Bonding

Rabbits are social creatures. Perhaps this is because their ancestors (the European Wild Rabbit) lived in social structures called warrens. Warrens are very ordered, and all members have their place in the hierarchy. Ironically, it is this same social structure that often makes bonding a stressful experience. This article provides tips on how to bond your rabbits while minimizing bonding stress.

Some feel that the best way to ensure a bond is to let your rabbit choose its own companion. However, this isn't always possible. In addition, even if the initial meeting goes well, bonding may still be difficult.

So, if your rabbit isn't able to choose its own mate, how do you choose the right companion for him? The key to a good match is personality - not breed or size. It is important to choose a rabbit with a personality that is compatible with your rabbit's personality. Two very dominant, and territorial rabbits are more difficult to bond than one dominant and one submissive rabbit. However, the size and breeds of the rabbits involved have no effect on the bonding process.

Generally, the easiest bond is between a spayed female and a neutered male. Babies often bond easily with one another and to some adults, but the bond may be broken at the onset of puberty. Male-male and female-female bonds may also work, but these pairs may require more effort and patience on your part than a male-female bond. For this reason, spaying and neutering, which helps to alleviate hormonal tendencies and territorial behaviour, is important for bonding even same sex pairs.

Bonding sessions must take place in a small neutral area, i.e., an area that is not frequented by either rabbit. Make sure that there are no places that either rabbit can crawl into, such as an open cage or box, in your bonding area. You do not want either rabbit to feel cornered or for a fight to break out in an area that you cannot readily get to.

At first, bonding sessions should be short. As the rabbits start to become friends, your sessions can be longer. You want the bonding sessions to be a pleasant experience for your rabbits, so that they associate the other with pleasant things. Provide them with new toys, litter boxes filled with piles of fresh hay or a platter of veggies to share. Try to end the sessions on a positive note and work with your rabbits every day. Some rabbits bond very quickly, others may take several months.
 

Tips:

  • The bonding process will be easier if both rabbits are spayed or neutered. At the very least one rabbit MUST be altered when bonding male-female pairs to avoid accidental pregnancy. (Note: Adult rabbits are fertile at all times, mate quickly, and can conceive at a very young age. Don't take this chance!).
     

  • Prepare for marking of territory with feces and urine. After the rabbits get used to each other, the marking will gradually subside. Even spayed and neutered rabbits may mark territory in the presence of a new rabbit.
     

  • For tough bonds, sometimes it is helpful to take both rabbits for a car ride before the bonding session. If there is any danger of the rabbits attacking one another in the car, put them in separate carriers. If you put them in the same carrier, have a friend drive while you supervise the rabbits.
     

  • If you are planning to house the rabbits together in an existing cage after they are bonded, it is helpful to switch cages each day to avoid 'ownership' of one cage.
     

  • Learning to recognize aggressive body language (e.g., tail erect, ears back, tense body posture) is helpful in preventing fights before they happen. Rabbits who fight will sometimes hold grudges, making the bonding process harder.
     

  • The importance of neutral territory cannot be stressed enough. Often two rabbits will get along fabulously in familiar territory when one rabbit is caged and the other is not. However, they will behave aggressively when they are both out of their cages. Sometimes, it only takes a couple of hours in neutral territory before they start snuggling and grooming each other.

Assessing Progress
If, during the bonding sessions, the rabbits ignore one another and go about their business of eating, grooming themselves or relaxing, the session is going well. In time, the rabbits will bond. However, if the rabbits are continually aggressive towards one another, it may be best to allow them to continue to live separately.

In order to assess progress, it is important to be able to understand your rabbit's body language. For example, to a rabbit, nipping and fighting are very different, even though they may look the same to us. Fighting is a deliberate attack. Nipping is a means of communicating.

 Circling and chasing are common occurrences during bonding and can escalate into a fight. Stop circling and chasing when it occurs, but do not separate the rabbits. Instead, place them side by side, while petting them or feeding them treats. After they have calmed down, you can let them run around again.

Mounting is a natural part of the bonding process. It is not necessary to stop mounting as long as the rabbit being mounted does not become aggressive or afraid. However, never allow backwards mounting because the rabbit on top can be seriously injured with one bite. Mounting can be amorous, as well as a way to establish dominance.

Are We There Yet?
After your rabbits are getting along well in neutral territory without supervision, you can expand the area to gradually include territory that both have frequented. It is advisable to cage them separately until they are getting along well in territory that is not neutral. Start to cage them together for short periods while you are there to supervise. You do not want a fight to break out in the cage when you are not there to intervene.

In Case of a Fight
When a fight occurs during a bonding session, our first instinct is to reach down and try to pick up one of the rabbits; however, this can lead to serious bite wounds. Do not use your bare hands to break up a scuffle. Instead, dump a bowl of water onto the fighting pair or cover them with a blanket. To prevent another fight, it is helpful to have a broom or a piece of sturdy cardboard handy to slip between two angry rabbits. It is also helpful to wear oven mitts on your hands during a bonding session, in case you have to break up a fight. A water bottle set on the 'stream' setting will also sometimes deter aggressive behaviour.

After a fight, it is important to check your rabbits for wounds. Remember, not all wounds will bleed, so check thoroughly.

A Final Word
One important thing to remember when adopting another rabbit: Never adopt a rabbit as a companion for your current rabbit if you cannot accept the fact that they may never bond. Instead, consider fostering a rabbit in need of a permanent home. If your current rabbit bonds with your foster rabbit, then you can adopt him.

 There are definite advantages to having bonded pairs. Rabbits who have a bonded mate tend to be less bored - and, therefore less destructive - than single rabbits. They have company when you are working late, and it is easier to clean one rabbit cage than two. Sometimes, however, it is just not meant to be. We have to remember to do what is right for our rabbits - and not what is most convenient to us.

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