by Suzanne Smith
A Guide to Bonding Your Rabbits
Nothing is cuter than watching two rabbits lie side by
side kissing each other. They are clearly very happy and
enjoy each other's company. Rabbits are social animals that
benefit from living in pairs or groups. Despite the need to
live with another rabbit, you cannot just put two rabbits
in a cage and expect them to immediately get along. Rabbits,
like humans, must date first. During their courtship, the
rabbits learn to trust each other and eventually fall in
love. Rabbit dating is referred to as bonding. Every pairing
is different, as there is not a set path to take. Here we
will discuss different techniques and styles for bonding rabbits.
What to Expect
Some bondings are fairly easy while others are difficult. I
truly believe that you can bond any two rabbits, but I don't
always think it is worth the stress.
Rabbits rarely fall in love at first sight and indifference
is a good first sign. It means that they are scoping each
other out and trying to figure out if they can trust each
other. A quick bonding can take two weeks while the more
difficult ones can take 3-4 months. On rare occasions,
bonding takes 6 months to a year. Not only will you need
to make a time commitment, but you will also need a second
cage, space to work in, and plenty of patience.
Just like with people, every bunny and every pairing are
different. For this reason I can not step you through a
procedure of how to do this. Rather, I will explain things
that I look for and different options to try. What works in
one situation, can easily fail in another. This article
will try to explain different approaches to use and how
to read your rabbits' behavior. You will need to figure out
what works for you.
When you try to bond a pair of bunnies, please be patient
and committed to it. It can be very easy to get discouraged,
to be convinced that it will never work. Three days later
everything can be going great. This isn't something that
is steady, but a series of "breakthroughs". I've had more
people call me insisting that the rabbits aren't interested
in each other and several days later call again with news
that they are totally in love.
Will my Rabbit Change?
Many people wonder if their rabbit will change once they
have a playmate. The answer of course, is yes. Every
situation is different so I cannot tell you what will
happen with your rabbit, but I do know that your rabbit will
If you have a rabbit who is friendly with you, they
will remain friendly. They do love human attention. If your
rabbit is shy, and the new rabbit craves human attention,
you may easily find that your bun will mimic the new rabbit
and find some strength from his example. They may find
themselves with their new mate begging for attention
without realizing it. If they see it isn't scary for the
other bunny then maybe it isn't so bad.
While a mate does sometimes help bring a rabbit out if
their shell, I have also seen the reverse. A shy bun that
receives a mate may decide that it wants to concentrate on
building that relationship. With time your rabbit will become
friendlier, but it may take a little longer.
I do want to stress, that I have never seen a friendly
rabbit lose interest in human companionship. Once a bunny
likes you, they always will.
Many people state that rabbits are
less likely to get into trouble once they have a mate.
They aren't as bored and are more content. While this is true
in some cases, rabbits do learn from each other and I
have seen rabbits teach each other bad habits. Hazy,
my digger, fell in love with Hershey, a non digger. Once
day I saw them both in a corner- she would dig, he would dig,
and this repeated itself. Clearly he was learning from her
and quickly become a more intense digger than she ever was.
Monkey see, monkey do. They may get into less trouble because
they are happier, but they may also learn new bad habits.
Every case is different. I can tell you that your rabbit
will be happier, may be friendlier and get into less trouble,
but I cannot guarantee any of it.
Factors to Consider First
Unless it is impossible for health reasons,
it is essential for both rabbits to be spayed or neutered before
introducing them. Once
they are altered their hormones won't be as strong and the
male won't be as interested in mating. I do find
it an advantage to bond about a month after a rabbit
has been altered as
they often have just enough hormones left to be interested
in the other rabbit without going overboard. If they have
been recently altered, you need to wait at least three weeks
for them to properly heal from the surgery as
any skirmishes could result in internal injuries.
You should figure out housing and bonding areas before
bringing a second rabbit home.
You will temporarily need a
second cage for the new rabbit and a place for that cage,
preferably near your current bunny. You will also need
to find neutral areas in your house where you can do the
Please make sure that both rabbits are healthy.
Bonding is stressful and if your rabbit has any health
problems they can easily surface. If your rabbit has Pasteurella
or a heart condition, I would only consider
this if it were to be a very easy bond.
