Rabbits are a prey species who have evolved to seek safety in numbers, by living in large colonies in the wild. They are social creatures, and live in family groups, within the larger colonies, in warrens. As well as the safety aspect, they benefit greatly from the companionship of other rabbits.
Domestic rabbits, are not too dissimilar to their wild cousins in their behaviours, and also benefit greatly from companionship. The process of introducing rabbits to potential rabbit friends is known as bonding.
Bonding is very time consuming, and is not easy, and is not something that should be undertaken lightly. If done correctly you will end up with very happy bunnies, but if it goes wrong, you could end up with some injured rabbits. So it might be wise to ask your local rescue if they can recommend anyone who can help you with bonding, before attempting it yourself. There are a variety of different methods of bonding, but this is the one I prefer.
All the rabbits being bonded should be neutered, and the neutering operation should have been carried out at least 6 weeks before bonding begins.
It can be useful to swap over litter trays, beds and toys in the week before bonding commences, so the rabbits get used to each other's smell.
Here's a brief guide to the steps involved in neutral territory bonding. No two rabbits are the same, so the steps are flexible and may need to be adapted, but these are the general rules:
- Start off in a small neutral place, no bigger than 4ft by 2ft. A puppy pen lined with news paper and hay can be ideal for this. Do not include any litter trays, or toys etc at this stage. Start off in the morning, and stay with them until bed time to supervise them constantly. If any fighting occurs make a loud noise, clap your hands, rattle the pen etc to try to stop them. Nipping, fur pulling, humping, stamping and chasing are all to be expected at this stage, but full on biting, kicking and fighting needs to be stopped. Avoid separating them once they are together or you will need to start from scratch again. If fighting cannot be stopped, this is when you should consider separating them, possibly trying to start the process again in a few days time.
- Expand the pen as each 24 hours passes with out trouble. If any trouble does occur after expanding the pen, reduce it again. Make sure you are there to supervise closely during the first few days, and can hear any trouble that occurs over night.
- After 4 or 5 trouble free days start adding in litter trays, and then toys the next day if theres still no trouble
- After 7 days with out any trouble, you may begin to return them to where they will live together. Start off with a small space, and increase gradually again.
Ensure that the accommodation they will live in together has been thoroughly cleaned and neutralised before putting them in it, along with any litter trays, toys, bedding etc...
If any behaviours are getting out of hand, talk soothingly to the rabbits, distract them with food, push them apart with your hands etc. If fighting occurs immediately move the rabbits apart, if the fighting cannot be stopped or controlled, it may be that the rabbits are not a good match and bonding needs to be stopped. Always check for any wounds after fighting has occurred.
Some people will start the process, immediately before placing them in the bonding pen, with a stressful experience, such as a car journey in the same carrier. The thinking behind this is that the stress of the journey will make them snuggle to each other for comfort without realising they are doing it, and by the end of the journey are a little more accepting of each other. This can work with some rabbits, but with others can be dangerous e.g.: a fight in a carrier whilst driving can be difficult to stop, and the stress can lead to stasis.
Another option is a technique I found out about from The Rabbit Crossing rescue, called "Introduction Stress Reduction Technique". This involves sitting with the rabbits together on your knee, talking to them soothingly and stroking them, for as long as possible, before placing them in the bonding pen. They get used to touching each other, and each other's smell without being able to fight. I've found it very helpful, especially with group bonds and now use this regularly in preference to the stress method.
Not all rabbits are suited to each other, so its important to select a suitable partner based on personality. When bonding fails this can be due to a variety of factors, such as: the partner wasn't a good match, the bonding method was wrong, it was too soon after neutering, the area wasn't neutral... One failed bond doesn't mean that the rabbit will never bond with another rabbit, so don't give up without exploring other options e.g.: try a different bonding method, try the same method but slower, try a different partner, try waiting a while before restarting bonding....