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Short version:

If you have rabbits that have been bonded for near a decade but start to fight because one of them has been sick and there were strange rabbits in the house at the time, how do you get them rebonded?

Long Detailed version:

We have 2 rabbits. They are from the same litter and have been together all their lives, about 7 years. Both are female and fixed. One (let's call her A) has been dominant since they were very little, often mounting the other one (let's call her B). Other than occasionally getting annoyed at each other and normal rabbit quarrels, they have gotten along just fine. They have lived in a large enclosure and getting an hour or two of run-around time in their room each day.

Over the past year or so, A had been unwell. She had been less active for a while, lost a lot of weight, and was eventually put on medication. B had started acting a bit "uppity" occasionally challenging A but nothing big happened.

Over last holiday break, we were taking care of a friend's rabbits for a week while they were out of town. We think the other rabbits' scent, A's smelling like medication, etc, drove things too far out of whack because B decided to stage a coup and started attacking A. First they had some skirmishes in the room during play time but peace in the enclosure. Then they started fighting in the enclosure. B seemed to start the fights most of the time.

When they fought, they fought tooth and nail clearly trying to hurt each other. At this point we separated them. Now one of them is in the enclosure and the other in a makeshift pen next to the enclosure. They can see and smell each other. We've swapped their places a few times but each time that happens they piddle all over their new quarters so we stopped. When encountering each other through the bars of the pen they would claw and bite through the bars so we started putting a sheet on the pen walls to keep them apart while one of them was out and about the room.

We've been trying to give them supervised together time in the hallway next to their room, at first for 5-10 min then up to half an hour. At this point B (the aggressor) acted perfectly normal, grooming A's eyes and ears (a bit obsessively). A was reserved at first taking a few nips at B but then relaxed a bit and returned the grooming.

In the past few days we started putting them together in their normal play area. The first day was a peaceful 15 minutes. The next day, B had started getting aggressive again so this feels like a setback.

How do we re-bond our rabbits? Are we moving too fast and should we spend more time in neutral territory? If we see aggression in the common space, do we need to separate them right away and use neutral space the next day?


Edit

I may be asking the wrong question. A better question may be "How can I get my previously bonded rabbits to coexist peacefully in the same space where they previously lived without fighting?"

We live in a house but the room they are in is the only one where they can reside year round without difficulties. What I call an "enclosure" is a large multi-level 2 ft deep, 3 ft wide, 5 ft tall cage with 3 levels. There is solid wood shelving but it is largely low gauge metal mesh. Fighting inside is basically thunderdome.

Also, we understand what is happening. B has decided she wants to be boss and A, although weakened, does not want to yield her position. We realize that left to their own devices the rabbits will sort out a new hierarchy. Violent fighting between them is not an acceptable course of action. We are not going to put them in a position where they can seriously hurt each other. They can nip and mount but there will be no torn ears and empty eye-sockets. It is possible to rebond them by peaceful means, especially since they get along fine in neutral space. Worst case scenario is we have to move them to a new room.

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  • In general: if you want them both to stay together, they need to fight out their rank/order. Each time you disturb this procedure, they will add a memory of unhappy "meetings" and it will become harder and harder for them to find peace and accept the rank. Same for "knowing the other one is there but can not clear the rank". As soon as I have time, I will make a more informative answer. Jan 26, 2023 at 19:53
  • @Allerleirauh Ok, how can I do that without them hurting each other? If left alone to work it out in common territory, they try to rip each other's faces off. I got bit pretty good myself trying to break them up. Jan 26, 2023 at 21:12
  • What happened?!?! Did they get back together? I have two rabbits with a broken bond as well.
    – user27448
    Feb 28 at 21:32
  • @user27448 Posted a new answer. Mar 2 at 0:42

3 Answers 3

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This post answers the first version of the question, where the part "without fighting" was not included yet...


