How to Socialize Your Rabbit with Another Rabbit
What does socialization mean?
A rabbit stuck in a tiny cage all of his life with no partner of his species to interact with is going to develop serious psychological problems in most cases resulting in biting and attacking of the owner and other disturbed behavior. The only ethical way to keep a rabbit at home is with at least a partner with whom he can play and cuddle, whom he can chase and with whom he can share his life.
However, if you decide to adopt a second rabbit for your pet rabbit, you must know that rabbits defend their territory to death. When attempting to put a new rabbit into the territory of the old rabbit, they will injure each other severely or even kill each other. Never and under no circumstances (!) can you put the new rabbit into your old rabbit's cage without any prior preparation.
I have been interested in the ethical way of treating animals and specifically pets for years. When my sister decided to get a second rabbit and started to explain to me how difficult it is to socialize two rabbits, I immediately became interested.
Sleepy, the Lop-Eared Harlequin Rabbit
Rabbits in Solitude Become Sick
Rabbits should always be kept in groups of at least two. Many animals which by nature live in herds or flocks or packs or groups like horses, birds, dogs or guinea pigs and rabbits become sick without a partner, especially when they are confined to tiny cages with no freedom to run and jump around. They may seem healthy to us humans but they have a natural instinct to socialize with their own kind and humans can never satisfy that specific need. We can give the rabbit a lot of love and spend time with him but we don't speak the rabbit language, we don't clean their fur like they do or cuddle like they do or play and chase each other like they do. Domestic rabbits are similar to wild rabbits in behavior. The urge to socialize with others is one of the most important rabbit instincts. This includes territorial behavior, conflict behavior, hierarchy, mating behavior, breeding and social hygiene. Thus, it is absolutely unethical, to keep a pet rabbit all by himself. When alone, rabbits are subjected to permanent stress, as they don't have a partner to protect them and socialize with. This often makes them lazy and they tend to overeat. Single rabbits often develop behavioral disorders including biting and scratching. In the worst case, you can't even approach the rabbit anymore, without him attacking you.
Henry, the Tan Rabbit
Has this article inspired you to get a partner for your rabbit?
My sister adopted her second rabbit from a local breeder who breeds Tan Rabbits. He wasn't able to use this one for breeding so my sister decided to give him a nice home. According to the breeder, it is recommendable to socialize a male rabbit with another male rabbit as a female rabbit can become rather dominant and cause stress. After working 35 years with rabbits, he was convinced that the closest rabbit friendships are formed between bucks. The new rabbit was named Henry.
Bucks must be castrated by all means.
Step 1: Quarantine and Castration
When taking home your second rabbit, you should keep them separate from each other in different rooms for at least 10 days. There are several reasons for this.
- Reason # 1: If the rabbits aren't castrated, this is the time to do it. A socialization of non castrated rabbits cannot end well. Driven by their hormones, non castrated rabbits tend to be aggressive towards other rabbits and be extremely dominant. This can even end in death. If you plan to socialize a female rabbit and a non castrated buck, the result would be an uncontrollable reproduction and you would be contributing to the increase of rabbits in animal shelters. Castrations are routine procedures but the risk for small animals like rabbits and guinea pics is always higher than for cats and dogs. This needs to be taken into account before you decide to castrated your buck rabbit. My sister's rabbit Henry pulled through and after two days he was back to normal and was able to run around and cuddle with his new owner.
- Reason # 2: You should give the rabbit the chance to get used to its new surroundings including new smells, new people, new noises etc. without putting him under additional strain caused by an unknown rabbit.
- Reason # 3: You will have the opportunity to observe the rabbit's health for a couple of days. Any disease needs to be treated before any contact can be established between the two rabbits.
Ten days after my sister had brought Henry home and after he had recuperated from his castration, my sister decided it was time to establish contact between the two rabbits. This is the time for the two rabbits to get to know each other, to establish a hierarchy and to eventually become friends. Step 2 will explain all the necessary preparations and precautions.
Rabbits have a distinctive social behavior and a strict hierarchy.
Step 2: Preparing the Socialization
The socialization procedure must happen on neutral ground. Neutral ground means that none of the rabbits should know the place or the room and it should be free from any rabbit smell. Rabbits mark their territory just like dogs do. It can be a bathroom, the kitchen, a corridor but a room with a carpet is recommended which gives them the chance to sprint when they need to, to get away from each other. It must be a place with enough room as they need it to fight for their hierarchy and to give the inferior animal the chance to escape. It must be at least 65ft². You need to provide hideouts and shelters to give the rabbits the chance to hide and rest. The hideouts need to have at least 2 exits, as dead ends wouldn't give the inferior rabbit the chance to flee. This will also prevent serious injuries. To facilitate the socialization procedure, you should distribute food like hay and fruits throughout the room. This reduces the stress and distracts them.
The animals must not be separated during the socialization procedure. If you separate them, you have to start from 0 and the animals are repeatedly put under unnecessary pressure which makes them angry. The socialization procedure can take days or weeks. Each animal has a different personality, just like humans, and patience, time and peace are indispensable. It might be best if you choose to socialize your rabbits on a weekend or when you have a couple of days off.
Time, patience and a calm environment are indispensable.
Step 3: First Contact
Once the neutral area has been prepared, you can put the animals inside. This is the stage where you simply observe the animals.
