Bunnies Teaching Bunnies
by Julie Smith, PhD
Rabbits do a wonderful job of educating each other. Nowhere is this more striking than in new relationships. To watch these encounters is one of the great privileges of being a fosterer.
Many new rabbit couples undergo an educational curriculum during the adjustment period, often in the form of one teaching the other toreplace chasing and mounting with non-sex-driven activities of grooming, snugglebunnying, and parallel reclining. The repetition of chasing and mounting can be tiresome to the human observer, who wonders what is being accomplished. "Probably Justice learned that he had to do more of that grooming thing in order to get Binkie's cooperation."
In about five or six days, the couple will have forged an enduring compatibility. After observing this progression in numerous couples, I realized that the chasing and mounting phase is not just a contest for dominance, as we humans usually assume. It is also a program of behavior modification.
Lesson 1. Grammar and Vocabulary
Because we humans isolate rabbits to make them our companions, many have a limited vocabulary for social interaction. They simply do not know what to do when they meet another rabbit, having been removed from all members of their own species at infancy. They have had no one with whom to converse in their native language. I often wonder what an adult rabbit is feeling as he reencounters another of his kind after such separation and loss. Were a human to experience this, his story would be a most poignant tale. Rabbits who have had, and then lost, a partner-our widows and widowers-have a much greater social repertoire at the outset of a new relationship.
Rabbits whose initial instincts drive them to chase and mount eventually learn to interact face to face. Their partner teaches them, using the materials at hand and her own ingenuity. When confronted with a rabbit who seems determined to interact only with the back-end of his new friend, a rabbit may turn and present her nose to be groomed.
The chaser usually ignores this and proceeds to mount her head. She then will scurry away, reactivating the pursuit/lesson. Eventually she will let the chaser mount.
Binkie's education of Justice consisted of making her rear-end inaccessible, so that Justice would have to notice and respond to her face. Justice was slow to change, being a healthy male who had been confined alone in an outdoor hutch for six years. He had only recently been liberated--it's a sad commentary when abandoning an animal at the shelter means liberating him--and neutered.
Like many male rabbits new to romance, he mounted head-first initially. But this was not what he preferred, once he got the drift of true mounting. And because he sought the back position, he had the problem of getting Binkie to slow down and remain facing forward. I have seen many males attempt to position the female in the preferred way by pretending to begin grooming, with the intention of doing it only long enough to get the female to stop running. (This never works.) Sometimes, as in the case of Justice, they really do not know how to groom, and will pull at the other rabbit's fur, in a way similar to their method for holding on when mounting, instead of licking the fur. Though clumsy and unpleasant, this glimmer of appropriate behavior was all Binkie had to work with.
Her solution was to back herself into a corner of the pen or the litterbox, or get under a stool facing outward, or just find some place or some way to make only her head accessible when she presented to be groomed. By using space as a kind of curfew, she was teaching him her definition of friendly behavior. An overturned crate in the dating territory worked well for this lesson, because it let her be present but not fully available. The door to the crate had been cut big enough for one. Sometimes Justice squeezed himself into the crate, but then he did not have enough room to mount. Binkie easily scooted out while he tried to maneuver in this impossible setting. Sometimes he attempted to mount the back side of the crate, or to enter from one of the side openings. Like humans, rabbits will try an ineffective way of doing things over and over until they realize that they have to reassess their tactics.
Binkie never stayed in the crate very long but always came out for more chasing and some mounting before she returned to it, becoming withdrawn once again--except for her head. Eventually, Justice modified his behavior to include some quiet head-to-head time, reposing near the opening of the crate. As I watched these two I remembered a very different couple. Unlike the tireless Justice, Colby lacked stamina and was unable to chase his new partner without physical discomfort. He tried for a while but quickly gave up, sitting by himself, breathing somewhat laboriously. After a period of confusion and seclusion his new friend, the splendid Faith, tentatively approached and lay down near him. With her head a few inches from his, their bodies formed the lovely V that rabbit couples sometimes lie in; and she tooth-purred encouragement and approval of him and (I suppose) life in general.
Life After Graduation
I can only speculate about the lessons Justice and Binkie were teaching each other through their endless chasing and mounting. Probably Justice learned that he had to do more of that grooming thing in order to get Binkie's cooperation. Maybe he discovered that sitting side by side was its own sweetness, that grooming was an enjoyable activity in itself. Binkie was inexperienced, too, and I had the sense that she learned not only how to modify Justice's behavior but also how to be more giving. What I am sure of is that I saw rabbit intelligence revising rabbit instinct and that two rabbits who started out wanting different things were changing their behavior so that they could be together.
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Fast Cars & Speedy Bunny Bonding
In October 1994, Alfie's companion rabbit, Raquel, died. Knowing he would do better not to be alone, we soon brought him a new companion, Honeybunny. Alfie is an albino mini-lop; Honeybunny is broken in color. At nearly 7 1/2 lbs., she outweighs him by almost 2 lbs.