To start with: please don't let them meet repeatedly only to disturb them every time. Each time you disturb them it increases the bad memories they have with each other. These memories will make it much more difficult for them to find a peaceful way of living together.

Second, it is natural for rabbits to fight for their rank. And your situation of the dominant rabbit being ill and loose it's rank is a typical natural process. In nature the method of ranking is a method to proliferate the healthy and strong rabbits. Because this rabbits get more food, they will have more successful litters and offspring. Additional there are seasons, when fighting occurs, ie after cold periods, when mating season start, or when one of them starts puberty.

And third, I understand you fully. It is hard to watch them fighting, loosing fur and chasing around. I feel with you and wish that you will stand it. Because if you will not, they may never live again together and you need to give one away, or separate them completely. But in each case you would need to get new companions for them...

Now the good news: You have two females, both are fixed. In general this type of rabbit have better chance to overcome their fights and find a peaceful way. Also you wrote you have an enclosure, not a cage. This too gives you more possibilities to shape it in a good way, and them to have save places, they can hide from each other, if the aggression (periodically) comes back.

I will make my points in chronic order:

  • shape the enclosure they both shall life in
  • build a temporal enclosure, on neutral territory
  • let them try to find a rank (+signs of hopeless cases)

shape the enclosure

If you have two rabbits which are not as peaceful as you wish, you need to have a special view to the enclosure. You do not want to have dead-ends, where one can trap the other. Do not only think about corners, think about houses with only one door, too. Also add "walls" they can hide behind, so they do not need to see each other the whole day. This will reduce the stress of feeling monitored by the other rabbit the whole time. Stress is one reason for aggression. To have a second floor in the enclosure (with more than one stair up and down -- dead-end) is a good way to give this safety (I will link some ideas and examples in the end). The enclosure should have minimum 6 square meters base area, or more if the rabbits cannot roam in a bigger area (garden, apartment) for a minimum 6 hours per day. In Germany the 6 square meters are law since last year and to have minimum 2 rabbits too. To reduce the stress, you should consider to make two feeding places. This can avoid aggression about food, both of them can have "their own".

build a meeting enclosure

If rabbits meet strangers (and you now need to consider yours strangers) the first thing they check is: is one of them hurting the territory of the other one? If this is the case, the "home" rabbit will start to fight without alternative and wants to defend the borders. This is not your aim. You want them to meet at absolutely neutral ground. As unknown for them as possible. You want them to feel a little bit puzzled, to feel a little bit alone. So they are happy to find another rabbit in this strange environment. If you have indoor rabbits, this effect can be reached by neutral ground at the outside. Also the bathroom, a garage, or the rooms of a friend are options you should consider. Important is, that none of the rabbits ever was there before, so none of them could think as "my territory" of this place. Also the size is important. Rule of thumb are 3 square meters per rabbit. But for you I would recommend it some way bigger. Smaller space make the process faster but could make it more rude. And more space slows things down, but also the probability to let them stay more calm is higher. The furniture of this temporal enclosure is also important. It should also not contain dead-ends, but hiding places to take a rest. BUT none of these things should be from the old enclosure (-- "my territory"). You can use cardboard boxes (two doors, as tunnel...) or other boxes (wood, plastics - to have the second floor, not as house). The ground of the whole enclosure needs to be not slippery (they will run a lot with changing directions). Flexible borders, as pen-fences can help you to react by making the enclosure bigger or smaller during the process (see next point).

find a rank

There will be chasing, there will be turning, scratching and biting. Fur may fly, some drops of blood may occur. This are no reasons to stop it (I am sorry...). If they do not start to interact, you may make the enclosure smaller and/or remove some furniture. If you feel, they have no break to breath, you may make the enclosure bigger and/or add furniture to hide/avoid eye-contact to get a break.