They will start chasing, humping, growling and snarling at each other and one or both rabbits might rip out the other rabbit’s fur. It looks rough but there is no need to worry. You shouldn’t interfere as long as they don’t seriously injure each other or lock jaws. If this should happen, don’t forget to put on gloves as the animals might not be able to distinguish between humans and animals in this situation.
When my sister put Sleepy and Henry together in a neutral room, there wasn’t much going on in the beginning. They sniffed at each other and ran after each other in a circle. Then Sleepy started humping Henry as shown in the video below on their first day. It seems like they are mating but this has nothing to do with sexual reproduction. Humping, thumping and territorial marking are reactions shown by rabbits who want to show their dominance. Thumping specifically is a threatening gesture in order to intimidate the inferior one.
Chasing, humping, ripping out fur and mounting are completely normal.
Sometimes, Sleepy would bite Henry in the back and rip his fur out until Henry could escape. Sometimes it was Sleepy humping Henry and sometimes it was the other way around. But it quickly became apparent that Sleepy, my sister’s older rabbit, was the dominant one. Henry kept lying down flat onto the floor which is a sign of submissiveness. But Henry didn’t want to fully accept it and he started thumping his hind legs against the floor and growling with dissatisfaction. This provoked Sleepy even more so he kept humping Henry repeatedly to show him who is boss. Sleepy was occasionally annoyed as well and thumped and growled.
Sometimes, the animals rested. After this resting phase it suddenly escalated. Henry and Sleepy jumped at each other out of the blue and started beating each other up. It looked extreme and although I was nervous, I didn’t interfere. Fur flew through the air and the animals fought for about a minute. After that they had to rest once again. The next day, they chased each other around the room. Whenever Henry got to close to Sleepy, he chased him away to show him who is boss. Henry started to accept the new hierarchy. He kept submitting himself or fled without thumping or growling. He started to accept Sleepy as a leader. I saw them eat closer to each other. On the third day, Henry started licking Sleepy’s head and Sleepy seemed to enjoy it, as shown in the video below. During the day, Sleepy attacked a couple more times but it wasn’t as aggressive as the two days before. Henry often tried to be close to Sleepy and in most cases, Sleepy didn’t object. The socialization process had almost come to an end.
Step 4: Cleaning the Cage
Once the socialization process has successfully come to an end, the cage in which you are planning to put the two rabbits needs to be cleaned and freed from any odors of your old rabbit. Rabbits mark their territories and leave their scents. You can dilute vinegar with water (NO VINEGAR CLEANERS due to the chemicals) and rub off everything inside the cage. Additionally, you can use peppermint tea to spray the insides of the cage. If you were to leave the cage as it is, the older rabbit would consider it to be his territory and your attempts to socialize the two rabbits would most likely fail. Try to neutralize the cage as best as possible. Ideally, you should rearrange the cage and any houses, tunnels, food places, toilets etc. that you may have inside.
Step 5: Moving in Together
As soon as the animals get along and the cage has been well cleaned, they can move in together. This is a big day! You might still witness some brawls and arguments but you shouldn't overrate them. However, if you have the feeling they are getting into serious fights, you should put them into the socialization area once again and wait a little longer to give the pets more time. Every animal is different and needs to be treated as an individual.
Happy in their New Home
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The Socialization Process in an Overview
1) Assure a quarantine of at least 10 days and take bucks to the vet to be castrated.
2) Prepare the socialization process.
3) Wait and observe. Don't interfere or interrupt, unless absolutely necessary.
4) Wait for signs of affection: (cleaning, cuddling, eating next to each other)
5) Clean and arrange the cage.
6) Put both rabbits into the cleaned cage and observe them. If their behavior is acceptable, the socialization process is complete. If they start fighting too much, go back to step 3.
The Ethical Treatment of Pet Rabbits
Apart from giving your pet rabbit the chance to socialize, other factors need to be considered in order for your pet rabbits to feel comfortable.
- You need to provide each rabbit with at least 22ft². If you don't have that much room in your cage, you need to give the rabbits the chance to run free once or even better twice a day (my sister lets her rabbits run around in her room in the morning and at night). You will see how much they enjoy themselves. They will run, sprint, zig-zag and jump into the air. They will be much happier if they can satisfy their urge to move. If you keep your rabbits confined to a small cage with no possibilities to move around, you'll soon have to deal with aggressive and disturbed pets.
- On the below picture, you can see Henry's and Sleepy's stall. There are three floors and enough room for them to move. But even a big cage like this doesn't give them the chance to truly unwind.
- You shouldn't give the rabbits an excessive amount of fresh food. They can have some in the morning and in the evening, such as celery, fennel and carrots but their staple food should consist of crude fibers such as hay or straw, as they need to be given the chance to trim their teeth.
- Rabbits always need to be able to chew on hard things in order to keep their teeth trimmed. Pesticide-free apple tree or pear tree branches, non-treated grass mats and hard cardboard boxes are recommendable. Dry food should be kept to a minimum.
In the summer, rabbits enjoy being outside. As soon as it gets warmer, you can start putting your rabbits outside on the grass in some sort of outside cage. In the beginning, it shouldn't be longer than an hour, as the grass is high in protein and can lead to extreme digestive problems. You can increase the time they spend outside with each day until their digestive system has fully adjusted to the rich protein source. Make sure to give the rabbits the possibility to hide from the sun. They can easily get a heat stroke. You can provide the shade of a tree or a big parasol as well as their usual houses and hideouts from their inside cage.