Successfully Litter Box Train Your Rabbit
How many times have I spoken with prospective rabbit adopters to hear them tell me they want to keep their rabbits in a wire-bottomed cage so their poop and pee will just fall through the wire bottom and onto newspaper or whatnot below? Too many times. So I proceed as diplomatically as possible to explain that the bunny they wish to adopt has been lovingly and diligently litter box trained since the day he first came into foster care and there is no need or rather, justification, for the cruel practice of housing a rabbit in a wire-bottomed cage - which could lead to multiple health problems including bone infection, broken legs, and the need for amputation, and so forth.
I'll never forget the one prospective adopter whose previous rabbit had been housed in a very pretty cage but which still had a grate for a bottom instead of a solid floor. I waved my arm to the cage, "Would you want to take a nap in there?" I already knew this adoption wasn't going to happen but maybe I could change this person's mind about how they kept their rabbits. At least they did keep them indoors but a wire-bottomed cage is about as archaic as you can get next to actually keeping them outside in a wire-bottomed hutch!
The woman responded to me, "Well it's better than sitting in his own pee." There was no getting through to this person. Often it is very difficult to bring a person to the conclusion that maybe things have changed since the first rabbit they had 20 some years ago, and that there are now better ways to take care of this fragile little pet. And that better way is called using a litter box.
Now this isn't to say that litter box training a rabbit is exactly the same as litter box training a cat, in fact, it is very different. The litter box to the rabbit is not only their toilet, it's also a nice place to hang out. Adopters who are neat freaks often have trouble with this concept but the fact remains that rabbits will be munching hay while happily nestled in their litter box and then they'll pause for a moment and take a leak and then keep munching hay. But they're not sitting in their pee if you've set up the litter box right!
Secrets to Success:
Inputting = Outputting = Flight Readiness
The secret is that since we know they will have stuff going in one end (food) and out the other end (waste) at the same time, you put the stuff that's supposed to go in the front end (food) in the litter box so when they pause to let some of the other stuff (waste) go out the other end, they're already in the right place to do this!
Let's stop for a moment though and think about why rabbits are like this. In the wild, this animal, which is descended from the European wild rabbit, lives in large, underground burrows populated by dozens, maybe hundreds of individuals whose collective number is called a warren. Inside these burrows, each pair of rabbits, male and female, have their own little private burrow which is connected by tunnels to the rest of the warren's private little burrows. Here the kits, or babies are born, and here they and the adults will spend most of their time - underground in the dark where the climate is fairly constant year round.
For part of the day though, at dawn and dusk, they will venture above ground to dash about and stretch their legs and, of course, eat. Their natural diet is grass and leaves and so they won't have to go far to find food unless the warren is overpopulated and they have decimated the local environment - which does sometimes happen.
So there they are, sitting above ground, not far from the entrance hole to their underground city and they are contemplating the constellations in the sky or the moon's shade of blue or gold that evening. They won't venture far from the burrow for safety's sake. They'll be quiet and listen carefully to everything around them. They munch on grass, delighting in pulling the blades, roots and all, out of the ground and filling up their tummies. Then suddenly they hear the snap of a twig. What is it?
Without thinking they lift their butts and empty their bladders without moving any other muscles as that would make a noise too, like the one they're listening to. They're ready for flight if need be. But now they hear another snap and it's time to go! Time to dash back underground to safety and their bladders are already empty and thus, they are lighter and so, faster. The wild rabbit, when eating, tries to appear as motionless as possible as he sits camouflaged with his brown flecked fur sitting amongst the leaves. So in one end and out the other is not 'gross' or 'yucky,' it's efficient and it's about survival.
Back underground, the wild rabbit will deposit some of his little poops inside his private burrow as sort of a street sign - 'hey this is my house, not yours.' But he won't leave that many there; mostly, he will have deposited these little 'smart pills' here and there above ground to let the other rabbits know he was there and that he's brave enough to go this far out or that far out from the burrow - kind of a dare game. After all, when there are about a hundred rabbits living in an underground city, it's not like all the local predators don't all know about it. So poop marking above ground is strictly meaningful amongst rabbits only.
His Very Own Postage Stamp-Sized Yard
So with the house rabbit, the litter box simulates a little piece of his natural environment. Fill it with litter and then, most importantly, put hay on top of the litter so he has to sit there and eat it inside the box. Sometimes when I arrive at an adopter's house, they will have the setup all wrong. They'll have a tiny little litter box in one corner that the rabbit's butt will barely fit into much less the whole rabbit with room to spare, and then on the other side of the cage, they have a hay rack or something to dispense the hay. Then I will always get a call a week or so later asking me 'why does he poop over by the hay rack and not in his litter box?'
So put the hay in the litter box on top of the litter. Always give your rabbit the very largest litter box that you can. Even for the smallest rabbits, I always urge adopters to get the extra large size cat box. Fill this up with litter to about two to two and a half inches deep. I have to laugh when I find some adopters have a layer of litter that is so thin on the bottom of the box that you can see the bottom through it. What good does that do? Nothing! Fill that box up at least halfway full of litter! We'll come back to the reason for that shortly.
