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SOCIALIZING YOUR RABBIT

You've had one rabbit for a while, and you think it would be great if your rabbit had the company of another rabbit. You know that rabbits like companionship, so after attempting to determine your male rabbit's personality type, you bring a female home and introduce her into the hutch. Peace, joy, tranquility, domestic bliss, harmony and good will abound! Not exactly.

Immediately, your male rabbit seems to feel his home has been invaded. As they square off in aggressive poses, growling ominously, you are struck with the realization that you have a real problem here. And you need to fix it - now!

The problem? You have put two rabbits that are unfamiliar with each other in a living space that, until a few moments ago, had a single happy tenant. Now he's been asked to share his condo, and he's not feeling generous. You have just witnessed evidence of what you've heard for sometime about rabbits but were reluctant to believe. Rabbits can be bad-tempered, their growls as scary as those of a small dog. Oh yes, rabbits bite and scratch, too.

While conventional rabbit wisdom suggests that two male rabbits will battle each other for territory more often than two female rabbits, in fact, any two rabbits who are unfamiliar with each other might make the fur fly. So to prevent bloodshed, you need to find a better method of introduction.

While rabbits are, indeed, sociable animals, introductions defy the Easter Bunny myth of friendliness and docility. Not unlike humans, your rabbit is picky about his socializing. How would you feel if your friends tried to set you up with a blind date - one who came to the door with a toothbrush and a suitcase? Rabbits often express this natural jealousy and resentment in open hostility and aggression as they try to establish territorial rights, so plan ahead.

Adopting Your New Rabbit

You would think that your rabbit would like his new companion to be similar - the same breed, gender and size. Not entirely. It is common for two physically distinct rabbits to live well together, sometimes in surprising social interchange. You may see a dwarf rabbit with a rabbit twice its size, with the dwarf rabbit establishing dominance. Also, two same-gender rabbits, particularly when altered, can learn to share their space nicely. But before deciding on the perfect bunny companion for your rabbit, you'll need to take several factors into consideration.

  • Consider the reproductive status of your rabbits. It is more likely that two unaltered rabbits will become aggressive with each other than two who have been spayed or neutered. PETCO strongly recommends you spay or neuter your rabbit. Sometimes matching a spayed female with a neutered male might work quite well, as long as they're of the same level of maturity.
  • Age does, in fact, play some role in compatibility between rabbits so it should be your next consideration. While it seems logical that a two-year-old female rabbit would enjoy being a caregiver to a six-week-old bunny, that is unlikely. Rabbits, like most people, prefer their friends closer to their own age; they find older rabbits or younger animals to be like pesky siblings. Your two-year old female would rather hang out with a rabbit who is at least a teen, and the younger animal would be more comfortable with a three-month-old buddy than one the age of his mother. This discrimination is natural, since rabbits of different ages have different temperaments.
  • You may find that even if they are both altered and of the same age, two rabbits with different temperaments might not be friendly. Your rabbit might be confident and domineering, defensive and insecure, aloof, laid back, jittery or anxious, irritable or a blend of several of these personality characteristics. It is possible, of course, for rabbits of differing temperaments to live harmoniously with each other, just as people can. But whatever the two rabbits' personalities, you will still need to prepare to bring a new rabbit into the fold before actually doing so.

Maintain the Peace with Preparation

You've found what you believe to be the perfect rabbit buddy for your pet rabbit. You're about to bring her home and introduce her to your first rabbit. But if you haven't taken the next step - matching your rabbit with a new companion - you may soon be vacuuming rabbit fur out of the corners. This next step is preparation. There are several measures that you can take to make the introductory period much more pleasant for all.

Two rabbits new to each other can become more comfortable if introduced on neutral territory. Set aside a space in your home where your rabbit has never spent time, preferably a space no larger than six square feet with easy-to-clean floors. It is important as well to make certain that there are no objects where the rabbits can hide to avoid each other. Then close this space with a baby gate or some other barrier that your rabbits can't overcome. Remember that bigger rabbits mean stronger barriers. If your rabbit knows every space in your house, use an outdoor shed or garage (free of toxins like gasoline and car oil) as a neutral territory.

Arm yourself with patience and stay calm. This could be a long and bumpy process. Actually, it would be better for all if you can find a sympathetic friend's house where you can hold introduction sessions. At the very least, however, have an experienced rabbit person nearby or available for consultation by phone.

Just as important as neutral territory for introducing the rabbits is a separate space in which to house each rabbit. Until your rabbits can get along with each other, keep them in separate cages. Remember that rabbits are territorial and need their own space, but the cages should be in the same room so the rabbits get used to each other's presence.

Once the introductory process actually begins, you will be quite pleased that you have taken these steps to prepare, because they will help you maintain your dignity and composure while trying to prevent a cat, or rather a rabbit, fight.

Polite Introductions

Now you're ready to acquaint your two rabbits with one another. You're prepared - you've found just the right space where the floor will make cleanup easy, and there are no hiding places for anxious rabbits. You'll need to have someone skilled in presenting rabbits to each to help you prevent mayhem between the two animals.

