Rabbits are clean by nature – in the wild they relieve themselves in the same spots and don’t soil inside their burrow. Pet rabbits too tend to go to the toilet in just one or two places and respond well to house-training.
You can teach a rabbit to use a litter tray when she is only a few weeks old. Adult rabbits (over a year old) are often easier to train because they have already been through adolescence and are generally neater and more relaxed, especially if they are neutered. Neutering or spaying is essential to improve litter-training habits and reduce or eliminate spraying.
Choosing the right type of litter
You can fill the tray with shredded paper, newspaper covered with hay or straw (our litter of choice), garden peat or compost, pelleted straw or paper pulp bedding. Avoid clumping cat litters because if your rabbit (or cat) ingests even a small amount during grooming it will swell inside its stomach and intestine, causing blockage, diarrhoea, or even death. Softwood pine and cedar shavings/chips release toxic fumes which may cause respiratory problems and affect the functions of the liver, so use with caution and in large, well-ventilated areas only.
How to do it
Get your rabbit into the habit of using a tray from the very first day; this means having 3 or 4 litter trays ready when you bring your rabbit home. It’s a good idea to start with one room even if you intend to give your rabbit the run of the house – if he has too much to explore he will feel insecure and forget where the litter tray is. The kitchen or another room without carpet is ideal.
Put a litter tray in your rabbit’s living area, e.g. in a corner of the room. Be certain that you show it to your rabbit. Leave a few droppings and a piece of urine-soaked paper inside the tray(s) so he gets the idea. If your rabbit hops in the tray, give him lots of praise and maybe a treat. Otherwise herd him gently towards the tray or lure him there with a favourite piece of food.
Your rabbit is more likely to use the tray if you make it a nice/interesting place to be. Put a handful of hay or even her food bowl in one corner. Don’t do to your rabbit things that she doesn’t like or disturb her while she is in the tray. Try different types of litter to find the one your rabbit prefers. Many rabbits like digging and rolling in their trays, grooming or even taking a nap. This is wonderful behaviour – if your rabbit likes spending time in its tray she’s more likely to mark it with urine and droppings.
In the early days it is very important to watch your bunny closely and follow her everywhere – rabbits are creatures of habit and once they get used to peeing in the wrong places it is more difficult to stop them from doing so again and again. If you see your rabbit is about to urinate on the floor, clap your hands twice and say “No” (without shouting) followed by her name. Then coax your rabbit to the litter tray or shepherd her gently as described above. Once your rabbit is in the tray give her a treat and lots of praise. Your rabbit may hop back out and pee on the floor. Be patient – house-training doesn’t happen in one day! Dogs and cats may also take a while to learn.
Many rabbits prefer finding their own spot (behind the sofa, under a chair or table) for going to the toilet. Simply move the litter tray where it is needed. Even if this means rearranging a piece of furniture, it is much easier than working against a determined bunny. Clean up the puddle with diluted white vinegar to remove odours and leave some urine and droppings inside the tray. This will hopefully encourage your rabbit to use the litter tray next time.
As your rabbit becomes more reliable, you can gradually allow him in the rest of the house (do one room at a time). It’s a good idea to have a litter tray in every room, at least in the early days, so your rabbit is less likely to urinate on the floor. Later you will be able to remove those trays he uses less often. During training when you go out, leave your rabbit in one room to contain the number of “accidents”.
Urinating in the spot where the litter tray used to be When litter-training your rabbit it’s a good idea to put the trays where she likes to urinate. Once your rabbit has got used to urinating in the tray, you can gradually move it to where you want it to be. If your rabbit continues to soil in the old place, clean the area thoroughly and cover it if possible (with furniture, a box, etc.). Put some urine/droppings in the tray and a favourite treat or toy in one corner to encourage your rabbit to use it.
Kicking the litter out of the tray If your rabbit loves kicking the litter all over the floor try using a different type of litter or buy a litter box with a covered top like the ones used for cats.
Urinating over the edge of the tray Invest in a bigger tray or one with higher sides or use a covered box as described above. If the litter tray is in the kitchen or bathroom, push it against a tiled/washable wall to encourage your rabbit to stay in the middle of the tray when he urinates.
Urinating in the bathroom Some rabbits are attracted to the smell of human urine in the bathroom and like doing their business near the toilet (the fluffy carpet around the toilet is a favourite spot). If this is the case wash the floor/carpet thoroughly so your rabbit cannot smell his urine and is less likely to soil there in future. Then provide a litter tray with some droppings and a piece of urine-soaked paper inside.
Urinating on rugs or mats Our bedside rug was a favourite peeing spot when my rabbit was little. I had to have it dry-cleaned all the time, which cost me a small fortune, and in the end I threw it away. Fortunately my rabbit stopped urinating there after that. If you want to keep your rug, wash it well to remove all smell of urine, then put a litter tray on top of it. Leave some soiled litter inside the tray to help your bunny get the message. Later you may be able to move the tray away from the rug to a more convenient place (do this very gradually). This also applies to other unsuitable spots where your rabbit tends to urinate (e.g. a doorway).
