Rabbits by nature seek companionship, and in the wild they live in large communities and have a complex social hierarchy. Companionship for domestic rabbits is vital to their well-being, and this can be provided either by another rabbit, their human companions, or best of all, both. Most of the time, all rabbits can learn to get along. Arguably, the best rabbit pairing is a neutered male and spayed female. The reasoning behind this is that male and female pairings are their natural way of life in the wild. In this article, we will discuss rabbits living in pairs or more, provide some insight into their social instincts, and ponder how it impacts their behavior.
Single Rabbit Vs. Bonded Rabbits (Pairs or Groups)
A rabbit is typically happiest if it has another rabbit to live with. However, a single rabbit can be perfectly content if it is receiving enough attention from a human. This brings with it several advantages to you as an owner - your rabbit will bond more closely with you and be a more interactive pet, treating you almost like another rabbit by snuggling up to you, licking your hands and face and following you around. Once this bond is made it will never weaken, even if you add another rabbit. A single house rabbit involves a significant time commitment, as it requires a lot of your attention. The rabbit may also become very lonely when you have to go away on business or vacation.
Keep in mind that single house rabbits tend to suffer more from self-destructive behavior such as fur pulling, overeating and pulling at the bars on their cage, which can damage or break their teeth. Single house rabbits who do not receive enough companionship from their human owners may exhibit more destructive behavior and be prone to more mischief, such as chewing and digging. These are signs of boredom, or loneliness. Once these mischievous habits are formed, they are hard to break.
Bonded rabbits, however, living in pairs or groups, spend most all their time together sleeping, grooming or playing. As hard as they may try, human companions cannot substitute entirely for this type of interaction. It is natural for your rabbit to crave interaction with its own kind. Your rabbits will still want to be with you and show affection, but will not be so clingy when it has another bunny friend. Bonded rabbits also bring their own advantages to rabbit owners. The rabbits’ relationship can be quite heartwarming, and they will frequently play together, groom each other, and snuggle up together while resting. Another advantage is, you will never have to worry that your rabbit is lonely, even when you leave for awhile. However, a rabbit that has been used to living in a pair or group may have a hard time adjusting back to life as a single rabbit.
Adding a New Rabbit to the Mix
If you decide to find a new friend for your rabbit, remember that it works best if the rabbits are spayed or neutered. It is ideal to find a rabbit of the opposite sex for your existing rabbit to live with. If you already have a group of mixed sexes living together, then it doesn’t really matter. The age of the rabbits does not make a difference in how well they will get along. However, the closer in age the better, so there is less chance of one rabbit dying long before the other.
Often the easiest option is to adopt a rabbit from a local humane society or rescue center, as they will often be able to match you with a rabbit of the preferred sex, age and temperament. Be aware that even a match that is perfect on paper may not always work - rabbits have minds of their own! While they are naturally inclined to bond with another rabbit, they may sometimes dislike the new rabbit for no apparent reason. Another perk of adopting from a humane society or rescue group is that often they will exchange the rabbit for another if the one you brought home isn’t working out.
Hierarchy – Sizing Up the Competition
Like all animals that live in large groups, hierarchy is very important to rabbits, and very necessary to keep the peace in a large warren (a “warren” is the word for a group of wild rabbits living in one colony!). In the wild, rabbits live in male and female pairs and usually within a family group, with one pair or family being at the top of the tree and other pairs or families secondary to it. Younger rabbits and brand new family members not yet established in a pair are often not readily accepted and tend to live an isolated life outside of the warren. Domestic rabbits still have an instinct to adhere to this need for an established hierarchy.
The first thought in a rabbit's mind when encountering another rabbit is "are you a friend or an enemy?" Often the way to find this out is to exhibit dominance right off the bat! Typical signs of dominance are mounting (done by either a male or female), chasing, circling, and if the other rabbit doesn't submit, nipping and fur pulling. If the 'inferior' rabbit submits by laying its head on the ground, the show of dominance may continue for a good while longer, sometimes even days or weeks. Rabbits do sometimes approach each other as equals but once bonded, generally the doe will be the dominant one, even if in a very subtle, easy-to-miss manner. Other rabbits may take an instant dislike to each other and immediately start a fight, scratching and biting hard enough to draw blood, but it is very unusual for spayed and neutered animals to do this.
