Bonding bunnies can seem like a Herculean task, but with patience, understanding, and the proper guidance it can be a great experience for both pets and pet parents alike. The House Rabbit Society’s Executive Director, Dr. Anne Martin, joins veterinarian and Oxbow’s Vice President of Technical Services, Dr. Micah Kohles, to tackle interested bunny parents’ most pressing bonding rabbit bonding questions.
1. There are so many different theories and ways to bond rabbits. What is your standard method and what is your standard process?
So, it really is an art and it's not a science. The two rules are:
1) Do everything you can to not let the rabbits get hurt. Right? We don't want anybody to get hurt. And…
2) Have a lot of patience and creativity because really sometimes the rabbits can be smarter than we are about some things.
And some of us have tried to, you know, cover all your electrical cords in the house. Sometimes we discover that the rabbits are a little smarter than we are the first time around and it takes a couple of iterations to figure it out. So the same goes with bonding. The first thing that we might try with bonding might not be the technique that works for our particular rabbits or this particular species. Try different ideas and different ways of trying to get the rabbits together. And, have patience about it.
We usually tell our adopters that we expect the average bonding is going to take about two and a half weeks. Everybody's heard of someone whose rabbits... you just put them together and they fell in love and it was love at first sight and you never have to separate them. And that is super, super rare. We don't want anybody to expect that even if their first bond was like that.
Maybe they have a bunny who lost their friend and the first bond was super easy and they're expecting that the second time around it's going to be super easy. But, every relationship with rabbits is different and you just can't expect that the second time around you're going to have that same experience.
We want everybody to be thinking that it's going to take at least two and a half weeks of doing supervised sessions with the rabbits in your home before there's the possibility that they're going to be living together full-time. This means that you want to set up a separate enclosure for your rabbit, your new rabbit at home, and be ready for them to be living separately.
Tips For Success: Utilize Exercise Pens
What we recommend in that time period is to have them set up in enclosures like exercise pens. We really like exercise pens. And have them set up side-by-side so they can see each other and smell each other. And sometimes they do a little bit of passive bonding, even when we're not working with them because they can see and smell and do things together. So one rabbit goes in the litter box and the other rabbit goes in their litter box.
Even though they're separate, they're still spending that time together and building a relationship. So, you know, getting set up for it to be a little bit of a long haul.
Common Mistakes: Too Much Space, Too Quickly
One mistake that we see people make all the time is they will let their bunny at home (who's maybe used to being free roaming in the house, or maybe they just have a lot of out of pen time) and they set up those two pens side by side. And then they let out their bunny to run around and the bunny's running around the ex-pen of the new bunny. And it just sets the bunny off because they're confined in that space and the bunny is kind of teasing them a little bit like "This is my house. This is my space." And the bunny who's in the enclosure can get resentful of that.
We see that it actually takes them longer for the rabbits to bond if you're letting them out to exercise where the new bunny can see it. So what we recommend is having the two ex-pens side-by-side. But during that two and a half weeks, you know, that's an average. It could be a month or more. It could be two months or more. But during the period of time where you're doing active bonding sessions with the rabbits, not letting them run around each other's enclosures and taking them to a location where they can't see each other when they're going to be out, you know, exercising.
The Importance of Neutral Space
And then doing bonding sessions where you're taking them together in the most neutral space that you have. For some people, that's in their bathroom. You know, maybe their bunny likes to run around the whole house. It can be really hard to find neutral space. Maybe you have a patio that the rabbit doesn't go on. And if you live in an area without RHDV, you can set that up to be safe and bunny-proof where you could do introductions in a neutral space. I think in a worst-case scenario, you don't have any space in your house that's neutral. If you have a friend - and of course, with COVID, it makes it more difficult - but if you have a friend that doesn't have rabbits then that's going to be a neutral space. And you could even borrow their garage or if they're going to be away from the house, maybe there's some period of time where you could borrow a room and have all the windows open and clean up before they leave, you know before they come home. Just so you have something totally neutral where you're introducing the rabbits.
2. Does gender matter when it comes to bonding rabbits?
I think the personalities of the rabbit honestly makes more of a difference than the sex of the rabbit. A lot of people who try to bond male and female pairs to try that out, you know, at the time have dates with different rabbits. But I know a lot of rabbits that are same-sex pairs that love each other and enjoy each other's company, whether it's male/male pairs or female/female pairs.
