How to Stop Your Bunny Match-Up Becoming a Punch-Up!
By Mairwen Guard MBE
[Buster and Bella - see text and video link below for details]
Copyright: My aim on setting up this website was to share information for the purpose of helping rabbits, guinea pigs and their owners, and to that aim I am very happy for any of the material to be printed out for personal use. However, none of the material contained within the CottonTails website can be used for any purpose apart from personal use only without my express permission. Anyone found to be using any of the website content for non-personal use will be seen as an infringement of my copyright under the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and action will be taken. This is a huge waste of time and money that should be used for the good of the animals under my care, so please comply with this request. Many thanks!
(photo supplied by owner Emily)
Most rabbits are territorial by nature. However, this does not mean that they have to lead solitary lives. Rabbits that live in compatible pairs or small groups benefit in many ways, including companionship, mental and physical stimulation, and not least a grooming partner!
Once you see how happy rabbits are when living in bonded pairs you will vow never to keep a rabbit on its own again, and although there is always an exception to any rule, the large majority of rabbits can be successfully matched so long as care is taken with choosing a suitable partner and giving thought to their environment. All our rabbits at CottonTails® rabbit and guinea pig rescue are re-homed in pairs, so we supervise over 300 speed-dating match-ups every year. This experience has shown that the large majority of bunny “arranged marriages” are successful.
Neutering of both partners is vital for long-term success, and ideally this should be carried out prior to matching or, in the case of baby rabbits, as soon as they mature. With males this is usually between 10-16 weeks of age (as soon as the testicles descend), females being spayed from 14 weeks onwards so long as they weigh over 1kg. My observations have shown that young rabbits recover just as fast if not quicker than adults, and waiting until the rabbits are 5-6 months old can cause many problems, including fighting or breeding. Before looking at possible pairing combinations, there are some general points that should be kept in mind when matching rabbits. Of the two general methods of bonding rabbits, fast-track system and the slow approach, it is the former that I will discuss first, as this is the most efficient method for most rabbits.
With the fast-track system, neutral territory is usually necessary for the initial encounter and for the first few days thereafter, until the rabbits have accepted each other. This is somewhere where neither rabbit has been before, but it must be large enough to allow plenty room for them to get away from each other if necessary. This could be a shed, a garage, a greenhouse, or anywhere that they will be safe to live together until they have bonded. This usually takes about a week, by which time they should be enjoying each other’s company by grooming each other and choosing to sit together. They should be provided with distractions such as cardboard boxes (also useful to hide in), and their usual food, hay and water during this time.
It is best to take your rabbit with you when going to choose a new partner for him or her so that they can meet in neutral territory initially and then travel back together in the same carrying box (see below for details of this initial encounter). Travelling together is a proven method of kick-starting the bonding process as both rabbits are afraid during the journey home and look to each other for support and comfort. An extra box can be taken just in case the two have to be separated on route, but this is extremely rare as once the journey starts the rabbits usually sit very still and quiet.
Don’t forget to find out what food your new rabbit has been fed on so you can make any diet changes very gradually.
THE INITIAL ENCOUNTER
This should take place on territory not known by either rabbit, using an existing territory only if that particular individual is extremely nervous and submissive towards other rabbits. You usually get a very good indication whether or not the new combination has a chance of working within the first 15 minutes, although it is normal for both rabbits to ignore each other for a while to start with.
Common initial behaviours include mounting by one or both parties, often at the wrong end and sometimes both rabbits trying to mount each other at the same time, resulting in them spinning round and round in circles with ever-increasing speed. A small amount of aggression is to be expected at the start as they try to establish the hierarchy in the relationship. Sometimes a rabbit may appear to be too afraid to move and may refuse to come out of the corner, but this is very common and usually resolves itself with time. This is a small price to pay if the end result is going to be the formation of a strong friendship that could last for the rest of their lives. The benefits of company are obvious and far outweigh any minor short-term problems, so don’t panic straight away, be patient and observant and be prepared to “let them get on with it” so long as it doesn’t become serious.