Top “Dog” (or Bunny)
Once a hierarchy is established, the 'top bunny' enjoys certain privileges, the most noticeable of which is grooming. The top bunny will insist on being groomed by an inferior peer by laying its head flat on the ground close to the other rabbit, often pushing its head under the other bunny’s chin. The boss may return the favor at times as an act of affection, but generally speaking, the top bunny gets much more grooming from her subordinates. Confusingly, rabbits also lay their heads on the ground to show submission, and you may also see submissive rabbits doing this.
The top bunny has first rights to food and may chase off any rabbit who it feels is threatening its food, especially if it is a treat such as a piece of carrot or banana. The top bunny often is the only one to look totally relaxed, rolling on its side or back to sleep, while the other rabbits remain in a semi-upright position to sleep. This may be an indicator that the dominant rabbit expects the others to “keep watch” while it sleeps.
How Humans Fit into the Hierarchy
This is somewhat unclear. On one hand, we may be seen as subordinates to the top bunny, but on another level we are, of course, the supreme boss. Humans dictate when meal times are, when nails will be clipped, and control sanitation. It seems there are certain aspects of its life that the top bunny cannot control and is happy to leave to us However, when it comes to simple interaction with our rabbits, humans are included in the hierarchy. Most top bunnies see themselves as superior to us and demand grooming from us in the same way they would from another rabbit. Do you think those little nose nudges are kisses? Think again! Some rabbits may groom their humans by licking their hands, feet and face, but this is more likely to be a sign of affection rather than an acknowledgment of inferiority. Less dominant rabbits are usually very happy to accept grooming from us but do not demand it in the way a dominant rabbit would.
Grief and Coping with Loss
For bonded rabbits, the loss of a partner can be very traumatic. Bonded rabbits live very closely together, spending hours sleeping, grooming, eating, playing and communicating, so the sudden loss of their partner is difficult for them to cope with. In particular, rabbits that have been bonded from the time they were babies, either with their litter mates or another rabbit, may become extremely depressed. As an owner, this can be very hard, trying to understand and support your remaining rabbit while dealing with your own grief. We all hope that when the time comes, our rabbits go peacefully and without a lot of pain. The best case scenario is when your rabbit simply goes to sleep and doesn't wake up. In fact, this is also the best thing for your remaining rabbit.
Rabbits are not upset by the sight of a dead partner. In fact, it is beneficial for them to see this so they can understand what has happened and do not think that their partner has simply disappeared. Rabbits have also been known to engage in a kind of “dance” when their companion dies. It is unknown what the purpose of this is, but some people think it is the rabbit's way of expressing their grief while giving their friend a goodbye.
If you are in the sad position of having to have your rabbit euthanized, it is ideal to do this at your home in the rabbit’s own environment. This is not only less stressful for your rabbit, but the remaining rabbit will have a chance to see their partner and accept its death. However, depending on the immanent cause of death, this may not be realistic, particularly if the rabbit is suffering from an illness that it could pass on to its herd mates. Whenever possible, it is recommended that you give your remaining rabbit at least an hour with its deceased partner’s body. This may seem very morbid to us but it really is the best thing for your rabbit. Stay with your rabbit and monitor its behavior. It will likely find your presence comforting and will understand that you are grieving, too.
Letting Go and Moving On
In the days and weeks following its partner’s death, your rabbit may be withdrawn and hide away from you. It may even show aggression towards you, even if it has never previously behaved this way. Others may seek you out for companionship, following you around and lying down close to your feet. However your rabbit behaves, remember that this is a temporary situation caused by grief so be patient and respect its needs. Although you may be able to provide some comfort and companionship for your rabbit, the best thing you can do is to find it another partner. Rabbits can be happy living as singles if they have enough companionship from humans, but a rabbit that has been used to living in a pair is unlikely to ever be completely happy on its own again. A bereaved rabbit will sometimes accept a new partner very quickly. This can even be as soon as the day after its old partner has died, in some cases. Some rabbits need more time to adjust to a newcomer. In all cases, introductions should always be carried out slowly.
It is often us as owners who find it hardest to move on, feeling that we would be betraying the lost rabbit by welcoming another into our home so soon. In this respect we can learn from our rabbits -welcoming a new rabbit does not lessen the love we felt, and will always feel, for the rabbit we have loved and lost.
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