Choosing a Mate
The best mate for your rabbit is one that they are
interested in, and vice versa. In other words, let
your rabbit choose his/her mate. They definitely have
preferences and bonding will be easier if you listen
to them. Preferably, you should
take your rabbit to several foster homes and let them
meet several other rabbits. An experienced fosterer
can help you interpret the signals.
To set up for these dates, you need to
have a small (about 2' x 3') area set up that is neutral
to both rabbits. Sometimes people will use an exercise
pen, bathroom or hallway. You want to prevent
any fights, so have a water squirt bottle handy to
spray them just in case. Wear heavy gloves or place an
old pair of sneakers on your hands so you can separate
them without being bitten. If they start to fight, they
will blindly bite and will not notice that your hand is
there. (Yes, I have scars.) Lastly, I do not put a
litterbox in the pen as one bun may stake that out as
While I do mention fighting in the previous paragraph, I would
like to stress that you should never let this happen.
If you see any signs of aggression- ears back at a 45 degree
angle, tails raised, tension; separate the buns. This
would probably not be a good match. Be careful to
understand the difference between dominance and
aggression. Dominance, often displayed as mounting, is
perfectly normal. However I would gently push the
dominant bun to the side when he tries to mount. The
other rabbit may be submissive, but may also get
irritated if mounted for too long. Both males and
females will mount.
Place the two rabbits in the pen and observe. This is
the time for my used car salesman pitch- if they don't
like each other, they will fight. However, if they are
interested in each other they will probably act
indifferent. So often I hear, "they just ignored each
other". This is a good first sign! They are communicating
as rabbits in a means that we can't understand and are
trying to figure out if they can
trust each other. They may approach and sniff. Rarely
will you see any signs of grooming. Sometimes you can
detect if your rabbit is excited. Look for subtle signals.
If the rabbits are a few feet apart, but eating, cleaning
themselves, lying down all stretched out, then they
clearly don't perceive the other rabbit as a threat.
Have your rabbit meet several prospective mates. Once
they have met several, you will be able to notice the
difference in how they are interacting with the other rabbits.
Pick the bunny where they both seem to be interested
(indifferent) with each other.
I am often asked if rabbits care about size/breed/age.
Questions like "My rabbit is a dwarf so don't I need to
get another dwarf?" are common. Truth is, the rabbits
don't care. We have pairs that are 11 pound bunnies bonded
with 3 pounders. Lops and mini rexes. You would be
suprised at how often people think that because they
have a small bunny, they can't get a large one because
it might hurt their little dwarf. So often the smaller
bun is the aggressor! It always seems to matter more to
the owner than the rabbit.
Sex is another question. Most of our pairs are
male/female and I would try this combination first.
If you aren't having any luck finding the right mate
then you may want to try a same sex (female/female or
Age is sometimes a factor. You are most likely to
have a lasting bond if they are both adults. The young
rabbits do sometimes bond easier as they are used to
living in groups and having company. However, once their
hormones kick in they do sometimes fight with a mate
and we have had couples split up when one of the rabbits
is 3-10 months old. Age is not a factor when the rabbits
are older. You can bond an 8 year old rabbit with a
three year old.
Of course there is always the case where your neighbor
found a rabbit, you took it in and now you want them to
be friends. It happens to all of us. So you try to bond
the rabbits and hope they like each other!
Taking Your New Bunny Home
I would have two cages set up for the rabbits side by
side, about three inches apart. It is important to keep
the cages slightly apart because they will sometimes try
to bite each other through the wires. Many rabbits have
scars on their lips from this. You do want them in the
same room so they can communicate with each other. I
will often place the litter boxes on the far side,
away from the other cage. Greens are typically placed
in the side closest to the other cage. Eating is a social
activity and this will force them to be a little social.
Lastly, I have the rabbits switch cages every night. This
way they get used to living with the other rabbit's scent
and neither gets too possessive about either cage.