Next, put your pets into separate animal carriers, the kind used for small dogs or cats is appropriate, and bring them each to the designated meeting place. Release the rabbits into the area at the same time, remembering to simply open the door to the carrier and let the rabbits decide to come out on their own. Gently coaxing them out if you need to is okay, but don't try to force them out against their will or drop them into the area because then you will have two already agitated rabbits to introduce to each other. They'll be as happy to meet each other as two kids whose mothers forced them, against their protests, into the same room together and closed the door. Things might get ugly pretty quickly.

After you've let the rabbits out into the meeting area, they will spend about five minutes exploring the place, getting acquainted with this unfamiliar environment. They will ignore each other at first. Then one rabbit will begin chasing the other around the area until he catches his intended target. The aggressor will mount his terrified captive and hold him down until he stops struggling - a matter of establishing dominance.

The rabbits should be returned to their cages after 20 minutes and the process repeated each day. In most cases, the aggressive rabbit will repeat his ritual with the passive rabbit for several days or even weeks, until you begin to notice the rabbits beginning to warm up to each other. This will be obvious by their grooming each other, licking and snuggling, chasing each other playfully. At that point, you may want to put the rabbits together in non-neutral territory but the introductory sessions may need to be repeated again.

Until the time your rabbits start to get along, you may suffer some stressful introductory sessions. If neither of your rabbits wants to relinquish control to the other, yours may be a situation in which the rabbits literally try to tear each other's ears off. They may bite, scratch and kick each other in the belly with their strong back legs. It is possible that some injuries may require medical attention or in some cases, hospitalization.

You can, however, have some control over this frightening scenario. You must begin with your own emotions, particularly if the rabbit being dominated is the resident rabbit. You can make a loud noise like stomping your feet or dropping a metal trash can top to the floor that will startle the rabbits into separating and hiding. They will stop long enough for intervention and at that point you may want to end the day's session.

Believe it or not, even in cases in which things start out really badly, the rabbits usually learn to get along. Eventually you start to see those obvious signs of friendship and your bunnies become friends for life. In fact, your rabbits may begin to reject you, so enthralled with each other they will be!

Now what if you want to introduce them to other pets? To your baby? Will there be a similar stressful introductory period? In all cases, it is possible to introduce other family members to the rabbit and have all live in harmony. But there are specific steps for each new being to whom the rabbit is to be introduced.

Introducing Your Rabbit to Other Pets

Your rabbit has become comfortable in your home and you believe it is time to introduce him to the rest of the family, which may include a dog, a cat and your baby. The type of introduction you perform depends on the rabbit's personality as well as that of the pet's or baby's personality. Obviously, introducing a rabbit to another animal is a different process than an introduction to your baby, so we'll start there.

Rabbits and Dogs

To introduce a skittish rabbit to your rambunctious dog, you will need to keep the dog on a leash and your rabbit in its cage. Allow the rabbit and dog to sniff each other out while the rabbit remains in the familiar and comfortable territory of its cage. The dog should be obedience trained with the words "no," "stop," "stay" and "down" being familiar to the dog. If the dog gets too excited and attempts to charge the rabbit's cage, say "NO!" and do a quick tug on the leash. When the dog is gentle, praise the dog saying, "Good dog! Good gentle dog." The dog will begin to associate the word "gentle" with calm handling of the rabbit. Take your time with this process, because if you have to chastise the dog too often, you're trying to move the process too quickly.

Eventually, you'll want to be able to release the rabbit in the house and have the dog be able to restrain himself by your commands, such as "stay down." Until your dog is properly obedience trained, it may be unsafe for the rabbit to run about freely with the dog in the house.

Should you worry about the supposed natural enmity between rabbits and dogs? Yes and no - depending on the dog, the rabbit and you. Your obedience-trained, domesticated dog will have his natural hunting instinct buried under years of domestication. Some dogs, however, are chasers and if you haven't discouraged them from the habit, keeping them with your rabbit may be a challenge.

The dog needs to be taught that just as you, the cat and the baby are part of your household, so is the rabbit. He's not dinner, he's a family member. And just as your dog can be taught not to chase the cat in your home, he can be taught not to chase the rabbit.

But the rabbit and the dog should never be left alone and unrestrained. This could be dangerous to the rabbit because, although you have trained the dog not to harm the rabbit, the dog seeks your guidance by your commands. If you are not there to calm the dog down after he's been excited by the racing rabbit, your dog may have a difficult time restraining himself from harming or even killing your rabbit.

So to avert disaster, don't expect your dog to remember what he was taught about the rabbit - just be present if you intend to let the rabbit out of his cage while the dog is not on a leash or out of the house. Also, none of this holds true with yard dogs or hutch rabbits that are not part of your household. The two should never be left alone either with each other or with your domestic rabbit or dog.

Rabbits and Cats

Now, cats are a different introductory game all together, because even domesticated cats are predatory by nature. It will be up to you to change the environmental cues to thwart the cat's natural stalking instinct, even if she chases rabbits outside. This is possible, but it is not always necessary. This process may be time consuming and is one of the many factors that should be taken into consideration before adopting a new rabbit.

