Pairing Rabbits
Copyright 2000 - Nancy J. LaRoche
All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)

Rabbits are very social creatures who seem to be happier, healthier, and to live longer if they have a mate. In nature, the European wild rabbit (from which all of our domestic rabbits are descended) bonds for life.

It is possible that a rabbit and cat or a rabbit and a dog will be good friends. But even if this is the case, it is still good for rabbits to have a friend of their own kind. Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are most active in the early mornings and evenings. Most other companion animals are nocturnal or diurnal, so the mixed-species pair usually wonít share life 24 hours a day. Furthermore, a rabbit is likely to be far less stressed if having to stay with a veterinarian overnight with a friend of her own kind to share the unusual environment.

Like people, rabbits are picky about their lifetime partners. They are likely to be less selective when young than when they are older. However, it is never too late to find a friend for a rabbit. Ideally, the two should be close to the same size and age - not that the rabbits care, but because of other considerations:

  1. Being close to the same size makes them less likely to hurt each other during the squabbles which usually accompany introductions

  2. Being close to the same age maximizes their chances to live out their lives together, avoiding the ďleap-frogĒ situation where an older rabbit has become a widow/widower. Then this rabbit might only be able to find only a younger partner, who is likely to also end up as another older rabbit looking for a partner when the older one passes on.

As previously mentioned, rabbits are choosy about who they want as a mate. So if you have a rabbit who needs a partner, donít think you can get just any rabbit and be guaranteed a successful pairing. Plan on trying to introduce the two, observe their interactions, and be prepared to try a different rabbit if the two are not compatible, .

The easiest and most natural pairing of two rabbits is done with a neutered male and a spayed female. Never try to pair two rabbits when one is altered and the other isnít. The hormonal needs are too different and the unaltered rabbit will drive the other rabbit to distraction trying to mate with him or her. Eventually the two are likely to have regular fights.

It is essential each rabbit has had at least 10 days to heal following their spay or neuter and before being introduced to each other. Serious injury, leading to death, may result if they are allowed to be together prior to the completion of this healing period.

Two females will often become friends and share a home. And two males can sometimes be paired, but they are far more likely to fight and inflict serious injury. I recommend going with the more natural pairing - male and female - but be aware there are always rabbits who prefer their own sex. It is also possible to have groups of rabbits, but methods of introducing groups and same-sex pairings will not be discussed here.

First Steps
Start with two crates, one for each rabbit. Put them next to each other, with two or three inches separating them at first so they canít bite each otherís noses through the sides of the crates. This is an ideal setup if one of the rabbits has just been spayed or neutered. The two can be next to each other throughout the healing period.

Each day, switch the rabbits so each is in the otherís crate. Donít clean prior to switching, so each rabbit is living in the other rabbitís space. Of course, you will have to clean the crates from time to time, but try to do it after the rabbit has been in the otherís crate for at least several hours.

After a few days of this, move the crates as close to each other as you can, but move them apart immediately if the rabbits are nipping at each other. Take the next step if they are trying to groom each other or are lying next to each other. If the rabbits never stop nipping at each other, you might want to start over with a different rabbit. But it is possible if you continue with the next steps, you could still get a pairing.

Take the two rabbits to a fairly large neutral area - at least 8 ft by 4 ft or even larger if possible. A neutral territory is one that neither rabbit has spent enough time in to feel a sense of ownership. If the surface is linoleum or tile rather than carpet, the rabbits will be unable to get traction making them less likely to hurt each other if they do start fighting. Some people use a bathtub to introduce rabbits, but I prefer a larger space so the meeting can be more natural.

Put several stools, tunnels, boxes, etc. in this area so the rabbits can get away from each other if they want. Include a litter box that has been used by both rabbits, a box of hay, and a heavy crock of water in an out-of-the-way spot, so the rabbits are less likely to land in it if they start scuffling or racing around frantically.

Wear heavy shoes or boots (sports shoes are usually sufficient, but avoid sandals) and have a broom handy. Put the two rabbits in the neutral territory simultaneously and stay with them. Donít have more than one person in the area at a time, because two people may knock into each other and be unable to separate the rabbits if the rabbits start to fight. If the rabbits do start to fight, use the broom or your feet to separate them. Grab one with your hand only when you have them separated so they donít bite you.

