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The House Rabbit
Litter-Training

Frequently Asked Questions

Introduction
Does age make a difference?
Does Spaying/Neutering make a difference?
What types of litter should I use?
Will my rabbit get confused if I use food pellets for litter?
Cleaning and Disposal.
What kinds of cages work best?
What if my cage is on legs or has a door which opens on top such that my rabbit can't get into it on his own?
What if my cage is too small for a litter box or I don't use a cage?
Pills vs. Urine.
Can my rabbit have a running space?
So what's the actual method?
How many litterboxes?
Kicking litter out of the box
Urinating over the edge of the litterbox
What should I do if my rabbit insists on using another spot
What are the most common litter training mistakes?
What should I do if my rabbit starts dribbling all over his cage instead of using the litter box?
Why does my rabbit urinate or leave pills right beside the litterbox?


Introduction
By nature, rabbits choose one or a few places (usually corners) to deposit their urine and most of their pills. Urine-training involves little more than putting a litterbox where the rabbit chooses to go. Pill training requires only that you give them a place which they know will not be invaded by others. Here are some suggestions to help you train your rabbit to use the litterbox.

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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 he grows 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!

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Does Spaying/Neutering make a difference?
Yes! This is often the most important factor. 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, s/he will be more likely to use his/her litterbox (as well as be much healthier and happier).

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What types of litter should I use?
It depends on what's available in your area and what your rabbit's habits are. 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 odour.
  • House Rabbit Society recommends organic litters, made from alfalfa, oat, citrus or paper. (Some brands to look for: Care Fresh, Cat Country, Critter Country, Pet's Preference)

Stay away from litters made from softwoods, like pine or cedar shavings or chips, as these products are thought to cause liver damage in rabbits who use them. CatWorks litter has been linked to zinc poisoning. Another approach is to place a handful of hay in each box, or to simply use hay as litter. Obviously, you need to change the hay fairly frequently (daily), since your rabbit will be eating it.

Pros and cons of the various types of litter include:

  • clay litter is dusty--if your bunny is a digger, the dust can make her vulnerable to pneumonia
  • the deodorant crystals in some clay litters are toxic
  • clumping litters will clump inside the rabbit's digestive and respiratory tracts (the latter if they manage to make enough dust to breathe) causing serious problems and often leading to death
  • pine and cedar shavings emit gases which cause liver damage when breathed by the bunny
  • corn cob litter isn't absorbent and doesn't control odour, and has the risk of being eaten and causing a lethal blockage.
  • oat- and alfalfa-based litters have excellent oduor controlling qualities, but if a rabbit eats too much of the litter, they expand and cause bloating; these types of litter, too, can be added, with the bunny's waste, to compost
  • newspapers are absorbent, but don't control odour
  • citrus-based litters work well, offer no dangers, and can be composted, but may be hard to get and expensive in some areas of the country/world
  • some people have reported success with peat moss which can also be composted
  • Many people have great success with litter made from paper pulp or recycled paper products. These litters are very good at absorbing and cutting down on odours. Such litter brands, CAREfresh or Pet's Preference are available in Singapore. These litters are harmless if ingested.
  • Compressed sawdust pellets are inexpensive, highly absorbent litters used in many foster homes. They are made from softwood or hardwood sawdust, but they are not toxic because the phenolic compounds are removed during their manufacture. Their wood composition helps control bacterial growth and odours. Wood stove fuel pellets and Feline Pine are two examples of this product. Feline pine is available in Singapore.
  • Litters made from Aspen bark are safe and good at absorbing odours. Oxbow AspenFresh is also available in Singapore.
  • An economical and safe litter is the food pellets themselves.
  • If bought in 50 LB bags, rabbit pellets are cheaper than most litters. They don't absorb as quickly, but they do absorb and they do control odour. And of course, they can be used in compost. This option may not be the best one for a rabbit who is overweight though.

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Will my rabbit get confused if I use food pellets for litter?
A young rabbit may use both the litter and its food dish for both food and litter. However, if you always dump the soiled food out of the dish into the litter box, and clean the dish before more food is given, the rabbit will very quickly catch on.
Rabbits will nibble at the food pellets in the litter box for a while when they are fresh, but as the litter become soiled, they lose interest.

Finally, some rabbits insist on urinating or dropping pills in their dishes. This is not confusion, but a statement to others that "This is MY food dish!"

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Cleaning and Disposal.
Clean litterboxes often, to encourage your rabbit to use them. Use white vinegar to rinse boxes out--for tough stains, let pans soak. Accidents outside of the cage can be cleaned up with white vinegar or club soda. If the urine has already dried, you can try products like Hutch Clean and Supreme Home Help (available in Singapore) to remove the stain and odour. To dispose of organic litters, they can be used as mulch, or can be composted. Rabbit pills can be directly applied to plants as fertilizer.

What kinds of cages work best?
Use a cage large enough to contain a small litterbox (along with bunny's food and water bowls, toys, etc.) and still allow enough room for the rabbit to stretch out. Place the box in the corner of the cage where he goes. With a litterbox in the cage, when the rabbit is confined to his cage when you're not home, cage time is learning time.

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What if my cage is on legs or has a door which opens on top such that my rabbit 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 that 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 cage, and a ramp, stairs, stool, or boxes to help him get down (and up again).

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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 which is too small for your rabbit. (See Section E on the Rabbit's Environment (not yet written).)
Or you may have a dwarf rabbit and can't get a small litter box. A good substitute is a Pyrex baking dish. Even 9" x 9" is sufficient for a Netherland Dwarf.

You may have a cage with wire on the bottom and a tray underneath that catches the urine. In this case, the tray is the litter box and the cage itself is where the bunny learns to go. You can often place the litter box in the tray, under the cage, so that you need not fill the entire bottom with litter.