Now your box is half filled with litter; so let's put some hay on that of that. Put in about as much hay as your rabbit will need for either half or a whole day depending on how often you want to hand out the hay. Since I foster a lot of rabbits, I feed hay once a day. Don't just take it out of the bag and plop it in there. Fluff it up as much as possible! Hay is the best rabbit toy! Try to make the hay into a fluffy mountain pile of hay that your rabbit will delight in spending the day arranging and taste testing.
This is a tremendous source of entertainment for your rabbit. Both males and females alike will carefully spend the day picking out the leaves they wish to eat and strategically arranging the leaves they don't want to eat into a nice little bed. If you have any brown leaves in the hay, these will, by default, become bedding. But that's fine, this is an important source of enrichment for the rabbit to be able to do this exercise. For some of my rabbits, I like to fluff up a ball of hay in my hands and then toss it onto their heads as they sit in their box. They love this and hide under the mound of hay playing hide and seek while secretly selecting the tastiest leaves in privacy.
Layers Upon Layers
Like the Princess and the Pee
At the end of the day, your rabbit will have a layer of hay which you will see him lay on and he will stretch out his legs as long as he can and just squint with pleasure. This is important for him to be able to do this. This is also his bed. Yes, he just happens to pee and poop in a corner of it but you will notice he doesn't lay in that corner. Most likely, he will only urinate in one single corner of the box and poop there too so that's why it's important to give him as large a box as possible. That way, this particular corner will be relatively out of the way. For a really large rabbit, it can be harder to find a huge box for this. You can try concrete mixing bins of different sizes for a really large rabbit. Some adopters report to me that their bunny is peeing just outside the box but it turns out, invariably, that they are really hanging their butts over the side of the box and peeing over the edge. So these rabbits need a deeper box which they can't do this in or a high back box.
As the week goes on, the layers of hay that little bunny has discarded and made into bedding will pile up and add a layer of odor control and comfort to his little simulated natural environment. After a week, sometimes two for smaller rabbits, you can toss the whole box in a compost pile and start anew. There is nothing in his personal space that is going to be softer or more inviting for a nap than a properly presented litter box.
So let's talk about litter for a minute. Some litters are rabbit safe and some are not. Don't ever use clay or clumping cat litter; ever. Some animal shelters are known to use clay cat litter for the bunnies but this is most likely a budgetary restriction. The safe litters to use for rabbits are Carefresh, Yesterday's News, and aspen shavings. There may be other brands similar to Carefresh and Yesterday's News but they are basically the same. Carefresh is comprised of recycled wood chips which absorb urine and have pretty good odor control as the week goes on. Yesterday's News has a nice, waxy smell I love and it is pellets made of recycled newspapers, hence the name. Personally, I use shredded aspen. The shelter where I volunteer uses wood stove pellets which are extremely inexpensive but I don't like them; they disintegrate into wet powder. No thanks.
Don't EVER use pine or cedar! These litters contain deadly phenols, or fumes, which cause organ damage! I really wish pet stores wouldn't even sell them but they do - which should tell you, also, that pet stores are in the business of selling you stuff and it's not necessarily good for your pet! You might have a local rabbit rescue which sells all of these litters (as well as other supplies) at a discount and the proceeds benefit their foster rabbits. Check it out!
I use aspen shavings because it is soft and also cheap and I have a lot of bunnies. The brand name litters I mentioned can get pricey if you have a lot of rabbits. But if you only have one or two, you should be able to afford it. Although Yesterday's News smells nice and waxy, it is not comfortable for the bunny to lay on. Aspen is fun to dig in and push around and shape into a little bed - and, it makes awesome compost! If you have a compost pile made from aspen shavings, hay and rabbit pee and poop, grubs will eat it and poop out the most incredible top soil! Then you can grow a nice garden for your bunnies to have fresh herbs and veggies.
I know that some of you out there are going to change your rabbit's litter box every single day or maybe even twice a day because you have a more sensitive nose than most or because you are, well, obsessive-compulsive cleaners. That's fine, I just want you to realize that rabbits are the most fastidious animals; they clean themselves constantly and are really very tidy - their poop doesn't even smell! When given a litter box setup like I've outlined here, they will be extremely neat and careful. Oh you may see the occasional 'smart pill' outside the box but that's just a greeting card. Just pick it up and put it in the corner of the box they normally use for that. Remember, the litter box is important for cleanliness but also important psychologically to the house rabbit. Try to see things his way and you will have a very happy little bunny on your hands.
The Female Rabbit's Sacred Space:
Her Litter Box
One last thing - it may drive you crazy that your rabbit seems to be wasting a lot of hay. Once they've lain on it for bedding, they will not eat it. If you are buying expensive hay via the internet, this is great but you may want to try getting some good local hay which will no doubt have some brown leaves mixed in or try some internet hay from an individual farmer like Farmer Dave or Kleen Mama. Your rabbit will meticulously pick out these brown leaves and arrange them into a bed.
I have watched in amusement many times as a (spayed) female rabbit carefully places these brown (or green) leaves around her litter box; one here, one there, oh no, they put it in the wrong place and will try it in another until they get it just so. Some of these gals spend the entire day with these interior decorating exercises so if you change their box every day, they're not going to like you too much. That's sacred ground for a female rabbit; let it sit and let her have her fun.
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