Guen Bradbury is a vet who runs a teleconsultancy to help rabbit owners, vets, and vet nurses with behavioural problems in rabbits. She has written a textbook on this subject. She is the veterinary adviser for RWAF Rabbiting on Magazine and is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh, and she also lectures on the Cambridge University veterinary course.

An important source for this veterinary webinar is the result of a questionnaire sent to rabbit owners, rescue centres and veterinary professionals looking in detail at the experience of rabbit bonding.  The questionnaire was sent out to 1200 rabbit owners, 82 vets, and 22 rescue centres, and there is a link to the resulting publication. Based on this the learning objectives of this presentation are an understanding of: 

  1. The social relationships that rabbits require
  2. What influences bonding success
  3. What influences bond breakdown
  4. Which behaviours are normal and when
  5. What you can advise and do to maximise the likelihood of stable rabbit relationships

Guen sets out the ‘bottom line’ at the beginning of the webinar. This is a little different to what we may be used to but it works well as it sets the scene for each scenario and subsequent recommendations. The bottom line is: 

  • Male-female bonds seem to be easiest to form and least likely to break down
  • Male-male bonds are least likely to work and often break down at puberty
  • Groups seem to be more stable than single-sex bonds
  • To improve the likelihood of stable relationships set the bond up for success at the beginning, and try to reduce bond disruptions as much as possible

Getting this wrong can have serious welfare consequences, with 40% of owners having had a pair of rabbits that fought so badly that they could no longer be kept together. Yet rabbits are very social animals and need to be with other rabbits. This is more harmoniously achieved in the wild where an individual rabbit, although living in a structured hierarchical group, will nevertheless have 15-20 metres free range space from other rabbits during the grazing period. Owners cannot meet basic needs such as this in domestication, even though many think they can.

The first of a series of answers to questions in the questionnaire is now reported- the owner reported success rate of bonding. Of the successful bonding 65% were male/female, 15% were groups and 10% were female/female.  Attempting male/female bonding had a 95% success rate. A similar set of results emerged from the rescue centres, with male/female bonding being the easiest and the others significantly more difficult, with group bonding being the hardest.  

Bond breakdown occurs quite commonly with 40% of owners reporting this. Again male/female were the most stable and least likely to breakdown. Reasons for bond breakdown included illness, separation-e.g. hospitalisation, puberty, spring hormonal increases, introduction of a new rabbit, and a lack of neutering.

There were 203 veterinary reported incidences of fighting, with as expected a massively increased (X 37) incidence in male/male wounds requiring attention. Some of the injuries involving male genitalia are severe, difficult to repair with some requiring euthanasia. Statistics from rescue centres confirmed that male/male pairing carried a much higher risk of bond breakdown, with female/female not far behind, only a small number of group breakdowns and an even smaller number of male/female failures.

The evidence from the survey is overwhelmingly clear from the above but what are the behavioural aspects of bonding that are useful to understand in helping, as described in the introduction, to ‘set the bond up for success’?

We are informed that ‘Bonding’ has multiple stages ranging from: 

  1. Not bonded
  2. Encountering
  3. Tolerating
  4. Affiliating to finally
  5. Bonded

For each of these we see two boxes. For example in the encountering phase there is information on normal behaviours and concerning behaviours. Normal behaviour during the encountering phase, when there is usually a form of separation where they can still see each other is: 

  • Ignoring each other
  • Feeding
  • Grooming themselves
  • Exploring unfamiliar environment
  • Spending time close to each other

Concerning behaviour is: 

  • Growling
  • Lunging
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Fighting

This type of behaviour is always concerning and applies to all five stages mentioned previously.

The encountering phase varies in its duration. It could be as little as a few hours, days or even weeks.

The tolerance phase is where the rabbits are getting used to each other but not yet really friends. Owners may mistake normal behaviour at this stage for bullying or fighting and prematurely separate the rabbits. It is normal for a certain amount of chasing/retreating, humping, fur pulling (without injury to the skin).  Providing that one rabbit freezes or runs away after chasing, this is just part of the process in deciding who will be the dominant partner. A good sign later will be the rabbits starting to mutual groom and spending time close to each other.

The affiliation phase leading to bonding will show the rabbits resting together, exploring and feeding apart, occasional chasing and retreating, posturing and mutual grooming.

The final part of this excellent webinar is aimed at vets by presenting them with various scenarios with suggestions for dealing with each one. In the ideal world we might be approached for advice before acquiring rabbits. Clear advice at this stage would be to avoid acquiring just one rabbit and not same sex pairing.  Also it would be worth approaching a rescue centre to find out if they have bonded vaccinated pairs.

Acquiring a male/female pair can be more difficult as the females are often kept back by retailers for breeding. Both males and females should be neutered and there are RWAF guidelines as to the optimum timing for males and females. The scenarios that are described and which conversations to have with your client are: 

  • When your client has a single rabbit-advice on how to go about bonding
  • When your client has a prepubertal pair of rabbits
  • When your client has an adult male-male pair
  • When your client wants to add a rabbit to a pair or group. This can be quite risky as the whole group could breakdown.
  • When your client has a rabbit that requires hospitalisation

There is an amazing amount of information and statistics in the webinar, which I have just summarised. Guan uses her slides as prompts and speaks from her considerable experience. It is worth taking notes so that you can reflect (RCVS style) on the content. Even though rabbits are the third most common pet in the UK there is still lots to do to improve their welfare. This webinar, along with others in the rabbit series, is really welfare  important and thoroughly recommended.