If you don't use a cage, you need to give the bunny a particular area to call its own. Just put a litter box wherever the bunny seems to prefer.

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Pills vs. Urine.
All rabbits will drop pills around their cages to mark it as their own. This is not failure to be litter-trained. It is very important for your rabbit to identify the cage as her property so that when she leaves the cage for the bigger world of your house, he will distinguish the family's area from her own and avoid marking it. To encourage this, make the rabbit the king of his cage. Try not to force him in or out of it-- coax him. Do not do things to his cage which he doesn't like, or things to him which he doesn't like while he's in the cage.

The trick to getting the rabbit to keep his pills in the cage is to give him ownership of his cage--respect the cage as HIS:

  • Don't reach into the cage to take him out; open the door and let him come out if and when HE wants to come out;

  • Don't catch him and put him back in the cage or it will be his prison, not his home. Herd him back gently, and let him 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 him names. They may make the playground an unpleasant place for her, but they can't bother him in his own home.

  • If the rabbit has been snuggling with you, it's okay to carry him to the door of the cage and let him go in--just don't put him directly into the cage, and never chase and trap him and put him 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 he comes out. He'll come over and supervise you, even help you move things which you've set down outside the cage, but as long as he isn't in the cage, he won't see your cleaning as an invasion of his 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 a cage, but in a particular part of a room. Mark the territory with a rug, tape, whatever, and don't trespass over that.

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Can my rabbit have a running space?
Even if your goal is to let your rabbit have full run of the house, you must start small. Start with a cage and a small running space, and when your rabbit is sufficiently well-trained in that space, gradually give him more space. But do so gradually! If you overwhelm him with too much freedom before he's ready, he will forget where his box is and will lose his good habits.

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So what's the actual method?
Start with a box in the cage, and one or more boxes in the rabbit's running space. If he urinates in a corner of the cage not containing the box, move the box to that corner until he gets it right. Don't be concerned if your bunny curls up in his litterbox--this is natural. Once he's using the box in the cage, open her door and allow his into her running space. Watch him go in and out on his own. If he heads to a corner where there's no box, or lifts up his tail in the characteristic fashion, cry "no" in a single, sharp burst of sound. Gently herd him back to his cage and his litterbox, or into one of the boxes in his room. Be careful, however. You don't want to make the cage or the litterbox seem like punishment. A handful of hay in the box makes it a more welcoming place. After he first uses the box, praise him and give him his favorite treat. Once he uses the box in his room a couple of times, you're well on your way, as his habits will be on their way to forming. As she gets better trained, you can increase his space. Don't hurry this process. And if the area becomes very big, or includes a second floor, be sure to include more litterboxes, so as not to confuse him. Remember, as he 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 creatures and once a routine is established, they usually prefer to stick with it.

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How many litterboxes?
The more, the merrier, especially if your rabbit is a bit of a slow learner, or is especially obstinate about where he wants her box(es) to go. As his habits improve, you can decrease the number of litterboxes.

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Kicking litter out of the box
Some rabbits love to kick their litter out of the box. You can get a covered litterbox (with a hood) to help solve this problem. You can also try experimenting with different litters.

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Urinating over the edge of the litterbox
A second problem is that rabbits often back up so far in the litterbox that the urine goes over the edge. Again, a covered litterbox can solve this problem. Another solution would be to get a dishpan or other type of tub with much higher sides. Still another solution would be to get a "urine guard" to place around the back of the cage, to keep the litter from spraying outside of the cage.

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What should I do if my rabbit insists on using another spot?
Compromise. If your rabbit continually urinates in a spot where there is no litterbox, put his box where he will use it, even if it means rearranging his cage or moving a table in the living room. It is much easier to oblige him than to try to work against a determined bunny!

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What are the most common litter training mistakes?

  • Letting the bunny out of the cage and not watching him 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 he urinates without being "caught" and herded to the litter box, he'll be that much slower in learning what he's supposed to do.)

  • Trying to get there in a hurry.
    (Rabbits 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 rabbit 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 his bunny-ness.)

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What should I do if my rabbit starts dribbling all over his cage instead of using the litter box?
Dribbles usually indicate a bladder infection. Get your rabbit to a rabbit-veterinarian who will probably put him on an antibiotic. If the dribbling stops, you know that that was the problem. (Beware of antibiotics given by veterinarians who are 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 rabbit feel insecure (new pet, house guests, change in location of cage, etc.), anything which can cause a rabbit 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 as the property boundary marker).

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Why does my rabbit urinate or leave pills right beside the litterbox?
The three most common things which are related to poor litter habits (especially if the bun had been using the litterbox in the past) are:

  • Urinary Tract infections; sludge in the bladder; bladder stones; kidney disease. This should be treated by a qualified veterinarian.

  • A common example is Oreo, a 8.5 year Dutch who had 75% kidney failure and began urinating on the floor next to the litterbox when her problems first began. Hershey (her mate) did the same thing when he had a severe UTI last year. After the UTI was cleared up, he began to use the litterbox again.

  • Behaviour related.
    Once the possibility of physiological causes is eliminated, the behavioural reasons seem to go something like this:

    Miss bunny eliminates next to her litterbox because of some stress, eg, a break in her routine such as less or 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 (car backfiring, etc) 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" (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 often 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 litterbox. They figure it's a fluke which will disappear as suddenly as it started. This only 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 Miss bunny's routine, which is a common cause for the behaviour in the first place. Iknow of no easy way around this knot. The hard way is to confine, praise, etc with minimal change to her usual routine. Sometimes i add a 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 3 years and has peed next to the box for 3 days may need 3 weeks of intensive training to get back to her old, good behaviour. 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 litterbox user began urinating on the floor next to the litterbox 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 litterbox.

 

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