph, I would like to stress that you should never let this happen. If you see any signs of aggression- ears back at a 45 degree angle, tails raised, tension; separate the buns. This would probably not be a good match. Be careful to understand the difference between dominance and aggression. Dominance, often displayed as mounting, is perfectly normal. However I would gently push the dominant bun to the side when he tries to mount. The other rabbit may be submissive, but may also get irritated if mounted for too long. Both males and females will mount.
Place the two rabbits in the pen and observe. This is the time for my used car salesman pitch- if they don't like each other, they will fight. However, if they are interested in each other they will probably act indifferent. So often I hear, "they just ignored each other". This is a good first sign! They are communicating as rabbits in a means that we can't understand and are trying to figure out if they can trust each other. They may approach and sniff. Rarely will you see any signs of grooming. Sometimes you can detect if your rabbit is excited. Look for subtle signals. If the rabbits are a few feet apart, but eating, cleaning themselves, lying down all stretched out, then they clearly don't perceive the other rabbit as a threat. (Good sign!)
Have your rabbit meet several prospective mates. Once they have met several, you will be able to notice the difference in how they are interacting with the other rabbits. Pick the bunny where they both seem to be interested (indifferent) with each other.
I am often asked if rabbits care about size/breed/age. Questions like "My rabbit is a dwarf so don't I need to get another dwarf?" are common. Truth is, the rabbits don't care. We have pairs that are 11 pound bunnies bonded with 3 pounders. Lops and mini rexes. You would be suprised at how often people think that because they have a small bunny, they can't get a large one because it might hurt their little dwarf. So often the smaller bun is the aggressor! It always seems to matter more to the owner than the rabbit.
Sex is another question. Most of our pairs are male/female and I would try this combination first. If you aren't having any luck finding the right mate then you may want to try a same sex (female/female or male/male) pairing.
Age is sometimes a factor. You are most likely to have a lasting bond if they are both adults. The young rabbits do sometimes bond easier as they are used to living in groups and having company. However, once their hormones kick in they do sometimes fight with a mate and we have had couples split up when one of the rabbits is 3-10 months old. Age is not a factor when the rabbits are older. You can bond an 8 year old rabbit with a three year old.
Of course there is always the case where your neighbor found a rabbit, you took it in and now you want them to be friends. It happens to all of us. So you try to bond the rabbits and hope they like each other!
I would have two cages set up for the rabbits side by side, about three inches apart. It is important to keep the cages slightly apart because they will sometimes try to bite each other through the wires. Many rabbits have scars on their lips from this. You do want them in the same room so they can communicate with each other. I will often place the litter boxes on the far side, away from the other cage. Greens are typically placed in the side closest to the other cage. Eating is a social activity and this will force them to be a little social. Lastly, I have the rabbits switch cages every night. This way they get used to living with the other rabbit's scent and neither gets too possessive about either cage.
If you know one rabbit will soon be altered or was recently altered, it is all right to start with them living as neighbors for several weeks. This gives them some times to get used to each other before you start the bonding. Just make sure you give the surgery enough time to heal before starting to bond!
I want to emphasize that you should do your best to never let the rabbits fight. Not even for a second. That is why I am discussing this issue first. If you are inexperienced with rabbits, you may have a difficult time reading the signs and accidents do happen. That is why I always tell you to have a water spray bottle, heavy gloves and old sneakers. It is important that you are ready just in case they fight. As time goes on, you will be able to interpret your rabbit's behavior.
Look for signs that your rabbit is in attack mode. Typically, their ears will be bent back at a forty five degree angle. What does their tail look like? A rabbit about to attack will raise their tail and appear to be on their haunches. When your rabbit does this, tell them to be nice, and push them a few feet away. Remember- ears back at a 45 degree angle, tail raised up mean your rabbit is ready to attack.
Now there is also the rabbit that will run and charge another bunny. This is fairly easy to read, but you need to intecept them quickly. Some chasing can be normal, as one may be chasing to mount and exhibit their dominance. Last, there is the rabbit that will lie there trying to look innocent, but will turn their head and quickly bite. Those are the hardest to stop, although they are less likely to turn into an all out fight. You will have to read your rabbit's eyes to figure them out.
Find a small neutral area of your house that your rabbit does not use. Some options are the bathtub, a blocked off section of hallway, or an exercise pen in a neutral room. Get your supplies ready- the water bottle, gloves or old sneakers. Place the rabbits in the neutral space and watch them. It is easiest to have two people nearby- one with the water bottle and the other with the gloves or sneakers. If one bites, spray with water immediately and separate. By separate I mean to get them about 2 feet apart- I am not stating that they should go back in their cages. I realize that many people don't like to spray their animals with water, but it is crucial to prevent/minimize any fighting. An essential element of bonding is trust- the rabbits must learn to trust each other. Longer and frequent fighting will work in the opposite direction and make the rabbits wary of each other. Not to mention the risk of injury- never let two rabbits just duke it out.
