Litterbox Encore

A tenth-year update and review of the techniques that have been most useful in housetraining rabbits.

The litterbox is the rabbit’s passport to a new life. Litterboxes get rabbits out of the hutch and into the house, underfoot, where they belong. In order to work its magic, the litterbox needs some help from the human members of the warren.

Setting Up for Success

Rabbits learn, about litterboxes and other issues, by doing the right thing and being rewarded, not by making mistakes and being scolded. Structure her environment so that she can do only the right thing, and then praise and reward her.

Two essential skills in training are vigilant observation and impeccable timing. Pay close attention to her, and Speedo will tell you when and where she plans to eliminate. You’ll notice that she always eliminates within a few seconds of coming out of her cage, or after she’s made her initial inspection of her running space. Many rabbits use body language to announce their plans. She may back into a corner, begin to raise her tail, and relax her ears slightly. She may simply hop to the spot where she urinated yesterday. With this information, you can avoid no-win, reprimand situations by making sure she heads straight for a box at these times. That’s where impeccable timing comes in. It’s no good getting her to her box after she’s urinated or defecated, or that’s what you’ll be teaching her: to go to her box after she eliminates. Place a litterbox in her preferred toilet spot(s). Put one just outside the cage door.

Place a small slice of apple, a pinch or two of alfalfa hay, or a sprig of parsley in the box. Food is not the only reward available for training. Instead of parsley, put a favorite toy in the litterbox. Place a box just outside (or just inside, depending on your rabbit’s routines) favorite rooms or areas. Pet and talk to her while she’s in the box, if she considers these experiences rewarding. Just about anything Speedo values (other than no-nos like cord-chewing) can be used as a reward.

Punishment and reprimands have no place in housetraining. You want Speedo to associate the litterbox with all things tasty and wonderful, not with reprimands and punishment. If she’s making a few mistakes, that’s part of learning. Stock up on paper towels, and get out the broom and dustpan. If she’s making lots of mistakes, she probably has too much freedom and not enough supervision. Give her as much freedom as she’s able to handle, and confine her the rest of the time.

Among the many behavioral and health reasons to spay/neuter your rabbit, housetraining ranks very high. Unneutered rabbits have difficulty adapting to life in a human household. A female who is going through a false pregnancy (or, worse, a real one) has other things on her mind than using the litterbox. Both males and females feel a strong hormonal need to mark territory (i.e., your furniture, your possessions, and you) with urine and feces. You should see an improvement in housetraining within 2-3 weeks of having your male bunny neutered. With females, the behavioral benefits may take several months to be noticeable.

More and Less

A cardinal rule of litterbox training is: more is better. The more time your rabbit spends in a plastic tray filled with rabbit-safe litter, the more accustomed to using a box he will become. It doesn’t matter whether he’s actually eliminating in the box or simply sitting in it. Many rabbits even sleep in their litterbox. Conversely, every time he eliminates outside a litterbox, that behavior is becoming habitual. This is why prevention, through supervision and confinement, plays such a major role in training.

The second rule is: less is better. Less running area while she’s in training, that is. Free-run time for a rabbit who is not yet housetrained should be limited to a single room that is plentifully supplied with litterboxes. Once again you are setting her up to succeed by putting her in a situation where it’s easy for her to do what you want her to do. Don’t worry that having more than one right place to eliminate will confuse her. You will be able to reduce the number of boxes as Speedo matures and develops the habit of using a litterbox.

Until she’s trained, your rabbit should be confined to her cage whenever you’re not there to supervise. You can use a small room such as a laundry room or bathroom, or a hallway blocked off with baby-gates as a confinement area if you prefer. A litterbox inside the cage is essential. It provides passive training to support and continue the active training you do when you’re supervising free-run time. You may need to enlarge the cage door in order to get a litterbox through it. This is easily accomplished with wire cutters and a crimper. If your rabbit is the type who likes to redecorate her living quarters, anchor the box in place with pony-clips or wire.

Time Is on Your Side

This is the magic final ingredient. If you supply the praise, treats, patience, supervision, cage-time, surgery, and litterboxes, time will do the rest. With the proper combination of these elements, one morning you’ll wake to find yourself enjoying the inimitable experience of sharing your home with a genuine, ineffable house rabbit. Enjoy.

Two Way Streets

Like many of our behavior and health articles, this one deals in generalities. Here are a few case histories to illustrate how the general principles of housetraining can be modified to suit very specific rabbits. Jasmine taught me that some rabbits need two boxes in the cage. She used her first box exclusively for sleeping, and consistently, carefully eliminated in the corner farthest from the litterbox. When I moved the box to this chosen corner, she slept in the box and eliminated in the new farthest corner. It took me a while to catch on, but at last I placed a second box in her cage. Even though the boxes took up most of the floor space in her cage, she didn’t seem to mind the arrangement. I put a resting shelf above one of the boxes to maximize the space. She continued to use box 1 for naps, meditation, and grooming, and the new box as a toilet. She soon had full house-rabbit status, and now her cage door is always open.

I learned important lessons from our threesome. Albert and Henry eliminated while munching hay from the hayrack, while Hershey used the box of straw that I thought was a playing and digging area, as a litterbox. I now place a handful of straw on top of the litter and a handful of hay in a corner of every box. The straw keeps the litter from scattering all over the room, and it remains relatively dry, as the moisture is held by the litter layer below. And then there were the California Girls, four otherwise unassuming sisters with a single mission: to claim our bed and sofa as their territory. Their litterbox habits were otherwise impeccable. They felt so strongly about these two spots that it made me wonder what makes couches and beds so attractive that even mellow rabbits want to mark them? Could it be they are picking up on how we feel about these places? For me, anyway, the sofa and bed are very important parts of my territory. I experience lots of big emotions on them. I spend a lot of time on them. They hold my scent more than, say, my desk, does (a truly bossy bun will of course mark my desk if she can get to it). I become more upset when my bed is peed on than when my desk is the target. This reaction confirms the rabbit’s impression that the bed and couch are highly valuable real estate.

I was partly successful in solving this by temporarily putting a litterbox at one end of the couch while bunnyproofing (I used tin foil, which many rabbits dislike) the rest of it. This worked with Shasta and Sierra. Mariposa chose to urinate next to the box. I thought this might mean that she was a little less unassuming than her sisters. If she’s drawn to the sofa because she views it as my declared territory which she wants as her own, I’ll “claim” a litterbox area on the floor as my territory. I toyed with the idea of marking it the way bunnies mark, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I settled for sitting on the floor next to a litterbox, which contained special treats (banana), during the girls’ most active times. I was proud of this reasoning, and I felt only mildly ridiculous in carrying it out. Unfortunately it had zero impact on Mariposa or Noe, who continued to mark the sofa. I was unsuccessful in bunnyproofing the bed, mostly because I was unwilling to make it unappealing to our cats, who spend at least as much time there as I do.

In the end I relocated the Girls to the kitchen-and-sunporch area. A pair of geriatric brothers who couldn’t scale bed or sofa moved into the bedroom and living room. Sometimes a pragmatic, less than perfect solution is the best I can do.

By Amy Espie

House Rabbit Journal Spring 1999: Volume III, Number 12