Reasons to stop the process would be:

  • One of them gives up but the other one does not stop fighting. The "give up" one would place its head in a corner, or at the border, turning the back to the enclosure and does not leave this position anymore, but the second one would not stop biting.
  • There would occur injuries, you need a vet for. They would not stop bleeding, are more than scratches, need to be sewn together by a vet. (Any injuries for which you as a human would take a simple band aid don't need help of a vet.)
  • The rabbits fight weeks long without having peaceful times in between.
  • One of the rabbits is petrified by the other. It does nothing else than running away, although the other rabbit is not chasing it. Even days after starting the process, there is no visible improvement.

If you need to stop the process, you need to find a new home for them. This means, you may have two separate enclosures for them with no contact (no view, no smell) and a new friend for each of them. Simple solution would be to give one away and get a new friend for the remaining one.

Conclusion

You described that your rabbits were grooming each other. This is a very good sign! They do this only when bonded, even if they fight again afterwards. I assume, that your submissive rabbit got to much "freedom" while the dominant one was ill. It is natural for the submissive one to try to rise it's rank if the dominant one gets weak. And if the dominant one can not rebuke, the submissive may become more and more impertinent. Now the dominant is strong again and starting to teach the submissive, but she doesn't want to give up the benefits. So each time the submissive does something inappropriate, the dominant one will give it a lesson. This can last a while, until both found and accepted a new balance of powers. I wish you patience! (Rabbits do not sleep the whole night, same as they aren't awake the whole day. So fights at night are possible too and do not have other significance than fights at daytime.)

Please let me know, if you have more questions about details!


general reasons for fights in bonded rabbits

  • Mating season (even if they are both female they feel some need for competition)
  • one rabbit hurts the rules (I assume this is the main reason for you, because the submissive rabbit needs to learn again, that the dominant rabbit is not ill anymore)
  • dominant rabbit gets ill, submissive rabbits try to rise their rank
  • dominant rabbit dies, the others (more than one) need to find a new "leader"
  • one rabbit has pain and reacts excessively aggressive (I assume you have them checked by a vet regularly)
  • one rabbit became fixed (male or female)
  • rabbits were separated for some time (illness, surgery, holidays)
  • pair/group of non-fixed males nearly never works
  • pair/group of females have a high risk of fighting during puberty (male plus female, one fixed, work best in general)
  • young rabbits (1 to 4 years old) have in general more fights than seniors

examples for second floor from kaninchenwiese.de

my sources

  • experience since nearly 8 years now with rabbits, first pairs, now a group of three.
  • kaninchenwiese.de a website in German language, opened 2008, I use since I own rabbits. I trust their detailed information in all topics. They run an emergency-station and a shelter for rabbits and have much experience with very different groups.
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  • Thank you for your advice. There is is good information in your answer and we followed some of it. However, we are not going to let our rabbits fight to sort out their differences. It saddens me to know that you have been pitting your rabbits against each other in bloody battles for supremacy for 8 years. Jan 27, 2023 at 18:22
  • My rabbits never got bloody wounds, but fur was flying and sometimes even now they chase each other, if one did not respect the rules. But I also did not disturbed them. I told you about the options you have. If you decide to separate them and get them new friends, this is also possible. But you need to stop the wheel of meeting and stop the process. It is your decision what to do. But you need to have this decision now, before your rabbits suffer any longer. Jan 27, 2023 at 19:03
  • @aquaticapetheory If you have success with any other method, it would be very helpful and welcome to post it here as an answer. Jan 27, 2023 at 19:04
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    They've been chasing and pulling fur out of each other all their lives but they started fighting like dogs. I will not let them do that. We moved B out of the room. She seemed agitated all the time and I thought it was because A is there all the time like you said. I do have a plan and I'll post it as an answer. Jan 27, 2023 at 19:14
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This is what we actually did that worked. This was recommended to us by someone at the House Rabbit Society, if I remember right.

The rabbits were placed in separate enclosures. The enclosures were adjacent (they shared a wall). The walls are wire mesh so that the rabbits could see and smell each other but couldn't reach through to bite or claw. They lived in that arrangement for a while; we had them in there for at least a few weeks. They try to attack each other at first but then relax a bit.