If you know one rabbit will soon be altered or was recently
altered, it is all right to start with them living as neighbors
for several weeks. This gives them some times to get used
to each other before you start the bonding. Just make sure
you give the surgery enough time to heal before starting
I want to emphasize that you should do your best to
never let the rabbits fight. Not even for a second. That is
why I am discussing this issue first. If
you are inexperienced with rabbits, you may have a difficult
time reading the signs and accidents do happen. That is
why I always tell you to have a water spray bottle, heavy gloves
and old sneakers. It is important that you are ready just in case
they fight. As time goes on, you will be able to interpret
your rabbit's behavior.
Look for signs that your rabbit is
in attack mode. Typically, their ears will be bent back at
a forty five degree angle. What does their tail look like?
A rabbit about to attack will raise their tail and appear
to be on their haunches. When your rabbit does this, tell
them to be nice, and push them a few feet away. Remember-
ears back at a 45 degree angle, tail raised up mean your
rabbit is ready to attack.
Now there is also the rabbit that will run and charge
another bunny. This is fairly easy to read, but you need
to intecept them quickly. Some chasing can be normal,
as one may be chasing to mount and exhibit their dominance.
Last, there is the rabbit
that will lie there trying to look innocent, but will
turn their head and quickly bite. Those are the hardest
to stop, although they are less likely to turn into
an all out fight. You will have to read your rabbit's eyes
to figure them out.
Find a small neutral area of your house that your rabbit
does not use.
Some options are the bathtub, a blocked off section
of hallway, or an exercise
pen in a neutral room.
Get your supplies ready- the water bottle, gloves or
old sneakers. Place the rabbits in the neutral space and
watch them. It is easiest to have two people nearby-
one with the water bottle and the other with the gloves
or sneakers. If one bites, spray with water immediately
and separate. By separate I mean to get them about 2
feet apart- I am not stating that they should go back in
their cages. I realize that many people don't like to
spray their animals with water, but it is crucial to
prevent/minimize any fighting. An essential element of
bonding is trust- the rabbits must learn to trust each
other. Longer and frequent fighting will work in the
opposite direction and make the rabbits wary of each
other. Not to mention the risk of injury- never let
two rabbits just duke it out.
I would start by letting your rabbits spend 15-30
minutes together on their first date, depending on
how it is going. If it is going well, then I would
go the thirty minutes. During a normal work day, I would
have them date only once. However on the weekends, feel
free to try 2-3 dates, 6-8 hours a part. If the dates
are going well, then gradually increase the time that they
are spending together.
Signs of Progress
When rabbits meet, they start the bonding at
different stages. Some may hate each other at first. Some
may be indifferent. Occasionally you will have
them snuggle and groom. We need to interpret their behavior,
figure out what is working, and push them down
the path towards love.
An important aspect of bonding is knowing what stage
your rabbits are in. If your rabbits have shown
interest in fighting and now appear indifferent,
you have made progress. If they have been indifferent
and now seem curious about each other, again you
have progress. Unfortunately, they do sometimes take steps
backwards. You need to interpret the subtle signals
that your rabbits are communicating.
While the rabbits may at time appear indifferent to
us, the truth is they are
sizing each other up to determine if they can trust
each other. This is seen by observing the rabbits.
They may lay about 2-3 feet from each other. If they
weren't interested at all, they wouldn't do this.
They are being coy- curious but not quite trusting enough.
We've all seen humans play hard to get. Guess what-
rabbits do too! With time you will notice the space
between them decrease and eventually they will be
sleeping next to each other.
If your rabbits are not interacting, look for other signs.
Do they seem relaxed? Are they washing themselves?
Hopping around like everything is normal? If so, then
they don't perceive the other rabbit as a threat.
When the rabbits are curious about each other, they
will go up to each other and sniff. One may bow his
head, requesting licks. One may gently lick the other
rabbit's face. These contacts are usually brief, lasting
less than 30 seconds. This is the start of grooming and
is an excellent sign. As trust continues to develop,
these sessions will increase into true snuggling where
they will groom each other. During the first meetings,
the buns will often seem a little tense, but as time goes on,
they will relax. The first signs of grooming may appear
a little rough- almost like chewing or gentle nibbling at
the hair instead.
When you see positive signs- whether they just seem
comfortable in a pen togehter (while not interacting)
or if you are lucky enough to see some grooming, you
should gradually increase the time they spend together
and the space they use. For example, increase their time
together from 1 hour to 2 hours to three hours. Once
they can spend several hours together, you might be
inclined to move them into a larger room where they
can run and play together. This is also an excellent
time to put litter boxes in for them to use and feed
them dinner together.
