Bonding Bunnies

21st Jun, 2022

Written by Karien van Wyk, Director of Critter Rescue SA

Bunnies are social animals that need the company of others of their kind, plus there are so many looking for forever homes. It should be easy enough to put them together and have them make friends, right? Not so fast. The reality is that rabbits have strong personalities and can be surprisingly territorial. Getting bunnies to bond isn’t generally as simple as “just putting them together” and hoping for instant friendship. There are several steps you need to take to ensure a harmonious life for you and your bunny family.

Rescuing rabbits

We, at Critter Rescue, have seen a sharp increase in bunnies needing new homes over the last two years. The majority of those are pet bunnies being dumped, as well as many owner surrenders. The other problem we’re facing is bunnies being left to breed on small holdings and farms, and when the population gets too big, the owners phone us to “come and get the bunnies or they’ll cull them”. The question we always ask is: “Why didn’t you phone us when there were only 10 bunnies?”… to which they, of course, have no answer.

All these bunnies need a place to go and new homes, and while it’s amazing to offer a home to one or more of them, it’s important to understand that it takes work to make rehoming a success.

Rabbits each have their own personality, and some get stressed out quicker than others, which can lead to death. They can also fight and seriously hurt or even kill each other. You have to make sure that you (or the handler) know the personality of the bunny/bunnies before introduction or release. Many other factors should be taken into account, including whether they’re domesticated or feral bunnies, their sex, whether they’re sterilised or not, what environment they’ve come from, the state of their health, and whether they’re used to being handled or not. Never put rabbits that don’t know each other together and walk away. You need to supervise their interactions until you’re sure that they’ll be okay.

Here’s what we’ve found works best…

INTRODUCING FERAL RABBITS TO A COLONY

Introducing feral rabbits to an existing colony is challenging, especially if there are unsterilised rabbits in the colony. We’ve seen numerous times where people tried to integrate sterilised ferals into an unsterilised colony, which ended badly for the sterilised bunnies.

Be aware that each colony will always have a dominant bunny (which, believe it or not, is 80% of the time a female). Never release tame, pet bunnies into a feral colony “in the wild” – they’re not equipped to cope. Many people think they’re doing them a favour by “setting them free in nature with their own kind” but are actually condemning them to an invariably short life of suffering and fighting. This advice is only for healthy feral rabbits being released into an existing healthy colony.

Start by making sure that everyone in the colony is sterilised. If they’re not, then we don’t recommend introducing sterilised ferals into that colony*. It’s also important that the new rabbit/s and all rabbits in the colony are in good health. Always ensure that there are sufficient food and water sources for them and, if not, that you’ll be able to supplement their food with hay and pellets; you can also give them some veggies and fruit. Also ensure that there’s enough shelter for them and that there are no predators in the area.

Once you’ve determined that the existing colony is sterilised, healthy, and has enough resources, then you have two options:

Option 1: The distance method

Release the new rabbits a distance away from the existing colony. That way, the new bunnies can get to know the area and find their own space where they can live without disturbing the existing colony. You will, however, find that some rabbits will get into contact with each other and you might see the occasional scuffle. Try and station your feeding points a distance away from each other so that all the bunnies can get to food. If you see that there’s a bunny that gets bullied, it will be wise to rather remove that bunny completely and surrender it back to the rescue.

Option 2: The “safe zone” method

The second option is to build an area close to the existing colony and let the new bunnies stay there for about four weeks. The bunnies from the existing colony will start to get used to the new smells and will slowly go and investigate. After the four weeks you can open up the area, but don’t it break it down yet as the new bunnies will still go in there to hide because that’ll be the area they’re familiar with, especially if there’s any animosity from the existing colony.

*This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sterilise them, rather, that a different, more suitable colony may need to be found for them. Avoid releasing unsterilised rabbits, as this only adds to the problem

INTRODUCING AND BONDING TAME BUNNIES

You’ll almost never be able to choose a new bunny friend for your bunny – they have to choose their own companion. We get a lot of requests for a certain bunny as a friend for an existing bunny. When we go to the home check, we usually bring two or three other bunnies with us and find that the initially chosen bunny is often not the one the current bun family member actually chooses.

Just like we do, bunnies have their own minds and personalities, and they’ll decide who they get along with. Your bunny needs to live with the new companion, and you cannot force things. If there’s a personality clash initially, then it’ll hardly ever work, not even with trying every bonding technique there is.

