Creating better tomorrows for all pet rabbits
Rabbits Living With Other Pets
Rabbits need the companionship of another rabbit for physical and mental health. The companionship from an animal of a different species can’t replace a rabbit companion.
However, a pair of rabbits can live with some other species of animals, providing that the other animals do not show predatory behaviour, are not bullied by the rabbits, and providing that the needs of both animal species are met. Remember though, if you own a pair of rabbits and are thinking about getting another pet, your first responsibility should be to the pets you already have. Don’t get another pet that will cause them stress or injury.
The goal, when introducing a dog to rabbits, is that the dog never becomes excited. A high arousal state reduces the dog’s ability to control its impulses, making it more likely to show behaviours that will make the rabbits run, increasing the stress of the rabbits and increasing the excitement of the dog. If the dog is once allowed to chase the rabbits, the reward of this behaviour may be so great that the dog can never be trusted around rabbits. This needs to be avoided at all costs.
Therefore, if a dog is to be introduced to rabbits, it must sit and lie down on command, and ‘leave’ a toy or food when asked. It should also have been accustomed to wearing a collar and a lead. Make sure the dog is tired and on a lead before meeting the rabbits and keep them in a cage or behind a barrier (there is a high risk to the rabbits – you need to make sure they are safe). Ask the dog to sit and give a treat. Gradually move the dog closer to the rabbits while giving rewards for calm behaviour. If the dog shows any signs of excitement (tensing, staring, whining, barking or lunging), the owner should lead the dog out of the room. If not, the session should last about five minutes before the dog is taken out of the room and the training is stopped.
Repeat these training sessions every time the dog is tired. You can gradually allow the rabbits to be closer, reward them for going towards the dog, but still keep rewarding the dog for lying down and being calm when the rabbits are about. Never leave a dog on its own with rabbits.
Any predator species that has evolved to hunt and kill small mammals will retain the same predatory motivations. It is possible to overcome these motivations in a variety of different ways: exposure to the rabbits when the predatory animal is young (so rabbits are seen as conspecifics rather than prey); positive reinforcement for ignoring the rabbits, or selecting a big rabbit that is less likely to make the dog show predatory behaviour.
Additionally, within a species (especially within dogs), different breeds have been selected for very different motivations. It is much easier to train a collie to ignore rabbits (which has been bred to herd sheep) that it is with a terrier (which has been bred to kill small mammals). Be aware that many adult dogs might never be able to be trusted not to display predatory behaviour towards a rabbit. Additionally, it is not possible to always predict the likelihood that an animal will show predatory behaviour until it actually meets a rabbit (many dog owners will believe that their dog would never attack another animal until they are faced with painful evidence to the contrary).
Dogs and rabbits can transmit fleas to each other, but dogs are usually the source. Dogs can also transmit tapeworms to rabbits, so ensure that all pets are regularly treated for fleas and worms.
It is not uncommon to see households where cats and house rabbits are kept together amicably. Cats can learn to groom rabbits when solicited, which is very rewarding for both animals. Nevertheless, cats are predatory, and great care should be taken that they do not injure or kill the rabbits.
The goal of introducing a cat to rabbits is that the rabbits feel confident and the cat does not feel predatory. Pick a time where the cat is likely to feel calm and sleepy. Some recommendations suggest that the cat should also have recently been fed – this may help, but the predatory drive in cats is independent of hunger.
It is usually easier to introduce a cat on territory in which the rabbit is established. As previously discussed, rabbits defend territory against incomers, and so are more likely to stand up to a cat rather than run away. Cats can escape to higher surfaces, so are unlikely to be hurt by the rabbits, but inducing an anxious or fearful response in the cat initially reduces the likelihood that the rabbits will be seen as potential prey. If rabbits are to be introduced to a resident cat, then introduce large breed rabbits: cats are more likely to feel predatory towards small rabbits.
The ideal combination of these animals is a calm cat and assertive rabbits. Be ready to interrupt if the cat shows any predatory behaviour: either by catching the cat, or by squirting it with water if it cannot be caught. Cats can be introduced to caged rabbits, but the response may be skewed towards a predatory one: the cat is unlikely to be made fearful (as the rabbits cannot approach it) and the rabbits are more likely to be fearful (as they do not have choice over their interactions). A good first interaction is that the rabbit approaches the cat and the cat retreats: this reduces the prey motivation of the cat.