I will say that some people feel that female/female pairs can be a little bit more challenging but again, it really depends on the individual rabbits. I had a female and she's now passed on, but I took her to House Rabbits Society to take her on a bunch of speed dates with different rabbits. And I tried several different rabbits and she instantly was chasing after the rabbits and trying to bite them. And on number eight, it was a female and she really liked her. And it was just one of those that the difference was noticeable. I tried eight rabbits. I couldn't have guessed which one she would've liked.
3. Does a difference in size matter when it comes to pairing bunnies?
I personally have had a pair who is a two-and-a-half-pound dwarf and an eight-pound rabbit. And they completely loved each other. We never had any issues with the size difference. I know a couple of rescues that have had some mixes that were even bigger size differences than that, where they had a little dwarf bunny and a Flemish giant type of rabbit. I certainly know of pairs like that. And there's something kind of adorable about that, too. So I would say try to be super open-minded and see if the rabbits like each other.
4.What are the easiest rabbits to bond?
The easiest rabbits to bond tend to be rabbits with special needs. For whatever reason, even if it's one rabbit with special needs with a healthy, able-bodied rabbit it tends to be easier. Two rabbits with special needs tend to be pretty easy as well.
Senior rabbits tend to be easier to bond.
Rabbits that have had a friend before also tend to be easier. Those rabbits are better at body language. They know how to understand the other rabbit.
The rabbits that might have a harder time are the ones that have been a single bunny for many years. And the last time they spent time with other rabbits was probably when they were a baby. And so they don't have the body language vocabulary that other rabbits have who had a friend before to know what body language is threatening or what body language is friendly. And it just takes them a minute to learn the cues and the signals. To have had a friend before that tends to go faster.
Rabbits have a pretty unique language with each other. It's a non-verbal one. And guinea pigs and dogs and people for that matter, we don't really speak their language as much as we might try to. And so I think rabbits really enjoy having a companion that's also a rabbit that speaks their language and understands their life experience and what they're going through. And it's adorable to see them cuddle together and groom each other.
When they're with other animals of different species, they can still have a relationship. We always want to make sure that it's a safe relationship - especially with dogs. You want to make sure it's very closely supervised, especially in the beginning. But the dog is not going to speak the rabbit's language in the same way that another rabbit will.
Dogs may have a different kind of having pattern during their day of behavior and what time, whereas rabbits are crepuscular and they're going follow the scene daily routine together. They [rabbits] often will go in the litter box together and nap together enjoy dinner together. These are all things that bring them enjoyment, being able to do it together with another rabbit. Even [guinea] pigs who are similar in terms of their diet and similar in some ways in terms of their health - they still don't speak the same language. There's some risk there also of respiratory disease.
6. How do I know if my rabbits have successfully bonded?
My basic kind of metric when you're doing a bonding process is once they've spent the first like overnight together, at that point forward I don't separate them.
So, let's say I've done nice, long supervised bonding sessions with the rabbits. And they've been in the pen all day long and I've been able to pop out of the pen - still in earshot. Maybe I go into the kitchen and grab a glass of water and come back and go the bathroom and come back. And the rabbits have been good for hours in the pen together during the bonding session. At that point, I would have them go overnight together in the pen and I would sleep next to the pen. So either have the pen next to the sofa or next to my bed. So that, you know, if they were chasing each other, having a tornado in the middle of the night, I would wake up and help them with the situation.
But if they make it through that overnight (and some nights, you know, I spent most of the night awake working on a bonding situation) but if they stay together through the night, then I will usually leave them together from that point forward. It's important not to expand their space too quickly once they've had that first overnight. I think that's a mistake a lot of people make as well. It's that they're like, "Okay, great. They're sharing the same pen together and it's been a day or two." And then they want to let them out to free-roam the whole house. It gives them too much space too soon. And they go to opposite sides of the room or opposite sides of the house. And then when they see each other, again, we don't necessarily recognize that it's the same bunny that they'd been spending time with up close, and then they can get into a fight.
Watch the Entire Q&A with Dr. Kohles and Dr. Martin