There are basically three bonding options with bunnies. The first two are less popular in some circles, but we’ve found them to be more effective and much faster, which is often important in a rescue environment.

  1. Pick a partner

This is what we do almost 90% of the time and have only ever had two bunnies being exchanged for other companions in the last five years.

In a nutshell, you let the current bunny choose their own companion. It will be easy to see if they approve. Place two or three bunnies at a time with the current bunny in the area in which the current one is most comfortable, and observe them closely. Don’t leave them unattended.

If your current bunny doesn’t like a bunny, they’ll grunt or thump, or start chasing the newcomer. Immediately remove the one that your bunny’s chasing to avoid a fight. If they
do like a new bunny, they’ll start grooming them and/or go and lie down next to them. You still need to supervise them, but this is an excellent sign of things to come.

  1. Stress bonding

Although a lot of people don’t like this technique, we’ve found that it helps (especially if there are two bunnies that were previously companions and then start fighting after a while). We don’t like our bunnies to get stressed, but when we need to re-bond bunnies or quickly bond new bunnies, then this is the quickest way. You’ll need your car and a pet carrier big enough for two bunnies, plus a back-up carrier and bunny treats.

1. Place the bunnies in a pet carrier just big enough for them to fit into comfortably without having too much space to get away from each other. They must be able to be next to each other.

2. Once they’re in the carrier and you can see that they’re relaxed, place them in the car where you can see them and take them for a ride. Don’t take a “Sunday drive”. The idea is to get them to bond through feeling a little bit stressed.

3. Drive around for about an hour.

4. When you get back home, take them out of the car but leave them in the carrier for about another 30 minutes and give them a treat to share.

5. Then open the carrier but don’t remove them – step back and let them get out when they’re ready.

If, at any time, you see signs that they’ll fight in the carrier, immediately remove them and rather try on another day. Always take an extra carrier with you just in case they start to fight in the car and you need to immediately separate them.

  1. Side-by-side bonding

This is a long process, so time and patience from the pet parent are required.

If you’re fetching the new rabbit, take your rabbit along. Put them together in one carrier and have someone sit in the car with the carrier on their lap to monitor them. Smelling and sniffing is good! Nipping isn’t. (Bring a spare carrier in case you need to separate them en route.) When you get home, it’s helpful to put a small amount of vanilla (or some other rabbit-safe natural product) on them (your vet will be able to advise you) or on your hands, rub your hands in it, and then go lightly over their fur so that they both smell similar.

Step 1: Getting to know each other

Start off by putting the two rabbits in adjoining cages. If you already have a house rabbit and are introducing another, let your current rabbit run free (provide it with another litter tray) and put the new rabbit in the cage with your current rabbit’s litter tray, bowl, etc. The rabbits will get used to each other’s smell, and your current rabbit will learn that he/she cannot be territorial about the cage. If you don’t have a cage for your house rabbit, put the two rabbits in adjoining rooms with a baby gate or similar barrier between them or, if they’re in the garden, then separate with some chicken fencing (make sure it’s secure). It’ important that they’re able to see and smell each other and communicate through the fence. Do this for one week.

Step 2: Switch spaces

After a week, you can start to swap the rabbits so that

each has several hours or a whole day in the other enclosure/space. This way, they make their smells more neutral and they get used to the other rabbit marking their territory. The rabbits will be very curious about each other, touching noses through the bars and probably displaying some courtship behaviour (if opposite genders) such as honking and circling, even though both are neutered/spayed. It helps to have a good understanding of rabbit body language. A good sign will be when both rabbits lie down on either side of the bars as this shows they’re relaxed together. It helps to feed them both together at the barrier so they get used to eating together. Do this for the next week.

Notes:

  • If either rabbit is displaying aggressive behaviour such as growling, grunting, and jumping forward, wait a while longer before trying the introduction.

  • If the female is the original “homeowner”, then do step 1 for two weeks and step 2 for two weeks (so, four in total), because females are much more territorial.

  • If you’re introducing a baby rabbit (less than 12 weeks old), you can reduce this to one week for step 1 and two weeks for step 2.

Step 3: Introductions

When they’re ready, prepare a neutral space for the introduction – somewhere that neither rabbit feels is “their” place. A bathroom is a good choice, as your current bunny is unlikely to be territorial about it.

