You are probably already aware that rabbits can be difficult to bond (introduce). Despite craving company of their own kind, they can be very fussy when it comes to who they are going to share their home with. I’m always saying to my husband that it’s probably a good thing they can be picky; if they were easy to introduce and got along with every bunny, then I’d have hundreds instead of just two.
We bond them because companionship prevents loneliness, boredom and stress. A partner rabbit can help with grooming, is someone to snuggle with for warmth and is there as support when they feel poorly or scared. For an owner, seeing a pair of rabbits cuddled up together or grooming each other is one of the best feelings.
But sometimes this bond can break. This might be because of illness or because of some stress or change to the partnership. For example, although building a group of rabbits sounds fantastic, if you are starting with a pair and adding more bunnies, there is always the chance that the original pairing may break down. Another example is an illness. I had a pair that had been together for 4-5 years. The older rabbit, Alice developed heart disease and was on medication for the condition. However, one morning I found her outside of the hutch and her partner George would not let her back inside (it was summer, and the hutch was always open and in a giant secure aviary). Alice had bite marks all over her where he had attacked her and kicked her out. She lived the rest of her life (a few months) as an indoor bunny. It seems cruel to us, but this sort of behaviour is quite common in the animal world. A weak, sick or elderly animal can attract predators and threatens the safety of the whole group, so they will often be ousted.
Another problem is vet visits. And this is the focus of this blog.
I have always advised taking bonded pairs to the vets together. They should always travel together as it is less scary for the rabbits. If your rabbit needs to stay at the vet for a procedure or operation, then it is even more important to keep them together as they can support each other.
When Dobby stopped eating in the summer (see my previous blog), I took both he and Hazel to the vets on the first day. I was able to bring them home overnight and continued to give him medication and food via syringe, but the next day he was no better, so I had to take him back. This is where I made a huge mistake. Hazel did not want to go back in the carrier and was running around and around getting stressed. She then hid in a tube and refused to come out. Instead of waiting for her or encouraging her out (I was getting a bit stressed myself) I decided I would take Dobby to the vets on his own as I needed to get there as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, he was then admitted to the veterinary hospital because he was not improving. The next day I asked if I could bring Hazel in to be with him, but because he was not eating, drinking or pooing by himself, they said at this stage it would be easier to monitor him if he stayed on his own. In the end, he was in the vet hospital for about four days.
When he came home
About a week after Dobby came home, when I knew he was eating properly, I tried to introduce him back to Hazel on neutral territory. He must have smelled very odd to poor Hazel; he was also lop-eared as his ears had dropped due to having catheters in them. He may even have still smelled ‘sick’ to her, but whatever it was she did not like him and she was aggressive towards him. He retaliated, and within a split second, they were having a proper fight. I separated them as quickly as possible but it wasn’t quick enough, and poor Hazel had two huge bite wounds in her side. It was straight off to the emergency vets to get them stitched up.
I was mortified. They had such a close bond before this, and I was so angry that I hadn’t followed my own advice. This would not have happened if Hazel had gone to stay at the vet with Dobby.
Mending the bond
I left Dobby and Hazel apart for six weeks. I had a spare hutch, and I swapped them around. So they would spend a day or two in the shed, then the hutch then back in the shed. I swapped litter trays on the days in between. I let them out into the garden one at a time so they could see each other through the mesh of the run. Initially, they tried to bite each other through the run, but this settled down.
Eventually, it was now or never. I decided to have one more go at bonding. I popped them both into their carrier (carriers are usually too small a space to fight) and took them for a short drive in the car. This may not seem ethical to some people as it is a technique known as ‘stressing’ and is used to encourage the rabbits to snuggle together, however in this instance I thought it was necessary and would be worth it in the end.
I used my front porch as neutral territory (space where neither rabbit had been) and to start with I used a partition, which was removed after about 15 minutes when I could see they were doing okay. I also had big welder gloves ready in case I needed to separate them – I was scratched the last time.
The body language was much different to before. Hazel was understandably very nervous and kept lunging at Dobby when he went near, but this settled down. After about 30 minutes my wonderful husband brought me a chair to sit on and a cup of tea. About 2 hours went by before I left the porch. I decided they were okay on their own as I had seen them sitting together closely. Dobby and Hazel stayed in the porch for a couple of days (we used the back door to get in and out the house!) and in the meantime, I scrubbed the shed and run with a mix of white vinegar and water to neutralise smells. When I reintroduced them back into the shed, I stayed with them for a while to make sure they were okay, and things have been fine ever since.
I have learnt my lesson! I won’t jeopardise their relationship again.