The situation is slightly different with kittens: the size difference means that most rabbits will be larger than the kitten, so the prey motivation will be reduced. Additionally, kittens may find it harder to escape, so could be injured by a territorial rabbit. It may be easier to introduce a rabbit to a kitten on neutral territory, with places for the kitten to hide, or introducing them in adjacent cages so they can get used to each other before being introduced in a wider environment. Always supervise rabbits and young animals of different species as their motivations may change through adolescence and into adulthood.
Any predator species that has evolved to hunt and kill small mammals will retain the same predatory motivations. It is possible to overcome these motivations in a variety of different ways: exposure to the rabbits when the predatory animal is young (so rabbits are seen as conspecifics rather than prey); positive reinforcement for ignoring the rabbits, or selection of animals with a size disparity that is likely to discourage engagement (a large rabbit is less likely to be perceived as ‘prey’ by a small cat).
Be aware – cats are from feral lines (that have needed to hunt for food in recent generations) are likely to have a higher prey drive than breeds that have been selected for many generations for a certain aspect of their appearance.
Cats and rabbits can transmit fleas to each other, but cats are usually the source. Cats can also transmit tapeworms to rabbits, so ensure that all pets are regularly treated for fleas and worms.
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Before people regularly neutered rabbits, owners would keep rabbits and guinea pigs together so they could have social contact but not reproduce. However, both rabbits and guinea pigs frequently suffer with this approach. If rabbits and guinea pigs are going to share the same space, they both need to have a companion of their own species, and the guinea pigs need to be able to get away from the rabbits when needed. In practice, this means a very large enclosure (substantially bigger than the minimum RWAF hutch-and-run combination) or side-by-side runs where the animals can see each other but not interact. We don’t advise keeping rabbits and guinea pigs in the same enclosure because of the practical difficulties in ensuring sufficient space.
The welfare of both animals can suffer as their needs differ. Guinea pigs have a requirement for external sources of vitamin C, so should not be fed on the same diet as a rabbit needs. The communication behaviours are also different – rabbit–rabbit social pairs spend much more time grooming each other than do pairs of guinea pigs, and the grooming behaviour is solicited in different ways. Failure to understand these communication behaviours can lead to frustration and stress on both sides.
As rabbits are bigger than guinea pigs, a rabbit can do significant damage to a guinea pig. The rabbit may also attempt to guard resources from the guinea pig: the lack of common social behaviours prevents them sorting it out naturally. Finally, unneutered rabbits or guinea pigs may show sexual behaviour towards their companion, which can cause frustration, distress or even injury. Where rabbits and guinea pigs are currently kept together and where the relationship is amicable, they should not be separated, but don’t introduce animals from these two species with the aim of keeping them together.
Guinea pigs are susceptible to serious respiratory problems if they catch Bordetella bronchiseptica, a bacterium that many rabbits carry sub-clinically in their nasal cavity.
Rabbits and chickens have very different welfare needs and behaviours, so they can find it very hard to understand each other. Chickens are afraid of fast-moving animals, which may result in pecking, clawing, and fighting. Rabbits are very territorial, so may defend territory against chickens. This means that they are not easy to keep together, and it would be very difficult to provide enough space for both and ensure that conditions are met for each species, so it is not something we usually recommend.
If you already do keep these species in the same space do not keep a single rabbit and single chicken together – both animals need a same-species companion. Please also ensure that the rabbits are neutered to reduce unwanted sexual behaviour. The enclosure should be large with separate sleeping quarters for both animals. Given that there are various diseases that can be transmitted (see below), good hygiene is vital. Finally, if there are behaviours that could cause injury (fighting, mounting, etc.), then separate the animals quickly.
Rabbits may eat the chicken food, which has high levels of fermentable carbohydrates which may cause gastrointestinal disease. If chickens eat a lot of rabbit food, they may end up with nutritional deficiencies.
Chickens are omnivorous and will peck curiously at any wounds, tufts of hair, or even the skin of other animals. Their beaks are sharp and they can cause or worsen injury. Healthy rabbits will learn to keep out of a chicken’s way or will show aggressive behaviour to deter a chicken’s interest. However, sick rabbits are at risk from chickens and shouldn’t be left with them unsupervised.
Rabbits can catch Salmonella from chicken faeces. Both rabbits and chickens can suffer from disease caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida.