What if my cage is on legs or has a door that opens on top so the bunny can’t get into it on his own?
By nature, rabbits choose one or a few places (usually corners) to deposit their urine and most of their poops. Urine-training involves little more than putting a litter box where the rabbit chooses to go. Poop-training requires only that you give them a place they know will not be invaded by others. Here are some suggestions to help you to train your rabbit to use the litter box.
Does age make a difference?
Older rabbits are easier to train than younger rabbits, especially babies. A rabbit’s attention span and knack for learning increases as they grow up. If you have a baby, stick with it! And if you are deciding whether to adopt an older rabbit, or litter train your older rabbit, go for it!
Does spaying/neutering make a difference?
Yes! Spay or neuter is the most important part of litter box training a rabbit. When rabbits reach the age of 4-6 months, their hormones become active and they usually begin marking their territory. By spaying or neutering your rabbit, he will be much more likely to use his litter box (as well as much healthier and happier).
What types of litter should I use?
It depends on what’s available in your area and your rabbit. Keep in mind the following as you choose your litter:
- most rabbits spend lots of time in their litter boxes
- rabbits will always nibble some of the litter
- rabbit urine has a very strong odor
House Rabbit Society recommends organic/natural litters, made from alfalfa, wheat grass, oat, citrus, paper, or compressed kiln-dried sawdust. For a listing of safe litters, see the litter boxes and liver disease article.
Place a handful of hay in each box. It is helpful to put several layers of newspaper or litter under the hay, to absorb urine so that your rabbit is not standing in the urine. Most newspapers today are using soy-based ink, which is safe for your rabbit, but check with your local newspaper to make sure first. Change the hay frequently (daily), since your rabbit will be eating it. This method helps encourage good litter habits as well as encourages hay consumption, since rabbits often eat and use the litter box at the same time.
Litters to avoid:
- pine or cedar (softwood) shavings or chips
- emit toxic phenolic gases that cause liver damage when inhaled by the bunny, if not kiln-dried
- Swheat Scoop Litter
- rabbits often eat it
- because it is comprised of wheat, it is very high in carbohydrates. It can cause:
- excessive cecal production
- bacterial imbalance
- other health issues
- clay litter
- dusty – if your bunny is a digger, the dust can make her vulnerable to pneumonia
- toxic deodorant crystals in some clay litters
- clumping litters
- clump inside the rabbit’s digestive and respiratory tracts, causing serious problems and often leading to death
- corn cob litter
- isn’t absorbent
- doesn’t control odor
- has the risk of being eaten and casing a lethal blockage
Safe litters (all compostable!) include:
- paper litter (fluffy or pelleted)
- very absorbent
- cut down odors
- harmless if ingested
- examples: Carefresh, Oxbow Pure Comfort, Yesterday’s News, Kaytee Clean & Cozy, Small Pet Select Soft Paper Bedding, okocat paper litter
- compressed sawdust pellets
- highly absorbent
- made from softwood or hardwood sawdust – they are not toxic because phenols are removed during manufacturing (kiln-dried)
- wood composition helps control bacterial growth
- controls odors
- examples: wood stove fuel pellets, Feline Pine
- wheatgrass-based litter pellets
- controls odors
- examples: Cat Country, Critter Country, Oxbow Eco-Straw
- oat- and alfalfa-based litters
- excellent odor control
- if a rabbit eats too much, they expand and cause bloating
- don’t control odor
- aspen bark litters
- good odor control
- Examples: Gentle Touch Pet Products
Cleaning and disposal
Clean litter boxes often, to encourage your rabbit to use them. Use white vinegar to rinse boxes out–for tough stains, let vinegar soak in pans. Clean up accidents outside of the cage with white vinegar or club soda. If the urine has already dried, you can try a pet urine enzyme cleaner like Nature’s Miracle to remove the stain and odor.
To dispose of organic litters, they can be used as mulch, composted at home, or added to municipal green waste collection. Rabbit poops can be directly applied to plants as fertilizer.
What kinds of cages work best?
Use an enclosure large enough to contain a litter box, along with bunny’s food and water bowls and toys, and still allow enough room for the rabbit to stretch out. Place the box in the corner of the enclosure that they go in. With a litter box in the enclosure, when the rabbit is confined to their enclosure when you’re not home, enclosure time is learning time.
What if my cage is on legs or has a door that opens on top so the bunny can’t get into it on his own?
If it is on legs, build a ramp or stairs, or pile boxes to make steps–anything so he can come and go on his own.
If the door is on top, put a small stool or box inside to help him get out, a board or piece of rug to help him walk to the edge of the enclosure, and a ramp, stairs, stool, or boxes to help him get down (and up again).
