Section 6: The need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
Rabbits are social animals and should be kept with an appropriate companion. If a rabbit is left on its own for long periods of time, it may feel frustrated and its behaviour may change to reflect this stress. Bonded pet rabbits spend more time grazing, resting and playing than solitary pet rabbits, which spend the majority of their time on watch for predators.
An appropriate companion is a compatible neutered rabbit of a similar size. Ideally, rabbits will be kept together in groups familiar from birth. Litter mates of either sex are usually ideal companions, as long as they are neutered. Otherwise, a good combination is often a neutered male and a neutered female, as bonding neutered rabbits of the opposite sex is usually easiest. However, two females can live happily together if bonded at a young age and neutered at puberty.
Rabbits and guinea pigs should not be kept together. They have different dietary requirements and ways of communicating, and, more importantly, living with rabbits can be dangerous for guinea pigs. The powerful hind legs of even a small rabbit could cause serious internal injury to a guinea pig. Rabbits also carry the bacteria, Bordetella, which can be passed on via respiratory secretions and is the most common cause of respiratory disease in guinea pigs.
However, this is relatively new advice as rabbits and guinea pigs have historically been kept together. In cases where existing rabbit / guinea pig relationships are in place, it is not recommended that they be separated. However, their living environment should allow all those living in the shelter / hutch to easily escape the other(s) to allow for some time alone. In particular, it is important that the guinea pig has access to a hiding place that the rabbit cannot enter. They should also be closely monitored when eating, or fed separately, to ensure that the guinea pig gets the correct nutrition. It is a good idea to get the rabbit neutered as this can reduce unwanted behaviours, eg bullying, mounting etc.
Rabbits instinctively fear other animals such as dogs, cats, birds of prey and even people. Through careful training and very sensitive handling, pet rabbits can learn to enjoy the companionship of people.
Introducing and keeping rabbits together
Ideally, your rabbits will have known each other since birth. However, sometimes it is necessary to bring together rabbits who are unfamiliar to each other. A successful relationship between two or more rabbits will depend on a number of important factors. The following need to be considered when pairing rabbits together as potential companions:
- how, where and when they are introduced
- their gender (male or female)
- whether they are neutered or not
- the age that they are introduced
- their individual personalities
- their relative size – a smaller or younger one could be injured or bullied by a larger or older companion
- their relative temperaments – one might be more temperamentally inclined to bully the other.
Introductions between unfamiliar rabbits can be very stressful and are not always successful. It is usually best to take a gradual approach, over a period of a few weeks. It is a good idea to consult your vet for further advice before introducing a new rabbit into your home.
When kept in pairs or groups, the size of the accommodation will need to be large enough to allow all the rabbits to perform all their natural behaviours. This includes having multiple resources so they are able to perform the same behaviours simultaneously. For example, make sure your rabbits all have places they can go to get away from their companions if they want to. However, it is important that these resources don't take up so much space that they prevent the rabbits from moving around comfortably.
Separating Bonded Companions
It is always preferable not to separate a bonded pair of rabbits. However, if your rabbits do have to be separated for any reason, such as being hospitalised, you should take care when re-introducing them to each other to minimise the risk of fighting and other welfare problems. Ideally, your vet should allow for your rabbit's companion to accompany them during any vet visit / stay to avoid their bond being broken. This offers comfort and security to both animals, and a quicker recovery for the ailing rabbit through the support of its companion.