Then you make the enclosures smaller. They started at about 4 ft by 4 ft each and then we halved that to a 4 ft by 2 ft space each with a 4 ft shared (mesh) wall. The point is to drive them together until they stop fighting and get used to each other again. The mesh partition keeps them safe from each other. They have to be in each other's presence until they figure out that they're fine together and don't need to attack. In theory, you can keep making the space smaller yet after a few weeks but that's as far as we had to go. The recommendation was to get them down to adjacent enclosures that are each about as big as a carrier.

We did this for the better part of a year which is probably longer than we had to. Eventually, they not only stop fighting but start hanging out close to each other with the partition between them. Once we saw no aggression in the enclosures, we gave them some supervised play time together. At first for 5 minutes a day, then longer and longer to hours at a time. We were careful: the ramp-up took months. Saw no serious trouble and eventually just let them stay together in their room. It's been months and, fingers crossed, they are getting along alright. They now both have the same medical condition and are on the same medication so that shouldn't be a trigger.

Rabbits can be aggressive toward each other, this is true. The more dominant of the pair will nip the other for no reason, mount her, chase her when there's food around, yank out her fur. This is not ideal but it's normal for some. I've seen it in other pairs. When they start chasing each other's tails and trying to bite hard enough to do real damage (like clamping on and not wanting to let go), then it's time to break it up. Don't leave them to sort it out. They can and will do serious damage to each other.

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  • I thought a lot about your problem. Could it be, that it was a time like spring (here now)? I know indoor rabbita do not have the rythm in this visible manner, but the have also. In spring my rabbits chase each other more than usual (looks less like fun, more like realy intentional). They start to dig into the ground and mount and all to prepare for a family. I am happy your rabbits are fine again. Did you give them space to run and act like rabbits through the "small cage" time? Mar 2 at 4:04
  • @Allerleirauh It wasn't a spring. Reasonably certain the cause was what I described before: boss rabbit looked weak, oppressed rabbit rebelled, new rabbits' smell stirred them on. Yes, they have a whole room to themselves now. It's not a garden but they can jump around all day. Mar 2 at 16:11
  • I assumed, that they have all the space now again :) I was interested how you did it during the time, when they were in the 4ft by 2ft time? Did you gave them time in bigger space time by time? Mar 3 at 7:45
  • @Allerleirauh Once they no longer fought through the bars and sat close to each with the partition between them, we let them have some time together. Started short and over week or months expanded it to hours at a time. The description above was supposed to relay that, i tried to clarify. Mar 5 at 1:24
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Here is my current plan and I will add updates after it succeeds or fails. Comments are welcome.

The rabbits only fight in their room. They groom each other and are reasonably at ease outside of it. I think that they would coexist peacefully if we rehoused them in a different room but that is a difficult option. Therefore, the old room will be "refreshed." Ideally, this will make it unrecognizable to the rabbits (mainly B) as their former territory and they will drop their aggression.

Rug will be removed. Cardboard play things will be discarded. The hardwood floor, trim, wall paint, and any furniture (largely metal and wood) will be wiped down with alcohol to remove any (or at least most of) the scents. The floor will be covered with vinyl sheet flooring held down at the edges by wooden planks that will also serve to cover the baseboards. In place of the enclosure, simple rabbit-friendly furniture like low tables, shelves, cardboard tubes or mazes will be added.

Rabbits will be housed in other separate rooms and allowed supervised together time in refreshed room. Duration of together time will depend on their behavior but will ideally grow to hours and eventually they will just live at large in the room.

In addition to becoming new un-claimed space, the new area will be fully rabbit-proof and they will be allowed to be at large in the room 24/7 instead of being let out of their enclosure for limited periods of time. If aggression does reoccur, they are not locked in a cage-match and have space to chase or flee as suggested.

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