Urinating on beds, sofas, etc. Rabbits love to urinate on beds and sofas because they are soft and comfortable and have a strong human scent. If your rabbit tends to relieve herself on your bed or favourite armchair, establish right from the start that these are no-go areas. It will help to teach your rabbit the “No”/”Down” command. When you see your rabbit is about to urinate on the bed/sofa, clap your hands to get her attention and say “No”, then push your rabbit gently towards the floor. Make sure there is at least one litter tray in the room, ideally near the bed, sofa, etc. and encourage your rabbit to use it with the help of a food reward. If she is very tame, pick her up and put her in the tray, then give her lots of praise. Clean the stain thoroughly to get rid of the smell of urine; remove any droppings from the sofa and put in the litter box.
One of our volunteers has resorted to leaving a litter tray on her sofabed – although not ideal her rabbit has quickly taken to it and has stopped soiling the bed.
If your rabbit continues to urinate on your sofa or bed, simply keep the doors closed to prevent access to your bedroom or living room. This is particularly important if an accident is likely to upset you. It is also a good idea to protect your mattress/sofa with a waterproof sheet. You can then cover the sofa with a washable throw (buy two throws so your sofa is covered while one is in the wash).
Slow learners/Very territorial bunnies Be patient if your rabbit is a bit messy – some rabbits take longer than others to refine their litter-training. You may be giving your rabbit too large a territory or not enough litter trays for his needs. Concentrate on urine rather than pellet-training and reward your rabbit every time she does well.
If your rabbit isn’t neutered arrange for it to be done as soon as possible, however expect that it may take a few weeks or months for her behaviour to improve.
If the sides of the tray are too high your rabbit may be unwilling to use it. It could be that your rabbit doesn’t like urinating in a tray so try something else:
- a wooden box with a hinged roof (to make cleaning-out easier) or, as a temporary measure, a strong cardboard box lined with lots of newspaper;
- a covered litter box (like the ones used for cats);
- an untreated straw/wicker basket, for instance a baby Moses. Line the bottom with a bin bag and a layer of newspapers, then fill with hay/straw or another type of litter;
- a small plastic dog bed; or
- anything else your rabbit may be tempted to pee in, including his pet carrier.
Experiment with different kinds of litter – rabbit have definite preferences in these matters. Put down several trays/boxes to increase your rabbit’s chances of success. While your rabbit is still learning, keep her in the kitchen or another room without carpet and set up a bunny exercise area on your balcony/terrace or in the garden.
LOSS OF LITER-TRAINING
There may be a number of reasons why a house-trained bunny loses his good habits. First it’s important to find out the cause of this behaviour. Scolding your rabbit is never appropriate when loss of litter-training is stress-related as described in many of the points below. Simply clean up the accident with a mild washing liquid or diluted white vinegar and praise your rabbit when he uses his tray. Rabbits produce a couple of hundred pellets a day and It is normal to find a few scattered around the house.
Adolescence/Territorial marking When rabbits reach adolescence (from around 3 months) they will feel a stronger need to mark their territory and a previously neat bunny may suddenly start to urinate and leave droppings outside his litter tray. Both male and female rabbits may also spray urine on carpets, furniture, their caregivers and other rabbits. Neutering and spaying will gradually reduce or eliminate this problem, however stress and other factors can bring it on even in a neutered rabbit.
Meeting another rabbit When introducing a new rabbit, your existing bunny may well forget everything he has learnt about litter-training. This should improve once the rabbits have become friends, but they are likely to leave more pellets scattered around from now on.
Courtship Rabbits who are courting tend to temporarily lose their toilet-training. In addition male rabbits will squirt urine on their chosen partner. This can be reduced or avoided by having your pet neutered.
Aggression/Assertion Spraying urine may be an assertive gesture when a rabbit’s territory has been invaded, for example by another rabbit.
Entering a new environment Droppings that are not in a pile, but scattered around indicate this territory belongs to the rabbit. This usually happens when a rabbit is placed in an unfamiliar territory. Neutering and spaying may reduce the number of pellets your rabbit scatters around.
Spraying furniture Rabbits may get into the habit of urinating on a piece of furniture where you spend a lot of time, e.g. your bed or sofa. By doing this the rabbit is trying to cover your smell and assert himself as the dominant member of the social group.
Habit Rabbits are very much creatures of habit, to the point that they’ll urinate on the sofa or the carpet today simply because they did it yesterday. Keeping them away from a room for a month or longer might help to break the habit. It is also a good idea to provide extra litter trays. The older the rabbits when they’re neutered or spayed, the more established certain habits such as marking may be. Neutering will help even with older rabbit, but the desired behavioural changes may take a little longer to materialise.
Nervousness/Fear A rabbit may lose his toilet-training when he is nervous or afraid. It may be a guest in your home, an unexpected noise or a predatory animal such as a dog or a fox that your pet scents. Most rabbits also urinate in their pet carrier on their way to the vet.
Sickness/Discomfort Loss of litter-training may be a sign that your rabbit is ill or uncomfortable, e.g. if the skin around her bottom is sore or there are soft droppings stuck to the fur.
Protest A rabbit is more likely to urinate on the sofa or the floor if he feels neglected (e.g. if you have left him alone all day). My rabbit always urinates on the carpet when we return from the vet.
Excitement A rabbit may urinate when she is happy to see you, e.g. when you come home from work, especially if she is not used to being left on her own.