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Introducing your rabbit to other pets

Introducing other pets, such as cats and dogs, to your pet rabbit needs to be done gradually and in such a way that the dog or cat learns that the rabbit is not overly interesting and certainly not something to be chased, and eaten. Rabbits, remember are prey animals and dogs and cats are predators. From the rabbit's point of view a dog or cat is a threat to its well-being, indeed to its life. It is important that the introduction process does not scare the rabbit. A scared rabbit will try and run away and this could trigger a chase response from the dog or cat. The basic principle involved in an introduction is that both animals can make pleasant, calm associations with the presence of the other. This requires some planning.

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The rabbit

Whether your rabbit lives outdoors or inside, it should have a secure pen (an indoor kennel serves the purpose well), in which it can feel safe and relaxed. A box should be provided for some privacy, water and plenty of hay. Make sure the rabbit is used to the pen for a few days before beginning the introduction.

In addition, have a supply of some of your rabbit's favourite foods, perhaps some fruit or fresh dandelions.

Scent exchange

Much of dog, cat and rabbit communication is by scent. It is worthwhile getting the animals used to the scent of the other animal it is to meet. This can be done by rubbing your rabbit gently with a clean cloth and then rub it onto your cat's back and flanks or leaving it for your dog to sniff. Take a second cloth and wipe it gently over your dog/cat and then onto your rabbit's back and flanks. This should be done daily for a few days before you introduce the animals to each other.

Introduction to the cat

Before introductions are made, ensure you have a supply of your cat's favourite titbits to hand, such as prawns, chicken or ham.

Make your introduction at a time when you are relaxed and not likely to be disturbed. Provide your rabbit with some titbits in its pen and then bring the cat in the room, with the dish of prawns. These can be scattered near to the rabbit's pen, but not so close that the rabbit becomes anxious. When the cat has finished the prawns, then remove the cat and repeat the process several more times over the next few days. If your rabbit is going to be kept in different rooms, or different parts of the garden, then repeat the introduction in each place. This will help ensure that your cat associates good, calm behaviour around your rabbit, wherever it may be found.

Introduction to the dog

It is important before you introduce your dog to your rabbit that the dog understands and responds to the word 'Leave' or 'Off'. This command means 'Leave that, it is not interesting, come to me I am far more interesting'. It should be given in a pleasant, calm voice so as not to excite the dog even further. Details on teaching this command are given below.

Make your initial introduction at a time when you are relaxed and unlikely to be disturbed, and your dog is comfortably tired after a good walk. Place some titbits for the rabbit in its cage and then bring the dog into the room (or near the hutch if outside) and let him approach and even sniff the kennel, rewarding him for calm behavior with a really tasty titbit. Judge how near you can let the dog approach by the behaviour of the rabbit - who should not be showing signs of anxiety but be eating its own titbits. Also watch the behaviour of the dog, if it is getting excited, then move it further way from the rabbit. This is when you can use the Leave or Off command! Get the dog to lie down quietly and reward with a titbit and gentle praise. While it is lying quietly in sight of the rabbit, reward with a chew or a few treats, so it is encouraged to lie quietly for a few minutes.

After a few minutes take the dog away for something pleasant and distracting like its dinner. Repeat this introduction process until you are happy to do so with the dog off lead. As with the cat, this whole process needs to be repeated in all locations where the rabbit is to be.

The Leave or Off Command (adapted from McBride 2001, Why Does My Rabbit?)

Leave means 'Leave it, it is boring. Pay attention to me; I am exciting and rewarding.' As a consequence 'Leave' is a gently spoken command and the dog is rewarded verbally as well as with food and play.

NOTE if you have already taught the word Leave, but tend to say it in a harsh manner, then use the following instructions to teach a new word such as 'Off'. The command is used gently but firmly so as to reduce any excitement or anxiety associated with the presence of the rabbit.

Remember that the more important the item you are asking the dog to leave is to the dog, the greater the payment you have to offer. Would you leave your pen for someone who said 'Please' and offered you £2.00? Would you leave your car for the same price? I suspect not, but you might for £20,000. Hence as you progress through the following stages, you will need to increase the value of the type of reward you are offering, say from dog biscuit to bits of cheese and ham.

Stage A
Hold a piece of food in the tips of your fingers. As the dog approaches, say 'Leave' gently and close your hand before the dog gets to it. As the dog retracts its head, say 'Good. Take it' and give the dog the food. When the dog is clear that it has to move its head away from the food in order to obtain it, then move on to the next stage. 

Stage B
Sit in a chair. Hold your right arm, with the food in your fingers, out to the right. As the dog goes to take the food, say 'Leave'. If the dog does not move its head away, immediately close your fingers and repeat the command. When it does move its head away, bring the food back to your lap and tell the dog to 'Take it' and give it the food, making it come to your lap for the food.

When the dog is clear on this, move on to the next stage.

Stage C
Repeat Stage B in terms of holding the food out to your right. Say 'Leave' and make some distraction to get the dog to look at you, such as scratching the top of your head with your other hand.

When it looks at you, tell it that it is a 'Good Dog', bring the food back to your lap and tell the dog to 'Take It'.

Build up the length of time the dog will look at you to ten seconds. As long as the dog is looking at you, say 'Good Dog'. If it looks at the food, repeat the Leave command.

When the dog is clear about what it has to do, namely look at you for permission to take the food, move onto the next stage.

Stage D
Put some fairly boring object on the floor. As the dog approaches or sniffs it, gently ask it to 'Leave'. As the dog looks at you say ' Good Dog' and entice it back to you. Then reward it, saying 'Take It', with a piece of food given from your hand, which should be by your leg or in your lap. The importance of having your hand near your lap is that it encourages the dog to return close to you for the titbit and to leave the object. Repeat this exercise with a variety of boring objects.

Note: once the dog understands this, it may go and sniff the object and immediately return to you. If you have not said 'Leave' then do not reward the dog but ignore it. We wish the dog to learn that 'Leave' is the cue and you are in control.

Practice stage D on a variety of items in a variety of places, eg ask the dog to 'Leave' as you pass a bush or lamp-post and reward the dog as it looks at you.

Once this is going well, go on to the next stage.

Stage E
Go back to working in a quiet area and repeat stage D, using a range of more interesting items such as the dog's toys.

Then practice in several different places, both indoors and outside. When this is going well, go on to the next stage.

Stage F
Back in your quiet area, start the 'silly games' routine. This will require two people. The handler keeps the dog's attention using food or toys. The dog should be kept facing the handler, so hold the food or toy in the area of your lap. As long as the dog is concentrating, praise it in a fairly excited voice. The 'silly' person starts to move about, waving his hands or doing the cancan. Adjust the 'silly' person's level of activity to the dog's response, building it up as the dog responds to the 'Leave' command.

The 'silly' person is not allowed to say the dog's name or any command such as 'Come'.

If the dog breaks away from the handler, the 'silly' person is to stop immediately and totally ignore the dog (no eye contact), only resuming activity once the handler has the dog back under control.

If the dog looks at the 'silly' person, the handler should say 'Leave' gently but firmly and regain its attention, rewarding it verbally, and then keep its attention with the titbits, posting one into the dog's mouth every so often, or letting it mouth the toy.

If the dog breaks away towards the 'silly' person, then lure it back into position using the food or toy and repeating the 'Leave' command.

Practice in a variety of areas with a variety of silly games.

When the dog is easily leaving the 'silly' person, you are ready to introduce your dog to your rabbit.

 

  • Dr Anne McBride BSc PhD FRSA, Animal Behaviour Clinic, New College, University of Southampton, The Avenue, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK.

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