Rabbits are highly social creatures – this means that they need company, and that company should be from other rabbits.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t give our pet rabbits as much company as another rabbit can. We lead busy lives and even if we make sure we spend 3 or 4 hours a day with our rabbits, that means that they spend 20 hours or more without us.
But if they have at least one bonded partner they will never be lonely.
Why another rabbit?
Our pet rabbits are wild rabbits at heart. All rabbits are prey animals and in the wild they rely on the company of other warren members, not only to keep warm (1)but also to warn them if predators are around. They choose to spend time with other rabbits when they have the opportunity (2-4) so a single rabbit will feel anxious. It will need to be on the alert for danger 24/7 and never completely relax because there is no other rabbit to let it know when a predator is near. Single rabbits are proven to show behaviours that indicate negative welfare such as bar biting (5-6) so having a companion is thought to reduce stress for them.
Rabbits only really speak rabbit. They don’t speak English, they don’t speak guinea pig, they don’t speak cat. But they speak rabbit really very well. They can communicate with each other and all those subtle little body language signs that we miss, they understand.
Studies have shown that rabbits value the company of other rabbits as much as they value food (7). We wouldn’t dream of keeping food from them, would we? So why starve them emotionally by keeping them alone?
(1) Burn CC and Shields P (2020) Do rabbits need each other? Effects of single versus paired housing on rabbit body temperature and behaviour in a UK shelter” Animal Welfare, Volume 29, Issue 2.
(2) Held SDE, Turner RJ, Wootton RJ (1995) Choices of laboratory rabbits for individual or group-housing. Appl Anim Behav Sci 46:81–91
(3) Huls W, Brooks D, Bean-Knudsen D (1991) Response of adult New Zealand white rabbits to enrichment objects and paired housing. Laboratory Animal Science 41:609–612
(4) Podberscek AL, Blackshaw JK, Beattie AW (1991) The behaviour of group penned and individually caged laboratory rabbits. Appl Anim Behav Sci 28:353–363
(5) Lidfors L (1997) Behavioural effects of environmental enrichment for individually caged rabbits. Appl Anim Behav Sci 52:157–169
(6) Chu LR, Garner JP, Mench JA (2004) A behavioral comparison of New Zealand White rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) housed individually or in pairs in conventional laboratory cages. Appl Anim Behav Sci 85:121–139
(7) Seaman SC, Waran NK, Mason G, D’Eath RB (2008) Animal economics: assessing the motivation of female laboratory rabbits to reach a platform, social contact and food. Anim Behav 75:31–42
Rabbits and guinea pigs
Sometimes people put a rabbit and a guinea pig together to be friends and although it very occasionally does work, we recommend strongly against it. If your rabbit and guinea pig are already bonded, please don’t separate them, that would be cruel, but rabbits (and guinea pigs) need a companion from their own species. They will act the same way about grooming and snuggling, will have the same diet and exercise needs and they are less likely to be carrying an infection that could kill their companion.
Better for you!
As well as improving the life of your pet beyond recognition, providing a friend for your rabbit will have great benefits for you as an owner. Seeing your pets happily snuggling together is a pure joy!
Neutering and pairing (bonding)
To be kept in (at least) pairs, rabbits must be neutered – castrated or spayed (recommend regardless). If they weren’t already in a bonded pair (or group) when they came to you, you can’t just put them together and expect them to like each other. Pairing up is sometimes a long process but very well worth the patience and persistence.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA), the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS) and the British Small Animals Veterinary Association (BSAVA) have joined together to publish this policy statement about housing rabbits in compatible pairs or groups