By Deana Mae Nelson
Rabbits are clean animals that tend to go to a common area to do their “business,” so training a rabbit to use a litter box while in your house can be as easy as placing a litter box, with the proper litter, in the proper place.
Laurie Gigous, House Rabbit Society (HRS) educator and member of its National Board of Directors, has litter trained more than 20 rabbits, usually taking only one to two days. As long as you understand rabbit behavior and litter box training requirements — and have a little patience — you can train a rabbit to use a litter box.
The Big Fix
First, you must understand their natural behaviors. Rabbits, like dogs and cats, are very territorial. They use their urine and fecal droppings to mark their territory. For this reason, expecting an intact rabbit (not spayed or neutered) to use a litter box regularly is not fair to either you or your bunny, as it only leads to frustration.
While an intact rabbit will tend to use the same area as the “bathroom,” it will still mark his territory by spraying and urinating on the floor. The sooner your vet “fixes” your bunny, the better chance you have at preventing soiled carpeting. Spaying and neutering rabbits also prevents a variety of other concerns, such as breast cancer, uterine infections, ovarian cysts and other behaviors like scratching, breeding and cage aggression.
Once your bunny is spayed or neutered, start the training in a small area, such as an exercise pen, dog crate or cage. Start small and slowly expand the border as your bunny learns the difference between the litter box and the floor. The best way to demonstrate the purpose of the litter box to your bunny is to take some of the soiled litter and droppings and place these into the litter box. Then place the box in the corner or spot where your bunny usually urinates. The odor from the soiled litter will attract your bunny to use the box the next time he needs to go to the bathroom.
Using The Litter Box
You can use a few tricks to encourage your bunny to get into the box. One is to place hay in half of the box, while leaving the other open with just litter. Most rabbits like sitting in their box, eating and pooping at the same time. Feeding your bunny this way allows easy access to hay, helps keep hay off the floor, and encourages your bunny to get into the litter box.
Rabbits like fresh hay, so replace the hay a couple of times a day and clean the box regularly. Keep the fresh and clean hay only on the side of the box that your rabbit doesn’t use.
Another way to encourage your bunny to use the litter box is to give a treat, such as a small slice of carrot or piece of apple, whenever it uses the litter box. Offer only healthy treats, not seeds, nuts or anything with too much sugar, fat or protein. Too many treats of any type can lead to obesity, diarrhea, gastrointestinal stasis and other health issues.
When Litter Training Goes Wrong
Litter-box training is usually relatively easy, but exceptions exist to every rule. Sometimes a rabbit has difficulty using a litter box.
Sometimes training older rabbits is more difficult, as they’ve spent so much of their lives marking their territory. Even after getting them spayed or neutered, some older rabbits remain in the habit of marking their territory, urinating wherever they want. Most of the time, older rabbits learn to use their box and mark their territory occasionally, but some of them are more stubborn than others.
The best thing to do in these cases is to create a safe play area for them in a room with tile or linoleum flooring. You can lay down some easily washed rugs for traction for those rabbits that have difficulty adjusting to the smooth floor.
Another option involves fleece and a shower curtain. Melissa Yontanza lives with two senior rabbits, volunteers for Rascally Rabbit Rescue in Arizona and has a great way of combating occasional messes. She lays out a heavy-duty plastic shower curtain liner on the floor under the area of the exercise pen. Then she places a few layers of fleece fabric on top of the shower curtain. Fleece protects her carpet if her rabbits have a bathroom accident and is easy on her rabbits’ feet. The fleece is safe, because it does not contain the strings that can get wrapped around rabbit paws or legs as might happen with towels. Fleece is easily washed and easy to find at a craft or sewing store.
Another potential obstacle to litter-box training rabbits is multiple rabbits that don’t get along, yet they run around in the same area. Gigous, who is also the education director of Rascally Rabbit Rescue, fosters adoptable rabbits in her home. She said that proximity to other rabbits can cause territorial behavior to flare up. Even after being spayed and neutered, some rabbits still demonstrate territorial behavior when they are near another rabbit’s pen or cage, or in the same room. Gigous said that her foster rabbit Mica, “Uses the litter box on occasion, but if there is another rabbit around, he marks.”
Amy Spintman, owner of CatsAndRabbitsAndMore.com and a volunteer for the San Diego chapter of House Rabbit Society for more than 10 years, said that her most difficult litter-training experiences have been with the more territorial rabbits. “Even though they’re spayed/neutered, some will always leave some markings near the other rabbits,” she said.
