Hop on Board: Perspectives on Rabbit Mounting Behavior
Mounting behavior, also called “humping,” is an action you may see between two rabbits. One rabbit approaches another from the side or behind and then positions over the back or head of the other rabbit, perhaps making pelvic thrusting motions. A position used for mating, It’s also a form of communication. It might mean, “I want to play with you,” or “I’m in charge here!” or “I love you” —and probably has meanings we’ll never know.
The comments in this article refer to either same-sex rabbits or neutered or spayed rabbits. Obviously mounting has an important purpose when you put reproductively active males and females together, and that is to make more rabbits!
Linda Cook: Penelope and Willoughby, our bonded pair, have had their ups and downs. Willoughby is a senior bun of 11. He tried to mount Penelope—and still does, sometimes – when they first moved in together after years of being able to run free upstairs and grooming each other through their condos. Penelope simply gets up and hops away—she will not permit the mounting behavior. That said, she is definitely the subordinate, grooming him and waiting for him to start eating before she dines.
We did not allow them together until the mounting behavior decreased. We wanted her to be left in peace. As it turns out, Penelope is fully capable of taking care of herself.
Beth Woolbright: Sir Humps-a-lot. That’s what I called Jesse. When he was first introduced to Maddie, there was no aggression, just lots of mounting. For six weeks it was Jesse pursuing Maddie around their free-range room trying to climb on her—and sometimes succeeding. It turns out that it was ten days sharing a cage at the bunnysitter’s that calmed things down. As the sitter put it, they needed a honeymoon.
Jesse’s motivation—if I as a human can ascribe such a thing—seems entirely to involve wanting to have sex Maddie’s movements, on the other hand, are evasive. And yet, she tolerates it, this bunny who suffers no guff from humans. And she’s been known to mount him—when food is served.
For weeks I agonized, do I interfere? Beyond brief separations, I couldn’t bring myself to intervene—although it was hard to stand by. And, it worked itself out. Jesse is now Sir Humps-a-bit.
Marinell Harriman: When I asked my late friend Amy Espie what to cover in my DVD “Introducing Rabbits” her comment was, “The second most common misconception I hear is people think things are going badly if one is chasing and the other is running away, or one is mounting and one is allowing him/herself to be mounted.”
Keeping that in mind, my daughter, Tania, and I videotaped several bunny introductions at the HRS Rabbit Center. Each episode resulted in the inevitable mounting behavior, and all the introductions we captured on tape that day were successful. So I have to assume that it’s the bunnies’ way of getting acquainted. At home, my sanctuary bunnies are long acquainted with each other, yet I frequently see exuberant mounting behavior in anticipation of their bedtime treats. Some bounce around in binkies. Others bounce up and down on each other. All ends well with a slice of apple.
Susan Brown, DVM: Most rabbits will handle mounting without our interference. Sometimes by giving attention by talking or coming closer or by always separating them, we could actually reinforce the behavior and make it more frequent or intense. So the first thing to do is to observe if there really is a need to do anything. If it is just uncomfortable for you to watch then this is not a reason to make a change. Unfortunately humans don’t think of mounting as “polite” behavior. Dogs, dolphins and tortoises, to name a few, have mounting behaviors when establishing social order or as part of play that causes no harm to either party.
In some species it might occur multiple times a day, in others just at certain times of the year. In rabbits it should not always be assumed to be a dominance strategy, although that can be one of the meanings, though there may be others. We see it when rabbits are getting to know each other during successful bondings, and it may be quite pleasurable for both parties. What we have to remember is that how we think the rabbit underneath should respond based on our own feelings about how we would respond if we were the rabbit, has nothing to do with what is actually going on. We need to take our cultural and personal labels out of the mix and be good observers of the actual behavior to determine if there is a need for intervention. If all the discomfort lies with the humans, then I say let the rabbits communicate in the way that works for them.
With that said, some situations may warrant reducing the mounting behavior:
*The rabbit underneath has a medical condition where pressure on the back would cause pain (hip, shoulder or spinal arthritis, for example)
*The rabbit underneath has a serious respiratory or heart condition (with the weight of a rabbit on their back it could make it difficult to breathe)
*The rabbit underneath panics or gets very anxious when mounted and constantly seeks hiding areas away from the mounting rabbit
*If mounting is frequently a precursor to serious fighting
To determine if a change is needed, start with observations of what signals the behavior in the rabbits. Does it occur just during certain times of the day, or certain areas of the house, or is it related to food or people being present? Next observe how the underneath rabbit responds during and after the event. Is there any sign of conflict before or after the event (actual fighting) or do they just go about their business when it is over? Does the rabbit underneath struggle hard to get out or stay quiet? Does the rabbit underneath seem to panic when s/he sees the “mounter” coming towards him/her? Does the rabbit underneath hide for long periods after the event? Is the rabbit underneath having difficulties breathing or limping?
If you decide that you need to decrease the frequency of mounting, first look at modifying the environment in which it occurs. Looking at cues you may have noted, make changes that will decrease the possibility of mounting behavior. If it occurs at certain times of the day, then don’t have the rabbits together during those times, separate them or alternately move them to a different location or change up their routine during those times. The idea is to maximize their time together when they don’t feel the need to mount and minimize their time together when they do want to mount. Another option is to give the rabbit that is usually the of the mounting lots of places to hide that are small, so only one bunny can fit in. If they like to be out in the “open” use a very low table (cut off the legs) where “underbunny” can stretch out but there is not enough room for “overbunny” to get in any mounting behavior.
Make sure as you are working on decreasing opportunities for mounting that you do not use any aversives, meaning anything the rabbit wouldn’t like. Spraying water, shouting or making loud noises, or throwing things at the rabbits will likely not stop the problem, but unfortunately will work to break the bond of trust you may have with your rabbits. Aversive methods of decreasing a behavior (also known as punishment) may also frustrate the rabbit and actually increase the potential for aggression against not only you but the other rabbit, so please stay away from these methods.
Once you have arranged the environment and play time together for successful reduction of the mounting behavior you can then concentrate on reinforcing the rabbits for the behavior you do want and ignore what you don’t want. Toss or hand treats repeatedly when they are in each other’s presence and are not mounting—which should be a lot. If you do this 20 times a day, they will be more interested in what you have to offer than in mounting each other. Teach each one on their own at first (away from the other rabbit) to touch a target stick with their nose and reward with a treat each time they do it. This is called “targeting.” Then when they are together they will both want to do it at the same time and you will reinforce (give a treat) to both. This is a great way for them to interact with each other in the same space and have something good happen without mounting each other. For information on training rabbits with positive reinforcement methods, visit www.clickerbunny.com.
The good news is that the vast majority of the time there is no need to do anything about mounting behavior in rabbits. Just try to sit back, relax, and marvel at how rich and varied their communications methods can be and feel honored that they trust you enough to display them in your presence!
By Beth Woolbright
HRJ Vol. 5, No. 7, Winter/Spring 2011