I would start by letting your rabbits spend 15-30 minutes together on their first date, depending on how it is going. If it is going well, then I would go the thirty minutes. During a normal work day, I would have them date only once. However on the weekends, feel free to try 2-3 dates, 6-8 hours a part. If the dates are going well, then gradually increase the time that they are spending together.
When rabbits meet, they start the bonding at different stages. Some may hate each other at first. Some may be indifferent. Occasionally you will have them snuggle and groom. We need to interpret their behavior, figure out what is working, and push them down the path towards love.
An important aspect of bonding is knowing what stage your rabbits are in. If your rabbits have shown interest in fighting and now appear indifferent, you have made progress. If they have been indifferent and now seem curious about each other, again you have progress. Unfortunately, they do sometimes take steps backwards. You need to interpret the subtle signals that your rabbits are communicating.
While the rabbits may at time appear indifferent to us, the truth is they are sizing each other up to determine if they can trust each other. This is seen by observing the rabbits. They may lay about 2-3 feet from each other. If they weren't interested at all, they wouldn't do this. They are being coy- curious but not quite trusting enough. We've all seen humans play hard to get. Guess what- rabbits do too! With time you will notice the space between them decrease and eventually they will be sleeping next to each other.
If your rabbits are not interacting, look for other signs. Do they seem relaxed? Are they washing themselves? Hopping around like everything is normal? If so, then they don't perceive the other rabbit as a threat.
When the rabbits are curious about each other, they will go up to each other and sniff. One may bow his head, requesting licks. One may gently lick the other rabbit's face. These contacts are usually brief, lasting less than 30 seconds. This is the start of grooming and is an excellent sign. As trust continues to develop, these sessions will increase into true snuggling where they will groom each other. During the first meetings, the buns will often seem a little tense, but as time goes on, they will relax. The first signs of grooming may appear a little rough- almost like chewing or gentle nibbling at the hair instead.
When you see positive signs- whether they just seem comfortable in a pen togehter (while not interacting) or if you are lucky enough to see some grooming, you should gradually increase the time they spend together and the space they use. For example, increase their time together from 1 hour to 2 hours to three hours. Once they can spend several hours together, you might be inclined to move them into a larger room where they can run and play together. This is also an excellent time to put litter boxes in for them to use and feed them dinner together.
You should instinctively know when to move on to the next stage. There is the trust factor- you will find yourself trusting them more each day. The first few sessions you will be with them constantly. Then you may feel like you can run to the kitchen and grab a drink. After many sessions, you may feel as if you don't need to be with them, but want them within earshot. At a certain point you will feel as if they can be together and you don't need to be with them.
Like most things in life, bonding isn't a straight line of progress. Often you will see steps forward followed by steps backward. As long as the overall progress is forward, I wouldn't worry about it. It is common to take a slight step backwards when you move to the next stage- giving them more out time, giving them a larger play area, the first time they go into your first rabbit's play area.
When your rabbits show positive signs of progress, the first thing you should do is gradually increase the time they are spending together. After they can spend a few hours together, then you should move them to a larger play area, preferably still neutral territory.
Once they can spend several hours together, you should be looking for signs of affection. Do they lay side by side? Is there grooming? When you see these, and they can spend large blocks of time together, then you should move them into your first rabbit's play area. (Or where their common play area will be once they are a happy couple.)
If they are successful in the common exercise area, then you should only let them out together so they play together. After several succesful days playing together, you may be able to place them into a cage together. The amount of time spent in the common area is a proportional to the amount of time they have spent in the other stages. If things progress fast, then they only need a few days. If, unfortunately, each stage takes a month. Well, you probably need a month here too.
Don't forget that when you push them forward, it is easy for them to take a step backward first. Hopefully they won't. If things aren't progressing easily, try several of the tricks listed below.
When evaluating how to bond your rabbits, it is important to realize that what works for other people may not work for you. Similarly, what works for you may not work for others. What is being presented here is a bunch of ideas- things for you to try. If it works, keep it and use it. If it doesn't- toss it out and choose a different approach. However just because something doesn't work now shouldn't mean that you can never try it again. It might work in a month or two.
Relationships with rabbits aren't always a partnership. Sometimes there is a dominant bunny while other times it can be a fairly even relationship. If one rabbit is trying to establish itself as the alpha (dominant) bunny, they will typically try to mount their mate. The alpha rabbit can be a bit bossy and may push the other rabbit around. One example of this behavior is the alpha rabbit may apply a gentle nip letting the submissive rabbit know that they need to move because they are sleeping in their spot. The relationship between every pair is different. Some are close to true partnerships with give and take by both. Others are fairly lopsided. Both male and females rabbits will mount. There are many relationships where the female rabbit is dominant, bossing her mate around.