Very occasionally, one or both rabbits show severe aggression by attacking and wounding the other on the face or genital area or repeatedly on the body. These are serious attacks and the encounter must be stopped immediately, as it is unlikely to work long-term. Be careful when separating battling bunnies – you may get bitten in the confusion! In such situations it does not necessarily mean that the rabbits have to live on their own permanently. It is more likely that that particular pair are incompatible for whatever reason and different partners should be tried. I remember one particular male who showed strong dislike for the first five females he was offered but absolutely adored the sixth!
If the rabbits still have problems settling down after a week or so, take them for another ride in the car, making sure that they don’t overheat if travelling on a hot day. On your return, place them once again in the neutral territory and usually you will find they are more willing to tolerate each other after this experience.
Below is a quick guide to possible behaviours expected during the first few minutes of an initial match-up introduction:
- Both rabbits ignore each other. This is the commonest behaviour pattern and usually lasts for the first few minutes of the introduction. However, once the initial exploration of the accommodation is completed to their satisfaction, interaction then usually begins.
- Male mounts the female. This is very common even with neutered rabbits, and can be a trigger for the female to either run away, try and mount the male, or stand her ground and fight.
- Female mounts the male, as point 2 but reversed.
- Tentative nose to nose contact, likely pulling away quickly initially and then repeating the behaviour a few minutes later.
- One rabbit becoming obsessed with the other by excessive grooming and other attentive behaviours, the other rabbit being very submissive and too afraid to move. This type of behaviour is not good news, as often within days or weeks the submissive partner “blows a fuse” eventually and a massive fight ensues.
- One rabbit quickly diving at the other to give a quick nip but not following it through and running off.
- One rabbit launching an unprovoked serious attack on the other, biting under tail or around the face and not letting up. 8. Both rabbits start fighting within a minute of the introduction. This is thankfully quite rare, but also indicates that there is little chance of the match working.
Another approach is to house them in separate territories separated only by a strong wire partition - the slow approach. This allows them to gradually get used to each other for several weeks before trying an actual face-to-face meeting. The disadvantage of this method is that it can take a long time and there is no guarantee at the end that the rabbits will like each other. If you have one rabbit in a cage and the other running free, you must give each rabbit equal time in the two areas, otherwise the rabbit with the most freedom will consider himself "the winner" and will develop an air of arrogance that can be very difficult to undo! Another problem with the slow method is that sometimes the rabbits concerned build up a dislike of each other through the partition, and see each other as a threat to their territory, and this means that when they are properly introduced for the first time they immediately fight as they feel they know each well enough to dispense with the formalities! If the two rabbits are not showing signs of attraction to each other or at least a tolerant indifference, the chances are high that it is not going to work.
Surprisingly, it is not always a good idea to give a newly bonded pair of rabbits free run of a large garden too quickly, as this can lead to a territory dispute and fighting can be the result, sometimes so severe that they have to be permanently separated. This can sometimes happen even to a long-term bonded pair if they are re-homed and given lots of freedom within the first week or so of the move, especially if they were not used to such space beforehand. It is best to wait 3-4 weeks to make sure they have settled down, allowing access to a run in the meantime.
Before reading any further, take a few minutes to watch the following video about a pair of bunnies that were proving difficult to pair up. Click on the following link:
You will be pleased to know that within hours of arriving in their new neutral territory, Buster and Bella were sitting side by side grooming each other!
The following was written by their owners:
Buster and Bella appear to be very comfortable together now. Most of the time they are sitting or lying down together, side by side, nose to nose, head to tail. Bella seems to go towards Buster more than him to her. She often stretches herself out alongside him. They groom each other. This evening we watched Buster groom her ears for quite a long time. Bella just laps it up. None of us has seen any aggression between them since we brought them here. I will try to send you photos at some point. It is so heart-warming to see them being close and snuggling together.
