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Rabbit instincts are to live in groups, so the benefits of having multiple are plenty. From mental stimulation to mutual grooming, and who can resist watching two bunnies run and play or cuddling together? Having a buddy that speaks your language is a major comfort in times of stress and even illness too. Having a buddy may encourage an older bun to be a little more mobile, and a handicapped or older bun will probably get some welcomed help with grooming.
Some people worry that their rabbit won’t like them anymore. While it’s true your bunny will be snuggling more with their new best friend, they will still look to you for affection - and treats!
If your bunny is more reserved or shy, considering looking for an outgoing friend! Sometimes this helps encourage them to do more outside their comfort zone. Bonded bunnies tend to be “monkey see monkey do.” If they see the other rabbit exploring and getting treats it helps encourage them to do so as well. If your rabbit is hesitant to walk on slippery floors, but if he sees his new friend do it he might just be more inclined to try. Same with food habits, like trying new food or eating more hay.
Many new rabbit families are concerned about more work or cost, but the work of feeding and habitat maintenance is nearly the same if they share much of their accommodations. There is still only one food bowl to fill, one habitat to restock hay, and possibly still only one litterbox to clean. The footprint of their habitat probably won’t change much either if your first rabbit had spacious accommodations.
Bonding may take just a day or go on for months, so be prepared to possibly put in a decent amount of time and effort. Try to do bonding sessions when you will be around for several hours at a time.
There are many factors to think about when choosing a rabbit for a speed date or trial run, from overall disposition to the manner in which they are introduced. While we find that personality often carries the most weight when choosing rabbits to speed date with, the best overall candidates are spayed or neutered (preferably at least 2 weeks after surgery to let the hormones settle as well as healing), have lived with other rabbits (such as choosing one from a litter or group or a rabbit who just lost its friend), and are opposite genders. This is not to say that it will not be successful if one or more of these suggestions are not met as we have seen several male/male pairs, two dominant rabbits that came to love each other, and several long-time singles find a friend, it just might take more time and work. Or maybe not, as some rabbits choose who they want no matter who we think may be a good fit.
A baby rabbit is often used to living with others and doesn't feel the need to be dominant yet, but that may or may not change as puberty comes - meaning if they get along now, they may or may not later. A teenager bunny between 3-12 months old is more likely to be a little feisty, but may not be too settled in its ways yet. An adult rabbit who has been a single for some time may be too accustomed to being spoiled and not want to share, but usually this resistance fades with a little time.
When it comes to gender, male/female pairs tend to develop the deepest bonds. There are still plenty female/female pairs or groups, and while more uncommon, we have had a number of male/male pairs as well. Our ambassador rabbits Honeybadger & Blitz are a prime example of a successful male/male pair.
Things that don't seem to matter (to the rabbits at least) are breed or size difference or gaps in age. One downfall of having a large rabbit with a much smaller rabbit is food, as it may be more difficult for the larger rabbit to get enough pelleted food without having the smaller one become overweight. Age is a concern to some since they worry about one being left without a friend or activity level as they age, but not all rabbits slow down at the same time, so a 2 yr old and a 5 yr old could still do very well for a long time, in addition to probably helping keep the older one more mobile in its later years.
Many rabbits who have lived alone for some time can be territorial and aren’t willing to just let a strange new rabbit into their home turf. We may be friendly to other humans out in the world, but generally don’t let others into our own homes without meeting them elsewhere first.
So how do we do this? NEVER try to just put a new bunny into a current rabbit’s habitat, as they are far more likely to fight and cause injuries, as well as make future meetings much more difficult. To prevent starting off on a bad foot, always use a neutral area first. This would be some place that both rabbits have not been before. Suggestions may be your bathtub (this is also nice because the lack of traction makes it more difficult to do some damage if they start fighting), a playpen outside (make sure they don't get overheated in the warmer months), or possibly a small room with no spaces to hide like a laundry room. Bun has free range? Try a friend's house. A car ride before the bonding session may also put both buns less on the defensive side and give them more of a "hide me" mentality to hopefully hide behind one another for comfort.
Small spaces will encourage more interaction, versus a large space will give them each a corner to sit in and ignore one another. A tiny space, such as a playpen set to just 2 square feet instead of 8 square feet, will also give them less space to stake out a territory and defend. You also may want to remove any litterboxes or hideouts so they don't defend that either and incite a turf war.
While you will want to be nearby of course, try not to interject too much. If you sit in the pen with them, you can create blind spots or be something to defend, so stay outside the pen. Your emotions can also affect your rabbit’s response as they can pick up on your nervousness and believe there is reason to fear the new rabbit. Stay close to start, but eventually you’ll want to move further and further away as signs improve.
Previously bonding methods suggested that we do several brief intervals, but many rescuers have found that marathon sessions - as long as they are going well - are much better. This usually works because it gives them time to sort it out before being whisked away. If they have small battles then are good to go for a while, then let them be in the groove for as long as possible - hours, even days! If they are separated quickly after starting a small spat, they are rewarded for being defensive (oops!) and each time they are reintroduced, they think of it as going in the boxing ring every time they go into the bonding spot and get even more defensive.