If one rabbit is mounting the other, I will gently stroke the submissive bun and talk to them in a gentle manner. I will let the mounting behavior go on for 10-20 seconds and then gently push the dominant bun off. Discourage them from mounting again for a few minutes. The reason I let them mount briefly is then they get some sense of dominance. However, if you let it go on for too long the submissive bun may get fed up and try to bite the potential mate, letting them know they have had enough.
Mounting can be incessant the first few days of a relationship. After the first week it will typically decrease. Some rabbits may never mount again, while others will go for an occasional fling. You may see the mounting behavior reappear if you move the rabbits to a new location, or if they can smell another rabbit. They will feel the need to reclaim their mate.
One thing to be careful of- you shouldn't let the male mounts backwards, mounting the face. There is the chance that the female may bite, and accidentally bite his penis off. While this is rare, I do know of one case where it has happened. I would discourage males from face mounting.
Sometimes rabbits appear to be stuck in a rut and not progressing with their bonding. They have worked out a mutual agreement to coexist, but don't seem to be chummy quite yet. This is where you need to push them a little bit. Shake things up- try some of the tricks listed below. Move to a different location, try a smaller pen, try a larger pen. Try and get them over the hump. If both rabbits like banana, then take some and place banana in the fur near the base of the ears. Since most buns go crazy for this, they will try to lick it off each other. One will think they are getting a treat, while the other believes they are being groomed. Sometimes you need to gently push them forward.
Many people will stress rabbits to encourage bonding. If the bonding is going well, I don't see any reason to stress them. However if they are fighting, then stress can help pull them together. The idea behind stress is that they are too afraid to fight and will huddle together for support. Once they get used to supporting each other they may start thinking that the other fellow isn't so bad.
Most rabbits don't like car rides. For this one, it is best to have two people- one person that can drive and a second to sit in the back seat with the rabbits. Take a cardboard box, depending on the size of your rabbits, about 18 inches by 24 inches. Boxes are preferable to pet carriers because you can have the entire top open to reach in and grab a rabbit if there is a problem. (Just as a note- I don't recommend carboard boxes for other activities- vet visits, etc. Pet carriers should be used in those situations) I place the rabbits in the box, close the top and quickly move them to the car. Once the box is in the car, I open the box again. The driver should be in the car ready to go when you do this. Drive around town for 20-30 minutes. The terrified buns should just snuggle together. Pet them and talk to them in a gentle voice. Note that there are a few rabbits that aren't afraid of car rides. This technique will not work for them.
If you only have one person or don't particularly want to drive, you can substitute the washing machine. Have the machine on the spin cycle, place your rabbits in either a carboard box or laundry basket and place it on top of the machine. The bouncing of the machine will scare them and they should snuggle together.
A third alternative is to run the vacuum cleaner. Place the rabbits in a small pen or large box and run the vacuum cleaner around the them. In this case I would also recommend two people- one to run the vacuum and a second to be with the rabbits.
The first time they have been stressed, I typically return them to their cages. After the second/third sessions, I will sometimes take them immediately into a neutral area and let them stay there for 15-30 minutes. When they first arrive it takes them a while to unwind from the stress and hopefully they will learn to start trusting each other. As time goes on I increase the "after" time. Once they can spend a good hour in the neutral pen, the next time I might try placing them in the pen without stressing them first.
You are the boss!: Attitude can go a long way with bonding rabbits. I make it quite clear to them that I am the boss. Not only that, but I am more stubborn than they are, so they may as well get along and get this over with. Rabbits are used to having a pecking order with the alpha rabbit setting the rules. You are the alpha rabbit. Most people who have trouble bonding their rabbits are too meek and timid about it. I'm not by any means stating that you should be aggressive, only that you must be in charge. With this in mind, I always tell the rabbits that they don't have to like each other but they must be civil and fighting is not allowed! Course once they are civil, they always fall in love....
Switching Cages: Switching cages is good tactic. This forces the rabbits to get used to living with each other's scent. It also makes them accept both cages as a potential home, not feeling overly dominant about either one. They should swap living quarters every day.
Banana on the Head: Since many rabbits love banana as a treat, we sometimes take a small amount and smear it just below the rabbit's ears, on their forehead. A bun, loving the taste of a treat, will lick the banana off the potential mate, while the potential mate thinks that they are being groomed. This will encourage grooming and acceptance.
Only Out Time: At a certain point in the bonding process, I often will let the play/exercise time be the bonding time. They don't get to play unless it is with the potential mate. Most rabbits want their exercise time outside their cages, so they will learn to behave with the other rabbit around.
