If you’ve come to The Ralph Site because you’re grieving the loss of a much-loved rabbit, then please accept our deepest sympathy and support.
As you’ve no doubt experienced first-hand, rabbits make wonderful companions, combining affection and loyalty with a curious and playful nature.
Losing a rabbit can leave a huge hole in your life, routine and home.
The loss of a rabbit can come as a shock
Sadly, the latest research shows that the vast majority of domestic rabbits die prematurely. If this is something you are dealing with, you’re certainly not alone. The most common causes of death include teeth problems, flystrike, weight loss, collapse and bloat (gut stasis).
Rabbits are a prey species. This means that they have evolved to hide the signs of illness for as long as possible. Doing this makes them less likely to be targeted by predators or cut off from the protection of their social group.
But the ability to hide illness comes at a price for the rabbit and their human caregivers. By the time it’s noticeable that a rabbit is ill, they’re often in the late stages of a health problem or illness and it’s too late to save them.
Pet loss guilt
As we’ve explored in past blogs, guilt seems to be one of the most common and difficult emotions associated with pet loss. In large part this is because our pets are unable to tell us what’s wrong and so we have to make decisions on their behalf, doing the best we can with the information we have.
This can be especially hard when dealing with a prey animal. If you are grieving for a rabbit that died unexpectedly or prematurely, you may feel upset that you didn’t pick up on signs that they were ill sooner.
Please try to be kind to yourself about this. You may need to practice self-forgiveness in order to be able to let go of your guilt. As we’ve seen, rabbits will hide that they’re ill for as long as physically possible. Even people who have cared for rabbits for years, including those running dedicated rabbit rescues or experienced vets, can miss the signs that all is not well.
It is also fair to say that our collective knowledge about rabbit welfare and husbandry is not as developed as for dogs and cats. As such, we are still somewhat in the dark when it comes to understanding what causes the common health problems that affect domesticated rabbits.
Even if you are one of the ‘lucky’ minority who has cared for a rabbit well into their old age, it doesn’t minimise your loss or the pain you’re feeling. When it comes to our pets, we never have enough time with them.
A disenfranchised grief
When a beloved rabbit dies, it can feel like a lonely experience. Generally speaking, pet loss is seen as a type of disenfranchised grief, which is when the grief is not fully recognised by our wider society.
People who have never experienced pet loss often see it as an experience that’s self-inflicted or view pets as commodities that can be easily replaced.
As pet carers we know better. We know that the loss of a pet can be just as painful and distressing as the loss of a human friend or companion, even if it is an expected part of caring for an animal.
Within the pet caring community itself, many people feel that pet bereavement conversations centre on dogs and cats. This can add an extra level of disenfranchisement if you don’t feel that fellow pet carers recognise how much your rabbit meant to you.
We want you to know that we see your grief and we understand it.
One only has to spend a little bit of time with a rabbit to see what special animals they are.
Taking care of yourself
The most important thing right now is that you take care of yourself. You will find lots of blogs on The Ralph Site to help you.
Ideally, share with your loved ones how you’re feeling and what your loss means to you. If you are finding that difficult for whatever reason, you might find it helpful to talk to someone through the Blue Cross’s excellent Pet Bereavement Support Service.
You can also find plenty of like-minded pet carers in The Ralph Site’s private Facebook group. There are a number of people who have lost rabbits and will understand the special bond you shared with your bunny.
Helping your rabbit’s bonded companion
Was your rabbit one of a bonded pair or small group?
In addition to your own grief, you may be wondering how you can help your remaining rabbit(s) come to terms with their loss. Sadly, they will be grieving too. Bonded rabbits live very closely together, spending hours playing, grooming, sleeping and eating in close proximity. When one dies, it can be traumatic for the one left behind.
In case you’re in this predicament and worried about your remaining rabbit’s well-being, we’ve put together some advice for you:
- Let your remaining rabbit say goodbye
Rabbits are social animals and, as such, they can grieve intensely for a bonded companion. If at all possible, try to give your surviving rabbit time alone with their deceased companion so that they can begin to say goodbye.
Several leading rabbit rescues recommend leaving the two together for between one and three hours. During this time, you may notice the surviving rabbit sniffing, nudging, grooming or even hopping on their companion to try to wake them. Once they understand that their friend has died, they will usually move away from the body. If this hasn’t happened within three hours, you might want to give them a bit longer together.
Observations of grieving rabbits have shown that spending time with a deceased companion can make the overall experience of grief easier for the surviving rabbit. Where a rabbit hasn’t had a chance to say goodbye, they may wait for their companion to return, even if it means not eating or taking care of themselves.
Of course, if your rabbit died suddenly at the vets, it may not be possible to let your remaining rabbit say goodbye. You can still help your surviving pet, so please try not to worry.
If you think your rabbit may have died of something contagious, it’s important to seek veterinary advice straight away about treatment options for your rabbit’s mate.
- Keep an eye on your remaining rabbit
You may notice some changes to your grieving rabbit’s behaviour. This is to be expected. Most commonly, a bereaved rabbit will lose their appetite for a while and they may seem depressed and lethargic. Some rabbits become more affectionate, shadowing their human carers everywhere they go, while others deal with their grief by being grumpy and grunting or running away when anyone tries to interact with them. They may even show signs of aggression, even if they’ve never been aggressive in the past. With time, this behaviour should pass.
As we mentioned above, you will just need to keep an eye on the surviving rabbit to make sure that they are eating and drinking, even if a little less than usual.
Give them plenty of attention and affection – you will probably find that it helps you as much as it helps your rabbit’s bonded friend.
- Give your rabbit a soft toy to cuddle
Your surviving rabbit is probably used to having their friend to cuddle up to for warmth and companionship. Some rabbits benefit from having a soft toy placed where they like to sleep so that the sense of comfort continues as much as possible.
You may also be able to help your rabbit cope with their grief by providing them with new toys and opportunities for enrichment.
- Maintain your rabbit’s usual routine
Most animals thrive on having a predictable routine or things in their environment that they can predict. For this reason, it’s important that you try to maintain your surviving rabbit’s usual routine, even though you are coping with your own grief.
You may both find it comforting to interact with each other as much as possible. Your rabbit is bound to pick up on your emotions but, hopefully, you can bring each other some much-needed love and kindness.
- Consider adopting a new friend for your rabbit
As social animals, the majority of rabbits do best when they have a bonded friend to live with. This is especially true when a rabbit has always been part of a pair or small group.
It isn’t a case of replacing the rabbit who has died. Instead, it’s a case of helping your remaining rabbit through their grief by giving them the company of a friend who, as the same species, understands their language.
If you do decide you have room in your life for another rabbit, then it’s important to think about the age, temperament and requirements of your existing rabbit and their new friend. Rabbit rescue centres will often let you bring in your surviving rabbit to meet potential companions so that you go home with a good match.
Introductions should be managed slowly and carefully to give a new bond the greatest chance of success.
If you’re not ready to adopt another rabbit or you don’t feel it’s the right course of action, your remaining rabbit should be fine as long as he or she receives plenty of love and attention from you.
You may feel guilty about welcoming a new rabbit into your home so soon but please know that you are just looking after the welfare of your remaining rabbit. The love you feel for the rabbit you have lost will not change or lessen.
Whatever you decide and however you feel, know that you’re not alone.
Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support