Note: when rabbits fight, they draw the third eyelids over their eyes to protect them. They donít see well to begin with. With their eyes covered by the third eyelid, they see even more poorly. They may attack your feet, not realizing that you arenít the other rabbit. Obviously, if your hand is in the way, they may attack it, not meaning to hurt you but mistaking you for their foe. So be careful about getting your hands where the rabbits may bite them. Once the rabbits have been separated, grab one quickly, lifting him or her off the floor into your arms.

Pairing Behaviors
Rabbits may spend as much as a couple of hours pretending they donít see each other. Or they may immediately attack each other. Or they may touch noses, and suddenly be ďin love.Ē The most common reaction is for them to spend some time avoiding each other. Donít try to force them to be together.

In nature, the female European wild rabbit builds her burrow, and then goes to find a male to become her mate. So it is natural that most often, the female will be the first to approach the male, who may run away. She will continue to approach him, and may even mount him (head or tail) until she gets his attention - at which point he may start chasing her. Suddenly she will become a little coquette by running away and letting him exhaust himself trying to catch her. Do not interfere with this!

Sometimes the male will continue to ignore the female no matter how much she likes him. If this happens, she is likely to eventually lose patience. Being a woman scorned, she may finally attack him. Chances are poor such a pair will bond well, although you may want to give the two a break from each other and then start over a few days later.

Sometimes the male may immediately rush the female and try to mount her, with not so much as a by-your-leave. Usually the female turns on him to fight him off or races frantically away to find a place she can go where he canít mount her. Having small stools or tubes serving as tunnels is important to allow her to be able to get away from him. On the other hand, she may decide she likes him and allow him to corner her and have his way with her.

If you have the time to remain with them, you can allow the two to remain together for several hours. If you can't stay that long, let them be together for at least 30 minutes (assuming there are no actual fights), and repeat the introduction again later.

Dominance Displays
Rabbits often go through ďdominance displays,Ē each expressing dominance over the other. Chances are the female domestic rabbit will actually be the dominant of the pair since the societal structure of the European wild rabbit is a matriarchy. But the male must let her know that he isnít just a doormat, too. So each will display dominance to the other. If the male is a doormat, the female will become disgusted, and attack him. This pairing may not work, but you can try again a day or two later. Sometimes after thinking over what happened, the rabbits will approach the situation with different attitudes.

After the honeymoon in the best pairings, when the pair settles down to everyday living, one cannot see any evidence of which rabbit is the dominant. Each may groom and gently care for the other. But during the introductions there are two common displays of dominance:

  1. The first is one where each rabbit leaps over the other and strikes the other oneís back with his or her feet. Hair usually goes flying everywhere, but it is highly unlikely that either rabbit will even be scratched. Again, do not interfere. If they are exhibiting this behavior, it is because they must ďhave this discussionĒ before they are ready to accept each other.

  2. Another display of dominance has to do with mounting or ďhumping.Ē Such behavior is motivated by three possible factors: sex, domination, and affection. During introductions, the primary factor is dominance with sex and affection both playing a part. Each rabbit will mount the other. They may mount the head or the rear.

Do not allow the male to mount the femaleís head if you canít see her nose poking out from under him. If she doesnít like what he is doing, she may bite his penis. Such a bite could be deep enough to sever the urethra, making him unable to urinate. Obviously, this could be a life threatening injury. If he tries to mount her head, push him gently so her nose is sticking out or so he is mounting her shoulder.

Sometimes the two rabbits will each begin trying to mount each other, causing them to circle, head to tail. This must be broken up immediately. Each rabbit is getting frustrated, dizzy, and angry! A vicious fight will break out if this isnít stopped.

Final Steps
Eventually, the rabbits will begin spending less time scuffling and chasing each other. They may take naps a foot or two apart or explore different parts of the room. Little by little, they will begin lying closer to each other, grooming each other, and fully accepting each other.

The cage (the rabbitís personal home) tends to be a far more personal possession than the space around it. It is important to let the rabbits decide when they are ready to share their home. You may cause a vicious fight if you put them in a cage together. It can be very difficult to break up such a fight inside a cage. Allow the rabbits to go into their home together on their own. One may go in, the other start to follow and then quickly back off, acknowledging the territory of the other. Gradually, they will agree that they are truly a couple, having equal rights to their home, and they will curl up together in their home.

Final Comments
Rabbits are highly individualistic creatures. Please understand this description covers the way most rabbits behave most of the time, but be aware they may do something totally unexpected. Should this happen, the best advice is to use common sense in dealing with it and try to put it in the context of the behavioral principles explained in this article.

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