In a perfect world, they would sniff one another, snuggle, and begin grooming one another within a few moments. Unfortunately this only happens in 5-10% of cases. There may be some chasing, probably some mounting, and probably some ignoring.
Mounting is normal, whether it happens right away or days down the road. Females and yes even altered pets will still do this for dominance.
A milder form of asking to be the dominant one is a rabbit sticking head under the other, asking to be groomed by the submissive one. Many first time bonders will misinterpret this as snuggling, but it is actually the opposite.
Great signs - grooming one another, snuggling, lying down together (this is what bonded couples do!)
Good signs - grooming self, lying down, relaxed postures (these indicate that they aren't concerned about the presence of the other rabbit)
Neutral signs - ignoring one another
Scared signs - Eyes wide, breathing rapidly, hunkered down, thumping
Negative signs - Ears back when other rabbit passes, lunging, slow chasing
Get ready to intervene - rapid chasing, slow circling (usually trying to mount)
Time to separate - Biting, fur being pulled out, "furnado," racing away to the point of running into walls
While it can be unnerving and even scary to watch, the rabbits will need to sort out their relationship in one way or another, but care needs to be taken so that they don't injure one another or themselves. Be careful when reaching for rabbits that are chasing or circling, as you can easily be bitten when they are caught off guard and think they are being mounted by your hand! It may be easier to use something like a broom to separate or clanging something on the playpen to distract, whether briefly while they settle for a moment or until they stop chasing so you can pick them up safely. Remember that tip about using a small area vs a large area? It’s also much easier to intervene or separate them when they are in a small space.
Following another bunny around a playpen is not the same as chasing. If a nervous bun is hopping around quickly and the other is following trying to check them out, it can look very similar to a bun who is trying to chase another bun. Watch the chaser - are the ears back, head extended with mouth open, tail straight up in the air, and lunging with gusto? Or are the movements more slow, cautious and curious? A keen eye that is familiar with rabbit body language would be most helpful to help determine in this case.
Mounting will happen at most speed dates, sometimes right away, within a few minutes, or once the curiosity has overcome the fear and they finally venture over to one another. Most males will tend to mount for much longer than females, but both genders will usually try at some point. The one being mounted may sit and take it (this is good - that means they’re OK with being the submissive one), they may run away, they may turn around and try to mount instead, or they may choose to fight the other. If the mounted bun hops away, leave them be. If the mounter follows, you may see where it leads, but if they are chasing each other in a mad dash, time for a pause. Mounting can go on for about 10-15 minutes until a bun wears itself out. If it seems incessant, try one of the tips below. Mounting can reappear when rabbits are moved to a new location or another rabbit is introduced to even the same room. This is completely normal.
If at any point one begins kicking wildly, pulling fur, or continuously lunging, it’s time to separate. When separating, if it's not an all-out brawl, try just splitting them up just momentarily by stopping the fight, but leaving them in the same space. This way they aren't "rewarded" for fighting and think they have won so that they think the next time they meet, they can do the same thing and get the same result. Even if it’s a rough bout, there are still some other things that can be attempted after they’ve had a little time to settle.
It can sometimes be hard to decipher “grooming” vs “finding a place to grab on to mount” when one rabbit is sniffing over the other. Most often in the beginning it is the latter, but if it is closer to the ears or on the face and only in one spot and you see the rabbit’s head nod as they lick, then congrats - you’ve got grooming!
If you’ve given it a go or are just still very nervous about it, see if your local rabbit rescue can help. They may have a volunteer who is willing to help translate what’s going on between your rabbits as it is happening. It can be hard to describe, so you may try sending in a video, or ask if a volunteer can join you for the next speed date.
When they are ignoring one another or having good signs, try to keep them together for as long as possible. You don't want to hover and interfere, but stay nearby and watch from a distance or listen for the playpen clanging.
If things are going well, gradually try various activities to test their friendship and move at their pace until the final move:
Try these little tests slowly if one is very nervous or still doing some grunting and lunging - it’s OK to stay at one stage for a few days rather than going too fast and creating more tension to overcome. You may get lucky and go through them all in one or two days if they are lying next to one another or are already grooming. Even if you do everything “right,” it’s still possible for them to take a step backwards, just like human relationships often have some hiccups in the beginning. If you’re able, spend several hours or even a day or two at each step if you’re seeing only a few positive signs or only neutral signs. If they aren't having big spats, try to keep them together and don’t put them back into individual spaces at all, even if you have to sleep on the couch with them next to you. It’s also OK if they live in the kitchen or hallway for a week working on their relationship before moving to their eventual permanent room.
If it’s hard to tell if they’ve made any progress, look for other more subtle signs. If they are grooming themselves (meaning they aren’t feeling so defensive) or are lying down with their tail laid out flat instead of only loafing in the corner with their ears up (more relaxed), that’s progress. It may not be enough to go on to the next baby step just yet, but after several hours of it, it can be time for the next step. If they keep backtracking or running into obstacles, it’s time for some extra steps.
