Bonding Two Stubborn Senior Buns
Experienced volunteer and long-time rabbit bonder, Jean, says that most “rabbits don’t speak rabbit”. But, once a bunny has been bonded, or if they’ve grown up with their siblings, they are somewhat better at communicating with each other. But, that doesn’t mean they will agree, and it doesn’t mean you will be able to predict how a bond will go!
Enter the buns:
Bertha is a large girl, about 9 lbs and at least 8 years old. She came to us from Craigslist, from some folks that found her wandering around in an abandoned house. She is a gentle and affectionate lady with people, and generally not aggressive towards other rabbits. She is however, used to being the QUEEN. She was bonded twice before, and twice a widow. She was dominant in both of her earlier relationships.
BunJovi is bit smaller, 5lb male bun. About 9 years old, and also bonded twice, and twice made a widower. Also he’s not aggressive towards other bunnies, he is super affectionate and outgoing towards people. We don’t know whether he was dominant in his past bonds.
The first date (speed date):
The first date started with respectful interest in Bertha by BunJovi. Then some face smooshing to ask for grooms. The BUNS chaperone petted both, and Bertha groomed BunJovi for a while she was being petted. Then BunJovi got nippy when she wouldn't continue.
The next early dates:
Over the next few weeks, we tried various combinations of stressing (in a basket on washing machine), smoosh petting in the bathtub, car rides, and some longer sessions in large exercise pens at shelter.
The bathtub was probably the least helpful. I tried small spaces again later on, and they always led to fighting, with the exception of car rides in the carrier.
The shelter dates were good, although BunJovi was usually stressed there, and the bunnies were often a bit distracted by the other bunnies around them. Overall though, they were doing as you might expect. By date five they weren’t too tense, and they weren’t fighting, even when a request for grooms was not met.
Fast forward to trying some sessions in the bathroom, in a pen with the sides disguised a bit with blankets. Bertha used to have free-run of the house, so this space was less neutral to begin with.
The big setback:
Then there was a fairly significant set-back. I lined the bonding pen with newspaper for session 9, to soak up any pee, but apparently that was a mistake! The date started out way more tense than any others: they almost immediately started fighting. This was after being able to spend hours together peacefully.Boxing, biting, fur pulling. BunJovi got a pretty good chunk of Bertha's fur.... left a red mark on her skin. Not a bad wound, but definitely got her skin a bit. What went wrong?
We suspect that the crinkly sound combined with BunJovi’s poor vision was at fault. But either way, how could we repair the damage?
We then went back to the shelter for dates, as well as some in the bathroom with NO newspaper, and for the next several weeks, didn’t seem to make any real progress. Nothing as bad as that day in the bathroom, but scuffles would break out when they went near each other, and we seemed to be stagnating and spiraling to a worse and worse place.
The first breakthrough:
To break the bad association that had built up and end the cycle of them scuffling every time they approached each other, we started petting both bunnies A LOT every time they went nose to nose. The first time Jean supervised, and this technique lead to Bertha very thoroughly grooming BunJovi!
We kept up with this technique for a few weeks. The petting would trigger grooming by Bertha, and then eventually by BunJovi. Once they started getting comfortable around each other, we started slowly backing off with the petting.
Eventually got to the point where Bertha would sometimes groom BunJovi without being petted first.
The next plateau:
Next we reached the really stubborn stand-off phase. Bertha would groom BunJovi, but wasn’t fully submitting. They both still insisted on being dominant. They would spend hours together peacefully (8 – 12 hour sessions). Not quite cuddling, but sharing food, relaxing near each other. But still, not “clicking”. Not cuddling, not grooming each other often, still tense, and still getting into little tiffs when the sessions got too long. One overnight marathon attempt lead to a bunny tornado despite being peaceful all day.
How to get past this? One of the main issues was that there was no good neutral space at home, but we needed a large, neutral space, that we could spend several days at to finally push past this last hurdle.
The solution: sleepover at a friend’s house!
True dedication to a bunny bond is spending 5 nights sleeping on a garage floor.
So off we went. We arrived around 9 pm, and set up for the long haul.
The bonding space was two x-pens linked up. Lots of things to chew, hay everywhere.
The first overnight went well, and at that point I knew we were going to make it. NO FIGHTING! No fur pulled at all! At one point they were chasing, but kind of halfheartedly. I stopped it after probably five or six seconds, all it took was banging on the x-pen. They were pretty active all night, and they definitely had some dominance interactions, but everything just felt very relaxed.
By morning they were almost cuddling. BunJovi groomed Bertha, and then Bertha groomed him back for a long time! Both ate together no problem.
Added in a litter box, and still no problems. By about 25 hrs in they were cuddling, and I knew we were home free.
After a few more days of cementing in the garage space, they moved into their newly renovated condo, which would be their permanent home, and was located in non-neutral space.
No fights or scuffles upon moving home, and after about 48 hours they were snuggling and grooming as much as they had been in neutral.
BunJovi appears to be dominant, but it’s honestly hard to tell most of the time!
Total time to being bonded: 4 months (including 5 nights marathoning in a garage)!
Was it worth it?
Absolutely! These two buns are so happy together, and have a very close bond.
So what did we learn?
- Build a positive association early on! Pet pet pet pet until they relax around each other. Don’t be afraid to have your hands on them constantly in the early sessions.
- Large spaces worked MUCH better than small ones.They needed space to run away from each other. In a small space, one bunny would try to run, but there was nowhere to run to, so it would always end up with them circling and fighting.
- Neutral is IMPORTANT. All of the set-backs I had were in less neutral space. Once we went to a completely new space that was large and had no distractions, things finally clicked. Do not try to move to semi neutral space until they seem bonded in neutral! Finding a space where both bunnies behave normally is also important. BunJovi was often too stressed to behave normally at the shelter, that might have added to slow progress in that space.