Then an update two weeks later: The two bunnies are like a single entity now. They spend much of the time in close contact. Bella in particular seems very relaxed, often completely stretched out whilst leaning against Buster.There is a lot of ear grooming by both of them. We obviously spend a lot of time watching them, telling each other what they have been up to and generally feelling absolutely amazed that they have become so close.
Mildred and Merlin's match-up:
Rusty and Bella's match-up that did not work!
Bella and Major, a very difficult match:
An owner wrote the following to illustrate the problems she had when matching up her bunny:
Neutered male/neutered female pairings are the most successful long-term. Although compatible personalities are important, rabbits in such pairings are likely to show more tolerance towards each other than would necessarily be found in female/female or male/male match-ups. The large majority of opposite sex encounters end very positively, with most males trying to do what comes naturally when presented with a new female companion.
Pairing an unneutered female with a neutered male will sometimes work but you are running the risk of the female’s hormone-driven mood swings (bunny “PMT”) seriously jeopardising their relationship long-term, as well as running the risk of her developing uterine and associated cancers at a later stage. It is also important to know that males are fertile for up to 4 weeks after their castration operation, and therefore any mating during this time could result in pregnancy if the encounter is with an unneutered female.
Pairing an unneutered male with a neutered female is only suitable in the rare event of the male not showing much sexual behaviour towards his partner. Males that repeatedly try to mount and/or spray the female long-term will often break the temper of their partner and a serious fight will likely ensue. Not only that, but it is not pleasant for owners to have to deal with a permanently sticky, smelly and yellow-tinged rabbit!
Occasionally, some long-term neutered males lose their sexual drive and can become aggressive towards any rabbit they meet, and with this in mind, the bonding process may need to be taken at a slower pace to enable him to get used to the idea by using the wire partition technique described above.
As a last resort in such situations, it may be worth trying to pair up “difficult” rabbits with a baby rabbit of the opposite sex, but close supervision is essential as a baby would be less able to defend itself if it came under attack. In most cases, the baby does not seem to be perceived as a territorial threat and therefore may be accepted by a domineering adult who otherwise would not allow any adult rabbit on its “patch”. When the baby comes of age, the pair should be well bonded so no major problems should be encountered apart from minor behaviour adjustments. Neutering should be carried out as soon as possible to prevent the problems mentioned earlier. See ‘Bonded Pairs’ below for advice on neutering a bonded pair.
It is rare that females will live together long term without neutering, as hormone-related behaviours causes friction between the pair, sufficient enough to cause serious fighting. Even if both females are neutered and have lived together from the start (such as sisters or mother/daughter combinations), it is not uncommon for them to fall out irreconcilably after months or even years have gone by, often for no obvious reason.
Generally speaking, this combination only works if the two males concerned have been brought up together and have a good relationship at the time of their castration. The neutering operations must take place as soon as the testicles descend, usually at about 3-4 months of age, and they should both be castrated on the same day and immediately placed back together again in their normal environment on their return. If it is cold and they have not completely recovered from the anaesthetic, both rabbits need to be brought inside overnight, even if only one of them is showing drowsiness.
Any fighting demonstrated prior to the operation will mean that the relationship is very unlikely to succeed long-term, and the rabbits should be separated prior to the castration operation and matched-up with a neutered female each instead. A word of caution: I have found from experience that two bonded males sometimes start fighting even after a few years have past, especially if moved to a new environment.
It is best not to add more rabbits to an existing bonded pair, as you run the risk of upsetting their relationship and could end up with battling bunnies everywhere! Sometimes you can add a pair of rabbits to an existing single rabbit, but there are still risks involved. If you really want to have a group of rabbits, it is best to have one neutered male and the rest of the group consisting of neutered females. There will inevitably be fighting between the females, but if they have free access to a very large area with lots of places to hide and plenty of distractions in the form of tunnels and branches etc. they will probably settle down eventually. Bear in mind that you will still have to catch them regularly for health checks and vaccinations.
