Litter Training for Rabbits
By Robin Rysavy, Chapter Manager
Missouri House Rabbit Society in Kansas City
Rabbits, by nature, choose one or several places to urinate and to deposit their fecals (round, hard pellets sometimes referred to as “pills”). They are creatures of habit and will usually return to these areas once they’ve decided on a suitable spot. Inside your house, this may be in a corner, or next to a piece of furniture or wall. You’ll want to have several litter boxes on hand to put in whatever corner your bunny chooses as a bathroom. If the area is not convenient for you, there are things you can do to redirect his intentions to a different location.
If you have just brought a baby bunny (younger than 6 months of age) into your family, please realize that like a human baby, his attention span is short. As humans grow, so does their capacity to learn. The same is true for baby rabbits.
And as with humans, when bunnies reach puberty, everything changes.
I’ve had great success getting baby bunnies to use a litter box nearly 100% of the time, but when they reached puberty (3-4 months of age), their excellent litter habits went out the window. When a rabbit reaches puberty, his hormones become very active which causes him to want to mark his territory. That is why he stops using the litter box. He feels the intense need to mark his area.
One way to help curb this is to get your rabbit neutered or spayed by a rabbit savvy veterinarian. We generally neuter the boys as soon as the testicles drop, which can be as early as 3.5 or 4 months of age. Since spaying a rabbit is the same as a complete ovarian hysterectomy in a human, we usually wait until the girls are 5-6 months old. Not only does neutering/spaying your rabbits help curb the hormones, it will help them remain healthier and happier throughout their lives.
After your teenage bunny is neutered/spayed, give him/her some time for the hormones to settle down. Don’t expect him to change overnight. Some rabbits do, but with others, it can take weeks or even months for the hormones to stop influencing their behavior. Be patient, but also be persistent.
If you have an adult rabbit that you’ve just brought into your family, or you’ve just rescued an older rabbit, after it is neutered/spayed it should be fairly easy to litter train.
Types of Litter Boxes
Some people like to buy the triangular litter boxes that fit in the corners of smaller cages. I’ve never quite understood these boxes. Most rabbits find them too small and uncomfortable. (Even my rescued rats didn’t like them, and they fit into them easily.) A rabbit generally spends quite a bit of time in his litter box, so be mindful of this. The best litter box is a rectangular one that is large enough for your bunny to sit in or even lay in, if he so desires. If you have a pair, trio, or group of bunnies who live together, you’ll want to have more than one litter box in their area, and include one that is large enough for at least two bunnies to get in at the same time. For younger rabbits, I like the ones with the higher sides so there is less chance they will shoot the urine out over the edge of the box. For older rabbits, you may need to either cut one side down or buy a litter box with lower sides. Like humans, some rabbits develop arthritis as they get older. This may prohibit them from jumping in and out of the litter box without discomfort. Be sensitive to what your bunny needs and work with him, not against him, to maintain good habits.
Types of Litter
It is important to keep several things in mind as you search for the type of litter that is best for your rabbit. 1) Rabbits will nearly always nibble some of the litter. 2) Rabbits will usually spend quite a lot of time in the litter box. 3) Rabbit urine can have a strong odor, especially if they are not neutered/spayed.
Dos and Don’ts of Rabbit Litter
Organic litters and those made from paper are good choices. Examples of these are Care Fresh (Natural only), Cat Country, Critter Country, Good Mews, Yesterday’s News, and PaPurr.
Feline Pine, wood stove pellets, and horse bedding (similar to Feline Pine except much less expensive) are good choices. These are safe because the phenols have been removed in the process to produce them. Because they are comprised of wood, they help control odor and bacteria.
Litters such as Gentle Touch, which are made from Aspen bark, are safe and also good at absorbing odor.
Some people like to use newspapers (not shredded because this can sometimes wrap around a bunny’s leg and cut off circulation). Line the litter box with several layers of newspapers (check to be sure your newspapers are printed with soy ink) and sprinkle several handfuls of hay over the newspapers. This is something we use here for some of our bunnies. The bunnies love to nibble on hay while they defecate/urinate. Not only are you encouraging good litter habits, you are encouraging hay consumption as well. The only down side is these litter boxes need to be changed twice a day.
Citrus-based litters work well and are not dangerous, but are expensive and difficult to obtain in some locations.
Some people use straw, but it has very little odor absorption so the litter box must be rinsed and changed daily.
Peat moss litter has been used by some, and seems to be fairly safe.
Types of Litter to Avoid
Clumping Litters should NEVER be used for rabbits. These will clump inside the rabbit’s digestive track, which will lead to death. They can also clump inside the rabbit’s sinuses, which can also have deadly results.
Corn Cob litter is another type to be avoided for rabbits. Not only is it not absorbent, but also like clumping litters, it can cause a lethal blockage of the gastrointestinal tract if ingested.