You should instinctively know when to move on to
the next stage. There is the trust factor- you will find
yourself trusting them more each day. The first
few sessions you will be with them constantly. Then
you may feel like you can run to the kitchen and grab a
drink. After many sessions, you may feel as if you don't
need to be with them, but want them within earshot.
At a certain point you will feel as if they can
be together and you don't need to be with them.
Like most things in life, bonding isn't a straight
line of progress. Often you will see steps forward
followed by steps backward. As long as the overall
progress is forward, I wouldn't worry about it. It
is common to take a slight step backwards when you
move to the next stage- giving them more out time,
giving them a larger play area, the first time they
go into your first rabbit's play area.
Taking the Next Steps
When your rabbits show positive signs of progress, the
first thing you should do is gradually increase the
time they are spending together. After they can spend
a few hours together, then you should move them to
a larger play area, preferably still neutral
Once they can spend several hours together, you should
be looking for signs of affection. Do they lay side
by side? Is there grooming? When you see these, and
they can spend large blocks of time together, then
you should move them into
your first rabbit's play area. (Or where their common
play area will be once they are a happy couple.)
If they are successful in the common exercise area,
then you should only let them out together so they
play together. After several succesful days playing
together, you may be able to place them into a
cage together. The amount of time spent in the common
area is a proportional to the amount of time
they have spent in the other stages. If things
progress fast, then they only need a few days.
If, unfortunately, each stage takes a month. Well,
you probably need a month here too.
Don't forget that when you push them forward, it
is easy for them to take a step backward first.
Hopefully they won't. If things aren't progressing
easily, try several of the tricks listed below.
When evaluating how to bond your rabbits, it is important
to realize that what works for other people may not work
for you. Similarly, what works for you may not work
for others. What is being presented here is a bunch
of ideas- things for you to try. If it works, keep it
and use it. If it doesn't- toss it out and choose a
different approach. However just because something doesn't
work now shouldn't mean that you can never try it again.
It might work in a month or two.
Relationships with rabbits aren't always a partnership.
Sometimes there is a dominant bunny while other
times it can be a fairly even relationship. If one
rabbit is trying to establish itself as the alpha (dominant)
bunny, they will typically try to mount their mate. The
alpha rabbit can be a bit bossy and may push the other
rabbit around. One example of this behavior is the alpha rabbit
may apply a gentle nip letting the submissive rabbit
know that they need to move because they are sleeping in
their spot. The relationship between every pair is different.
Some are close to true partnerships with give and take
by both. Others are fairly lopsided. Both male and females
rabbits will mount. There are many relationships where
the female rabbit is dominant, bossing her mate around.
If one rabbit is mounting the other, I will gently stroke
the submissive bun and talk to them in a gentle manner.
I will let the mounting behavior go on for 10-20 seconds
and then gently push the dominant bun off. Discourage
them from mounting again for a few minutes. The reason I
let them mount briefly is then they get some sense
of dominance. However, if you let it go on for too long
the submissive bun may get fed up and try to bite the
potential mate, letting them know they have had enough.
Mounting can be incessant the first few days of a
relationship. After the first week it will
typically decrease. Some rabbits may never mount
again, while others will go for an occasional fling.
You may see the mounting behavior reappear if you
move the rabbits to a new location, or if they
can smell another rabbit. They will feel the
need to reclaim their mate.
One thing to be careful of- you shouldn't let the male mounts backwards,
mounting the face.
There is the chance that the female may bite, and
accidentally bite his penis off. While this is rare, I do
know of one case where it has happened. I would discourage
males from face mounting.
Stuck in a Rut
Sometimes rabbits appear to be stuck in a rut and not
progressing with their bonding. They have worked
out a mutual agreement to coexist, but don't seem to
be chummy quite yet. This is where you need to push
them a little bit. Shake things up- try some of the tricks
listed below. Move to a different location, try a
smaller pen, try a larger pen.
Try and get them over the hump. If both
rabbits like banana, then take some and place
banana in the fur near the base of the ears. Since most
buns go crazy for this, they will try to lick it
off each other. One will think they are getting a
treat, while the other believes they are being groomed.
