What is the issue?Rabbits were first domesticated around 1400BC. Although pet rabbits may look different to wild rabbits, they are close cousins. Wild rabbits are sociable animals who never choose to be alone - they eat, sleep and play together. They live in warrens, which are large social groups with smaller closer pairs or groups within them. Companionship is essential to the health and wellbeing of all rabbits.
Why is it important?
Research has shown that rabbits value the companionship of another rabbit or rabbits as highly as food.
Studies show that destructive behaviours are seen more often in single rabbits. They are more likely to pull their fur out, overeat and chew the bars of their cage, damaging their teeth. These behaviours suggest stress, boredom and anxiety and are seen far less often in rabbits kept in pairs or groups.
As rabbits are a prey species they are constantly on the lookout for predators. In a rabbit pair, one will be alert for any danger while the other rests. Similarly, in a group one rabbit will keep a lookout while the others’ rest. When a rabbit is kept alone, they can be constantly anxious.
What about human companionship?
Rabbits can develop an exceptionally close and rewarding bond with people. House rabbits particularly spend a lot of time with the people they live with. They will often enthusiastically greet family members, licking and butting them with their chins and faces.
Although we spend as much time as possible with our rabbit, absence is inevitable. We still need to go out to school or work and may go away on holiday. These absences are hard on a social animal who is quickly bored and stressed when alone. Rabbits are happiest with a constant companion and one with whom they can easily communicate.
Having a rabbit companion will not affect your bond with your rabbit. They will be happier but will still seek out your attention and affection.
What about a guinea pig?
It is tempting to keep a guinea pig with a rabbit as they are small herbivores. However, they have different dietary needs to a rabbit and need a lot of Vitamin C daily. They can also be bullied by a larger rabbit and hurt by normal rabbit play behaviour. Again, there is a lack of communication between the two species which may not fulfil the rabbit’s high social drive.
If you already keep a rabbit and guinea pig together and they seem content and comfortable, do not separate them. Ensure the guinea pig receives enough Vitamin C and has hiding places for moments of rabbit overenthusiasm.
What can be done?
If your rabbit lives alone, they need a friend. Contact a local rescue centre as they may be able to help with finding the right rabbit. In rare circumstances, rabbits will not bond with each other. A rescue centre will understand this and advise you, they may also be able to provide a different, more compatible rabbit.
Both rabbits should be neutered as they will bond more easily and successfully. There are additional health benefits to neutering for does as over 80% of female rabbits will develop cancer of the uterus after 5 years of age. Uncastrated male rabbits often constantly mount other rabbits, so bonding is extremely difficult.
Mixed sex pairs are common in the wild and create harmonious pet pairs when neutered. Neutered littermates or unrelated rabbits can be bonded. Groups can be same sex or mixed sex, as long as new rabbits are introduced carefully. Bonding can be a straightforward process or take weeks to months. Do not lose heart. Neutral territory, positive associations with treats and toys and adjacent runs can be used to slowly introduce rabbits.
Matching the size of the rabbits can reduce the chance of injury. Considering a rabbit of a similar age means that they age together and hopefully one will not be left when the other dies.
What can I do to protect my pet?
Don’t buy a single rabbit, if you have to then get your rabbit a friend as soon as possible. There are financial implications to having two rabbits but your rabbits will be happier and healthier. The Rabbit Welfare Fund suggests an enclosure at least 3m long, 1,5m wide and 1m high for 2 rabbits. They can share food and water bowls. Insurance and preventative health care costs must be considered.
If a rabbit in a bonded pair dies, the remaining rabbit will grieve. It will help them to process the loss if they spend time with the body of their companion. While grieving, they may become lethargic, depressed and less active. It is best to adopt another companion to help them to get through this time. Although this may feel callous or too quick for us, your rabbit will appreciate the company.
Companionship is vital to pet rabbits. There is strong evidence that it improves their mental and physical health and improves their welfare.