How rabbits cope with the loss of a bonded partner and how to help them recover from it...
For bonded rabbits, the loss of a partner can be very traumatic. Bonded rabbits live very closely together, spending hours sleeping, grooming, eating, playing and "talking" so the sudden absence of their partner is difficult for them to cope with. In particular, rabbits who have been bonded from babies, either with their litter mates or another rabbit, may react very badly to losing their partner.
As an owner, this is a very tough time, trying to understand and support your remaining rabbit while dealing with your own grief.
Coping with death
We all wish a peaceful death for our rabbits and the happiest scenario is when your rabbit simply goes to sleep and doesn't wake up. In fact, this is also the best thing for your remaining rabbit.
Rabbits are not traumatised by the sight of a dead partner and in fact it is beneficial for them to see this so they can understand what has happened and do not think that their partner has simply disappeared. Rabbits have been known to engage in a kind of dance when their partner dies - it is unknown what the purpose of this is but some people think it is the rabbit's way of expressing their grief while giving their friend a good "send off".
If you are in the sad positition of having to have your rabbit euthanised, wherever possible it is better to do this at your home in their own environment. This is not only less stressful for your rabbit, but the remaining rabbit will have a chance to see their partner and accept its death.
It is recommended that you give your remaining rabbit at least an hour with its partners body. This may seem very morbid to us but it really is the best thing for your rabbit. Stay with your rabbit and monitor its behaviour; it will find your presence comforting and will understand that you are grieving too.
In the days and weeks following its partners death, your rabbit may be withdrawn and hide away from you. It may even show aggression towards you, even if it has never been aggressive before. Others may seek you out for companionship, following you around and lying down close to your chair. However your rabbit behaves, remember that this is a temporary situation caused by grief so be patient and respect its needs.
The best thing you can do for your rabbit is to find it another partner. Although rabbits can be happy singles if they have enough companionship from humans, a rabbit that has been used to living in a pair is unlikely to ever be completely happy on its own again. A bereaved rabbit will sometimes accept a new partner very quickly, even the day after its old partner has died in some cases. Others need a few weeks or even months to adjust and be ready to accept a newcomer. In all cases, introductions should always be carried out slowly.
It is often us as owners who find it hardest to move on, feeling that we would be betraying the lost rabbit by welcoming another into our home so soon. In this respect we can learn from our rabbits - welcoming a new rabbit does not lessen the love we felt, and will always feel, for the departed rabbit.