There are several things we can do to help either speed things along or get out of a rut. What works for one pair may not work for the next, or it may not work at first but will work next week. We have several options in our arsenal of things to try.
While we normally work hard to avoid stress in our rabbits' lives, sometimes it can be a useful tool when it comes to bonding. As always, monitor your rabbit for signs of significant distress such as flaring nostrils with rapid breathing or drooling from the heat or a car ride. With minor stress, the hope is that the rabbits will be less defensive or aggressive and concentrate more on the distraction instead of attacking the other rabbit. Even more, we hope that they will lean to one another for comfort. Just like humans who go through a stressful time together, their bond will hopefully strengthen. Here are some options to try if they are at a standstill or are having spats:
Scary sounds - within reason, try a loud noise near the bonding area or their habitat. A vacuum cleaner (a good excuse to clean!) or some loud tunes may help distract them from their quarrels.
Taking a ride - A car ride is commonly suggested (because it does well!), but you don't have to waste gas or grab a friend to head down the road - you can also have them ride in a wagon around the yard or a stroller in the house. If you don’t have room at home or need to get away from the smells, head over to the pet store and bring a blanket to use in the bottom of a shopping cart (bonus - they get a car ride beforehand to chill them out a little bit too). The vibration can also be recreated by placing them in the carrier on top of the washing machine or dryer while it is running as well. For any of these, you'll want to use a carrier or small cage that is large enough for them to have a little wiggle room but not very much as you want them to seek each other out for comfort. Also highly recommended is to use one with easy access, such as a top loading carrier, in case you need to separate them quickly from a fight. If you do choose to hit the road, drive the highway instead of in-city to avoid several turns and stops that might ruin a moment. Also have someone with you to either distract them if a scuffle starts or drive you around so that you can watch them.
Eating together - offering veggies in 2 separate but nearby piles can help distract from the other and also offer a positive reinforcement.
Groom/pet both at the same time - If one thinks they are being groomed by the other, they are more likely to sit still and snuggle and get that positive reinforcement. This may stop a spat, but it will not settle the dominance war since neither has decided to become submissive.
Smear food on one's head - This is a good one to break the ice a bit, but like above, it won't settle the score. They'll still have to figure it out at some point, but it may ease the stress a bit. Banana or applesauce works well.
Swap gear - Helping each bun get used to the idea of sharing things that smell like the other may help a little. You can swap their litterboxes, their toys, and even which habitat they're in.
New bonding spot - if one or more rabbits have decided that the bathtub has awful memories or that it feels like a boxing ring, try switching to a new neutral location. This can potentially cause a spat if they've been doing so-so, but it is usually brief.
A whole new world - "Bonding Boot Camp" aka "a Couples Retreat" to work on their relationship at a trusted, bunny-savvy friend's house is sometimes the only thing that may work. It doesn't smell like home, no territory has been claimed, and they are generally less on the defensive side since they aren't sure where they are. If you don’t have a friend you trust with this, contact your local rescue to see if a volunteer is able to do this. They should do as many of the baby steps elsewhere to solidify their relationship before heading back home. Even once they are home, they should go to a neutral territory in your own home before going into the original habitat.
One suggestion that many rescuers used to try was having them housed next to one another to get used to each other's smells and nuances. This can work if they aren't progressing or you are very limited on time to dedicate to observation, but may backfire if they are being aggressive as it can increase territorial tendencies. If you choose to house them near one another, try putting greens/food on the side nearest to the other rabbit to increase their desire to be on that side close to the other one. You may also want to put the litterbox on that side as there surely will be some poop wars. Keep at least 3” between the two habitats (place a brick between playpens) to prevent noses from being bitten or scratched.
Even if they don't want to share a space, it is nice to have a neighbor to interact with, "talk to," or just have for company/enrichment. If one of the rabbits seems unhappy about having a nearby neighbor, moving one over a couple feet or on the opposite side of the room usually is sufficient. If they are still unhappy after a couple weeks, as long as your first rabbit has plenty of socialization and exercise time, they can still be very happy as a single bun.
If your rabbit is showing constant signs of fearfulness or aggressive behavior towards the other rabbit you’ve chosen, you may want to try a different rabbit or your rabbit may just not want a friend at this point in their lives. Some rabbits find “the one” almost immediately, but others it may take a few bunnies before they find the one they’re happy with. It’s important to be open to finding the bunny that your bunny wants, and not necessarily the cutest bun at the shelter that you want to take home. If your own rabbit is not comfortable around others in a neutral space, you may want to give it a break for a few months and try again with a different bun.
In this article there is a lot of dominance/submission talk about the bonding process, but don't be surprised if both of your bunnies display both dominant and submissive behaviors (though probably a bit more mildly), even long after they have become a bonded couple or group. Many times you will see these behaviors at dinner time where they will "show off" their dominance to reiterate their position. Both may groom each other, or only one may groom the other, but also be the one who does the mounting too. As long as they are happy, all is well!