Consider replacing the enclosure with a puppy exercise pen, so the rabbit can come in and out on their own on ground-level.
What if my cage is too small for a litter box or I don’t use a cage?
If your cage is too small for a litter box, you may have a cage that is too small for your rabbit. Our Housing FAQ has lots of info on appropriate cages and enclosures.
If you don’t use an enclosure, give the bunny a particular area to call their own. Put a litter box wherever the bunny seems to prefer.
Poops vs. urine
All rabbits will drop poops around their cage to mark it as their own. This is not a failure to be litter-trained. It is very important for your rabbit to identify the cage as their property so that when they leave the cage for the bigger world of your house, they will distinguish the family’s area from their own and avoid marking it. To encourage this, make the rabbit the king of their cage. Try not to force them in or out of it — coax them. Do not do things to their cage that they don’t like, or things to them that they don’t like while in the cage.
The trick to getting the rabbit to keep their poops in the cage is to give them ownership of their cage–respect the cage as theirs:
- Don’t reach into the cage to take them out; open the door and let them come out if and when THEY want to come
- Don’t catch them and put them back in the cage or it will be their prison, not their home. Herd them back gently, and let them choose to go in to get away from you (I walk behind my buns, clap my hands, and say “bedtime.” They know that I’ll not stop harassing them with this until they go into their cage, so they run in except when they feel they haven’t gotten their fair share of time outside the cage.)
- It’s a bit like a child going home and closing the door, because someone is calling them names. They may make the playground an unpleasant place for them, but they can’t bother them in their own home.
- If the rabbit has been snuggling with you, it’s okay to carry them to the door of the cage and let them go in–just don’t put them directly into the cage, and never chase and trap them and put them in the cage.
- Don’t reach into the cage to get food dishes–anchor them near the door of the cage so they can be filled with a minimum of trespassing into the cage, or wait until the rabbit is out to fill them.
- Don’t clean the cage while the rabbit is in it–wait until they come out. They’ll come over and supervise you, even help you move things around that you’ve set down outside the cage, but as long as they aren’t in the cage, they won’t see your cleaning as an invasion of their territory. (Smart rabbits–I wouldn’t object if someone were cleaning my house, either…)
The same technique can be used if a rabbit doesn’t live in an enclosure, but in a particular part of a room. Mark the territory with a rug, tape, whatever, and don’t trespass over that.
Can the rabbit have a running space?
Even if your goal is to let your rabbit have full run of the house, we recommend starting small. Start with an enclosure and a small running space, and when your rabbit is well litter box trained in that space, gradually give them more space. If you overwhelm them with too much freedom before they’re ready, they will forget where their box is and will lose their good habits.
What’s the actual method?
Start with a box in the enclosure, and one or more boxes in the rabbit’s running space. If she urinates in a corner of the enclosure not containing the box, move the box to that corner until she gets it right. Don’t worry if your bunny curls up in his litter box–this is natural.
Once she’s using the box in the enclosure, open her door and allow her into her running space. Watch her go in and out on her own. If she heads to a corner where there’s no box, or lifts up her tail in the characteristic fashion, cry “no” in a single, sharp burst of sound. Gently herd her back to her enclosure and her litter box, or into one of the boxes in her room.
Be careful – you don’t want to make the enclosure or the litter box seem like punishment. A handful of hay in the box makes it a more welcoming place. After she first uses the box, praise her and give her her favorite treat.
Once she uses the box in her room a couple of times, her habits will be on their way to forming. As she gets better trained in her first room, you can increase her space. Don’t hurry this process. And if the area becomes very big, or includes a second floor, be sure to include more litter boxes, so as not to confuse her.
As she becomes more confident and uses fewer boxes, you can start to remove some of her early “training” boxes.
Get your rabbit into a daily routine and try not to vary it. Rabbits are very habitual and once a routine is established, they usually prefer to stick with it.
How many litter boxes?
The more, the merrier, especially if your rabbit is a bit of a slow learner, or is especially obstinate about where she wants her box(es) to go. As her habits improve, you can decrease the number of litter boxes.
Kicking litter out of the box
Some rabbits love to kick their litter out of the box. You can get a covered litter box (with a hood), experimenting with different litters, or a sifting cat pan with litter under the sifting tray and hay on top, to help solve this problem.
Urinating over the edge of the litter box
Rabbits often back up in the litter box and the urine goes over the edge. Possible solutions:
- covered litter box
- high-sided litter box
- Rubbermaid storage container with higher sides
- “urine guard” for the cage
What to do if your rabbit insists on using another spot?
Compromise. If your rabbit continually urinates in a spot where there is no litter box, put their box where they will use it, even if it means rearranging their cage or moving a table in the living room. It is much easier to oblige them than to try to work against a determined bunny!