Once they are bonded, a pair of rabbits should not be separated unless absolutely necessary. Trips to the vet should involve taking both rabbits with you in the same carrying box, even if only one needs to be seen. If hospitalisation is necessary, however (such as for neutering), it may not be practical to leave both rabbits there, in which case take the remaining rabbit with you when you go to collect his or her partner so they can travel back together for the journey home. However, if this would be detrimental to the recovery of the affected rabbit (for example having a wound or stitches in a very accessible place) it may be necessary to separate them. This should be done for the shortest possible time as it may be difficult in some cases for the pair to accept each other again. In such situations, it may be necessary to “start from scratch” again using neutral territory or a wire partition until things settle down. In the case of neutering, ask the vet to use a technique that involves no external stitches, to avoid problems associated with nibbling.
Rabbits usually recover much quicker if they are in their usual environment with their partner. Therefore, if only one half of a bonded pair is neutered and it is decided to neuter the other, there is usually no need to separate the pair after the operation unless the remaining rabbit causes distress due to harassment. An initial flurry of mounting activity is often encountered if it is the female that has just been returned because her male partner will be pleased to see her. However, if this behaviour does not settle down within a few minutes, remove the male for a few days until she is fit enough to cope with his advances.
If one of the bonded pair has already been neutered and the other one then needs to be done, follow the guidelines below to make sure that the bond is not broken in the process:
· Make sure that the rabbit will be operated on by mid-morning at the latest so that he/she is fully awake when you collect in the afternoon.
· On the morning of the operation, take the pair to the vets (travelling together), and on your return home with the remaining bunny, put him/her somewhere different for the day if at all possible.
· When you go to collect the rabbit that has just been neutered, take the other rabbit with you so they can travel back home together again.
· Unless the weather is extremely cold (such as in the middle of winter in which case you may want to keep them both inside overnight), the pair should go straight back into their normal environment again. You may find the male tries to mount briefly, but this is rarely a problem and soon settles down.
Occasionally a bonded pair will suddenly start fighting for no obvious reason. In these circumstances it is advisable to have both rabbits checked over by an experienced vet as ill health in one or both can often trigger this behaviour. I have seen several situations where one rabbit has been going through the onset of gut stasis (mucoid enteropathy, not usually spotted by owners until advanced and too late to save the rabbit)and the change in his or her behaviour has been enough to enrage the partner and stimulate aggression.
Another bone of contention between an otherwise well bonded pair is an inequality of grooming, where only one rabbit is prepared to groom the other, despite desperate "pleas" by the other bunny to be groomed too. A trick to try is to put a few drops of yogurt on the rabbit's head that does all the grooming, in the hope that the other reluctant partner will see this as a good idea and will lick off the offending droplets, grooming the bunny at the same time. If this is repeated a few times it can give the encouragement needed to demonstrate that mutual grooming is actually rather pleasant. Don't put too much on, otherwise you will stimulate the rabbit to self-groom, which is defeating the point of the exercise completely! Most pairs of bunnies get better at sharing activities the longer they are together, but some do retain their stubborn individuality for longer than others.
Occassionally one can find a rabbit that performs obsessive grooming, and this can cause fur damage and sometimes even skin infections due to an area being almost constantly licked. This can occur in males or females, although I have come across more cases where the offender is a neutered male who appears to be obsessive in regard to mounting behaviour, repeatedly pulling at the fur at the back of the neck of the other rabbit. I have found some success with hanging up several salt and mineral blocks around the run/hutch, especially in places where the rabbits like to sit as this is often where the offending behaviour takes place. Although I am not in favour of these blocks in general, in cases such they can be very helpful in persuading the rabbit to turn his or her attention towards the blocks when the urge to groom excessively occurs. There are also several products that can be lightly sprayed on the fur of the rabbit being "chewed" which have an unpleasant taste, and this can also assist in helping the rabbit to change his/her ways.
I hope this match-up guide has been useful, and that it will give you the confidence to find a friend for your bunny if he or she hasn’t already got one. Remember, rabbits can have moody and bad tempered days just like people can, so you can expect to see the odd scuffle and disagreement between two otherwise loving partners from time to time. Use your judgement and common sense, and don’t panic!