Remove anything that might hurt the rabbits if they run into it or jump on it, but it’s a good idea to provide a cardboard box with a hole in either end that a stressed rabbit can retreat into or jump on top of.

Put both rabbits in the bath first, crouch down at their level and remain there with them. Do this for five minutes; if they smell each other or lick or anything else which is friendly, you can move on to doing the same in the rest of the bathroom. Follow the bath step in the bathroom and wait 10 to 15 minutes.

The three most common scenarios are as follows:

        1. One or both rabbits immediately attack the other. This is very rare but is unmistakeable when it happens. For this reason, it’s advisable to wear thick gloves for the first meeting, as you’ll need to intervene quickly to prevent the rabbits getting hurt. If this happens, separate the rabbits immediately and go back to step 1.
           

        2. Love at first sight. The rabbits approach each other as equals, sniffing and nuzzling each other, but both are clearly enjoying the experience. This is rare, so don’t worry if it doesn’t happen.
           

        3. Who’s the boss? In the most common scenario, one of the rabbits will take the lead and approach the other, sniffing and circling them and trying to mount them. This is not so much for courtship as for dominance and is the rabbit’s way of figuring out who’s going to be “boss”. A submissive rabbit will let this happen, putting their head on the ground, while a less submissive rabbit may nip or run away. Stay with the rabbits at all times and intervene if you feel one or both rabbits are becoming too stressed.

What happens next?

Assuming your rabbits follow the most common scenario, allow them 10 minutes or so for the first meeting and watch closely for any serious aggression.

Nipping and fur pulling and a little chasing are quite common and not necessarily cause to separate them. In fact, the more you separate them, the harder it will be as one will feel the need to re-dominate the other each time. Unless there’s serious aggression, let them work it out.

You can help by sitting down with the bunnies, stroking them, and generally acting as a “chaperone” as they get to know each other. Offer fresh veg (their favourites) during this time.

Water spray tip! It helps to have a water spray handy. Spritzing water in the face of an attacking or over-exuberant rabbit usually stops it in its tracks and furthermore encourages grooming, a social activity which fosters rabbit relationships. Try to spray them just before you see they’re about to take action as opposed to after.

If this meeting went well, you can continue with these meetings several times a day (if you’d like the process to go quicker) or once or twice daily, increasing from 10 mins to 30 or 45 mins at a time. Do this until you get a good, relaxed vibe from the rabbits (this may take a few days; it may take longer).

All being well, the rabbits will eventually stop taking notice of each other and become curious about their surroundings instead. This is the turning point when it’s usually safe to let the rabbits roam free together (step 4), although you should still keep monitoring them.

When the rabbits lie down together or groom each other, the bond is made and will continue to deepen with time.

Then you can continue to put them together in their “home” (step 5) and monitor them. It’s best to clean out the area and make sure nothing smells like the first rabbits or they may act differently. If they’re calm and happy in their territory for a half a day, then it’s safe to leave your bunnies together all the time.

Did you know...?

  • Rabbits have a life expectancy of nine to ten years, so having a pet rabbit is a long-term commitment which requires dedication, care and money.

  • Rabbits have a very fragile skeleton and can easily be seriously injured by small, inexperienced hands. Children should be shown how to carefully stroke rabbits and supervised when interacting with then, and should not be around very young rabbits at all.

  • Rabbits generally don’t bite but may out of fear or anger.

  • Rabbits are social creatures that need a companion, not only for their emotional well-being but also for their health, so homing them in pairs or small groups is best. Always ensure that your bunnies are sterilised!

  • Rabbits need regular grooming, which includes brushing, nail trimming, ear checking and scent gland cleaning. They need regular deworming too and dental check-ups.

  • Rabbits are intelligent, personable, inquisitive and amusing companions. When a bun’s housing is maintained properly, they’re nearly odourless.

About Critter Rescue SA

Critter Rescue SA, based in Gauteng, rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes neglected, abandoned, abused, and unwanted animals, with a particular focus on small animals such as bunnies, rats, hamsters, hedgehogs, tenrecs, chinchillas, and guinea pigs. On average, the organisation cares for around 650 animals at any time. For more information on how you can help, or to adopt a little critter of your own, visit www.critterrescue.org.za/, email info@critterrescue.org.za or call 073 437 8918, and follow them on Facebook @CritterRescueSA and on Instagram @critter_rescue_sa.