Sometimes you need to gently push them forward.
Many people will stress rabbits to encourage bonding.
If the bonding is going well, I don't see any reason to
stress them. However if they are fighting, then stress
can help pull them together. The idea behind stress is
that they are too afraid to fight and will huddle together
for support. Once they get used to supporting each other
they may start thinking that the other fellow isn't so bad.
Most rabbits don't like car rides. For this one,
it is best to have two people- one person that can drive
and a second to sit in the back seat with the rabbits.
Take a cardboard box, depending on the size of your rabbits,
about 18 inches by 24 inches. Boxes are preferable to pet
carriers because you can have the entire top open to reach
in and grab a rabbit if there is a problem. (Just as a note-
I don't recommend carboard boxes for other activities-
vet visits, etc. Pet carriers should be used in those
situations) I place the rabbits in the box, close the
top and quickly move them to the car. Once the box is
in the car, I open the box again. The driver should be in
the car ready to go when you do this. Drive around town for
20-30 minutes. The terrified buns should just snuggle together.
Pet them and talk to them in a gentle voice.
Note that there are a few rabbits that aren't afraid of car
rides. This technique will not work for them.
If you only have one person or don't particulary want to
drive, you can substitute the washing machine. Have the
machine on the spin cycle, place your rabbits in either a
carboard box or laundry basket and place it on top of the
machine. The bouncing of the machine will scare them and
they should snuggle together.
A third alternative is to run the vacuum cleaner. Place
the rabbits in a small pen or large box and run the vacuum cleaner around
the them. In this case I would also recommend two people-
one to run the vacuum and a second to be with the rabbits.
The first time they have been stressed, I typically
return them to their cages. After the second/third sessions,
I will sometimes take them immediately into a neutral
area and let them stay there for 15-30 minutes. When they
first arrive it takes them a while to unwind from the stress
and hopefully they will learn to start trusting
each other. As time goes on I increase the "after" time.
Once they can spend a good hour in the neutral pen, the
next time I might try placing them in the pen without
stressing them first.
You are the boss!: Attitude can go a long way with
bonding rabbits. I make it quite clear to them that I
am the boss. Not only that, but I am more stubborn
than they are, so they may as well get along and get
this over with. Rabbits are used to having a pecking
order with the alpha rabbit setting the rules. You are
the alpha rabbit. Most people who have trouble
bonding their rabbits are too meek and timid about it.
I'm not by any means stating that you should be aggressive,
only that you must be in charge. With this in mind,
I always tell the rabbits that they
don't have to like each other but they must be civil
and fighting is not allowed! Course once they are civil,
they always fall in love....
Switching cages is good tactic. This forces the
rabbits to get used to living with each other's scent.
It also makes them accept both cages as a potential home,
not feeling overly dominant about either one. They should
swap living quarters every day.
Banana on the Head: Since many rabbits love banana as a treat,
we sometimes take a small amount and smear it just below the rabbit's
ears, on their forehead. A bun, loving the taste of a treat, will
lick the banana off the potential mate, while the potential mate
thinks that they are being groomed. This will encourage grooming
Only Out Time: At a certain point in the bonding process,
I often will let the play/exercise time be the bonding time. They
don't get to play unless it is with the potential mate. Most
rabbits want their exercise time outside their cages, so they
will learn to behave with the other rabbit around.
Talking Them Through it: When they are first getting to know
each other, I will talk the rabbits through the process. You
would be amazed at how well they listen. "Hans be a good bunny now".
"Jake, no bite". "Sasha no mount- that's a good girl". I can
always tell when they are listening to me. Reward positive behavior
with good words. Be willing to tell them not to do something.
Pile of Veggies: Eating is a social behavior in
rabbits. Plus, let's face it, most of our rabbits love
to eat. Place a pile of greens out and let them happily
Changing Locations: If you are stuck in rut or stage and just
don't feel as if you are making any progress, then I would consider
changing locations. It might be taking them to a friend's house
for an hour or moving to a completely different floor in your house
that neither bun has ever been near. This can be combined with
stressing them. I.e. the car ride to the strange location is a
stress factor and then they need to interact in a strange home.