Pine and Cedar shavings emit gasses that can cause liver damage when breathed by a rabbit. These toxic gasses go from the lungs to the blood and are eventually filtered by the liver. The House Rabbit Society found that rabbits who were exposed to these phenols for any length of time prior to their rescue, showed signs of liver disease. Several rabbits died either during or after a spay or a neuter. If your rabbit has been exposed to these gasses, it is advisable to have your exotics veterinarian do blood work to check the liver values of your rabbit.
Most clay litters are dusty and if your rabbit is a digger, the dust can cause pneumonia. Also some clay litters contain deodorant crystals which are toxic to rabbits.
Oat and alfalfa based litters are excellent at controlling odor, but if ingested, they can expand and cause bloating.
Litters made with silica gel are toxic to a rabbit if eaten. Also oat-hull litters can cause intestinal blockages, and pectin-based litters can cause obesity if eaten.
Keep the Litter Box Clean
No one wants to use a bathroom that is dirty, and bunnies (and other animals) are no exception. The litter box should be cleaned out at least once a day or more, depending on the litter. White vinegar can be used to rinse out the litter box, and also to clean up accidents that happen outside the litter box. Nature’s Miracle is also great for cleaning up stains that have already dried, and it will get rid of the odor as well. Many litters can be composted or recycled. Rabbit fecals can be used on plants as fertilizer.
The Role Housing Plays in Litter Training
Many people have successfully litter trained their rabbits by starting them out in a large cage and keeping them there, especially when they are at work or away from the house. If you decide to house your rabbit in a cage when you are away from home, be sure to get one large enough for the bunny to completely stretch out and large enough to place a nice size litter pan inside the cage. If the cage has a wire bottom, please place a resting board inside, as the wire is very hard on the feet of a rabbit. Place the litter box in the corner of the cage. Since rabbits like to nibble when they are using their litter box, I always place a handful of timothy hay inside my rabbits’ litter boxes. The time your rabbit spends in the cage while you are gone can be a learning time for your bunny since there is a litter box inside. Or if you are like me, I prefer to house my rabbits in pens (purchased from KVSupply.com) when I’m not home. I put a litter box in a corner, and if the bunny chooses a different corner to use as a toilet, I simply move the litter box to whatever corner the bunny chooses. Sometimes multiple litter boxes are necessary. These extra “training boxes” can be removed once your bunny begins to get in the habit of using one or two boxes. If your bunny chooses a place that is extremely inconvenient (one of my bunnies wanted to urinate right in front of my closet door), you may have to block him off from that area until he is no longer interested in using that spot as a toilet.
It is important to let your bunny out to exercise every day, but make sure the bunny has access to his cage or pen where his litter box is. You may also want to have some extra litter boxes in the room(s) your bunny exercises in. If your bunny has an accident, be sure to clean up the urine quickly to get rid of the smell. Sweep up any stray fecals (pills) and put them back in the litter box to encourage him to defecate in the litter box. Start in a small area at first, and as good litter habits begin to be established, you can expand the running space. If you start out in a very large area at first, your rabbit may be overwhelmed with too much freedom and may lose his good habits. If you see your rabbit running to a corner where there is no litter box, and lifting his tail to urinate, quickly tell your rabbit “no” and herd him back to his litter box. NEVER hit your rabbit as punishment for missing the litter box (or for any other reason). He will not make the connection of experiencing pain with using the litter box.
Be careful not to make the cage, pen, or litter box seem like punishment. You can reward your bunny with a treat as he begins to use the litter box. Once your rabbit begins to use the litter box on a regular basis, you can allow him more time outside his cage or pen. Rabbits are creatures of habit, and once they establish a set routine they will generally stick to it.
A tip I use here to train new rabbits we’ve just rescued is to put in a slightly soiled litter box in their area. If another bunny has defecated in the box, it’s a sure bet the new rabbits will just “have” to mark over the other bunny’s scent.
If you let your bunny out to exercise and don’t give him your undivided attention while you are in the training stage, and your bunny urinates outside the litter box, this will slow the process. The more times you can catch your bunny before he urinates and herd him back to his litter box, the faster he will learn what he’s supposed to do.
As with any type of training, you cannot rush the learning process. Some rabbits will learn to use the litter box in a few days. Others may take longer. If you bring a new rabbit in to your family, your first bunny may stop using the litter box because he feels the need to mark his territory. Don’t be discouraged if this happens. After a few days this behavior usually stops. Also if you move to a new house you may have to do some additional litter training.
Once your bunny is able to be out most of the time when you are home, the rewards will be evident. Rabbits are cute and charming. They will entertain you with their inquisitive desire to explore every nook and cranny, and will uplift you with their joyful leaps (binkies).