Do rabbits need friends?


Rabbits are highly social animals that thrive with a friend. Even with human interaction, companions offer benefits that no human ever can. If you are considering purchasing a rabbit, please consider a pair of bunny companions.

Benefits of Companionship

Many rabbit species live solitary lives, but the European rabbit is an exception. This species of rabbit likes to form large groups of 100 or more, called colonies. They live in holes in the ground, called burrows, and a group of burrows is called a warren. There is usually a dominant buck (male) and multiple breeding pairs within a colony. Within the pairs, rabbits will live and feed together, though there is not a great deal of social interaction between different pairings.  

This is important because almost all domesticated pet rabbits are descended from wild European rabbits. They have inherited this social structure of pairing. Anecdotally, pet rabbits may require even more social interaction than their wild cousins. Pet rabbits benefit from a companion via reduced stress, assistance with grooming, playing, communal eating and toileting, and more. Studies have also found that rabbits housed alone are less active but more restless, more prone to stress-induced problems such as pulling out their own fur, and at a greater risk of disease such as flystrike. The benefits of a rabbit of having a companion cannot be overstated. 

The Ideal Companion

Although rabbits will almost always benefit from a new friend, it is important to choose their companion carefully. If the rabbits do not get along, it can cause stress, disease or even aggression between the two. We recommend that most new rabbit owners start with a male-female pair, as in the wild. This combination is much less likely to cause a fight than same-sex pairings. However, there is a high chance that they will breed. Unless you are hoping to have (lots and lots and lots of) little rabbit kits, you should get them neutered – either the male castrated or the female spayed – by a vet. You can have male-male or female-female pairings, but they may fight if there is a reason to do so. If you have a same-sex pair, ensure there is no competition for food or space, keep stress low and get them both neutered. 

You should also get two rabbits of a similar size, age and breed. As mentioned above, rabbits can fight if there are issues. So if one rabbit becomes more dominant than the other, it can cause tension. Reduce this risk by keeping similar rabbits together. You can reduce it further by ensuring that there is excess space, food, water and bedding material. So no one rabbit starts to horde limited resources.

Introducing Companions 

In an ideal world, you should get two rabbits that are already a ‘bonded-pair’ – this means that they already know each other and get along well. Littermates are a good choice for this (providing they are going to be neutered to prevent breeding). Getting a pair that are already friends will help reduce the effort you have to make to introduce them.

If you do have to introduce a new companion to a current rabbit, follow this advice to increase the chances of successful bonding. Before you bring your new rabbit home, make sure their environment will be suitable for two rabbits – there must be enough space for them to move in, enough food and bedding, and some outdoor exercise area, as well as a temporary separate sleeping area. When introducing two rabbits, start gradually over a few weeks. Let them meet on neutral territory, like the garden; do not put the new rabbit straight in with the current rabbit. Observe how they interact and be wary of fighting. Positive signs include grooming, sitting next to each other, or following each other round the area.

Once they have started to interact, you can house them next to each other but separated by a physical barrier. Ideally, they should be able to see and smell each other. You can try swapping some nesting material, so they get each other’s scent too. Regularly repeat meetings on neutral ground. After a time, with lots of positive behaviour seen, you can house them together for a few hours under close supervision. Eventually, if they are showing constant positive behaviour when housed, you can house them permanently. Remember that this takes time, and be prepared to step in if there is any signs of aggression or fighting. 

Human and Animal Companionship 

In some cases, either because of owner or rabbit factors, your rabbit may have to live alone. Some rabbits can do very well on their own, but may still require some social interaction. Of course, human interaction is great for all rabbits, solitary or not. Regular grooming, handling and playing can reduce stress, improve welfare and create a friendly bond, just like with a rabbit companion. We would encourage regular interaction so that your rabbit is comfortable around humans – this can make vet visits much easier too!

Finally, did you know that if you cannot find a suitable rabbit companion, another species might do the trick instead? Rabbits have been known to get on well with chickens and guinea pigs, as long as there is enough space. Bear in mind that the feeding and husbandry of these species is very different, so you must consider this when housing together. Ideally, feed both species separately and have separate areas they can sleep in.

Read more:

https://sites.google.com/site/toomanybunnies/care/social-rabbits

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5113872/

https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rabbits/company/bonding

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