By Lyn Holm
Anyone that has tried to bond two or more rabbits will know that it is not as easy as it should be. “Why can’t they just get along!?” is a common cry. “I’ve tried a car ride. Why didn’t it work!?” is another. Well, dear bunny friends, I have done this a few times and I would like to share my method with you so that your chances of success may improve.
THE BENEFITS OF BONDING YOUR RABBITS
Before I begin, let me first explain the benefits of bonding your rabbits. Rabbits are social creatures that rely on each other for emotional support, grooming and security. I generalise but speak the truth when I say that they tend to get lonely when kept on their own (even with other types of creatures like cats or humans, a bunny friend is almost always the most fulfilling friend for a rabbit). Loneliness can lead to depression. Signs of depression are:
- no interest in play, or
- boredom (escape attempts, destruction), or
- a general lack of interest in finishing meals (if your bunny suddenly stops eating this is different and should be considered a medical emergency).
Bonding two or more bunnies prevents loneliness, depression and boredom. It also relaxes the bunny to know that he/she is protected by others (they share guard-duty and alert each other when they sense danger, meaning off-duty rabbits are able to relax and feel safe).
Watching two bunnies playing or cuddling will convince you straight away that bonding is a good idea. It just improves a bunny’s quality of life so much!
As I mentioned above, however, bonding is rarely easy. It is very seldom that bunnies get along straight away. Initial meetings need to be closely supervised in order to avoid bloodshed (one bunny presumes the other one is a threat to his/her warren – ie. will eat all the food or mate with his imaginary partner). Although rabbits are social creatures by nature, we often have to actively convince them to get along.
SPAYING / NEUTERING
I cannot stress how important it is sterilize your rabbits prior to bonding. It makes the process so much easier to not have excess hormones running through their bloodstreams, making them naughty and grumpy. Consider the rabbit’s age before you have the operation. Sterilizing males younger than 12 weeks may not be successful as their balls may not yet be fully accessible to the vet. Sterilizing females under 6 months may result in only partial tissue removal due to the delicate nature of this tissue. It has also been suggested that spaying after 6 months is also better for a female’s bone development but there has no been enough scientific research to prove this definitively.
Rabbits are fertile from 12 weeks of age, so putting any unsterilized female and male together older than 11 weeks of age is considered irresponsible. Pregnancy cannot be prevented by quickly removing a humping male, and so quick, supervised introductions are not wise. It is also not a good idea to have unsterilized males and females in enclosures that back onto each other or that do not have roofing. I have heard of a few ‘immaculate’ conceptions happening this way. You never know what a rabbit is capable of until he has done it.
Please also note that males are still hormonal and fertile for 4 weeks post-neuter. Females are sterile and less-hormonal immediately afterwards but should be given a week or longer to recover before bonding is attempted.
For further info about spaying/neutering, please read our Spay/Neuter Guide.
Thirdly, before I begin, I need to warn you that you may not like my methods. This is perfectly acceptable. I don’t really like them either because they require frightening the rabbits, which is not kind. Bonding should not be attempted with rabbits that are generally terrified or rabbits that are compromised (those who have just undergone an operation, are recovering from illness, or are prone to seizures during stressful times). Attempting to bond a bunny like this could give him a heart attack or make any condition/injury/illness worse. Should you at any time become concerned that what you are doing is hurting your rabbit, I beg of you to stop it immediately and do whatever the situation dictates is best in order to help your bunny. Returning the rabbit to his/her territory, giving treats and rubbing Rescue Remedy drops into the inside of the ear works well to calm most rabbits. If you suspect a vet visit is necessary, please do not hesitate!
Now I speak of bonding TWO rabbits but if you have an established group and one other rabbit you wish to merge into the group, treat the group as one unit and the single rabbit as another unit. It is not necessary or ideal for you to ever split up a peaceful, established group of rabbits unless there is a risk of breeding.
STEP 1: THE CAR RIDE
Put each bun in a separate carrier lined with a soft blanket/towel. Secure the carriers in your car and take them for a very bad car ride, including swerving, sudden breaking and medium volume music. About 1km down the road, check the buns to see if they are ok. If their ears are shaking slightly, they are ready to be put into the same carrier together (if they aren’t shaking, drive a bit further like this until they are). Continue the hell-ride for another 2-3 kilometres. The point of this step is to do something oddly human – to bond the rabbits through a tough experience.
ALTERNATIVE TO STEP 1: If you are not able to take the buns in a car, pretend you are one! Move the buns as if you were that car, in 2 separate boxes lined with blankets, until their ears shiver slightly, then put them in the same box and continue the same movements for a while. Please do not shake the boxes in a way that could hurt the bunnies. Instead of moving the box yourself, another thing you could try is putting the box on the top of a washing machine that is running a rinse cycle.