What are the most common litter training mistakes?
- Letting the bunny out of the enclosure and not watching her with undivided attention; You can’t watch TV or read the paper or knit or talk on the phone and expect to keep your mind on what the bunny is doing every second–if she urinates without being “caught” and herded to the litter box, she’ll be that much slower in learning what she’s supposed to do.
- Getting in a hurry. Bunnies take time. Perhaps that’s one of their special gifts to us in this hectic world. They require that we take time out to sit and watch and do nothing else. Besides getting a well-trained bunny for your efforts, you also get a short period of time each day to watch one of the most charming little creatures on earth explore, skip for joy, and in general entertain you with her bunny-ness.
What should I do if my rabbit starts dribbling all over her cage instead of using the litter box?
Dribbles usually indicate a bladder infection. Get your bunny to a rabbit-veterinarian who will probably put her on an antibiotic. If the dribbling stops, you know that that was the problem. (Watch out for antibiotics given by veterinarians not familiar with rabbits as companion animals!)
If the “dribbles” are more than dribbles, or if the antibiotic doesn’t stop the problem, consider any factors that may be making your bunny feel insecure (new pet, house guests, change in location of cage, etc.), any of which can cause a bunny to mark her cage more enthusiastically (similar to someone having a dispute with a neighbor about the location of a fence setting up a flag at the property boundary marker).
Why does my rabbit urinate or leave poops right beside the litter box?
The three most common things that are related to poor litter habits (especially if the bun had been using the litter box in the past) are:
- Urinary Tract infections; bladder sludge or stones; kidney disease
These should be treated by a veterinarian.
Oreo, a 8.5 year old Dutch, had 75% kidney failure and began urinating on the floor next to the litter box when her problems first began.
Hershey (her mate) did the same thing when he had a severe UTI. After the UTI was treated with antibiotics and resolved, he began to use the litter box again.
If a rabbit is having arthritis pain, they may have a hard time getting in/out of the litter box. Many rabbits over 6-8 years old develop arthritis. Your veterinarian can help evaluate your rabbit for arthritis, and may recommend a pain medication. A low-entry litter box can be helpful for easier entry for older rabbits or rabbits with arthritis.
- E. cuniculi
This rabbit parasite can cause kidney scarring and kidney problems. Your veterinarian can help evaluate your rabbit who sits in their urine or starts urinating on themselves, and may recommend a blood test called an antibody titer for E. cuniculi. If positive and having symptoms, they may recommend medication.
- Behavior related
Once the possibility of physiological causes is eliminated, the behavioral reasons seem to go something like this:
Miz Bun eliminates next to her litter box because of some stress – it could be a break in her routine like less/more running time than usual, visitors at home, kids home from college or summer camp, any intensely emotional event whether good or bad. It could even be a single incident, such as being frightened by a sudden noise like a car backfiring while she’s in her box, which she then associates with being in the box.
Whatever the reason, she’s feeling insecure and tries to rebuild her confidence by “underlining her signature” – her signature being her droppings in the box; underlining, the puddles/piles beside it.
Unless it’s an ongoing stress that can be removed, figuring out the cause is not particularly relevant. The important factor is not what happened the first time, but the habit that grows from it. She pees beside the box today because she did it yesterday.
Many people do not take action for the first few incidents, especially with a rabbit who’s always been good about using the litter box. They figure it’s a fluke that will disappear as suddenly as it started. This gives the habit time to take firm root. By day 3, the habit is fairly entrenched, and correction of the perceived cause will not solve the problem.
What WILL solve it? The usual: confinement, praise, rewards, vigilant observation and supervision during free-run time.
But there’s a catch-22 to this method. It generally requires a change in Miz Bun’s routine, which is a common cause for the behavior in the first place. I know of no easy way around this knot. The hard way is to confine, praise, and reward with minimal change to her usual routine.
Sometimes I add a litter box to the rabbit’s area. The novelty makes the box attractive (as do treats placed in it). She hops in to investigate, and voila! she eliminates IN A BOX. This is good behavior, worthy of lavish rewards. It’s often easier to get her to go in a new box than to go in the one she’s been eliminating next to.
It’s important for people to understand that this process can take time. A rabbit who’s been perfectly box-trained for three years and has peed next to the box for three days may need three weeks of intensive training to get back to her old, good behavior. Why is it that bad habits take longer to undo than to initiate while the reverse is true of good habits?
- Territory related
Winston, a religious litter box user began urinating on the floor next to the litter box near the gate…when Buttercup arrived on the opposite side of the gate. After Winston got used to Buttercup, and had “his” territory sufficiently marked, he stopped using the floor and resumed using the litter box.