Bathrooms are often used as
neutral space because they are about the right size and
many rabbits don't spend time there. However, your rabbit
knows that they are still in their house and their territory
isn't far away. Most of the time this is neutral enough,
but in some cases it might be better to go to a friend's
house. If you can have a friend bond in their house,
you will have a truly neutral environment. Another
advantage to this is that the only familiar thing is the
other bunny and it helps them look to each other for
support. This level of neutral territory is rarely needed,
but useful if you have a difficult bond. This level of
neutrality is rarely necessary.
Forced Snuggle: Often I will take the two rabbits and
place them side by side. One hand on their backs so they get
the message to stay still. With the other hand I will gently
pet both their noses. They relax and enjoy the attention while
at the same time they are with the other bun. Hopefully they
will start to associate them with pleasant thoughts and find
them less threatening.
A Fight Versus a Fight.
It is very important that you don't let your
rabbits fight and that you do everything in your
power to prevent one. However, if there is aggression
or an unfortunate fight, it is important that
to understand the different signs of aggression.
The worst type of aggression is the
"I hate you" fight where the rabbit approaches with the
intent of attacking. Often the ears are back at a 45
degree angle and the tail is up. It is clear that the
rabbits don't like each other and want to duke it out.
When this is happening, I recommend stressing or
the "Wear them Down"
approach. If you haven't chosen a mate yet, then
this rabbit would not be good a choice. The second type
of fight is more of a skirmish
which can develop into a full fledged fight. It has
more to do with establishing pecking order. Both males
and females will mount each other. This is not done
for sexual purposes but rather to establish dominance.
The dominant rabbit will mount the submissive rabbit.
Well- if you have two rabbits that want to be dominant,
they will resist the other rabbit trying to mount and
try to bite them as a way of saying "stop it". This
can easily turn into a fight between the two rabbits
as neither wants to submit. If I get a sense of which
one will be dominant, I will try petting the unwilling
submissive bunny, talking to them gently while the
other rabbit mounts. After mounting a few times, I
will shoo the dominant one away. It's a compromise-
let the dominant bun mount some, but not too much.
The Wear Them Down Method
Sometimes the best approach is to force the issue.
On a day that I don't mind spending inside, I will
set up the exercise pen in the living room. Get the
supplies (water bottle/gloves/sneakers) ready, pop
in a movie and place the buns in the pen. Leave
them in the entire day and spray them everytime
you see an aggressive sign. They must stay in the pen.
Sooner or later, and sometimes it truly is later,
they will start to give up the idea of fighting
and just kind of sulk. After periods of sulking,
one bun may approach the other one in a submissive
position. They may attempt to fight again (in which case
spray and continue) or they may start to accept
each other. Eventually they will reach an uneasy
truce and look towards building a peaceful coexistence
together. If at the end of an all day session, I
feel like they are unlikely to fight, I will move
the exercise pen into my bedroom and have them
spend the night in it. This way if they do happen to
tussle, I will wake up and stop it.
Rabbits that live in different warrens (rabbit families)
will mark against another warren by dropping
This is often misinterpreted as a loss of litterbox habits.
When this happens you should evaluate for signs of
marking. If you have a baby gate
separating two rabbits, don't be surprised if you find little
presents along this barrier. Marking occurs either near a
barrier that separates two warrens, or over the entire pen if
they can smell the other's scent in their environment.
When you start bonding, your rabbits may perceive themselves to be
two separate warrens and mark against each other.
Once the pair has bonded this behavior should disappear.
As a generalization, with more rabbit warrens you have in the
house, you will have more marking. If you are bonding a single
pair, the marking should cease once they are together and
you may never see it.
As you can probably tell there are many items
to take into account when bonding rabbits. An
experienced bonder can easily read a situation and
figure out which approach to take. The average
person rarely will do enough bondings to pick up
on the subleties. Hopefully this article pointed out
some of the things to look for and different
approaches to try in different situations. The
most important things are confidence and attiude.
If you believe that you can do it, you will.
If you need additional help bonding your rabbits, please
call or email us. We have many experienced volunteers
who would be willing to help.
Copyright 2000-2001 - Suzanne Smith
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