Responsible companion animal care is always evolving. Luckily, the days of rabbits being banished to small wire hutches in the backyard (and cats roaming neighborhoods unsupervised) are on their way out.
More veterinarians and animal care professionals than ever before are recommending rabbits be kept indoors as part of the family, both for their safety and well-being. One unintended result of this pet care revolution is a mixing of species that rarely met in the past! But can these predators and prey animals be friends?
Proceed With Caution When Introducing Pets
It’s important to understand cats’ behaviors when introducing them to other pets in the household. Cats are predators. We humans love our pets, and it’s easy to impose human characteristics onto them. Your cat might be loving, devoted, snuggly, and gentle around humans or other cats. Yet, this doesn’t change its biology as a predatory animal. Just because a cat has lived indoors its entire life (or hasn’t hunted prey) does not quell its natural instincts.
A single bite from a cat can introduce deadly bacteria into the body and will warrant an immediate trip to the emergency veterinarian. Cats act on impulse and move incredibly fast when their prey drive is triggered. In an open space, a cat is much faster than a human. This means that your rabbit could be injured or killed in a matter of seconds before you have the chance to intervene. It is always better to err on the side of caution than to take a risk with irreversible consequences.
Size Matters in Animal Friendships
When choosing rabbits to live in a household with cats, thought must be put into the rabbits’ size and temperament. Small breed rabbits or baby rabbits should never share a space with a cat without a barrier to keep them safe.
Most cats’ prey drive is triggered by fast and erratic movements made by small animals. This means, when introducing rabbits and cats, the rabbit would have a confident temperament and be medium to large in size.
Despite being prey animals, many domestic rabbits have assertive personalities when it comes to animals their size. This is exactly the type of rabbit that can thrive in a household with cats. Friendly rabbits that approach new objects and animals with bold curiosity, making their presence known, are ideal. Flighty, unsocialized, or skittish rabbits are far more likely to trigger a cat’s prey drive. When adopting rabbits from a rescue group, discuss your plans, and the rescue can help you choose the best rabbits for your individual situation.
Introduce Cats and Rabbits Over Time
The most important part of bringing new rabbits home is making them feel safe. Rabbits are prey animals and are easily frightened. Adapting to a new environment can be stressful for these creatures. A rabbit’s first day in the home should be focused on boosting their confidence. Playing games with your rabbit is a great icebreaker.
Set up your rabbit’s new home in a quiet place. Avoid loud music, fast movements, or invading the animal’s space. If your plan is to have free-range rabbits in your home, their first few days should be spent acclimating to their smaller space–– ideally, a sturdy X-pen enclosure with plenty of hiding spots. You can feed the rabbit treats and talk to them calmly through the enclosure as they begin to get their bearings.
Pet Introductions Take Patience and Nuance
Give the rabbit at least 48 hours before even considering introducing the cat. Meanwhile, you can introduce the cat to anything that holds the rabbit’s scent as a form of desensitization. The goal is for the cat to become bored of the rabbit. When the rabbit is clearly feeling confident in its new space, introduce a blanket that holds your cat’s scent. Reward the rabbit with tasty treats to help create a positive association. Your message should be clear: when this scent is around, good things happen!
Don’t Force Cross-Species Friendships Between the Animals
When the rabbit feels confident in its new space, you could consider introductions. The first several introductions should happen through the protective barrier of the rabbit’s enclosure. If the pen is short enough for the cat to jump over, a second person should be inside the pen with the rabbit.
Let the cat enter the room on its own. Don’t force or encourage the cat to approach the rabbit; let things unfold naturally. Bring high-value treats, and reward the cat frequently. Any ability to pull its attention away from the rabbit is a success!
Watch the rabbit’s response closely. Be sure hiding places are available. If the rabbit wants to hide away from the cat, that’s not a problem. Even getting a chance to smell the enclosure is a success for the cat. If the rabbit becomes frightened at any time, remove the cat from the situation immediately. If the introduction goes well, remove the cat after about fifteen minutes. It’s better to end on a short but positive note than to give the cat an opportunity to scare the rabbit.
Rabbits Don’t Need Feline Friends
It’s important to note that meeting face-to-face is not a necessity for cats and rabbits. Cats can be put in a separate room during bunny free-range time; many people manage this successfully with their pets. Realistically, cats and rabbits should never be left unattended together when the caregiver is not home. Rabbits should always be kept in pairs, so a rabbit does not need a cat’s companionship to be happy.
With this being said, many rabbits share space with cats and manage to get along.
Once you’ve reached a point where the cat can completely ignore the rabbit, let the rabbit out of their pen for their regular free-range time.
Be prepared with a towel to throw over the cat in case of emergency, but only intervene if completely necessary. Let the animals investigate each other on their own terms, frequently distracting the cat with treats. You will likely find that rabbits are far more assertive than one might expect. In fact, it might just be the rabbit who chases the cat rather than vice versa!