Rabbits are usually social animals, preferring to live with other rabbits or pet companions. They can live with turtles and guinea pigs sometimes more easily than other rabbits in some cases. Cats, on the other hand, are solitary animals. A rabbit the same size or larger than your cat might become the aggressor, chasing the cat around the house. The rabbit is confident that he can establish a social hierarchy in your home with your cat just as he might try with another rabbit. Your cat, however, being a solitary animal, sees the rabbit as a threat, and won't challenge the rabbit, but will run. As a solitary animal, she has learned to run from aggressors rather than fight, because she must usually fight alone.

Dwarf rabbits paired with larger cats are another story. The cat sees the dwarf rabbit as prey, much like a mouse, and if the cat is an adolescent cat which hasn't learned to control her impulses, your rabbit could be in big trouble. In cases where the cat is the aggressor, you'll need to introduce the cat to the rabbit while the rabbit remains in its cage. The space between the wires should be close enough that your cat cannot get her paw into the cage.

Your rabbit should have a place to run and hide in his cage to get away from the cat. Your cat should have her claws clipped and curved at least once a month, because a full-claw swat from your cat can give the rabbit an undetectable scratch that may later become an abscess. A cage with some running room is a good idea, since it gives the cat an opportunity to get used to the rabbit racing back and forth

The cat and the rabbit should be allowed to get used to each other's smells and sounds so that the cat doesn't feel the urge to interpret each of the rabbit's moves or sounds as a signal to attack. The cat should experience the rabbit's behavior as just part of the normal household activity, just like the baby crawling on the floor or the toddler crying.

At some point, perhaps after several days of observing your cat's calm reaction to the movements, sounds and smells of the rabbit, you may want to let the rabbit out into the room with your cat. But supervise, because the cat may not be able to contain its urge to stalk in this new scenario. If the cat is only sniffing the rabbit, or the two get into a minor conflict where no danger of injury seems imminent, then don't intervene. It's important to let them learn to resolve their own conflicts.

Cats and rabbits can learn to get along if properly and patiently introduced, but you must give the process time, or else you may never get the two pets used to one another. Moving slowly leads to success. Now that you've gotten your cat, rabbit and dog to live harmoniously, should you introduce your rabbit to your baby? Naturally, you will be concerned about the baby's and rabbit's reaction to one another, and you will be hopeful that the introduction will be successful. But how do you achieve that end?

Rabbits With Babies and Children

Of course, with new babies come significant changes in your household, especially if the rabbit came first. But even if the baby or children were in the home first, there will need to be some changes when introducing a rabbit into the mix. Rabbits and children can be harmful and dangerous to each other unless there are some rules made and boundaries set for both the children and the rabbit, particularly as it relates to their physical interaction.

When a new baby is brought home, the rabbit's activities and freedom may need to be restricted - if only because you will not have nearly as much time to supervise the rabbit or attend to his emotional needs. As you become less affectionate with the rabbit, he will become less receptive to affection. This may be more positive than negative, because the rabbit will become more independent and find his time with you more valuable.

Often, the rabbit may feel overwhelmed by the endless energy your children display. If you are going to let the rabbit out of his cage, you must teach both the rabbit and kids the rules of interaction. The children must learn how to treat the rabbit gently, starting with sitting quietly next to the rabbit and gently stroking it. Respect and gentleness should be consistently reinforced with the kids. Mishandling the rabbit could lead to a scared and vicious rabbit as he tries to defend himself from abuse.

You should provide the rabbit with places to hide when he feels overwhelmed by all of the activity of your kids. Be careful not to allow the kids run around without being watchful of the rabbit, because they could accidentally step on and harm or kill the rabbit. Alternatively, you and your rabbit might feel better if he remains in his cage until the children are down for the night and he can be let out of his cage to rule the roost once again.

If the children do get scratched by the rabbit, use the experience as a teaching opportunity for the kids, showing them what they did to anger the rabbit and explaining to them that small rabbits are likely to frighten more easily and defend themselves by scratching or biting.

But the rabbit must learn a few rules of his own. The rabbit must learn not to chew up the children's toys, because the rabbit's teeth and jaws are so powerful that they can create sharp edges on chewed toys that are dangerous to the kids. Children's toys may be expensive to replace as well. Your rabbit may need to spend much more time in his cage with his own toys before he learns not to destroy your children's toys.

Most importantly, make sure the rabbit and your children are never left alone together. They may hurt each other and the injuries may require medical attention. Discipline and rules will be important to maintaining some measure of order in your home - at least to the extent that is possible to have order with children and a rabbit in the home.

You'll have to follow your intuition when introducing your rabbit to other members of the household if you want all to live together under the same roof in peace. You know your pets and your children better than the rabbit, so it's up to you to protect the rabbit and make him feel safe and comfortable in the environment before introducing him to the rest of the family. If you anticipate major problems, a rabbit may not be the right pet for your home.

Your rabbit will likely be uncomfortable meeting those outside the family, so limit his exposure to strangers. Don't allow strangers to handle the rabbit, because he may become frightened and scratch or bite. Strangers also may unwittingly injure the rabbit as well. With proper introductions, you, your rabbit and your family can comfortably co-exist.