An increasing number of people have moved away from the traditional idea of keeping a rabbit in a hutch by bringing it into their home. When considering a houserabbit 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. The natural instinct of a wild rabbit to use one area as its latrine is still true in our domestic pets. In addition, rabbits are coprophagic, consuming the first production of soft faeces to re-digest the matter and produce hard, dry pellets.
The process of litter training
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 training some of the original soiled bedding can be placed into the tray. Again it is then advisable to leave the rabbit confined for a further 24 hours before allowing short periods of supervised access to the rest of the home.
The rabbits natural action of eating whilst depositing can be used to encourage the use of the tray by placing a hayrack or food bowl at its end. 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.
The litter tray should be cleaned out regularly but not so often that the scent of faeces/urine does not 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, e.g. bleach, will encourage the rabbit to over-mark the area. An enzymatic cleaner obtained through your veterinary surgeon will ensure that the area is clean enough to allow supervised access.
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. 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 is not the answer.