The rabbits (spayed and neutered, of course) did not hate each other. I've seen that; it's scary and almost unsurmountable. On the plus side, they exhibited curiosity and a certain tentative affection, such as grooming by Alfie. Own the negative side, Honeybunny showed some aggressiveness, which was quickly anticipated by Alfie, presumably under the notion that the best defense is a good offense.
We didn't have the nerve to see fur fly, ears bleed, or maybe worse. So, although the bunnies were together under supervision, they were at all other times in separate quarters. My deepest lapine instincts told me these two were meant for each other, but we seemed to be at a loss to help them come together for good as a bonded pair. More than six months passed.
Then, along came Libby Donovan [then San Diego HRS chapter manager at the time] and Tim Dowdle with the Bunny Bonding Box/Auto Ride Therapy. It worked like this: Alfie and Honeybunny were separately brought outside into a waiting van. An open-topped cardboard box about 2'x3'x1' deep was placed in the cargo area, and in went the bunnies. Libby and I rode in the back with them while Tim pretended he was a test driver at the Porsche factory.
A 45-minute car ride in a strange vehicle with unsure footing is enough to cause a minilop to reconsider petty misgivings. Within the first three minutes, Alfie and Honeybunny were snuggling together, presumably for comfort, solace and relief from the uncertain environment. At the turnaround point, their nails were trimmed, another shared indignity which engendered more snuggling on the ride home.
When the rabbits got home, they were left together under supervision for about three hours. After one hour, there was a scuffle which later caused us to separate them for the night, but quite obviously they had reached a new, much higher level of mutual trust. Each day afterwards for four days, Alfie and Honeybunny spent increased (supervised) time together. Alfie groomed Honeybunny, but she declined to groom him even when he got his chin down on the ground lower and quicker than she. This onesidedness did cause us to wonder whether they might need another car ride.
Not to worry: True Love triumphed. On the fifth day after their therapy and nail clipping, the bunnies relaxed enough to be left together unsupervised. They never have been apart since. They patrol together, eat together, snooze together and groom each other (although she still gets more than she gives). Of course, the two of them are so nonchalant about their happy relationship that they won't even acknowledge that things weren't always so grand.
After the car ride, but before the final bonding, the bunnies ate their treats (carrots, broccoli, etc.) together off a mutual plate, with the vegetables cut up into relatively small pieces. This encouraged togetherness, as they tended to be mellow at such times, and did not hesitate to lean into each other while eating. I believe this was a helpful (though probably not crucial) factor in the process.
Many thanks to Libby, Tim and Michelle Wilhelms for all their help and concern.
by Mark Landsman
* Editor's Note: Car rides as a bonding tool are not always recommended. In the situation of a rabbit who is fearful of being in a carrier or in the car, the "car ride" is not a good tool to use. It's better to use a variety of scenarios around the home throughout the bonding process. Get more ideas from this difficult bonding" article.
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What to Expect & What to Do
This article addresses the common scenarios you might experience when attempting to bond two or more rabbits.
The typical bonding plan is to house the bunnies side-by-side, in separate pens or cages, during the bonding process. Move them away from the original rabbit's usual living area, to another spot in the home. Conduct bonding dates in "neutral" areas; those not normally inhabited by the original rabbit. These can be a bedroom, bathroom tub or floor, patio, garage, kitchen floor, etc. You could even take the buns to a friend's house to conduct bonding dates.
One key tip is to "continue what works and stop what doesn't." If they tend to fight in a particular area, don't take them there again. If they do better in another spot, do more dates there.
If they seem agitated on a particular day, then skip the date. There's no hard and fast rule on how often the dates should be or how long they should last. The goal is to keep things positive.
Here are common scenarios you may experience.
Circling & chasing
Be sure they are in a SMALL (approx. 4' x 4'), neutral area such as a bathroom or penned area. Stop the chasing. Place them side-by-side. Try feeding them treats together. Try car rides in a box together. Sometimes loud noises or being sprayed with a water bottle are enough to make the chasing stop. A little dab of banana on each others head may instigate grooming. The idea is to supervise closely and prevent the chasing from starting in the first place.
True aggressive fighting
Separate buns and try again later. Try taking them for a car ride together in a box and back to a neutral place. Supervise closely. Check for wounds. Try another rabbit if this aggressive fighting persists. Call an SDHRS volunteer for help.
Try to end each date on a high note. Calm the rabbits, pet them and give them a treat. You want them to remember the positive and not the negative.
Ignoring each other
As long as they are not fighting, this is a good thing! If they are coexisting in their neutral space, this is typical and a good start. They will begin to sit closer, sleep near each other and eat together shortly. Leave them in a small neutral space a bit longer. Try to wait for a little grooming.
This is GREAT! Their relationship will probably continue to blossom from this point. Leave them in a neutral place for a few more days to continue the bonding, then SLOWLY introduce them to freedom in the house together. DO NOT SEPARATE THEM ONCE THEY ARE BONDED.
REMEMBER: SDHRS volunteers can help you through this process. Email us at email@example.com and ask for assistance from someone experienced with bonding rabbits.
