A Study of Rabbit Relationships

Relationships between spayed/neutered rabbits living indoors, as members of a human family, have been little studied. We have a unique opportunity to observe and ponder these fascinating interactions, cruelty-free experiments in social structure and group behavior.In the past six months the rabbit population at our house has reconfigured twice. I have watched the changes with much interest and some puzzlement. One thing was obvious: like humans, rabbit behavior is dramatically affected by the company they keep.

The changes began when we were asked to adopt Gus and Harvey, a pair of 5-year-old neutered males. Snowie, Chloe, and Joey had come to us as a bonded trio. When Snowie died, Joey and Chloe, age 6, became inseparable. Gus and Harvey, who had spent most of their lives in a shed, looked like they needed liberating. Chloe and Joey, bereaved over Snowie, looked like they needed a diversion. We agreed to take Harvey and Gus on a trial basis, our first attempt at introducing rabbits.

We followed the recommended steps: side-by-side but separated, then on to neutral ground, and finally into the heavily marked home base. Gus and Harvey’s initial space was a back-yard playhouse surrounded by a fence. They could look out at the garden and get familiar with our rabbits, cat, and guinea pigs who roam there (under our watchful eyes, of course), and Joey and Chloe could get used to the newcomers.

Luckily, Harvey and Gus arrived in July, which afforded lots of daylight hours for getting everybody together outdoors. This first stage went smoothly, with all creatures meeting and greeting at the playhouse fence. Stage 2 began abruptly when Harvey broke out of his guest quarters.

An Unplanned Advance 

Joey approached Harvey, they scrambled in circles, and the fur flew. Harvey, the smaller of the two and a newcomer, seemed to be the initiator, although Joey may have made some inflammatory remarks that we humans missed. Harvey , with a flick of the nose and “beat it” body language, seemed to be trying to drive Joey away from Chloe. When Joey, usually timid and stand-offish, had been pushed around enough on his own turf, a fight with Harvey ensued. When I wasn’t in time to prevent things from escalating to this point, I would break up these skirmishes by spraying both bunnies in the face with a little water from a plant-sprayer and return the writhing Harvey to his side of the playhouse fence.

Gus and Chloe remained relatively passive throughout these first intense weeks. Gus tried sporadically to put the moves on chow-loving Chloe, who was lured by the food bowls in Gus and Harvey ‘s quarters. When she came calling Gus tried to mount her. Chloe took it in stride and never fought with him or Harvey.

Finally there was a truce between Harvey and Joey. As so often happens (and not just with bunnies), the little guy was the boss. Chloe took little interest in the boys’ hierarchical goings-on. All four began to graze together in the mornings and spent afternoons napping in separate corners of the garden. Harvey and Joey took to napping together and even grooming each other, with or without Chloe present.

A Fragile Peace

Harvey began breakfasting with Joey and Chloe on our back deck. When Gus appeared, Harvey would chase him off, with Joey at his heels. For days Joey and Harvey chased Gus from the deck just as Harvey had pursued Joey. Gradually Joey allowed Gus to spend more and more time on the deck. They would graze side by side until something (invisible to us) would trigger Joey to chase Gus. Gus would go nap in a hole he had made by the back fence. Days later Joey took to napping in this hole, while Gus snoozed under Joey’s favorite bush.

Gradually, Gus became part of the group. He came up to breakfast with the others, and Joey didn’t drive him away. Then one morning I heard the familiar sound of scuffling on the deck. Harvey and Gus were fighting. Joey joined the fray and broke it up. He assumed the role of peacemaker several more times before Harvey and Gus finally buried the hatchet.

A Great Loss

One obvious bone of contention had been Chloe. This is our best guess as to the cause of the fights between Harvey and Gus. When she died suddenly (due to recurring infection), the last remnants of the pecking order disappeared. We put the three boys in non-neutral territory. Joey’s bedroom is an atrium in the center of our house, with dirt for digging, plants for cover, concrete flooring, hay, boughs, and a rabbit-made cave and tunnel. Joey accepted his brethren into his domain without a tussle.

Up to this point I had been an observer. Now I was ready to bond with the new arrivals myself. Harvey and Gus related to me with great interest and affection. True to house-rabbit form, the move indoors changed them from flighty and cautious to friendly and trusting. That gives me confidence to try matchmaking again.

Diana Murphy

House Rabbit Journal Summer 2002: Volume IV, Number 7