Basics of Litter Training

by Nancy J. LaRoche  Copyright 2000 – All Rights Reserved  (May be copied for free distribution)

Rabbits are easy to litter train, providing you understand their toilet psychology. However, because hormones play a major role in their marking behavior, it is necessary for them to be spayed or neutered before attempting this training. Be sure to use only a veterinarian who has a long record of successful spays and neuters of rabbits. Elsewhere on this site is a list of veterinarians.

Litter Training With Respect To Urine  All our domestic rabbits are descended from the European wild rabbit. The variety of breeds is the result of selective breeding – none of them lived in their present form in the wild. To understand their toilet habits, we need to look at the behavior of the European wild rabbit. These rabbits live in warrens and have the rabbit equivalent to a latrine out away from the warren. Every rabbit goes there to urinate. This keeps the warren clean and keeps predators from following the odor directly to the warren. So the European wild rabbit and all of it’s descendants (our domestic rabbits) have a strong instinct to use a single place to urinate.

If you keep your rabbits in a large comfortable crate/condo, they will choose a corner in which to urinate. Chances are good if you put a litter box with paper litter an inch or two deep covered with hay in a back corner of their crate, the rabbits will use that corner. (See below for types of litter that are safe.) The hay encourages them to sit in the litter box and if the litter gets wet, the hay helps keep them dry. They will eat the hay while it is fresh, but once it is soiled, they will concentrate on the unsoiled hay in their hay box.

Keep the rabbits in the crate/condo most of the time for two or three days. If you let them out during this time, don’t let them approach a corner, and don’t let them stay out long. In the condo, give them toys (see the article on preparing for your rabbit for ideas for toys) and a shelf that they can jump up on, to keep them happy. With rare exceptions, the urine training is complete at this point. After that, if you let your rabbits out of the crate/condo, but not too far away from it, they will return to the litter box when they need to urinate.

If the rabbits are eventually given the run of a large part of the house, it may be necessary to put a second litter box in a corner of your choosing. Put some used litter in it to help them realize the purpose of this additional litter box.

If other animals live in the home, the rabbits may urinate on the floor of their condo once or twice, declaring “loudly” the condo belongs to them and won’t be shared. This usually doesn’t continue for more than a day or two, especially if the rabbits see that the other animals are respecting their space.

Litter Training With Respect To “Pills”  From the point of view of the rabbit, droppings or “pills” are not so much a waste material as a tool to mark territory. Pills are roughly equivalent to property markers, whereas urine is more like a shotgun, threatening dire consequences if ignored.

The trick to litter-training with respect to pills is to let the rabbits’ crate/condo be their personal, private property. Never reach into the crate when your rabbits are there. Never catch your rabbits and put them in the crate/condo or reach in and take them out. In general, never violate the crate space when the rabbits are in it. As long as rabbits feel that they own territory that isn’t shared, they will mark it with their pills. Pills on the floor of a cage are not a problem, because they are dry and odorless.

The second step in litter training with respect to pills is to block off a relatively small area around your rabbits’ crate, get in that space with your rabbits (i.e., share that space with them) and watch them carefully. If one of them drops a pill, herd the rabbit into the crate and toss the pill in, too. S/he can come back out right away, but each time one drops a pill, herd the rabbit into the crate and toss the pill in. Rabbits quickly learn not to drop pills in the shared space outside the crate/condo. Then you can gradually increase the space to which the rabbits have access, continuing the process described. If you are consistent and don’t hurry this process, you will soon have well-trained rabbits.

Litter Boxes  Ideally, litter boxes should have high sides, because rabbits back into the corner and may urinate over the edge. You will know if the sides are high enough if the urine doesn’t go over the edge. Rubber Maid plastic dish pans work well for many rabbits. There are also metal litter boxes designed with high sides and grates specifically for rabbits.

Litters  Rabbits may really “chow down” on materials that would not seem to be very appealing, including their litter. Therefore it is essential their litter material be a safe one.

Safe Litters
•  Paper litters, such as FibreCycle and CareFresh, seem to be the safest. Paper isn’t toxic and will pass through the rabbit’s digestive tracts if ingested.
•  Hardwood stove pellets are also safe, however NEVER use the pine stove pellets! 
Unsafe Litters
•  Alfalfa-based litters will be eagerly devoured and are likely to cause obesity, so are to be avoided.
•  Corncob litter will occasionally cause serious blockages of the G.I tract – DO NOT USE under penalty of death – the rabbit’s.
•  Clay and clumping litters will cause severe blockages leading to death, if ingested.
•  Pine and cedar shavings are not to be used because they give off chemicals which cause changes in the liver when inhaled. If the rabbit becomes ill, antibiotics will then be ineffective because of these changes. Discontinuing use of the shavings will return the liver to normal within a few weeks.

Dealing With A Not Very Common Problem  For some reason, some rabbits simply won’t stop urinating all over the floor of their crate. If this is the case with your rabbit, fill the crate with litter boxes so the rabbit has no choice but to use one. At first, s/he may use all of them. But eventually s/he will probably stop using one of them – most often the one containing the food and water dishes. Remove a litter box after it has not been used for two weeks. It may take months, but usually a rabbit will stop using another litter box. When that box has been unused for two weeks, that one may also be removed. Eventually, most rabbits will finally accept and use only one litter box.