When the Going Gets Rough
Extracted from the
House Rabbit Society website
The rabbit psyche is mysterious, sometimes paradoxical.
These deeply emotional creatures crave the companionship
of their own kind. They form bonds so powerful that
loss of a partner can cause depression and illness.
Such devotion is far from apparent at first meetings,
which may be marked by aggressive behavior. Two weeks
later, these rabbits are inseparable, grooming and cuddling
each other for hours at a time. The challenge to humans
is how to guide them safely to a happy ending.
All rabbits to be matched are spayed/neutered.
All are healthy, have good appetites and enjoy hay,
so the digestive system will keep working during the
match. Ideally, the rabbits are allowed to meet on a
trial basis before a commitment to adopt is made. Introductions
start with a 15-30 minute car ride. Introductions take
place away from the home rabbit's territory. The match
is done slowly and carefully, building on positive bunny
body language. The rabbits are supervised until bonding
When to Try Harder
The bonding process assumes that the two or more individual
rabbits have potentially compatible personalities, if
given time to adjust to one another. Unfortunately,
however intimately you may live with one or all of the
rabbits being matched, it is not easy to predict the
sum of these personalities coming together. It is possible
to give up too soon on a match, but also to go too far,
into a cycle of hostile behavior. Here are some suggestions
for recovering a difficult match.
Talk the Talk
Know bunny body language, and know what behavior is
helpful to the match and what is not. Positive behavior
in the beginning stage may not involve contact with
the other rabbit but occur in his or her presence. It
includes all relaxed behavior: resting quietly, stretching
out, flopping, happy mouthmovements and purring. Grooming,
eating and drinking are positive, even if the o ther
rabbit is not (continued) participating. Mounting the
other rabbit is positive, unless the other rabbit has
an extreme reaction to it (squealing or attacking).
Generally, mounting means "I want you." This
is a good thing.
Watch for aggressive behaviors: tail up, ears back,
growling, boxing, circling, chasing and biting. If one
of these behavior occurs several times in a row; if
neither rabbit backs down; if it leads to further aggressive
behaviors, it should be interrupted. A spray of water,
aimed at the rabbits' heads, may interrupt a fight about
to happen but has no effect once anger is aroused. If
a fight advances to a clench, use a towel to separate
the rabbits. Or, pour water from a water bowl on them.
Using your hands is asking for a skin-breaking bite.
Take a break and revise your strategy. To accomplish
the match, you must prevent the fight from happening
in the first place.
Environment Is Everything
The more difficult the match, the more important the
space/environment. I start the match in a medium sized,
busy area, such as a play pen in my living room or my
blocked off hallway. I add some stuff for the bunnies
to jump on or over or to run around, I but avoid dead
ends or places I can't get to-no cages or carriers with
only one entrance. These may lead to confrontation or
entrapment. Add at least two litter boxes and lots of
hay. Now I have my space, but only if it works for the
rabbits I am matching. If doesn't work, I experiment
with other rooms in my home or different pens-larger
or smaller-next to a window or door to the outside.
The buns may go off to visit a friend, or we may have
a slumber party right here.
Heidi and Flynn's Date
After a car ride, I put Heidi and Flynn in the pen I've
set up. Heidi chases Flynn and boxes him. Flynn runs
away. He learns how to evade her. She trees him on top
of a house, rears up and boxes him. We've come to an
impasse. While it's good Flynn is backing down instead
of fighting back, he is becoming fearful. I don't want
this behavior to become a habit.
Heidi and Flynn need to be more inhibited but also more
relaxed. I put two chairs side by side in front of the
TV. One for me, one for Heidi and Flynn. I pet Heidi
and she sinks into bliss. Flynn sits motionless next
to her. Heidi curves her body around Flynn and smiles.
She gets up and flops, bumping against him. She gets
up again and curls herself around him the other way.
She seems oblivious to Flynn's tension. He is still
recovering from being chased. The match is not over
but the behavior is turned around.
Stick with What Works
The two errors I see in matches are not leaving an environment
that isn't working; and not sticking long enough with
one that is. How do you know when to continue on? Positive
body language. Does that mean Heidi and Flynn will keep
dating sitting on furniture? Yes, absolutely. The next
day I pull two chairs together, add a litterbox, hay
and water, put a pen around the edges so they won't
jump off. I bring the chairs over to my desk while I
write. We may as well be comfortable, because the "sticking
with it" phase can last a week or more, depending
on how long the sessions are.
Do not underestimate your participation in a rabbit
match. Your job is to observe body language, respond
to warning signs before a fight breaks out and intervene
quickly if it does. If you are calm, your presence inhibits
the rabbits from fighting and tells them this is a friendly
warren. I sometimes sleep on the floor with bonding
bunnies. If you're not calm, take a deep-breathing break.
You may find reassurance in "Introducing Rabbits,"
a video that shows the progress of several actual introductions,
in which rabbits who were chasing and lunging on Day
1 are cuddling on Day 7, or Day 37.
The More the Merrier?
Will adding a third (or fourth) bunny help a rocky relationship?
We have found it does, if the added rabbit is the right
individual. Ideally the peacemaker would be a calm adult
rabbit who has been with other rabbits. This rabbit
may set an example, and/or deflect the intensity between
two conflicting spirits.
Sometimes bonded rabbits break out in a fight after
years of happy companionship. We don't always know the
cause, but suspects are: new rabbit arriving in the
household; trip to vet or other incident where rabbits
are separated and/or pick up a strange smell; a health
problem that makes the sick bunny irritable or the healthy
one anxious. Once any health problems are addressed
by your veterinarian, go back to bonding basics. To
mask a strange smell, dab both bunnies with a scent
such as vanilla.
If written material on bonding doesn't cover your particular
scenario, get a one-on-one consultation. If you are
near an HRS foster home, volunteers can advise you on
a match-making. Email is another way to contact experienced
rabbit match-makers for advice and moral support.
When to Give Up?
Some matches are less likely to succeed than others.
When one rabbit or both are teenagers (known for competitiveness
and volatility), you may want to take a 3-6 month break
before trying again. When one rabbit bullies the other
in a variety of environments to the point the meek rabbit
can't eat, drink or move freely, it's time to consider
a long vacation. If despite your vigilance, a rabbit
receives multiple bite wounds requiring stitches, call
off the match. Perhaps some rabbits are by nature asocial,
antisocial, or even mildly autistic, and simply cannot
master the social niceties of rabbit/rabbit relationships.
Certainly there are humans who are happiest in the society
of species other than their own. Guinea pigs and rabbits
generally get along quite well, with little or no introductory
finagling needed. Cats, birds, and gentle dogs can provide
companionship. Rabbits who cannot be trusted together
may enjoy living in side-by-side enclosures. Such rabbits
may lie next to each other, much like a bonded pair
except for the wire between them.