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Like any relationship, a new pairing of rabbits can be slow to develop or be love at first sight. Almost all rabbits can work out their differences and enjoy the companionship of another rabbit. Still, the process of bonding two rabbits will take time, patience, commitment and some work on your part.
The following tips are from SDHRS volunteers who have matched up many, many rabbits over the years.
Relax! Take a deep breath and relax. If you are a nervous wreck, the rabbits will be, too.
Males & females: We seem to have the best luck in pairing neutered males with spayed females. Usually the males appear to be dominant at first with their excessive mounting. The female will put up with this for a short while, but will usually assert her dominance by mounting the male or nipping him to show she is the one in charge. At this point, the male usually backs down and they start on the road to friendship. Same-sex pairing is not out of the question, but requires at least one submissive rabbit in the group and a little more patience on your part.
Spaying & neutering: It is considerably easier if BOTH rabbits in the pairing have been fixed. In fact, you may not be successful with the match if they are not. Once fixed, you are working with temperaments and personalities, not hormones and uncontrolled desires! If the rabbits are newly altered, (6 months or less) they may still be quite amorous towards each other. This behavior should dissipate the longer they are fixed. Please see our handout "Altering your Rabbit's Future" for more reasons to alter your companion rabbit and for our list of recommended veterinarians.
NOTE: If your rabbit has just been spayed or neutered, it is highly recommended that you wait at least two weeks (a month is better) before introducing him or her to another rabbit. This will prevent the male from possibly impregnating an unspayed female (or continuing to exhibit hormonal behavior), and a newly spayed female from fighting off the male due to being uncomfortable from her recent surgery.
Time: Although the average length of time until most rabbits are pretty well bonded is about two weeks, we have seen rabbits take as little as one afternoon or as long as many months to become friends. Neutral territory is imperative. YOU MUST put the rabbits (and keep the rabbits) in a small, neutral area for about one week. Beginning the bonding in a small, neutral territory is vital to this relationship working out. A kitchen, bathroom, or portable exercise pen all work well. DO NOT put them in a cage together until they have been getting along perfectly for several days. If a serious fight breaks out in a cage, it is generally difficult to separate them and injuries can occur.
Fighting, nipping & mounting: Although these behaviors may look similar to you, they are all very different and it is important to recognize the different ways rabbits speak. Fighting is usually an instant, purposely vicious attack. Rabbits sometimes attack the other rabbit's face, underside or genital area. DO NOT separate the rabbits unless they are truly fighting. Every time you separate the rabbits, you will have to re-introduce them, making this process take even longer.
Nipping at each other in a playful manner is not usually serious and is done for several reasons. Remember, rabbits sometimes communicate by nipping and this could be done to say "Hey, pay attention to me" or "Who are you?" and "Get out of my litterbox!" This too should dissipate as they learn how to approach and communicate with their new partner.
Both sexes may mount each other. Although mounting can escalate into circling, which could develop into a little fight, mounting usually dissipates after the first week and is only for the sake of asserting dominance. It is important to allow the rabbits this very important part of their courtship. Be watchful of backwards mounting, though. We have had a couple of serious nips in one's most vital areas! If your rabbits are mounting each other a lot, instigating fights, stop them, DO NOT SEPARATE them; place them side by side. Pet them together and talk to them quietly. Do not let the chasing ensue.
Check your rabbits for injuries each day even if they appear to be getting along well.
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When Your Rabbit Needs a Friend
Are you considering a companion for your current rabbit? Learn what you need to know before bringing home a second - or third - rabbit to the family.
National HRS has a great article on adopting more than one rabbit. What's involved, how will it change the dynamics of your household? Learn more by reading "Rabbits in the Plural."Please don't make the mistake of just going out and getting a bunny and bringing him/her home to your current rabbit. This canresult in disaster! Rabbits prefer to pick out their own companions and you'll be more likely to have a successful pairing by letting your rabbit choose.
Important keys to keep in mind when considering a rabbit companion for your current bunny:
Is your rabbit very independent and happy playing on her own, but seeks you out when she wants attention? She might be happy being the "only child." Single female rabbits often like it that way, so consider your rabbit's personality before bringing home a second bunny.
Does your rabbit seem bored, lonely, or to get into trouble a lot? A bored bunny will become a naughty bunny! These bunnies often benefit most from having another rabbit at home. Boy bunnies especially seem to like having a companion to hang out with and love.
Make sure your rabbit is spayed (or neutered) prior to introducing him/her to another rabbit. If not, the bunnies won't be able to get past the hormonal behaviors (mounting, nipping, chasing) and get to the point of actually communicating and getting to know each other. Aside from the need to prevent pregnancy (there's an enormous overpopulation of rabbits with not enough homes) bunnies do better together when both are altered and not running on hormones.
Look to your local shelters or rabbit rescue groups for your bunny's new companion. You'll be accessing a wealth of knowledge about bonding, and hands-on assistance with the process. Plus, if the new bunny does not work out you can take him/her back and try with another bun. If you buy from a pet store you are stuck with a bunny who your bunny hates. That's not fun for anyone concerned.
Good luck on your search! To get your adoption questions answered, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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