Talking Them Through it: When they are first getting to know each other, I will talk the rabbits through the process. You would be amazed at how well they listen. "Hans be a good bunny now". "Jake, no bite". "Sasha no mount- that's a good girl". I can always tell when they are listening to me. Reward positive behavior with good words. Be willing to tell them not to do something.
Pile of Veggies: Eating is a social behavior in rabbits. Plus, let's face it, most of our rabbits love to eat. Place a pile of greens out and let them happily chomp together.
Changing Locations: If you are stuck in rut or stage and just don't feel as if you are making any progress, then I would consider changing locations. It might be taking them to a friend's house for an hour or moving to a completely different floor in your house that neither bun has ever been near. This can be combined with stressing them. I.e. the car ride to the strange location is a stress factor and then they need to interact in a strange home. Bathrooms are often used as neutral space because they are about the right size and many rabbits don't spend time there. However, your rabbit knows that they are still in their house and their territory isn't far away. Most of the time this is neutral enough, but in some cases it might be better to go to a friend's house. If you can have a friend bond in their house, you will have a truly neutral environment. Another advantage to this is that the only familiar thing is the other bunny and it helps them look to each other for support. This level of neutral territory is rarely needed, but useful if you have a difficult bond. This level of neutrality is rarely necessary.
Forced Snuggle: Often I will take the two rabbits and place them side by side. One hand on their backs so they get the message to stay still. With the other hand I will gently pet both their noses. They relax and enjoy the attention while at the same time they are with the other bun. Hopefully they will start to associate them with pleasant thoughts and find them less threatening.
It is very important that you don't let your rabbits fight and that you do everything in your power to prevent one. However, if there is aggression or an unfortunate fight, it is important that to understand the different signs of aggression. The worst type of aggression is the "I hate you" fight where the rabbit approaches with the intent of attacking. Often the ears are back at a 45 degree angle and the tail is up. It is clear that the rabbits don't like each other and want to duke it out. When this is happening, I recommend stressing or the "Wear them Down" approach. If you haven't chosen a mate yet, then this rabbit would not be good a choice. The second type of fight is more of a skirmish which can develop into a full fledged fight. It has more to do with establishing pecking order. Both males and females will mount each other. This is not done for sexual purposes but rather to establish dominance. The dominant rabbit will mount the submissive rabbit. Well- if you have two rabbits that want to be dominant, they will resist the other rabbit trying to mount and try to bite them as a way of saying "stop it". This can easily turn into a fight between the two rabbits as neither wants to submit. If I get a sense of which one will be dominant, I will try petting the unwilling submissive bunny, talking to them gently while the other rabbit mounts. After mounting a few times, I will shoo the dominant one away. It's a compromise- let the dominant bun mount some, but not too much.
Sometimes the best approach is to force the issue. On a day that I don't mind spending inside, I will set up the exercise pen in the living room. Get the supplies (water bottle/gloves/sneakers) ready, pop in a movie and place the buns in the pen. Leave them in the entire day and spray them everytime you see an aggressive sign. They must stay in the pen. Sooner or later, and sometimes it truly is later, they will start to give up the idea of fighting and just kind of sulk. After periods of sulking, one bun may approach the other one in a submissive position. They may attempt to fight again (in which case spray and continue) or they may start to accept each other. Eventually they will reach an uneasy truce and look towards building a peaceful coexistence together. If at the end of an all day session, I feel like they are unlikely to fight, I will move the exercise pen into my bedroom and have them spend the night in it. This way if they do happen to tussle, I will wake up and stop it.
Rabbits that live in different warrens (rabbit families) will mark against another warren by dropping pellets. This is often misinterpreted as a loss of litterbox habits. When this happens you should evaluate for signs of marking. If you have a baby gate separating two rabbits, don't be surprised if you find little presents along this barrier. Marking occurs either near a barrier that separates two warrens, or over the entire pen if they can smell the other's scent in their environment. When you start bonding, your rabbits may perceive themselves to be two separate warrens and mark against each other. Once the pair has bonded this behavior should disappear. As a generalization, with more rabbit warrens you have in the house, you will have more marking. If you are bonding a single pair, the marking should cease once they are together and you may never see it.
As you can probably tell there are many items to take into account when bonding rabbits. An experienced bonder can easily read a situation and figure out which approach to take. The average person rarely will do enough bondings to pick up on the subleties. Hopefully this article pointed out some of the things to look for and different approaches to try in different situations. The most important things are confidence and attiude. If you believe that you can do it, you will.
If you need additional help bonding your rabbits, please call or email us. We have many experienced volunteers who would be willing to help.
Copyright 2000-2001 - Suzanne Smith
"Reflection Of Compassion" is a lovingly commissioned series of original watercolor and gouache illustrations created especially for SaveABunny Rabbit Rescue by artist Elizabeth Koval Maffeo. (All images copyright 2008 SaveABunny. All rights reserved.)