A number of recent studies have found that companion animals do in fact grieve the loss of their owner or of their fellow pets. Some pets seem to react minimally, while others seem to suffer greatly.
A rabbit with an established bond to another rabbit is blessed to have a devoted companion; however, the downside is that when one of the pair passes on, the survivor is left behind alone and grieving. It is extremely important to take steps to ensure that the surviving rabbit does not sink into a depression which can threaten his life as well.
It is critically important to let the rabbit left behind spend time (a few hours) with the body of his deceased companion. Animals can understand death as a natural occurrence, but a rabbit whose companion is removed prior to death (such as being taken to the veterinarian for euthanasia) will wait patiently for their mate to return. If that mate is returned deceased, the survivor can understand that; otherwise s/he is left to wonder why the mate disappeared suddenly. As you cannot explain it to her, the rabbit is likely to continue to wait – for weeks and weeks – for the mate to return. Obviously the survivor is not going to accept a new mate during this time, and may in fact become deeply depressed and become at risk of dying themselves.
Allow the companion rabbit a few hours with the rabbit that has passed on. Some rabbits will barely acknowledge the deceased rabbit (often this is the companion of a rabbit who has had an extended illness. These survivors seem to have already realized that their companion was seriously ill). Other rabbits will lick or groom their companion, or try to nudge them awake or bring them a toy. Others will lie down next to their beloved companion.
Give them time alone for 3 hours and then peek into the room. If the survivor has left the deceased rabbit and is going about his business, it would be OK to remove the deceased rabbit. If not, then allow another 3 hours. Generally by this time most all companions have accepted that their buddy is not coming back. This would also be the time to rub a small cloth, or a bunny-safe stuffed toy against the deceased companion. the scent of the companion may provide comfort to the survivor in the coming days. If you know that you will be having to take the ill bunny to the veterinarian to be euthanized, rubbing the blanket on that bunny prior to the veterinary visit would be optimal. You may also leave a blanket in the bedding of the deceased bunny to collect that bunny's smell in order to offer comfort to the bunny left behind.
If a rabbit has passed away from something contagious, the companion rabbit was already exposed before symptoms were present. Allowing the survivor time with the body does not add to the risk.
A note about autopsied rabbits: if your bunny passes away at home and you plan on an autopsy, your veterinarian is going to be able to distinguish changes that occurred before death and after – so you CAN let the survivor have his time with his companion before taking the companion for autopsy. If your bunny passes away at the veterinary hospital and is autopsied there, your veterinarian is able to suture up the autopsy sites so that the bunny will look natural and you can then bring him back home for the survivor.
Animals do not necessarily cope with grief in the same way that humans do. In addition to lethargy and loss of appetite, their grief many manifest in many other ways, including excessive grooming, fur chewing, carpet digging, unusually heightened startle reflexes (anxiety), avoidance of the favorite areas of the deceased companion (or refusal to LEAVE the favorite areas of the deceased companion), or a change in litter box habits. Be aware of this and be observant of these signs of grief; do not reprimand your bunny during this time – he is struggling with his own sense of loss.
Obviously in the house rabbit, a loss of appetite is quite serious and can result in GI stasis and death of the surviving rabbit. Offer your bunny a wide variety of his favorite foods. Offer him treats (within reason). Sometimes chopping or mincing vegetables, or hand-feeding, will make these more tempting to your bunny. Offer an assortment of hays. Your rabbit’s appetite should pick up in a few days and continue to increase until it is back to normal. If your rabbit stops eating altogether, see your veterinarian immediately as this can lead to life-threatening GI stasis.
Spend extra time with the depressed rabbit in whatever way makes him comfortable. Perhaps he is most content to sit quietly on your lap or next to you on a sofa. Perhaps he is most comfortable staying in the area most familiar to him, with you nearby. Try to arrange for your bunny to be close to you at times when he might otherwise be alone in his home in another room – bring an xpen into the living room when you are watching TV for example – or go read a book in his room.
On the other hand, be sensitive to your rabbit’s comfort level. The author’s bunny Bubba is grieving his companion who passed on earlier this month. At first, Bubba was quite uncomfortable at leaving the familiarity of the room he shared with Cappucino. A half hour in my lap in the living room was all he would tolerate before becoming anxious and needing to return to his room. The time spent in the living room was very gradually increased, and after nearly 2 weeks he now seems to enjoy up to 4 hours at a time in the living room where he can observe a neighboring rabbit as well as the house cat. He is now comfortable enough to eat his greens in the living room, albeit still somewhat tentatively. Some rabbits take longer to adjust than others, especially if they were very devoted – you need to be sensitive to this. Typically a rabbit will grieve for the loss of a partner for several weeks, but some pets grieve much longer than others, just as people recover from loss within different time frames.
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