The best option, although not always the easiest, is to move the marking bunny into a different room where he cannot smell the other rabbits. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to rabbit-proof multiple rooms in a house for rabbit playtime, but putting more separation between the rabbits helps keep them from urinating outside the litter box and near each other’s pens.
Another option for multiple rabbits that don’t get along is extra litter boxes. If your bunny likes to mark his territory in a certain spot, place a litter box there. After your bunny starts using that box, you may be able to slowly move this box, a couple of inches a week, into a new location that is more convenient. This new location should still be near the other rabbit’s pen, but out of the way so it’s not in the middle of the floor. You might be able to get all the rabbits in that room to use the same litter box and have just the one, however this is not always the case. Every rabbit has his own preferences, so you might need at least two boxes.
According to Nancy Laroche, another reason why a rabbit might not be easily litter-box trained is from emotional damage. Laroche is president of the Colorado Chapter of House Rabbit Society and co-manager of its board of directors.
Some rabbits come from the street or abusive homes, after which they are emotionally scarred. Laroche has had experience with such rabbits, and some rabbits will start out using their litter box for sleeping, but nothing more. “In most cases, providing a second litter box was all that was needed,” Laroche said.
However, some rabbits refuse to use a litter box and additional training is needed. Laroche recommends filling an entire crate (rabbit cage or pen) with litter boxes so that the rabbit has no option but to use a litter box. Then, after the rabbit stops using a box for more than a couple weeks, remove that unused box. Continue removing unused boxes until, slowly, the rabbit is down to using only one or two boxes. Laroche has used this method many times over the past 20-plus years and had only one rabbit fail with the method. “She carefully urinated where the corners of the litter boxes left a small hole,” Laroche said.
While a possibility remains that your bunny could be like that one rabbit that wouldn’t use the box, it is more likely that even with emotional damage, your rescued bunny will learn to use the litter box as more than a place to sleep.
A Previous Litter-Box Star Fails
Over time, your bunny will age and may suddenly have problems using the litter box. This is a common occurrence as rabbits get older or their environment changes.
The first step is, of course, to make a list of any changes in the environment. Did you add another rabbit to the home? Did you move or change litter? Environmental changes can affect your bunny in a way that makes him uncomfortable or unsure of his surroundings. If the change is the addition of a rabbit, most times the original rabbit will teach the new rabbits the goings-on of the home. If a matter of a different litter, go back to the other litter. It’s possible your bunny has a favorite litter and doesn’t care for the new one, due to the odor, texture or consistency.
Also, some rabbits stop using their litter box when it hasn’t been cleaned in awhile. That, of course, is resolved with more frequent cleanings.
No matter the situation, try a refresher course in training, starting with a small area and slowly expanding the area as your bunny starts using the litter box properly. In the case of your bunny getting a new friend, try using a few boxes around the play area to determine the new rabbit’s preferences before going back to ground zero.
If the environment has not changed, or your bunny hasn’t improved his litter-box habits after adjusting to the new environment, take your bunny to a rabbit-savvy veterinarian for an examination. Because rabbits age so quickly, it’s important that a veterinarian gives them routine checkups at least once a year.
Routine exams help a veterinarian determine the cause of ailments when they occur, and these ailments could be the cause of your bunny’s sudden non-use of the litter box. These causes can include arthritis, urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence, depression, anxiety, excessive heat and pain.
Customizing Litter Boxes
After determining the cause of your bunny’s behavior change and seeking medical attention as needed, you can do a little more training and change the litter-box situation so that it suits your bunny’s new situation. June Booth, president of the Louisiana Chapter of House Rabbit Society, said a change to the litter box can help rabbits with mobility issues. “Depending on the medical condition, lower one side of the rabbit litter box and put a piece of [rubber] over that side.” The rubber protects the rabbit from any sharp edges made when cutting down a side.
Gigous said a low-sided jelly-roll pan can be used as a litter box, too. And Yontanza uses a desk organizer as a litter box for her older rabbit. Usually used as an “inbox” on a desk, it has three sides and a bottom. She covers the bottom with newspaper and places hay on top. While it needs frequent cleaning because newspaper does not cover odors well, it allows her rabbit easy access and prevents stains on the carpet. A setup like this is especially important for any rabbit with an injured leg or severe arthritis. You can also shop around. Some companies make litter-boxes with low entries.
One additional note regarding litter-box training is that your bunny may still leave the occasional “present” for you on the floor. Even when spayed and neutered, rabbits leave fecal droppings around the home on occasion. These droppings, while slightly annoying, occur mainly as a result of scattered debris or hitchhiking droppings when a rabbit jumps out of the litter box. Thankfully, these are easy to sweep or vacuum up and generally do not stink or stain carpeting.