STEP 2: EMPTY BATHTUB
Put the 2 bunnies in a clean, empty bathtub. The reason we use the bath is because it is neutral territory (bunnies haven’t spent time there before), has high sides that bunnies can’t easily jump out of and because the floor is so slippery that bunnies find it difficult to run on it. If you don’t have a bath, block off a small area of slippery floor that neither bunny has ever been on. When you first put the bunnies in the bath, they will either huddle on either end of the bath or huddle together while they calm down. When they are ready, they will start expressing body language in the following ways. Be ready to intervene if the situation requires it:
- Grooming herself / lying down on her side (incl. flopping): This is positive. She is telling her partner that she is comfortable with his presence. “I’m chilled if you’re chilled.”
- Grooming each other: This is the MOST positive action as it shows one rabbit that she is liked by the other. “You seem nice. Let’s be friends.”
- Humping face/rear: The humper is dominant and wants the other rabbit to understand this. “I’m the boss, got it!” Let this behaviour go on for 3 seconds, so that the message can be conveyed, and then gently slide the humper a distance away with the back of your hand. If you let this behaviour go on longer, the other rabbit may get frustrated and bite the humper. Repeat the slide every time humping happens.
- Biting: “I don’t like you!” Do the slide IMMEDIATELY whenever you think a bun is ABOUT to bite the other one. Buns need to learn that biting is utterly unacceptable behaviour. If you do the slide every time, eventually they will understand. If you ever see a bunny ‘sniffing’ the other one’s face with his ears tightly back against his back, body in a crouching position, he is about to bite. If you see a bunny ‘sniffing’ another bunny’s bum or belly, he is about to bite. “I see your tender regions. Let me sink my teeth into them.”
- Boxing (hitting with both front paws): “Get out of my face!” This is aggressive behaviour and should be treated with the slide. If any form of bad behaviour continues without a break for a few minutes, put the naughty bunny in “time-out” for 2-3 minutes in a dark box (outside of the bath). There is nothing a bunny hates more than FOMO (fear of missing out).
- Face pushed up against face / one face shoved below another face: One bunny is trying to make the other one lick her face. “Whoever gives in first is the loser!” Sometimes this is quite a battle. Buns get offended by a lack of licks so if you think the one bun is almost definitely the dominant one, put the other one’s face on top of the dominant one’s face to speed things along.
Apart from doing the above-mentioned interventions, DO NOT touch the rabbits. Avoid eye contact and do not speak to them. If they seek attention from you, step away. The point is that they need to seek comfort from each other instead of you. Sometimes it helps for someone other than the owner of the rabbits to performs this step.
You may end step 2 any time after the first ‘kiss’ (lick) has been given. If this happens quickly, by all means let it carry on and let them get to know each other more. If no licks have been given after an hour, end step 2 after a few minutes of zero bad behaviour. Always end on a positive note.
STEP 3: RETURN
Return each bunny to his territory.
STEP 4: REPEAT
Repeat steps 1-3 for 4 days (consecutive days works best). By day 2 you should have some good grooming going on between the bunnies. If they are not grooming each other by day 3 and they continue to require a lot of your sliding, I fear that you might have a set of bunnies that will never bond. This happens on the rare occasion.
Before you give up, ask on the Bunny Huggers South Africa group for the assistance of a bunny bonder to take your buns on a ‘bonding holiday’. This just might do the trick! This is also an option for people who are not able to go through my 7 steps for whatever reason.
STEP 5: TERRITORY SWITCHING
There are several ways to do this step. You could split the one rabbit’s territory in half (using a barrier that the bunnies can see through). Put one bunny on each side. Or you could put one bunny in a cage inside of the other one’s territory. The ideal setup is two spaces that look onto each other. Make doubly sure that one bunny can’t jump into the other one’s space! If you are uncertain of the jumping ability of your rabbit versus the height of the enclosure walls, make a ‘roof’ for the space by pegging a blanket/sheet over the top.
Move the one bunny to the other’s space and visa versa, once a day for 3 days.
Normally we wouldn’t leave an unbonded pair of bunnies in a situation where they can bite each others’ noses (so with only one set of bars between them) but I consider it safe to do so at this time because by now your bunnies have decided whether they are going to be friends or enemies. The purpose of this step is to get each bunny used to the other one’s scent in his living space.
STEP 6: CLEAN
Clean the space you would like the bunnies to live in with white vinegar. Clean everything, from top to bottom, like the queen is on her way to your house. Leave no item untouched. This reduces the bunny smell from all shared items. Rearrange the items in the space. This helps the bunnies to think they are not in their old home (their territory that they need to protect from intruders).
STEP 7: LIVING TOGETHER
Immediately after cleaning, put both bunnies in their new home. Watch them LIKE A HAWK for the first 2 hours because there may be a territorial scuffle or two. Use the slide/time-out when there is bad behaviour. If your bunnies continue to fight, do not leave them alone together – they are not bonded. If your bunnies do not fight, or stop fighting after one of two scuffles, then it is safe to leave them together. They are successfully bonded.
You can learn about different bonding techniques via this page from the House Rabbit Society website. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me: 0846268696.
Photo: Lyn Holm