Litter Training Your Rabbit

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rabbitOver the past few years an increasing number of people have moved away from the traditional idea of keeping a rabbit in a hutch by bringing it into the home. When considering the phenomenon that is a ‘house-rabbit’ the most frequently asked question is ‘but won’t it use the whole house as a toilet?’ Much to the surprise of some people, rabbits can be easily trained to use a litter tray, sometimes with more reliability than your average cat!
 
The natural instinct of a wild rabbit to use one area as its latrine is still apparent in its domestic counterparts. In addition, rabbits are coprophagic – consuming the first production soft faeces to re-digest the matter and produce hard, dry pellets.
 
The prospective house rabbit should be obtained as young as possible, preferably when 8 weeks old. This is not only likely to speed up the learning process but is imperative so that the rabbit can be well socialised and conditioned to general household. Once at home the rabbit should be confined in a suitably small area for a period of 48 hours. The area can be a small room but it is wiser to obtain one of the indoor cages available commercially. Provide food, water and toys and cover the floor area with bedding such as newspaper, wood flakes or straw. By this method the rabbit will gain security in one environment whilst it encounters various new stimuli as well as providing the opportunity to choose a particular corner as a toilet. Once this has been achieved a tray – or other suitable receptacle - can be filled with non-clumping cat litter and placed in this area. To speed up the association of litter tray with the act of urination/defecation, some of the original soiled bedding should be placed into the tray. Again it is then advisable to leave the rabbit confined for a further 24 hours before allowing supervised access to the rest of the home.
 
The natural action of eating whilst depositing faeces should be borne in mind as a way of encouraging the use of the tray by placing a hay rack or food bowl at the end of the tray. In the early days a food reward, such as a piece of a carrot, can be offered to the rabbit each time it jumps into the tray as well as when it is using its tray.
 
The litter tray should be cleaned out regularly but not so often that the scent of faeces/urine cannot remain long enough to allow the association to develop. A thorough clean-out once every 36 hours is advisable –any longer and the small size of the litter tray could encourage the rabbit to seek another location.


Problems that can arise

A perfectly trained house-rabbit can start to deposit faeces and urine in locations other than the tray as he or she reaches puberty. At this time, owners will describe how their rabbit runs in circles around their legs, possibly grunting and depositing faeces. On occasion a spray of urine may follow this. Neutering is an effective means of reducing this behaviour, if not removing it altogether.
 
Just as cats and dogs can start to urinate in inappropriate locations, so can rabbits. Most commonly bedding and other furnishings are targeted, particularly the owner's bed. Once the association has been formed – and this usually occurs whilst the rabbit is young – it can be very difficult to break. The rabbit needs to be confined into the minimal area with its food, water, toys and tray again for approximately 48 hours. Whilst this is being implemented, the targeted areas must be thoroughly cleaned. It is a common misconception that products that remove the smell of urine to humans have the same effect on the animal responsible. Not so! Products containing ammonia, for example bleach, will encourage the rabbit to over-mark the area because one of the components of urine, ammonia, is in bleach.
 
An enzymatic cleaner obtained through your veterinary surgeon or the following procedure will ensure that the area is clean enough to allow supervised access.
* Wash the area with a warm solution of a biological washing powder.
* Rinse with cold water.
* When dry apply a spray of an alcohol such as surgical spirit (checking its effect on furnishings).
 
At the end of the 48 hours, the rabbit can then be allowed increased freedom with constant supervision. If the area that had been urinated on was the sofa, for example, then access must be denied. Each time the rabbit jumps onto the sofa, it should be given a firm command (such as ‘Off’), removed and then given a small food reward and/or vocal praise. With consistency and the right level of praise, the rabbit will learn that this area is out of bounds. In persistent cases, a harness and trailing lead can be used to increase control by placing a foot on the end as the rabbit jumps up and then introducing praise as before. At times when the rabbit cannot be monitored, access should continue to be made difficult by closing doors or placing upturned furniture / piles of books on the area in question.
 
Whenever slip-ups occur, whether in toilet training, during puberty or for an undetermined reason later in life, punishment should not be implemented. Arriving home and punishing for a mess made whilst the owner was out could soon teach the rabbit to avoid welcoming the owner home because of this response. Punishment, when applied at the time of the action is also best avoided as it is so easy for the rabbit to associate the aversive action with the wrong stimulus – for example being near to the owner - therefore leading to avoidance reactions when handled at later stages. There is also the risk that behaviours, once reinforced by our reactions, can be used as a means of gaining the owner’s attention. For example, there have been several cases of rabbits urinating on the sofa each time the owner is on the telephone!
 
©: Emma Magnus MSc