In large mixed gender groups, male/male, female/female, and male/female pairings, bunnies can live contentedly for their entire lifespan. The most natural couple to introduce and bond is the male/female pairing, and thus, is also the easiest one to encourage. Commonly, rabbits pair off in male/female couples in the wild, often remaining partners for the duration of their lives.
If you’ve acquired a bonded pair from a rescue center, the vast majority of the time the pairing process was undertaken at the center by knowledgeable staff. So, by the time your darling fur babies arrive at your home, they’re already the best of friends. However, this is usually not the case when dealing with breeders or pet stores, as the sheer number of rabbits they have on hand and room necessary to separate pairings make doing so too difficult. Aside from these factors is also the issue of spaying and neutering, resulting in higher costs if done or significant babies if not.
Generally, a pair of males or a pair of females from the same litter will remain friendly, so long as they are spayed or neutered relatively quickly. Sterilization must be done before they reach sexual maturity, a time when females are likely to become more territorial and males typically start to fight. At this point, their initial friendly relationship most probably will be lost for good.
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Introducing and bonding rabbits
Introducing two bunnies with the intention of having them live together as companions is a process called bonding. Though the best of intentions may be behind this move, it is never a guarantee that two rabbits will get along. Like any other animal, bunnies have their own unique personalities, so you never truly know if pets will get along. However, since rabbits are naturally social creatures that seek companionship, there is a good chance two bunnies will bond – but the correct circumstances must be in place.
The most ideal factors would be:
- a male/female pairing
- both bunnies would be neutered/spayed
- a gradual introduction
Since females are typically more territorial, they will naturally defend their habitat against any newcomer, which they see as an intruder. Therefore, ideally, the female should be slowly introduced into the male rabbit’s home environment.
Step one: Prepare for the introduction
These best and easiest way to introduce rabbits to each other is to use the adjoining cages method.
On several occasions, take out your current rabbit and let them run free while the newcomer explores their cage. Don’t forget to put out a litter tray so your free-range bunny can use the bathroom when they need to. This ‘home switch’ is a great way to introduce your rabbits to each other’s scents.
Plus, the swap will create a situation that dissuades your current pet from getting territorial, both when the newcomer is exploring their cage and when they’re both outside their cages together.
If you don’t have access to an extra cage to create this adjoining set-up, then try using two separate rooms with a baby gate between them. Basically, you’re just recreating an adjoining cage set-up but on a much grander scale. The key, in this instance, is for them to be able to smell and see one another.
It will take them a few days to settle down and get used to having another rabbit around. But the first few days, they’ll be overly curious about each other, touching noses together through the gate and sniffing each other repeatedly.
Also, even though they’re both sterilized, they’ll likely display courtship behaviours, such as circling and honking. This is all natural bunny body language. A positive sign that shows they’re growing relaxed with each other’s presence is when they both lie down across from each other, on opposite sides of the gate.
Another thing that will speed up the process of becoming more comfortable with each other is to feed them at the same time, at the gate, across from one another.
Lastly, if you see any signs of aggressive behavior at the initial meeting, such as biting or growling, it would be a good idea to defer their introduction a bit longer.
Step two: Meeting face-to-face
Once the rabbits are ready to be introduced face-to-face, prepare a neutral space that is not considered “territory.” Believe it or not, bathrooms are actually a great spot for first meetings, since they’re not usually a room that’s been “called.” Remove things from the area that may cause injury to excited rabbits, should they jump, leap onto something, or run. Most importantly, provide a cardboard box or other hiding space for the bunnies in case once of them gets stressed and needs a break.
After making sure everything is ready for the first meeting, release the bunnies in the same room and crouch down to their level, staying there for the remainder of the introduction. Most commonly, the three typical scenarios are the following:
1. Defensive attack – Although quite rare, it is indeed possible for one or both bunnies to attack. Due to this possibility, it is recommended that pet parents wear thick gloves for the duration of the initial meeting. With protective gear, you’ll be able to intervene quickly, without anyone getting hurt in the process. If defensive attack occurs, then go back to stage 1, immediately separating both rabbits.
2. Curious approach – Normally, the most common scenario is the curious approach, where one of the bunnies will investigate, circling, sniffing, and perhaps attempting to mount the other rabbit. Rather than courtship ritual, it’s more of a show of dominance, where they’re both trying to figure who’s the more dominant animal. Less submissive bunnies will usually nip or run away, while more submissive ones will put their head on the floor and allow it to happen. Regardless, it is essential for pet parents to remain in the room with their pets to intervene should there be aggressive behaviour.
3. “Love at first sight” scenario – Much like the defensive attack, this “love at first sight” scenario is quite rare. In this case, bunnies sniffle and nuzzle each other, approaching one another as equals, both clearly enjoying the experience.
Let’s assume the best scenario happens…
For all intents and purposes, let’s assume the more ideal scenario happens: #2, the curious approach. At this point, give your rabbits about 10 minutes to spend time together and keep a close eye out for aggressive behaviour. Fur pulling and nipping is quite common and not considered aggressive behaviour per se. Take note of it but don’t separate them. What really helps to de-stress the situation is to gently stroke both pets, creating a pleasant experience.
A water spray bottle is a good idea to have on hand in case of an overexuberant or attacking bunny. Squirting a gentle spray at a problematic bunny causes them to stop their behavior, plus encourages them to groom themselves, which can actually foster this typically social activity and promote their relationship.
Daily meetings should continue, increasing from 10 to 40 minutes gradually. Over time, the rabbits will stop noticing each other so much, switching over to curiosity with their surroundings. Once this occurs, then you’re most likely safe to let the bunnies roam freely together. Nonetheless, if you will not be able to be present during any of these times, keep them separate.
Mutual grooming or laying down together is a sign they’ve bonded. At this point, you can leave your pets together safely.
Tips on common bonding problems
- Usually, the most common problems occur when the introductory period is too short and/or because the rabbits have not been sterilized.
- When pets are introduced too quickly, they may get into a fight, resulting in one or both of them traumatized. Rabbits can take some time to recover from the incident.
- An unusual yet often successful approach to speed up bonding or encourage difficult pairings is to introduce them both to a “slightly stressful but safe” situation for them, such as a car ride or a backyard visit on-leash. In theory, and it has been proven to work quite well, both bunnies should turn to each other for comfort.
- Mimicking bonding behaviour by petting them or grooming them at the same time can also encourage them to get closer.
In short, it is of the utmost importance to take your time with the introduction process – it’s not a race. Your pets can pick up on how you’re feeling, so remain calm and relaxed. Though we may feel stressed about the whole bonding situation, ultimately, rabbits simply need to work through this process together. As pet parents, our role is to provide them with a secure place to meet, as we watch and ensure they’re kept safe.